Eating in moderation? No thanks.

Updated: Oct 7, 2019


How many times have you heard someone dispense the old advice of ‘just eat in moderation’? it seems simple enough, and if everyone has been saying it for, what seems like, forever then it must be true? However, it is actually a terrible piece of advice and could have a negative effect on your health.

One key component to this problematic piece of advice is the interpretation of the word ‘moderation’ and current research says that this can be detrimental to those who are either trying to lose weight, or maintain a healthy weight. It is left to the person to create their own idea of how much food to eat and what specific food groups to eat. The government’s suggestions of the amount of ‘moderate’ exercise specifies how many minutes and how many times a day, whilst the ‘drinking in moderation’ gives us units. Nutrition for the everyday person, on the other hand, is incredibly complicated in the first place, and now you have to guess what ‘in moderation’ means, forgetting that you are already biased towards your own eating habits and dietary preferences. Research by Michelle van Dellen, who has a Phd in social psychology, is centred on self-regulation and self-control. It states that the more you like a certain food, the larger your definition of a ‘moderate’ serving will be. “7 pieces of cake please, and half of 1 brussel sprout, thank you”…and that’s your dessert-and-veg-eaten-in-moderation done, right?

Should we ditch the idea completely? Not completely, no, it does have some elements to it that we can use. To lose weight, or to maintain a healthy weight, there is not one hard and fast rule that I can sell to you that will work. Any ‘diet’ will help you lose weight in the short term, but most of us want something that will last and will improve our health and well-being. Look at how many diets there are out there, each one arguing that they are the best. The reality is, that we need to make changes to our lifestyle that are individual to us, and make alterations to our views and how we perceive things. The realisation that it is not a quick fix and requires effort puts many people off. “Just in eat moderation and you’ll be fine” would be a lot easier if it worked.

"The reality is that we need to make changes to our lifestyle that are individual to us, and make alterations to our views and how we perceive things."

The first thing we need to improve is having a better understanding of food in general. Most people ‘think’ they understand food, but really they recite information they vaguely remember from school, Instagram posts from celebs, or Facebook posts from their friends. A broad but basic knowledge is all that you need to start with.


Portion control and calorie counting is something many people dread and requires a lot of discipline. Generally, we aren’t great at estimating our portion sizes, and again we are influenced by our likes and dislikes. But having some sort of structure may be required if you tend to be swayed easily and veer off course regularly. Patience is also needed, as it takes time for your taste buds to adapt to changes in your diet. Long-term changes need time and persistence, so fasten those seatbelts.

One area I like to focus on is trying to make someone understand that they are accountable for the changes in their lifestyle. Blaming their work team for always bringing in junk food to the office and complaining about the lack of time are common themes popping up in conversation with clients. Outside influences are huge in directing your immediate wants and needs, but the person who makes the final decision is you. Sometimes reaching for unhealthy snacks is a result of you not enjoying your regular meals. If you’ve forced yourself to swap your regular burger and chips at lunch for a tuna and cucumber sandwich, then the temptation of salty and fatty snacks seem a LOT more tempting. If you enjoy what you eat, as well as appreciating the health benefits of certain meals, you’re a lot more likely to keep your temptations under check. It’s also easier to make it work at home, as ‘out of sight, out of mind’ works by just stopping the unhealthy purchases on your regular shopping. But the constant bombardment of advertising from fast-food chains and unhealthy yet tempting snacks when you’re out is a test of a person’s mental strength!

A surprising thing is that ‘eating in moderation’ may also make people assume they need to eat a little bit of absolutely everything to get the nutritional benefits of the different foods. However, a study* in 2015 included 5,160 participants showed that a greater food dissimilarity was associated with a higher gain in their waist circumference. This was likely due to the fact that although participants increased their variety of healthy food, they equally increased the variety of unhealthy foods they were eating. The benefits of a great variation in whole-grains, fruits and veg for example were outweighed by increases in trans-fat, sodium, refined sugars and refined-carbohydrates in their diet from an increase in unhealthy food. The study also showed that a higher diet quality is associated with a lower risk in developing type 2 diabetes. It is clear to see how complicated it can get for people listening to advice from friends or reading blogs (the irony!), but the reality is that you are unique and you cannot apply a blanket rule to everyone.

Proponents of ‘eating in moderation’ argue that it is better not to group foods into ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ and therefore moderate consumption is okay. Others state that it is a lot simpler to go for the moderation route as nutrition is already so complicated. And, with obesity on the rise, as well as people suffering from high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease, it is easy to see what the appeal is with the simple message of eating in moderation to help you.

If you’re very physically active, at the right weight, eat well and are disciplined, then there isn’t much harm in having a cheeky doughnut. Mainly because if the discipline is there, you’ll understand the difference between a treat and a habit. We all reach for the moderation card to dismiss things that we really don’t want to hear, such as the calories, sugar and fat content of the second slice of cake you’re eating. You’ll only hear people talking about moderation when it comes to junk food or food coming for the ‘unhealthy’ category. You don’t see someone contemplating this issue when consuming their broccoli, putting their third floret down because they’re worried they’ll get too much Vitamin C and Vitamin K.

Some people may be underweight and want to gain weight in the right way. Some are overweight and want to lose the weight in a gradual and long-lasting way. And there are those who may be at the right weight, and want to keep it that way. As you can see, the moderation rule cannot apply for all three groups. You have to be treated like what you are, a unique individual. At LDN physio we will discuss your personal goals and discuss the positive lifestyle changes you can make. So, get in touch! :)

Otto, M. C. D. O., Padhye, N. S., Bertoni, A. G., Jacobs, D. R., & Mozaffarian, D. (2015). Everything in Moderation - Dietary Diversity and Quality, Central Obesity and Risk of Diabetes. Plos One, 10(10). http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0141341

*http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0141341

Cooper, A. J., Sharp, S. J., Lentjes, M. A. H., Luben, R. N., Khaw, K.-T., Wareham, N. J., & Forouhi, N. G. (2012). A Prospective Study of the Association Between Quantity and Variety of Fruit and Vegetable Intake and Incident Type 2 Diabetes. Diabetes Care, 35(6), 1293–1300. http://doi.org/10.2337/dc11-2388

http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/35/6/1293

Koning, L. D., Chiuve, S. E., Fung, T. T., Willett, W. C., Rimm, E. B., & Hu, F. B. (2011). Diet-Quality Scores and the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes in Men. Diabetes Care, 34(5), 1150–1156. http://doi.org/10.2337/dc10-2352

http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/34/5/1150

#eating #nutrition #diet #moderation

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