Sunday, May 15, 2016

On Moderation

Moderation is a common buzzword applied to many conversations on diet and to dietary advice you’ll find, particularly in the media.  Moderation is promoted as a guide to healthy and sustainable eating.

A lot of dietary concepts are poorly or inconsistently defined.  What is a healthy diet?  You can expect each person to come up with something slightly different based on their own beliefs.  What is low carb?  Definitions range from ≤ 50g/day to ≤ 40% of total calories.  Is conventional dietary advice promoting a low fat diet at 20-35%, or is a true low fat diet one where fat provides ≤ 20% of total calories? (see High This, Low That for my proposed definitions)

The dictionary definition of moderation is quite clear (‘the avoidance of excess or extremes, especially in one's behaviour or political opinions’), but moderation is perhaps the most poorly and inconsistently defined dietary concept, and as a result, left to individual interpretation

People selling you the concept of moderation have it easy.  They can sell you something that sounds easy and they themselves don’t need to do the work to come up with specifics, do research to justify their recommendations or be accountable for them

More insidiously, the widespread promotion of moderation, particularly by dietetic groups with conflicts of interest, helps the food industry who can promote the consumption of their food products in moderation or as part of a balanced diet.  The goal of the food industry is to sell as much of their product as possible, leading to the development of hyperpalatable and highly rewarding foods, and it can be challenging to make moderation work when such food is ubiquitous in the modern food environment.  Also, the ‘as part of a balanced diet’ implies that the food product has some role or function in a balanced diet, rather than being the discretionary extra that it so often is

In the modern food environment most people need to be restrictive with what they eat to some extent in order to maintain leanness and health.  The conventional way to do this is by restricting calories, but the leptin resistance of obesity and highly rewarding foods makes this extremely difficult to do in the long term, with hunger being the Achilles heel of calorie restricted diets

The alternative is to restrict the types of food.  This idea is attacked by people who argue that there are no ‘bad’ foods (seriously…) and that restricting the types of foods you eat is orthorexic behaviour.  However, the behaviour of restrictive eating itself isn’t sufficient to cause orthorexia, much like cleaning and organising stuff doesn’t cause OCD, and most importantly, like calorie restriction doesn’t cause anorexia.  Orthorexia, like all mental health issues, depends on the thoughts and behaviours impairing function and/or causing suffering, and conscientious or restrictive eating do not necessarily mean that orthorexia is present

In addition, when it comes to reducing the intake of unhealthy food (or other behaviours), there are two main strategies to do so: eating a little bit of unhealthy food some of the time (moderation); and avoiding the unhealthy food altogether (abstinence).  The conventional narrative is generally that moderation is preferable, as avoiding the food will almost inevitably lead to a future binge and the typical yo-yo dieting.  But it’s likely that people are generally better suited to one of these two strategies (moderation and abstinence) and that one of these strategies isn’t an effective recommendation for everyone.  I was introduced to this in ‘Better Than Before’ which had a chapter on ‘moderators’ and ‘abstainers’ as personality types relevant for habit formation

I’m pretty sure I’m very much an abstainer.  For me, there’s generally no such thing as one piece of chocolate or one YouTube video, and a resolution to eat less chocolate or watch less YouTube videos would be most easily met by not buying any chocolate for myself and not opening YouTube at all until my work for the day is done.  For me, the moderation approach would be more useful for training willpower than being the easiest way to achieve my goals directly

What’s works as moderation for one person may not be enough for another, and may be unnecessarily restrictive for another still.  When it comes to diet try something to some extent.  If that works, great!  If it doesn’t, then consider trying it more vigorously – tailor your commitment to a dietary approach based on the degree of results you’re looking for.  If that still isn’t working after an honest attempt, then consider other dietary approaches, other lifestyle approaches (it might not be a diet issue), and also whether your goals are realistic

Moderation and abstinence are just strategies that you can play around with and figure out what works for you.  You may also find moderation to be better strategy for one thing and abstinence better for something else


  1. Nice points about ocd and anorexia.
    When I read the usual comments that eg butter might be "okay in moderation" I just remember that no one in nutrition has ever recommended eating too much of anything ever.

    1. Thanks George

      I might be misinterpreting your comment. No one recommends 'too much' or 'excessive amounts' of anything. When people say 'too much/excessive amounts of X is bad', well of course it is, that's a tautology. The problem is: what is moderation?

  2. I heard about the 'Better Than Before' book here last year:

    With LCHF, I feel abstaining is much easier.