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Exactly What Is Moderation and Can It Help with Weight Loss?

eating moderately

You hear it all the time – Eat sugar (or fat, or alcohol) in “moderation.” But what exactly does that mean? The truth is, it is different for everyone.


I am guilty of giving my patients the advice to eat less-than-healthy foods in moderation and not defining what I mean. I assume that the advice will have a less stressful effect on people – meaning, they don’t have to be on a strict “diet”, but overall should eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and less junk food, sugary beverages and fast food.

Unfortunately, not everyone shares my idea of “moderation.” And science agrees with this.

At the University of Georgia, assistant professor of psychology Michelle vanDellen studied moderation and what it means to different people. A team of researchers found that although most people agree with “moderation” to mean less overeating of a particular food, it doesn’t really provide a guideline to how much is an appropriate portion and how much is “too much.”

In addition, the more people like a food, the more “forgiving” their definition of moderation is.

"People are now saying, 'Diets don't work; you shouldn't go on a diet. You should just live by the rule of moderation,'" says vanDellen. "This is an increasingly popular belief. There are entire healthy eating movements oriented toward this idea of moderation. (However) moderation is a relative term. When people talk about eating in moderation, it doesn’t allow them a clear, concrete way to guide their behavior.”

Defining Moderation
“Moderation” as a definition is never going to be one-size-fits-all. Take alcohol, for example. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines moderate drinking as no more than 3-4 standard drinks per drinking episode. However, the general consensus among most health agencies, including the American Cancer Society, is that men should not have more than two drinks per day and women should not have more than one.

With food, your personal “moderation” is going to depend on your goals. Are you trying to lose weight? Are you just trying to maintain? Are you building muscle? Do you have a chronic condition such as high blood pressure or Type 2 diabetes? All these things must factor into your decision about what foods are okay to eat on a daily basis and what foods you should reserve for once or twice a month.

For weight loss, the ultimate goal of moderation is controlling portion sizes. One cookie once a day is not going to do that much harm. However a pack of cookies will add up quickly. Eating a portion about the size of the palm of your hand of Grandma’s famous cheesy casserole is comforting and enjoyable. Just savor it and don’t go back for seconds!

Overall, most people should be following the recommendations of the American Heart Association which offers the follow advice for daily food patterns:

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• Eat a variety of fresh, frozen and canned vegetables and fruits without high-calorie sauces or added salt and sugars. Replace high-calorie foods with fruits and vegetables.

• Choose fiber-rich whole grains for most grain servings.

• Choose poultry and fish without skin and prepare them in healthy ways without added saturated and transfat. If you choose to eat meat, look for the leanest cuts available and prepare them in healthy and delicious ways.

• Eat a variety of fish at least twice a week, especially fish containing omega-3 fatty acids (for example, salmon, trout and herring).

• Select fat-free (skim) and low-fat (1%) dairy products.

• Avoid foods containing partially hydrogenated vegetable oils to reduce trans fat in your diet.

• Limit saturated fat and trans fat and replace them with the better fats, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. If you need to lower your blood cholesterol, reduce saturated fat to no more than 5 to 6 percent of total calories. For someone eating 2,000 calories a day, that’s about 13 grams of saturated fat.

• Cut back on beverages and foods with added sugars.

• Choose foods with less sodium and prepare foods with little or no salt. To lower blood pressure, aim to eat no more than 2,400 milligrams of sodium per day. Reducing daily intake to 1,500 mg is desirable because it can lower blood pressure even further. If you can’t meet these goals right now, even reducing sodium intake by 1,000 mg per day can benefit blood pressure.

Journal Reference:
Michelle R. vanDellen, Jennifer C. Isherwood, Julie E. Delose. How do people define moderation? Appetite, 2016; 101: 156 DOI:10.1016/j.appet.2016.03.010

Photo Credit:
By Abbamouse - Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons