“Moderation” Makes Me Cringe

A while ago now, I read yet another nutrition-related news article that stated “moderation” was key–and I cringed. Then it hit me, I am a moderation-hating registered dietitian (RD). You will no longer hear me use the word “moderation” or worse, the phrase “everything in moderation.” You heard that right. Hear me out…

I used to preach “everything in moderation” as much as the next nutritionist. Especially when friends or acquaintances asked me on the fly for nutrition advice. Or when I addressed a group of people and couldn’t delve into individual specifics. I walked a line; I wanted to promote a balanced and sustainable way of eating, while not giving too much bad news. And I also towed the line with my fellow RDs; moderation was our mantra. However, recently I have become frustrated with the ambiguity and the political correctness of the “moderation” philosophy, which is geared toward the masses and therefore, grossly oversimplified.

I can see how this phrase came to be. Unfortunately, I think nutrition experts (like me), food industry, government, and consumers are all partly responsible for this ill-defined, mass-communicated, often ineffective approach to eating. But the fact that moderation has gotten out of hand as a philosophy is as much my fault as anyone else’s. As a nutrition expert, I now believe it is negligent telling people they can eat everything in “moderation” knowing it’s likely not specific enough to help them improve their health.

But in all honestly, one of the reasons I haven’t been posting (besides a busy life) is because I have been hesitant to say it. Afraid of turning people off immediately and not getting through to help them. Afraid of taking a stand when science may disprove me in the future. And I honestly think even our political climate lately has affected me so very personally, so that I have been generally afraid of voicing an opinion. Eeek. How meek of me…

Am I a middle-child peace keeper having a mild mid-life crisis? Maybe, but the bottom line is this: I’m over it. (Until the next one.) And recipe posts are not all I have to share (although it is my pleasure to offer this practical information since I’m doing it for my family anyway). That said, I can’t make any promises about posting a certain number of times a week, although more frequently than once every five months should be doable. Ha. Blogging on my own terms…ah.

Back to my main point…in our defense, sometimes we nutrition experts have engaged in the moderation conversation when it’s not the right time or place (in a group or in public), when what we really need is more time together to make individualized changes that you can live with to improve your health. But I now think it’s more harmful than helpful to give a cursory spiel of moderation even in these situations.

The way I see it, suggesting moderation for the masses can actually hinder individual behavior change. For example, sometimes during an individual counseling session— just when I think we have made progress together, forming some specific behavior change goals—I hear my moderation philosophy echoed back to me. At this point, it is as clear as a door slamming in my face that the conversation is being shut down. (We all do that sometimes, don’t we? Sabotage ourselves before we begin when we are not ready to make changes.) But when this happens, I am only half as frustrated as the people who later realize that eating in moderation hasn’t helped them achieve their food-related goals. I can only imagine how devastated they must feel, blaming me or themselves, or both. And the viscous cycle of weight-loss efforts and failures continues…

Just look around to see how moderation fails us with weight loss. Some people eat moderately and are not overweight. Some people eat moderately and are overweight. Some people do not eat moderately, and are not overweight. And yes, some people do not eat moderately and are overweight. Clearly, “eating in moderation” isn’t effective for everyone. It’s not simply a matter of increasing physical activity. There are many overweight marathon runners. And I strongly believe achieving a healthy weight is not only a matter of will power either. Obese people have different genes that are making it harder to be thin than people who are not obese. Weight control for overweight or obese people is an uphill battle that is definitely an injustice, yet deserves no judgment—only useful tools. And “eating in moderation” is simply not specific enough to be one of them.

I think the moderation philosophy also came into being because we haven’t wanted to negatively talk about certain foods. We don’t want to take away your eating pleasure by stigmatizing “bad” foods. Eating should be enjoyable! But what you may not realize (I didn’t for a while) is that certain food industry lobbyists go to great lengths to make sure government directed guidelines don’t identify and/or quantify “bad” foods. You could say I’m cynical (BTW, I think that’s when you know you’re getting old, when everything is a conspiracy!) but this really happens. So, we nutrition experts have been left frequently hoping we all have a “sixth sense” that helps us figure out how to balance mostly healthy foods with a few treats now and then, because that seemed reasonable. But it’s not reasonable or helpful.

Much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news, I care enough to spend my priceless free time saying this (among other things): there are indeed “bad” foods. While we might disagree on some, most unbiased experts can’t deny sugar-containing foods are among the worst. So, we’ll start there. Foods containing the refined white stuff we know as sucrose, the syrups (corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup) and all of the 50+ other names for sugar (cane sugar, brown sugar, and even honey, maple syrup, agave, etc.) are not healthy when eaten in excessand they almost always are eaten in excess if you’re not purposefully avoiding them.

Sorry, but there’s no sugar-coating it. And even though it may make me a nutrition extremist, I have to take a strong stance against sugar (all types)—and even a high carbohydrate diet (more on that later)—because I feel you should know it’s a serious health hazard. And it’s not just in regards to people who are overweight or obese. Sugar is linked to many different diseases—which means you might want to read on whether your weight is in a healthy range or not.

To be clear, I am not trying to take away your eating pleasure. Anyone who knows me knows I believe eating should be truly enjoyable! But I also firmly believe eating whatever your body craves is not the only way to enjoy eating.  Changing your mindset, “resetting your body” with easy, real foods, and focusing on many positive and social eating behaviors (shopping at local farmers’ markets, cooking with friends, eating as a family, etc.) will allow you to enjoy foods in a simpler, more meaningful way. I passionately believe (and there is some evidence to support this belief) “there is something in” these social connections we make while eating. And living overseas, especially in Italy, made it even more apparent that we are often lacking those connections in our American culture.

Who doesn’t crave simplicity and meaningful social connections in this often crazy, fast-paced, disconnected lifestyle we live? I think it’s a great start to eat easy, real food at your next snack or meal. Stay tuned for more on all of these themes, starting with more thoughts and data on sugar.

 

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