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Three of the Most Despised, Yet Misunderstood Words in Health and Wellness Discussed: Part 2


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These words are used so often in the field that either myths about their meaning have arisen or the images associated with their use creates a sense of frustration in those who are trying to live a healthier lifestyle. But when we dig down into their origins and true meanings, we’ll see that the words themselves can provide a renewed sense of meaning to our journey towards eating better and being physically active.

Today’s word: Moderation

Yes, it’s true you can die from drinking too much water and you will probably not keel over after your second slice of pizza. When it comes to eating, the catchphrase of the dietitians/nutritionists is “Eat everything in moderation.” Many of us who care about a client’s long-term well-being and success really hesitate to say “never eat X” or “these foods are bad and those are good”. Because in the end, what happens to most people in the long run if you tell them they can’t have sugar or bread or cookies or pizza or BBQ or cheese ever again? They listen for a while, but that inner voice says, “screw this, I want cheese!” And then they have cheese…and a lot of it, to make up for all of the cheese they couldn’t have for the past few months. And we’re back to square one.

Defining Moderation

Moderation means: “the avoidance of excess or extremes, especially in one’s behavior or political opinions.” Politics aside, this definition goes to show why the situation described in the example above is doomed to failure; we’re swinging from one extreme to another. The problem is, lots of people do this and expect permanent results! Permanent results = permanent changes to habit. So if you can live without those foods mentioned above forever, then go for it. But as for me, I still like my occasional chocolate cake or ribs. A great slogan on the website of a Registered Dietitian puts it best: “I eat cookies, but I eat my broccoli, too!”

We say “eat in moderation,” but as my client asked me today: “How much is moderation?” That’s a problem: Moderation is not well-defined in relation to food, and living between extremes (all-or-nothing) still encompasses a lot of “wiggle room”.  Enough wiggle room that can allow us to eat in “moderation” and still not achieve a healthy lifestyle or weight. Because in the end, 3 tablespoons of olive oil, while rich in “healthy” mono-unsaturated fats, is still about 400 calories and can still lead to weight gain just as easily as 400 calories of candy bars (which has very little nutrients).  This is not license to eat candy bars all day, just a note that eating “healthy foods” does not always mean weight change.

Really Defining Moderation

Using some numbers to define how to practice moderation can help create some clarity.  You can count calories.  You can track portion sizes.  Or you can use the 80/20 rule (see below).  It’s about creating a way to consistently track how your current definition of moderation translates into your current habits…and results. If you would sooner run into a brick wall than count calories, consider another approach you could perform more consistently.  To some it up, review the following points and see how you feel about them (or write down how you feel about them…leave me a comment!):

Point #1: Your current weight or health is the result of your current eating and physical activity habits. If you want to change your weight, health or physique, you need to change your habits.

Point #2: Is it worth making big, radical changes that you can’t sustain? If you said no, then you are pro-moderation.

Point #3: If you don’t want to track your calories, then consider using the 80/20 rule, sometimes referred to as the Pareto Principle (though it’s not an exact interpretation of the original definition). The goal is to eat well at 80% of your meals and allow indulgences at 20%. You can also apply this rule to a particular nutrition change such as cutting back soda, dairy, red meat, etc. My nutrition philosophy regarding this idea is, “Eat well when you can, because there will be times you know you won’t want to.” If you are super-motivated, consider 90/10. But don’t go 100/0 unless you are 100% sure you can go without that food or meal for the rest of your life. Otherwise you’re no longer in moderation.

So what does Point #3 mean for you? If you eat 3 meals a day, that’s 21 meals a week. At 20% indulgence rate, that means you can indulge 4 times per week. If you also have 2 snacks a day, that’s 14 snacks a week, which leads to 2-3 indulgences in snacks per week. Of course, what does indulge mean? Let’s turn to our old friend: moderation.

What Does it Mean to “Indulge”?

Indulgence means enjoying a food you may not normally have, but not going to extremes. Is a slice of pizza an indulgence? Yes. Is a whole pizza pie an indulgence? That may be a bit much. Is a glass or two of wine with dinner an indulgence? Yes. How about the whole bottle? Not really.  A couple cookies after dinner?  Fine.  A few cookies after a dinner of Mac ‘n Cheese, fried chicken and mashed potatoes?  That’s a few indulgences right there.  I hope you get the idea.

Most of us tend to over-indulge when we feel restricted (a.k.a. we can’t have any pizza or wine for weeks or months). But if we know that we can enjoy it on a regular basis, then we may feel less compelled to stockpile a month’s worth of indulgences in one sitting. If you are following an 80/20 approach and still not getting the results you want, consider:

1. Am I really only indulging 20% of the time?  Or am I rationalizing or justifying certain indulgences?  Track the number of indulgences you have each week by keeping a notepad with you and writing down each indulgence as you have it.  Or track your entire week’s eating and highlight all the indulgences.  Consider having some objective guidance if you feel that you may not give yourself an honest assessment.

2. How significant are my 20% of indulgences? Are they little extras that satisfy me or are they whole meal smorgasbords / extravagant desserts designed to be split?

3. If I prefer larger indulgences, am I willing to accept an 85/15 or 90/10 approach? Or smaller indulgences?

Notice the subtle shifts and changes. That’s why moderation is ultimately a game of balance. Your eating and activity habits are on one end of the scale and your body, weight or health is on the other. Make one change and see how the other side adjusts. Ultimately, the only side you can truly impact is the eating and physical activity habits; your body, weight and health are a result. So choose wisely…and in moderation!

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