Please Stop Saying “Everything in Moderation”

For those looking to lose weight and get healthier, there is certainly no shortage of dietary advice. Thousands of experts share their tips to “get bikini-ready by summer!” and “lose those last 10 pounds!” in magazines, newspaper articles, television programs, and website advertisements.

While much of their advice is totally conflicting (“Eat breakfast to control your appetite!” “Skip breakfast and lose weight!”), there are some pieces of dietary advice that everyone seems to agree on. Today, we’ll touch on one of our favorites—a concept you’ll hear everyone talk about, yet is feasible for just about nobody:

“Everything in Moderation .”

This is perhaps the most famous piece of diet advice ever given—everything in moderation. Depriving yourself leads to willpower depletion and the dreaded “rebound effect.” Unhealthy foods are only unhealthy if you eat them in excess. Balance is key. Therefore, you can (and should) eat anything you want… as long as you eat it in moderation.

The problem is, moderation works for very few people. You know this to be true. You’ve tried it countless times. (And if it actually worked for you long-term, you wouldn’t need any more diet advice, would you?)

Moderate for Health?

The most obvious caveat against “everything in moderation” is for those suffering from a health condition affected by the foods you eat (which, P.S., is every health condition). In the case of autoimmune disease, Celiac, or general food sensitivities, the very idea of moderation may just be keeping you from achieving optimal health. If certain foods are acutely inflammatory in your body—wheat, dairy, artificial sweeteners—then even a “moderate” amount of these foods will keep you sick. That one small pancake on the weekend (or one piece of pizza at the office party, or one packet of Splenda in your A.M. coffee) may be the difference between feeling bad and feeling awesome long-term.

For folks with specific sensitivities or health conditions, eating inflammatory trigger foods “in moderation” is a terrible idea—yet popular magazines will suggest it’s far worse to “deprive yourself” than to avoid entire foods or food groups altogether. We ask, what’s worse… giving up bread altogether, or dealing with energy dips, sleep interruptions, mood swings, skin breakouts, GI distress, resurgence of pain, and other health consequences of your “moderate” indulgence?

As an analogy, if you were allergic to peanuts, would you still feel the pressure to enjoy them “in moderation?” Of course not!

So why are you even attempting “moderation” of bread, cheese, or diet sodas if these foods make you significantly and tangibly less healthy?

Willpower vs. Foods With No Brakes

For those who don’t have a health condition or food sensitivities, you may feel even more pressure (or desire) to “moderate” instead of deprive yourself—but there are perils associated with this dietary concept for you, too. The biggest problem with moderation is that it relies on willpower. And given what we know about willpower, and the kinds of foods that are tempting us day in and day out, “everything in moderations” is a long-term losing proposition.

We spend, on average, 3-4 hours a day resisting desires. We only have one finite tank for willpower, and any number of actions (avoiding Facebook during the workday, biting back an angry retort at your co-worker, being patient with your kids, saying “no thank you” to the offered candy) rely on the same willpower tank. We use more willpower in today’s modern world than we ever have before… no wonder it’s in such short supply.

Combine this with the kinds of foods we are attempting to moderate— “foods with no brakes*.” These are calorie-dense, carb-dense, nutrient-poor foods designed by food scientists to make you crave them, without any of the nutrition or satiety factors that tells your brain to stop eating them. They rewire pleasure, reward, and emotion circuitry in your brain, creating habit loops that are near impossible to break with sheer willpower. Stress—any kind of stress—makes these cravings and habits stronger. And the kicker? These same foods also mess with hormones like leptin and insulin, creatingmetabolic imbalances that further promote cravings and hunger such that no amount of willpower can overrule them. (Hormones >willpower.)

So… you’ve got an airy concept (“moderation”). You’ve got scientifically-designed foods that have rewired your brain to make you crave them, promising pleasure and comfort when you eat them, without nutrition or satiety factors to make you stop eating them. You’ve got hormones running amok, thanks to the damage caused by your overconsumption of these foods-with-no-brakes. And you’ve got a rapidly-depleted willpower bank that runs out faster than ever, thanks to the endless temptations created by our modern lives.

Relying on willpower alone to somehow eat fewer of those less healthy foods is a battle you are destined to lose… which makes “everything in moderation” a poor long-term strategy.

*Refer to our New York Times bestselling book It Starts With Food for more details on this concept.

Moderation Schmoderation

In addition, the very concept of “moderation” is intangible—so fluffy as to be meaningless. Does it mean you only eat one cookie at a time, or cookies once a week, or just one bite of cookie a few times a day? The truth is, most of us haven’t take the time to map out exactly, specifically what “moderation” means to us. Even if we did, the “moderation” would probably creep when it suited our needs. (It’s easy to justify that second glass of wine when the bottle is open and you hate to waste it.)

We also like to negotiate with ourselves when we’ve set less-than-firm goals… “I’ll have two glasses tonight, but none tomorrow.” But what happens tomorrow? We are creatures of instant gratification, quickly discounting future benefits in favor of immediate payoff—which means tomorrow usually finds us justifying that one glass of wine yet again.

Habit research shows that black-and-white goals—without any room for interpretation, justification, or negotiation—are far easier to meet than squishy goals. “I will eat less sugar,” “I will exercise more,” “Everything in moderation”… all examples of squishy goals with loads of room for us to bend them to our will and desire.

“Moderation” leaves us far too much wiggle-room… and we’ll fill that room with what gratifies us today, despite the consequences tomorrow.

The Moderation Solution

Now, if you’re one of those folks for which “moderation” works just fine, then you’re lucky. (And you’re probably not trolling the internet looking for diet advice, or reading this article looking for guidance.) But for the vast majority of folks, it’s time to ditch the concept of moderation once and for all. Now, we’re not saying you have to be a 100% perfect eater, day in and day out. We just want you to reframe how you enjoy less healthy foods.

  • Do a Whole30, at least once (preferably more than once). Learn for yourself which foods negatively affect your health, quality of life, or physical performance so significantly, they are never worth the “indulgence.” Change your tastes, break your cravings, lose your dependence on foods with no brakes.
  • After your Whole30, make the decision to always avoid those foods that you believe significantly impact your health or quality of life. Believe this is not deprivation—it’s the smartest choice you can make for a happy, healthy life.
  • Follow our Guide to Nutritional Off-Roading when making an off-plan (less healthy) food choice. Even if you don’t use the actual guide, go through the steps of asking yourself, “Do I really want this? Is it worth it? Can I choose something less bad and still be satisfied?”
  • Eat as little as you have to, as infrequently as you can, to satisfy that desire. Understand that the less you eat, and the less often you choose to indulge, the healthier you will be. Some weeks, you may not eat these less healthy foods at all. Other weeks, you may eat them every day. Both are okay, as long as you are making a conscious, deliberate, honest-with-yourself desicion each and every time you choose to indulge.

So the next time you hear someone say, “Everything in moderation,” feel free to smile, nod politely, and immediately toss that piece of dietary advice right out the window. You know better—and thanks to your new strategy for indulging in leass healthy foods, you can look, move, and live better, too.

Have you struggled with “everything in moderation,” or are you one of the lucky few who can live comfortably in the gray area? Share your thoughts in comments.

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  1. says

    I usued to follow this piece of advice religiously. My husband still does. *sigh* When I did, I found that it made me want those “in moderation” foods even more. When I went Paleo just about 1 year ago, I started cold turkey by doing a Whole30. Sure, it was hard at first. But I adjusted and have done a few Whole30’s since then. Today, when I do find myself having one of those off plan foods/indulgences, they just don’t taste the same. After I finish it, I find myself wondering why I had it in the first place. It just doesn’t taste the same. It’s not as satisfying as it used to be. Take last night for example…..I decided that I wanted to try a healthier version of chocolate mousse. The ingredients were simple….avocado, banana, unsweetened cacao, full-fat coconut milk, and a little splash of pure vanilla extract. While I thought it was good, I didn’t think it was great. It actually tasted TOO sweet for me. Thinking back, I would have much preferred having some of my leftover braised cabbage from dinner on Sunday. That might seem strange to the mass majority of America, but I think it would have been just fine. And I probably would have enjoyed it a lot more (and not felt a little sick going to bed).

  2. says

    This is a fundamental difference between me and most of my family. I’m an abstainer: I thrive when things are black and white and struggle (or have the wheels come off) when I attempt to moderate.

    Thanks a ton for writing this so eloquently, persuasively, and concisely. I’m going to pass this along to the folks in the “moderation” camp – not to try to convince them they’re wrong – but to convince them that they should stop asking me to “live a little” and do a few things “in moderation.”

    P.S. I read It Starts With Food last year and it blew me away. I’m going to crack it open again next year because it’s the kind of content that deserves to be reinforced over-and-over.

  3. Katelyn says

    I can’t eat “in moderation” because then it becomes too frequent. I respond well to black and white rules. My family and friends think I’m nuts but it’s easier to say no than to have a little bite of this.. then a little bite of that.. and some of the other thing.. etc.

  4. Allison says

    I really am having a hard time with this article… because I think that unfortunately there is a lot of gray. I don’t want to get into a political debacle or over analyze what has been said… I just simply struggle with this whole attitude of good vs. bad. I don’t think that by demonizing certain foods we are living by example, rather we are creating an attitude that is off putting to others. The whole goal, reason to live a clean lifestyle it to build up, and have joy! I am not going to eat a Hershey bar, but if I really want chocolate then I’ll shell out $5 for an organic all cacao, organic one. This is a huge difference…

    If I then share my $5 chocolate bar with someone who normally eats hershey… and truly resonate happiness… isn’t this the whole point? I feel good, I am setting a better example, and in turn a friend or family member is being reached out to and being taught how to make better choices. I’m not saying that all “better” choices are the best… but every step in the right direction is better than not taking any step at all. … so really isn’t that what moderation is? taking small steps?

    And for those who are so keen on condemning others for their obvious lack of will power, “for with what measure you judge others, so also will you be judged.” Contentment is what breeds willpower, not the other way around! … and yes I’m totally preaching to the choir, a.k.a. myself!

    • Rayca says

      I understand what you’re saying. What I don’t understand is if you decide to have some chocolate, you’ll pay good money for some “good” chocolate. There are different types of heroin too. And booze. Some are a lot better than others. So I don’t think your body cares if it’s 90% cacao or Hersheys. At least, Hersheys has been around over 100 years and some of these fly-by-night companies just want your $$$. And so what if it’s natural. How is that healthier? What’s the bottom-line here with eating “clean.”? A better old age, i.e., no walkers or oxygen? Longevity? I seriously don’t get it. Junk food (and I’m sorry but I include chocolate or cacao) of any kind is what kills people. Especially if you can’t control moderation. And not eating it is what will prevent a lot of diseases common today. Not whether you eat potatoes or yams or grains or whatever the latest fad is. The only people that need to seriously look at carbs are folks with health problems relating to that. Sorry for the rant. This sounds like a paleo/low carb site. They’re well hidden these days.

  5. says

    @Amy: That’s my experience too–sugar “in moderation” just keeps the Sugar Dragon alive and breathing fire! It’s easier for me to say “no sugar” and indulge once in a while than to try to eat just a little every day.

    @Joel and Katelyn: I’m a black-and-white, all-or-nothing kind of person too. That’s why when I decided me and caffeine didn’t get along, I just quit entirely. The whole “only one cup of coffee a day” thing just doesn’t work for me. People may not understand it, but they’re not the ones who have to live with the consequences of trying to moderate!

    @Allison: We never, ever said this is a “good vs. bad.” In fact, we’ve written a TON about how food is not a moral choice, there is no “good or bad” food, and you are not “good or bad” for eating certain foods. There are simply choices, and consequences. If you read more of our stuff, I think that will come through loud and clear.


  6. Megan says

    Super interesting topic, Melissa! Thank you for sharing! I’ve actually spent some time considering the concept of moderation vs. black and white rules. I don’t feel like I’ve answered this question fully for myself yet, but here’s what I’ve come up with. Ironically, it seems to work well for me to balance the two approaches, i.e., I have to use each in moderation. I’ll preface this by saying your post “Sometimes, It Is Hard” definitely applies to me. I have a long history of disordered eating (at one point to the degree of a full blown eating disorder), food addiction, negative body image and self-talk – you name it, I’ve probably done it. I’m not even sure I’m capable of ever having a healthy relationship with food, but I’m still going to try and that’s why I’m here. What I’ve found is that it’s all too easy for me to follow either approach, moderation or black and white rules, to the point of obsession. Moderation can quickly lead to just eating whatever I want and making unhealthy choices for emotional reasons. Strict black and white thinking leads to berating myself for having too many raisins on a salad. I wish there was just one concept I could cling to that would guarantee avoiding failure. The truth is, it is hard. I have to think a good bit about what I’m doing (though not too much!) because I’ve never known what normal eating feels like. That’s just my personal experience. Maybe for folks with less history of disordered eating, it’s a little easier to use black and white rules without being nutty about it.

  7. says

    I’m with Katelyn — with regard to certain foods, it’s easier for me to have *none* than it is to stop myself after just one piece, because it never *does* stop. As soon as the taste hits me, it’s like someone flips a switch in my head…all those bells & whistles go off like a 1980s pinball machine in my mouth. ;-) As difficult as it can be to see x, y, or z food at a party or office meeting staring me right in the face and not partake, I know it’s *less* difficult to just pass it up than it is to have a small serving. (Because even if I have one piece and stop there in the name of social norms, I’ll spend the rest of the day thinking about having more and and wishing for more, and quite possibly getting myself more when no one is looking! [Yikes…did I just confess that out loud? That’s okay. I know I can’t be the only one.])

    For the most part I eat very well, but there are definitely a couple of “trigger foods” (you would call them foods with no brakes) that I absolutely cannot have *any* of. I think the important thing is to know if you have trigger foods, identify what they are, and decide which course of action suits you best — none at all, once a month, etc. (Assuming, of course, that there are no major allergies/sensitivities or other pressing reasons to stay away other than once you open the bag or box, all bets are off and you’ll inhale the entire thing before you know what hit you. I have no known issues that are exacerbated by gluten, dairy, or the other usual suspects, but I almost wish I did. It would make staying away that much more imperative. As it is now, I’m lower-carb and almost grain-free mostly for the purpose of weight control.)

    Sorry to ramble. Bottom line: I think this is a great piece. You’re so right — what the heck *is* moderation, anyway? No one ever seems to specify. My idea of a binge might be someone else’s take on “moderation,” and vice versa.

    “Hormones > willpower.” —> YES!! You cannot trick your body forever. At some point, your PHYSIOLOGY will trump your PSYCHOLOGY and your body will be louder than your brain. For better or worse, your body *will* get what it wants/needs, no matter how much you try to override that.

  8. Emily says

    Some people can do things in moderation, but I think MOST people lie to themselves about what is moderate and their ability to do things in moderation. I think as soon as you have to tell yourself you cut back and do XYZ in moderation, you have already proven you’re not capable.

    As a former smoker, I can tell you I never was able to cut back and smoke in moderation. The fact is that I was a smoker, TRYING to reach “moderation” meant that I had ALREADY failed at moderation. It meant that for me, moderation was not possible. In other words, if I were capable of smoking in moderation, I never would have become a full blown smoker.

    The same goes for food. Some things I can eat in moderation. Like kale. I never overdo kale (because sadly I hate it). Or fruit leather. I have never overdone it on fruit leather, which I do like. Cheese – I can do that in moderation, and I LOVE cheese.

    On the other hand, cashews? Moderation is hard for me. I have a handful and I want a pound. Or better yet, TRAIL MIX. Throw some crackers onto the cheese I am so good at moderating, and I’m done for.

    The point is, everyone is different. And if you think you need to scale back, or moderate your intake, its likely because you have already proven you are incapable of controlling the intake in the first place.

  9. says

    Moderation is guaranteed mediocrity because most people misunderstand the 80/20 rule as it relates to what you eat. I explain it here and I even have cool chart to illustrate this concept.

    If you are fine with mediocre health than by all means pursue a moderate approach to food intake.

  10. Stacey says

    Thank you Melissa! I need to read this over and over. I suffer from chronic inflammation and I have many food sensitivity issues. I have been trying moderation and it hasn’t worked out so well. I am in a lot of pain. I need to do another Whole30. I need to start NOW!

  11. says

    Moderation is the biggest pseudo-common sense BS. The point of living an ancestral lifestyle is REMOVING harm. Can science prove compounds like gluten are 100% safe? NO. Can anyone prove than eating no gluten whatsoever is safe? YES. What is the risk of removing modern foods from your diet? ZERO. Yet there is huge possible benefit from removing potential harmful foods. There is only upside from removing the potentially dangerous.

    When it comes to other areas of health moderation is similarly BS. Our body needs intense acute stress and periods of deprivation to maintain and build its strength. HIIT exercise, cold exposure, intermittent fasting, post traumatic growth are necessary stressors.

    No, I don’t eat a moderately balanced breakfast with cereal, OJ and toast in moderation. No, I don’t snack on low-fat whole wheat crackers in moderation. No, I don’t eat McDonald’s in moderation, then go home and eat dessert in moderation. No, I don’t eat donuts in moderation then do a moderate amount of exercise to burn off the calories. I also do not smoke in moderation or use cocaine in moderation. I just don’t put garbage in my body.

    Moderation = SAD diet, snacking, chronic exposure to toxins, chronic cardio, constant comfort, mild stressors, weak body, weak mind.

  12. says

    @Amy B. – You are NOT the only one. What you described is me to a T. I’m so much better off just eliminating certain foods entirely because I will just obsess over them if I try to test-it-out-just-one-more-time-because-I-can-definitely-be-in-control-this-time.

  13. DamnedFan says

    I’m been eating Whole30 for about 9 months now – with two exceptions. Every few days I eat a some crackers and enjoy a glass of wine. Not everyone has zero self control. I ENJOY those two things in moderation, and feel no negative health effects or cravings. The all-or-nothing tone of this article is ridiculous.

  14. Tina says

    I am almost positive that most, if not all, people know that the saying is in general and if there is truley a food or some types of foods that will make them sick, that it doesn’t apply. Give people credit for some intelligence. We are not sheep:-)