When it comes to nutrition and fitness, one question people always want to know the answer to is, “How much?” How much of this should I have? How much should I avoid? How much is enough? How much is too much? You’ll get a different answer from almost everyone you talk to, but an answer I hear quite often is “everything in moderation.” I recently read an article arguing for the “everything in moderation” solution, saying that the alternative is unhealthy and leads to eating disorders and restrictive mindsets. I feel like a lot of these articles are very one-sided, so I wanted to offer my side.
Is “everything in moderation” really the answer? I’m going to talk about this in the context of food for this post, just to keep things simple. It’s a hot debate on the Internet, and it’s easy to see why. Health shaming is really rampant nowadays, unfortunately. If a person decides to avoid a certain food, someone will accuse them of having disordered eating habits. I read articles saying that “clean eating” causes eating disorders, and that we shouldn’t be shaming people for eating what they want. Isn’t that pretty hypocritical, since by nature of the argument they are shaming the “clean eaters”? Also, someone’s personal choice to not consume a certain food does not mean they are health shaming others who do eat that food – it just means they don’t personally want to! Of course, there are times when people avoid certain foods because of a disordered relationship with food, but it’s unfair to just automatically assume that, considering how many people have legitimate food allergies and intolerances.
On the other side of things, if someone doesn’t eliminate any foods, sometimes people do shame them for being out of control, eating too much, or not eating the right things. That’s definitely not okay either. The point is, though, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Because of that, it’s easy for people to play it safe and suggest “everything in moderation,” rather than take a clear stance of either “EAT ALL OF THE THINGS” or “AVOID THESE THINGS.” This brings me back to the question… is “everything in moderation” really the best way to go?
Like most things, this is a “it depends” type of answer. My personal opinion is that “everything in moderation” does not always work. I think it does for certain people, at certain times. But I think there are more people for which it does not work. It depends who you’re talking about. Most of the population is routinely consuming hyperpalatable, highly inflammatory foods that contain addictive properties. For those people, “everything in moderation” might not be the best bet for their health.
First of all, when we say everything, do we really mean everything? What about foods that are known to be harmful to everyone? What about foods that someone is allergic to or intolerant to? I certainly wouldn’t suggest someone who has Celiac disease consume gluten “in moderation.” That’s an extreme example, and I’m sure that the people who are giving out the advice to eat everything in moderation would say that they would never suggest someone with Celiac disease eat gluten. That’s the point, though. It’s unfair to give that advice when there are so many qualifiers. Like I said, giving that piece of advice is an easy way to beat around the bush and avoid taking a stance on what foods are healthy or unhealthy. And while I certainly don’t think that we need to clearly label every food healthy or unhealthy, I think it’s important to at least recognize that foods can be healthy or unhealthy depending on the person in question. What’s healthy for me might not be healthy for you, and vice versa. For instance, someone might have an egg allergy. That doesn’t mean that eggs are an unhealthy food for everyone – just not for that person who has an allergy. Yet, if someone has an egg allergy, should they still be consuming everything in moderation? Probably not. This also works in terms of emotional health. Maybe it’s emotionally healthy for Sally to eat a treat every weekend, but it’s not emotionally healthy for Jill to. It’s different for different people.
Also, there are certain foods that are literally designed to be addictive. There are foods that affect our brain chemistry to make us crave them and want more. Sugar, cheetos, cookies, milkshakes … these are created to make us always want MORE. Why do you think restaurants put out free bread when you sit down to eat? They want you to eat more at your meal! That bit of bread is going to put you in a good mood, and it’s going to spark cravings that make you think you’re hungry, even when you might not actually be. Then you’ll order more food, and the restaurant makes more money. These foods with addictive properties pull us away from our natural hunger signals, which longterm puts us out of touch with what our bodies truly need in terms of how much and in terms of what. We might think we need more food when we actually don’t, we might think we’re full when we’re not, we might think we crave carbohydrates when we need protein, and so on. Many of these foods that mess up our hunger signals are manmade – most of nature’s foods were not designed to trigger our brains into craving MORE MORE MORE. The ones that were designed to make us want more were rare to find in nature.
It is not a moral failure to feel like you can’t “moderate yourself” around these foods – it is how they were designed! They literally affect your brain chemistry. I have to be honest – I think that “everything in moderation” can be a really sexy idea for some people because it gives them permission to eat foods they know aren’t good for their health, but they can’t give up because they are, knowingly or not, addicted to these foods. Not always, but sometimes this is the case.
The advice to eat everything in moderation comes more from a standpoint of emotional health rather than physical health. Let’s take refined sugar, for instance. Refined sugar causes a host of health problems – it promotes weight gain, it fuels cancer cells, it causes oxidative stress, it can cause insulin resistance and eventually lead to diabetes, it reduces leptin levels in the body, it impairs the function of white blood cells, it harms the process of amino acids getting into muscles, and more. Will it immediately kill you if you have refined sugar every once in awhile? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean it’s good for you!
In terms of emotional health, though, for some people it helps them to eat refined sugar “in moderation” so that they don’t feel deprived or feel like they want to binge on unhealthy foods later on. More on this emotional aspect in a moment, but I just want to focus on the fact that in terms of what is physically going on in our bodies, having everything in moderation is not generally helpful for our physical health when it comes to foods that we know cause health issues, like refined sugar, vegetable oils, processed foods, and the like.
Second, I want to talk about what “everything in moderation” really means. What even is moderation? Like the ever-elusive term balance, moderation is going to mean something completely different to different people. Maybe moderation is once a week to me, but it’s every night to you. Maybe moderation is once a month to someone else, and once a year to another person. My point is – moderation doesn’t really mean anything concrete. Because of that, I feel like the advice to eat “everything in moderation” isn’t really that helpful, anyways.
For the sake of argument, let’s just say we can somehow all decide on a definition of “moderate.” I think it’s important to understand that there are people who are abstainers, and there are people who are moderators. There is no right or wrong – people are just different! Moderators are people who function best consuming a little bit of everything “moderately,” the definition of which is up to that person. Basically, they don’t like to avoid things completely, because avoiding it completely makes them crave it later on and maybe binge on it once they get their hands on the food in question. Having a little once in awhile makes it so that they never feel deprived, and this helps them feel balanced overall. For these people, giving themselves permission to have something whenever they want is enough to make them not really crave it at all. This is their way to food freedom.
On the other hand, abstainers work best when they completely avoid the food in question. For an abstainer, having just a little bit might make them binge and feel horrible afterward. For an abstainer, they find freedom in completely avoiding those “trigger foods.” For abstainers, it’s best to just not open Pandora’s box at all. Opening Pandora’s box is actually stressful, and makes them feel worse later on.
Personally, I have learned that I work best as an abstainer. I’m a very all-or-nothing person in all aspects of my life, and I have an addictive personality. When I try to be a moderator, it causes me more stress. If I have just a few bites of something that doesn’t work well for my body, I still crave ALL of it mentally even when my body is screaming at me to stop! If I abstain from foods that make me feel horrible, I feel better emotionally and physically.
A good example of this is with dessert. Some people feel best if they have a cookie a few nights a week. That way they never feel deprived from dessert. They can have a cookie and then they’re satisfied, knowing they can have another one another night. I’m not the type of person who can have a cookie and be satisfied. Sugar definitely is a trigger for me for binge-eating behavior, so if I tell myself that I have to have a small dessert a few nights a week in order to be “balanced,” that turns into me feeling like an emotional and physical wreck and usually triggers binge eating behavior, which is not healthy for me in any way. It causes much more stress for me to have the cookies a few times a week “moderately” than to just not eat them at all. When I “abstain” and save my sugar-filled desserts just for special occasions, this actually allows me to not have an issue with bingeing at that time. It’s just the way my personality works! There was a time in college when I thought I had to have dessert a few times a week in order to be “healthy” because I was basically shamed into believing that not doing so meant I had disordered eating habits. So I forced myself to eat dessert a few nights a week, and that led me to fall back into binge eating, and it gave me Candida overgrowth. So, no, that didn’t work for me. That’s me though, and someone else might have a very different experience. For others, saving treats for special occasions might actually make them binge when they do have them because they felt deprived earlier on!
This leads me to another point, though. I think there are certain times when it is important to be an abstainer, even if we think we aren’t. For example, this can be important when overcoming an addiction to something that’s harmful to your health. People don’t seem to argue with an alcoholic abstaining completely from alcohol, or a drug addict abstaining completely from drugs. Why is it any different if a sugar addict wants to abstain from sugar? Why is it any different if someone wants to abstain from any food that they feel addicted to or that negatively affects their mental or physical health?
This is also relevant when it comes to dietary protocols for certain periods of time that are meant to help restore our health. For example, someone who has Candida overgrowth should abstain from the sugar to eliminate that overgrowth, and usually people who have Candida crave sugar. Oftentimes, the foods that we feel addicted to are the ones that are causing our body harm internally. In terms of food intolerance testing, for instance, I can pretty much always guess which foods are going to show up for me – they’re the ones I feel “addicted” to.
There is a difference between abstaining from a food because of a disordered relationship with food and abstaining from it because it negatively affects your emotional and physical health. It’s a fine line, but there is a difference. The latter comes from a place of self-love, and the former does not. If we are talking about someone who is recovering from a disordered relationship with food, then the “everything in moderation” approach makes a lot more sense. Still, it’s not always necessary, though. I’m a big believer that you can still overcome an eating disorder through a paleo diet, for instance, but that’s for another post. Once again, it really depends on the person and situation, but I do want to make it clear that eating disorder recovery is a different situation than when I’m discussing “everything in moderation” in general.
At the end of the day, it’s someone’s choice as to whether or not they’re an abstainer or a moderator, and I don’t think that we should shame anyone into being one way or another or try to say that one is right and one is wrong. The important thing is just to figure out what works best for YOU, and be confident in that! Whatever is going to help you feel “free” around food and is going to help you maintain your physical and emotional health – that’s for you. It doesn’t matter what works for the person next to you, because it might be different. We shouldn’t be worried or stressed about eating, and we shouldn’t be shaming each other based on our food choices.
In conclusion, my opinion is that “everything in moderation” is a “myth” because A) it definitely does not work for everyone, and B) if we are being technical about it, it’s logically a very unhealthy thing to do because it would mean including foods in our diets that we know are harmful to our physical health. At the end of the day, though, make a decision that is best for your emotional and physical health, whether that be “moderating” or “abstaining,” and don’t worry about what works for anyone else.