When your favourite diet advice is the same as junk food peddlers' favourite diet advice, maybe you should reconsider.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.
"Everything in moderation" is attractive advice, but also a trap. It amounts to saying we shouldn't have too much of anything, which is true by definition: that's why we call it "too much." But the word "moderation" is vague, and its vagueness makes it a friendly, big-tent kind of concept: however much you eat, you can find a way of convincing yourself that you eat in moderation.
We Appeal to "Moderation" to Dismiss Things We Don't Want to Hear
Nutrition professionals have a specific meaning for the word: moderation means small portions, especially when talking about food that we should eat little to none of. This isn't the "everything in moderation" that Aristotle wrote about, where we try to avoid extremes of too much and too little. There's no such thing as too little candy: you can skip it entirely and still be perfectly healthy. Instead, nutritionists use the concept of moderation as a tool for managing cravings. Here's how two dieticians described it in the Journal of Nutrition Education:
"[T]he message of balance, variety and moderation also can help remove some of the psychological baggage attached to healthful eating in the U.S. It can eliminate "all-or-nothing" perceptions that give rise to guilt, and in many cases, overeating, when people inevitably choose less healthful foods."
There are some good ideas here: eating a little bit of junk food doesn't have to derail your diet, and knowing that it's ok to treat yo'self can make it easier to stick to a healthy eating plan in the first place.
Once you give yourself licence to eat anything "in moderation," it easily turns into licence to eat anything, and call it moderation. The word has become an excuse, a way to say "screw you, I'm going to eat whatever I want" — all while smugly proclaiming that you live by simple, folksy advice and don't have to worry about the latest in nutrition science.
You'll find appeals to moderation in the comments of any advice or news about nutrition. For example, these are some of the responses on Twitter to a Washington Post article about bacon's association with cancer risk. There are valid criticisms of the bacon-cancer connection, but these comments do not address them:
Kudos to these benevolent nutritionists swooping in with advice to help people manage their cravings! Oh wait. What they're actually doing is invoking "everything in moderation" as a shield to let them dismiss the news and keep doing what they're doing.
After all, if you live by a simple rule, you don't need to keep up with the ever-changing advice on nutrition. Instead of following good advice, you can pretend that you're following it already. We also use this rule to avoid dealing with harsh truths (What if I do eat too much bacon?). Since there's no official dividing line between moderation and "too much," we can draw the line wherever we like: anybody who eats more bacon than me is eating too much. I'm fine, though.
Junk Food Companies Love "Moderation"
Not convinced? Think about this: The junk food companies love the concept of "moderation".
For example, look at the Back to Balance Coalition, made of 18 "leading food groups" that have signed a statement of principles promoting moderation. Their motto: "All foods fit in a balanced diet."
And those food groups? They include the Sugar Association, the National Confectioners Association, the Corn Refiners Association (makers of corn syrup), the National Potato Council (remember that most potato consumption in America is through chips and fries), the Grocery Manufacturers Association (members include Coca-Cola and Hershey), and the Snack Food Association.
Their statement declares that "All foods can fit within a healthful, overall dietary pattern if consumed in moderation with appropriate portion size and combined with physical activity." In other words, these groups really don't want you to say that you should stop eating their food, or that you should think of your diet as unhealthful if it includes their foods. The idea of junk food being part of a healthy diet reminds me of what Dave Barry said about cereal makers calling their product "part of this complete breakfast":
Don't they really mean, "Adjacent to this complete breakfast, " or "On the same table as this complete breakfast"? And couldn't they make essentially the same claim if, instead of Froot Loops, they put a can of shaving cream there, or a dead bat?
The reference to physical activity is also technically true while mostly meaningless: Sure, you can burn off the calories in your pack of Doritos, but that doesn't erase the fact that you ate it. We also know that you can't rely on exercise to keep you healthy if you're eating crap.
The National Confectioners Association takes the illusion of moderation a step farther. They endorse, on their website, a semi-scientific limit of "50 to 100 calories a day" from candy. These handy guides give you ideas for how much candy you should can eat: Two Twizzlers. Ten gummy bears. A single "fun size" candy bar. If you want a full size candy bar, that eats (sorry) your candy allotment for the whole week.
Yet on the same web site, they offer advice on how to get people to impulse-buy more candy. Checkout lanes should be stocked 51% with gum, mints, drinks, and snacks for people who want to "recharge" after a long shopping trip; and 39% of the space should go to chocolate and other candy for people who want to reward themselves for completing the chore of shopping.
The association's more strict stance fits with the FDA's recent recommendation that Americans should have no more than 10% of their calories from added sugar, or about 200 calories a day. (The World Health Organisation recommends half that amount).
But they don't actually stand behind that limit. When the FDA proposed adding their recommended limit to package labels (giving added sugars a per cent daily value like other nutrients) a spokesperson for the NCA told Food Business News that the group doesn't support the proposal:
The National Confectioners Association said the F.D.A.'s plans to place percentage daily values for added sugars on food labels were unnecessary and may confuse consumers.
In other words, the claims about moderation are lip service without any intention to commit. If pressed, they will say they only recommend a teensy amount of candy per day, but they're hoping that consumers won't find out about, much less abide by, the two-Twizzler limit.
FInd a Better Rule
"Everything in moderation" is a crappy rule to live by. But it's great as inspiration for coming up with rules that can help you in the long run.
It's true that small portions of junk food are better than large portions, and that you don't have to completely cut a well-loved treat out of your life. So decide — now, not when you're standing at the sundae bar — what treats are worth eating and how much you can "afford" to eat without sabotaging yourself.
We have lots of advice on this here at Lifehacker, because dealing with cravings for junk food is a normal part of life. Maybe it wasn't when we were all hunter-gatherers (then again, some hunter-gatherers eat a lot of honey) but we live in a world where the checkout lanes are packed with treats meant to prey on our psychological weaknesses.
So you can choose your treats on their merits, deciding for example whether that slice of cake tastes good enough to be worth a minor setback in your weight loss. You can be mindful of your cravings and create triggers to redirect yourself to better choices.
You can even ditch the moderation mindset entirely and declare certain foods off-limits. Use this strategy with caution, since it doesn't work for everybody or with every food, but sometimes knowing that you have to say no can give you peace of mind by making decisions easy. You can also say no to all foods, but on a temporary basis during the day: this is called intermittent fasting, and it can help manage cravings.
Which strategy you choose depends on your goals. If you're not trying to lose weight — or if you've decided that you just don't care what you eat (maybe this is a stressful time in your life and you just need to get through this last year of school with whatever comfort foods it takes), be honest with yourself. And be honest with others too: don't dismiss dietary advice with "Duh, everything in moderation." Instead tell the truth: "That's probably good advice, but I'm not going to follow it."