What is your definition of moderation in nutrition?  One of the most common pieces of dieting advice is to eat “everything in moderation.” Apparently, people often have a skewed sense of what “moderation” means, says a new University of Georgia study. Researchers asked the study participants two questions:

1) How many cookies do you think you should eat in one sitting?
2) How many cookies would you consider to be a moderate serving?

Nearly 70 percent of the subjects defined a “moderate” serving as larger than what they thought they “should” eat. On average, people guessed you should eat only two cookies at a time—but that eating three cookies would pass for eating in moderation.

The researchers also surveyed the study participants about what kinds of junk food they preferred, and what they counted as a moderate portion size for each type of food.

Both findings came to the conclusion that the more someone liked a food, the more generous they would be with their definition of a moderate serving size!

The problem here is that moderation in nutrition is, admittedly, a vague concept. The definition merely says “avoidance of excess or extremes, especially in one’s behavior or political opinions”. It also lists synonyms like “self-restraint and self-discipline” leaving one open to a bit of interpretation, doesn’t it? Where does your self-restraint kick in compared to mine?  That’s because it’s really an opinion and it’s woven into our self-control. That can be good or not so good, depending on where you fall on that scale.

The upside to it is that it’s a great way to avoid completely prohibiting certain foods. Research suggests may lead to disordered eating and weight gain. But without any concrete guidelines, what is moderation?!

It’s hard to tell whether you’re overeating or not.

Here’s a specific guideline to follow and it’s simple: Only 10 to 20 percent of your total daily calories should come from junk food. You know, eat what you want, but not everything you’ve ever wanted to eat.

You’ll want to plan ahead too.

For instance, you’re going to be particularly strategic about where your 10 to 20 percent goes, save it for breakfast or after a workout. Eat the meal in the morning and your body will use it as fuel as you go about your day. Post-workout is also a great time, as that’s when your metabolism is elevated and your body needs additional carbs and protein (even in the form of a slice of pizza if necessary).

In practice…

Think of it this way, this means that you can order the pasta, but eat half and hold off on the bread. Share a dessert instead of having one to yourself. That will allow you to indulge—helping you to stick to your healthy eating plan in the long term—without overdoing it.

Find out how many calories you need in a day. For example, if you might need 2,500 calories, and 250 to 500 of those can come from whatever treats you want—no guilt necessary.

If you need some guidance on the concept of moderation in nutrition, I’d be happy to help! Many of our food choices are connected to habits, mistaken information, reward, emotional comfort, denial, and even possibly painful memories.  I work with people who want to change their habits but find it more difficult than they realize.

Learn more about our Nutrition Coaching

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