Why 'Moderation' Gets Most Dieters Into Trouble

Health Writer
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The saying I’ll just have a few bites seems like a sensible approach to a treat when dieting. Or maybe, “just this one time,” is how you balance indulgences with calorie control.

Both of these comments suggest eating in moderation, which many nutrition experts say is sound advice when it comes to weight loss and a healthy and balanced diet. Moderation is also supposed to help you to avoid deprivation, which is the downfall of many rigid diets. But according to a new study, the concept of moderation has a wide and vast range of interpretations. And that’s how moderation can get a dieter into trouble.

Individuals with few eating issues will likely be able to follow the principle of moderation the way it was intended. These individuals naturally use sensible portion control and choose mostly nutritious foods, and they indulge by strategically having treats.

These are the folks who are able to sense fullness -- they push their plates away with food still uneaten. They take a few bites of dessert now and again, without being tempted to eat the whole treat. They can also say no to sweets and special foods, without feeling deprived. Eating in moderation for them is indeed practical advice.

The new study suggests that for most of us, especially individuals who struggle with obesity, the vast interpretations of the word moderation make the concept a slippery slope. Moderation for one person might mean a dessert a few times a week, while for another individual it might mean a dessert every day instead of a dessert at every meal!

According to the research, the term is actually quite ambiguous. If you really like a food, it may color how you define moderation when faced with that food. For example, someone who is a chocaholic and on a diet may say that a small piece at every meal is following the principle of moderation. That can add up to three, four or five pieces of chocolate daily, or most of that 600 calorie bar, despite your efforts to “diet and use moderation.”

Moderation, when not widely decided on as a concrete term, is problematic. Dieting requires some very precise principles, especially if you are struggling to shed a significant amount of weight. It’s also a confounding approach to food if you have certain trigger foods, or if you’re an emotional eater.

Try defining moderation when you are in the throes of a huge disappointment. Moderation in this case could mean consuming half a gallon of ice cream instead of the whole container.

In the study, published in the journal Appetite, researchers compiled different studies in a lab setting and online, to assess what subjects think moderation means in terms of quantity of food. Participants were asked questions including:

  • How many cookies does moderation mean?
  • How many cookies would be an indulgence?
  • How many cookies would be the right number to eat?

The researchers noted from the responses to questions like these that to most people, moderation means “less than overeating.”

These individuals also thought moderation meant “eating more than you should.” So moderation was considered a more forgiving guiding principle, compared to what you should eat.And that is where dieters or people with food issues can go awry.

Moderation seems to encourage more eating rather than more control and balance. With a growing pushback against dieting, from consumers and some health experts, living by the rule of moderation has become a newly perceived healthy-eating approach. For many people, it’s just not.

In fact, the words “more” and “moderate” tend to get dieters and people struggling with obesity into trouble. The National Obesity Forum had to plan to replace four members who resigned after a pro-fat report was released by mistake. In the report, members were in favor of recommending that consumers eat fewer carbs, snack less and eat more fat. Most consumers will run with that idea and not quantify portion sizes or types of fat, even if the intention was to recommend healthier fats. It’s just another ambiguous term that’s confounding to most dieters.

The lead researcher of the study, the University of Georgia’s Michelle vanDellen, suggests that using moderation as a guiding principle assumes that people can be a good judge of the amount of food that constitutes a “moderate portion.”

In reality, people struggling with obesity have a very poor perception of portion size and appropriate quantities of food. They likely struggle with hunger and satiation perception, and they likely have an attachment or addiction to a number of highly caloric foods. So asking them to eat with moderation in mind is an oxymoron at best.

Yes, it would be great if moderation could be your guiding food mantra. However, based on this research, those of us who are overweight or obese are likely to miss the true meaning of the word. It’s a fine concept that should be reserved for the few among us who have no weight or food issues.

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Amy Hendel, also known as The HealthGal, is a Physician Assistant, nutritionist and fitness expert. As a health media personality, she's been reporting and blogging on lifestyle issues and health news for over 20 years. Author of The 4 Habits of Healthy Families, her website offers daily health reports, links to her blogs, and a library of lifestyle video segments.