We help you define the ambiguous term of eating in moderation, along with some top tips from registered dietitians on how to eat well without dieting.
Scroll through your Instagram feed. Shredded, picture-perfect images of fitness models with abs telling us to follow the latest fad diet, claiming that if you follow A, B, and C, you’ll achieve the “ideal body”. The reality is, losing weight isn’t as easy as eat less, move more. I’ve gone into detail about what happens when we diet, but to summarize- your body fights back. So often, you gain back the weight and then some once you “slip up” or end the diet.
That’s where the classic “eating everything in moderation” phrase comes in. I’m sure you’ve heard this popular wisdom before from your family and friends, and maybe you’re guilty of using it, as well. However, after years of dieting, jumping into the moderated-eating lifestyle may seem next to impossible. When you’ve been engrossed in diet-culture and living by a strict set of dietary rules for so long, you may feel completely out of touch with your hunger and satiety cues. How can you possibly eat rule-free without eating EVERYTHING in sight? How can you possibly eat moderately when you have no sensation left to gauge what eating in moderation is?!
Take a deep breath and take it slow. I promise you, you’re not going to gain a million pounds in a day.
What you need to do is to take small steps by first unlearning dieting. Then you can begin relearning mindful and intuitive eating.
Mindfulness matters. Intuition is innate.
By focusing on mindful and intuitive eating, you will be able to develop effective eating habits to reach your health goals and establish a healthy relationship with food. Let’s first start off with the practice of mindful eating. This is when we are paying full or at least adequate attention to what we are eating and the amounts eaten without being distracted or just eating out of habit. It means turning off the TV, putting the phone away, and enjoying every bite. When you increase your awareness and appreciation of the food you eat, you gain an understanding about what foods nourish your body. When you’re enjoying food, rather than rushing through it, or eating by a pre-determined set of rules, you break the diet restrict binge repeat cycle, and food loses its moral meaning. “Bad” foods lose their allure when they’re no longer off limits, and naturally healthy foods become more appealing because they feel good – not “are good”. You need to believe that you have the ability to control what you eat, rather than the food controlling you and your emotions. Don’t let food stress you out. Trust me, by taking smaller steps, it will not seem so overwhelming, but will pave the path towards a healthy relationship with food.
The other related but not exactly the same nutrition philosophy is intuitive eating. Our body KNOWS what it needs and wants. If you give it quality, whole foods without all the excess additives, it will reprogram itself to crave healthy foods a lot more often! To eat intuitively is to listen to your body’s hunger signals. Are you full? Are you about to reach fullness? Are you eating when you actually feel the hunger sensation? When we are more in tune with our body’s natural hunger cues, we are much more likely to consume appropriate portions and eat without restriction, counting calories or macros; allowing us to attain our own personal healthy weight. You’ll actually ENJOY the food you’re eating too. What sounds hard about that?
What is Eating in Moderation?
Eating in moderation is aiming to have a well-balanced diet most of the time. Some people like to give a number (like the 80% “healthy” and 20% “whatever you want” rule) but I find this only drags us back into the diet mentality. I don’t like the 80/20 rule because I don’t like “rules”. To me it just means that most of your meals and snacks involve selecting quality, nourishing foods from at least several of the food groups such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, legumes, nuts and seeds. Hopefully, without the diet mentality looming over your shoulder, these foods become pleasurable as well, but we also know that we sometimes just need some wiggle room for the foods that are PURE pleasure. Like wine. And ice cream. And poutine. There’s room for treats every day, as long as the majority of your food choices are nourishing and feel good.
Food is meant to be enjoyed and pleasurable. NOT a source of stress.
Like many of my RD colleagues, I believe that food should be pleasurable and eating should be enjoyed. I don’t believe in cutting foods out, or denying myself a certain food I enjoy. But I also realize that sometimes “everything in moderation” is difficult to nail down in practice – especially after years of dieting and restricting. It can be scary to suddenly be allowed the freedom to let your body choose when moderation is so loosely (if at all) defined.
You need to nourish your body with healthy foods that make you feel good and enable you to perform your best. You also need to nourish your soul by allowing yourself to have foods you love to eat with ZERO, and yes I mean nada guilt! Your body also needs some ME-time, which includes engaging in self-care activities that make YOU happy – whether it’s going out for a walk, signing up for a pilates class, chilling with some Netflix or reading a book with a cup of tea. Just allow yourself to wind-down from the busy life. It’s also essential to be physically active whenever you have the opportunity as part of your routine (and that does not mean you have to go to the gym, but finding something you love doing!). By taking good care of your body and mind, and treating your body with the respect it deserves, your body will love you back. Trust me. This way, you’ll find peace with yourself and really love the skin you’re in!
Eating moderately is really CONTEXT-specific in that the exact amounts you eat may depend on the type of food you’re eating. It’s also very INDIVIDUAL-specific in that it will vary from person to person. This is why solidifying specific numbers doesn’t make sense.
Now we’re going to get a bit scientific here. But trust me, the research is incredibly important for backing up our claims as dietitians and the evidence behind the effects of eating in moderation.
Research AGAINST eating in moderation
Many believe the rule of “eating everything in moderation” is counterintuitive and worry it may encourage people to avoid eating past our needs. As appealing as “all foods can fit in a healthy diet if eaten in moderation” sounds, evidence suggests it’s not a great standard for healthy eating behaviours; partly attributed to its simplicity. We’ll explore that evidence in a bit. Some people may also argue that the term “moderation” is depriving in itself, implying that we are ONLY allowed to eat a certain amount. Let’s take a look at what the research says on the success of eating everything in moderation.
According to current research published in the journal Appetite, the more people enjoy a particular type of food, the more “forgiving” their perceptions of moderation may be. In other words, the more you are loving your cheesecake, the more lenient you would be when eating it or the more you would think that it can be eaten “in moderation”. Participants were asked questions about their own definitions of moderation in relation to “quantity” when provided with foods considered “unhealthy”. When they were asked how many cookies would be considered “moderation,” “indulgence,” and how many cookies “should be eaten, ” they found that participants defined moderation as more cookies than one should consume (>2 cookies). Indulging was defined as larger than both definitions of what one should consume.
Interestingly, they found there weren’t any differences in the “subjective lens” of what moderation was for both lean and overweight individuals. These findings suggest that moderation to many lay people is greater than what “should” be consumed; suggesting that moderation definitions are biased and relative to personal consumption habits. One drawback of this study is that participants were not provided with “healthy foods” to discuss in the context of moderation which would help us understand whether all foods are viewed with the same lens.
Some experts argue that individual definitions of healthy have the power to help individuals justify overeating, and that moderation messages may actually increase consumption of certain foods. This was shown in the cookie study mentioned above. Researchers behind the study concluded that the endorsement of moderation messages allowed for a wide range of interpretations of moderate consumption and thus are not effective messages for people to maintain or lose weight.
But this is where the problem lies. The problem is not the messaging, the problem is the diet mentality of “good food” and “bad food” that’s muddying our perception of moderation.
The other problem is the criteria upon which we are basing the effectiveness or success of eating in moderation. “Successful” moderated eating is usually measured by weight loss, but this should not be the primary goal. The goal should be a healthier relationship with food. It should be letting go of the moral judgement we place on certain foods, and instead, listening to what our bodies are telling us it needs to feel our best. It should be learning how to listen for even the subtlest hunger and satiety signals so that we master how to fuel our body. It should be learning to love and honour our body no matter what size or shape it takes. This is where the good stuff comes in.
Research SUPPORTING eating in moderation
So, I threw down some of the criticism but now I wanted to share how and why this works. Evidence DOES support the mediating role that moderate mindful eating has on regulating hunger and normalizing eating. In a longitudinal study performed on Dutch adults, those who had a greater awareness of their dietary behaviours were more likely to eat moderately and more in tune with their body’s needs, compared to those who had lower awareness. Awareness was defined as understanding the risks of our behaviour. Awareness has been found to be an important factor in the explanation of complex health behaviours like physical activity and dietary intake. So, the idea is that the more aware we are of our own risk behaviour the more likely we will become motivated to make a lifestyle change. This study indicated that if you are aware that you need to eat in moderation then you will most likely change your dietary habits, however if you are not aware whether you eat in moderation, you’ll be less likely to be motivated to make a change. These concepts are similar to the stages of change. You’re more likely to make a behaviour change if you understand what you need to change and are motivated to do so. That may sound a bit abstract, so here’s another study.
In another study, the non-dieter control group was more likely to eat moderately compared to four types of dieters (who were actively trying to control and lower their weight). What’s important is that in ALL five groups of participants, eating everything in moderation has positive relationships with attitude, behaviour and emotion variables whereas restrained eating had negative associations! The conclusion? Eating everything in moderation may be an effective strategy for helping us find our healthiest weight, while promoting a healthier happier (and less stressful!) relationship with food.
Research has shown that engaging in “mindful eating” and “everyday mindfulness” (the present in daily life) may help lead both lean individuals and those with larger bodies to enjoy more moderate serving sizes of calorie-dense foods. Mindful eaters in general also tended to eat less in response to negative emotions and stress, while not snacking past their needs. Strong evidence among four major mindfulness research studies has shown that overall generic mindfulness even without training, is capable of promoting healthy eating habits by supporting preferences for healthier foods, naturally encouraging better portion control, and as a result, helping people find their healthiest natural weight. Participants who engage in mindfulness strategies tend to make healthier snack selections, have fewer impulsive eating episodes and in general, tend to eat fewer calories without dieting. Interestingly, not only does mindful eating help with self-regulating eating behaviours, but it makes the eating experience much more pleasurable. Have your cake and eat it too? Yes please!
Mindfulness messaging may also help in the recovery for eating disorder patients, as well. A randomized clinical trial on individuals with binge-eating disorder found that approaches based on mindfulness such as “Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training” (MB-EAT) were more effective in reducing binge-eating and its symptoms, compared to psychoeducational cognitive-behavioural treatment. However, while the MB-EAT did have a positive impact on self-control and self-regulation, it’s important to mention that the results didn’t reach statistical significance. Besides this, these individuals felt that there were less cravings for high-fat and sugary foods, and experienced increased satisfaction with much smaller portions than they normally would. For those who still binged, the binges were smaller. Even among college student females of diverse ethnicities, mindfulness has displayed clear associations with moderating psychological distress associated with patterns of disordered eating behaviour. Another study on disordered eating demonstrated that mindful eating helped play an important role in moderating the tendency to engage in emotional eating induced by psychological distress in both males and females.
Overall the research does suggest that mindfulness as a lifestyle-based intervention may lead to powerful changes in all aspects of the eating experience, with enhanced satiety, portion control and prevention of overeating. Maybe everything in moderation can work.
How Dietitian’s Define Moderation
Since “eating in moderation” is such a subjective concept, I wanted to ask a bunch of my fellow registered dietitians (RD’s) for their thoughts, along with the practical dietary advice they give to their clients. Let’s break this down into key ideas so we can retain the knowledge our RDs have for us!
Be “in-tune” and listen to what your body wants by recognizing your innate hunger and satiety (fullness) signals.
Ashley Munro, RD, CDE of www.apinchofgrace.com
Moderation as a word is hard because it is very much apart of diet culture and leaves people measuring/counting out food to stay within the “rules.” I feel like if you are listening to your body, you don’t have to worry about overeating because you are getting exactly what your body needs in that moment. I realize too, that this takes practice.
Adina Pearson, RD – AdinaPearson.com
To me moderation means working from the inside and trusting your hunger and fullness as well as appetite and satisfaction rather than letting externalities (diet gurus, culture) dictate how you should eat. It means staying out of extremes but not worshipping the “perfect” middle. It means caring about nutrition and health but also being flexible and recognizing that pleasure is a part of overall health.
Katherine Zavodni, MPH RD, www.kznutrition.com
If we are eating responsively and intuitively, we don’t need to worry about moderation because our bodies take care of that for us. “Moderation” has become another co-opted term to describe “how I know how much I’m supposed to eat,” which actually interferes with our ability to be intuitive in our bodies. Bodies like variety and they tell us when their needs are met, if we can develop the trust to listen and honor that (and we can!). So, moderation is sort of built in.
Rebecca Clyde MS, RDN, CD of www.nourishnutritionblog.com
I like to think of using the term moderate and relate that to intuitive eating, I encourage my clients to listen to their bodies to moderate what & how much they eat. So many people I work with (and myself as well) rely on outside forces to moderate what we eat. or to eat in moderation. We use our plate size, a meal plan, pre-portioned food (whether that be a frozen meal, a meal portioned out at a restaurant, or a meal portioned out by someone else) to moderate how much we eat. I used to love the phrase: eat in moderation, but came to think about what causes that moderation- most often those outside forces. Those outside forces control us. Instead, we can use our own senses, satisfaction, and taste to moderate how much and what we choose to eat. That allows us to be satisfied with what we eat and in turn we often eat less (moderate what we eat), it allows us focus on eating foods that are nourishing to our bodies and to our souls. It allows us to nourish our bodies with what we need, and it opens the door for us to be mindful of what we’re eating. Mindful eating is a powerful concept! Letting our bodies moderate what we eat allows us to eat what our bodies want & need, and on the flip side, allows us to realize when something isn’t satisfying- letting our bodies moderate our food gives us permission to stop eating that cookie that tastes like cardboard, or even worse, white chocolate ;). Or it guides us to eat a bit more of something that’s either nourishing or tastes really good. Eating intuitively allows us to nourish our bodies while feeding our souls. It relieves the guilt & shame that so many experience with eating. Now eating intuitively is hard! It takes a lot of work and mindfulness, it’s really a big paradigm shift from how many people eat and that’s what makes it hard. Hopefully that wasn’t too big a jumble of thoughts.
Jump off the “clean-eating” bandwagon by eating food for nutrition AND enjoyment!
Jessica Spiro, RD jessicaspirord.com
We have become an all or nothing society when it comes to food (indulge vs diet, good or “clean” foods vs bad or “dirty” foods) and so the word moderation, I believe, is used to help people break free from that way of thinking. However, when you’ve been taught to eat in these extremes for so long, it actually takes practice and often coaching to cultivate an understanding of your own hunger cues and cravings in order to incorporate this notion of “moderation.”
Josée Sovinsky, RD www.joseesovinskynutrition.com
We need to be careful, as “eating in moderation” can quickly become another diet which causes guilt, shame and regret. Moderation is about including both nutritious and delicious foods. It is reconnecting with our body to see what it needs both physically and emotionally.
Kelli Shallal MPH RD author behind lifestyle blog Hungry Hobby. (www.hungryhobby.net)
I believe moderation, as it relates to foods can change over your lifetime. There was a time in my life where I thought four cookies was great moderation, now one cookie feels like good moderation. It’s whatever makes you feel good about the amount of the particular food you are eating. This may change depending on health status, activity, where you are living, what your goals are, etc…
Kristina Todini, RD www.forkintheroad.com
Moderation means listening to my body and choosing foods that make me feel good most of the time. We all enjoy a little too much from time to time, but if you have a good mind-body connection you will start to recognize that some foods may not be helping you feel energized and invigorated. Each person is different, so it’s about finding that balance. For me, my body must have wine and pasta at least once a week. )
Eat a BALANCED, yet flexible diet containing a VARIETY of foods to ditch the guilt!
Emily Holdorf, RD empowerednutrition.org
To me moderation is similar to balance and flexibility. It’s listening to your body and giving in what it is craving along with what is going to make you feel good physically. So it’s finding that middle ground in between the two ends of the spectrum. It’s letting go of food rules and focusing more on food values and not being tied to “good” and “bad” foods. Moderation is looking at foods as “more nutritious” and “less nutritious” and realizing a balanced diet is going have both included without feeling guilty about it.
Kelly Jones MS, RD, CSSD, LDN KellyJonesNutrition.com
It is important to recognize that moderation is not a term only to be used for foods that are energy dense. To me, moderation means not getting too much of any one food or nutrient, so with my client population, I spend more time focusing on consuming a variety of nutrient dense foods than limiting energy dense foods. For example, the way the media promotes certain foods as “super foods”, it is easy for people to think they are healthier if they consume kale multiple times per day, but in reality, they may be getting too much of certain nutrients and not enough of others.
Roxana Begum, PhD, RD, of The Delicious Crescent, http://www.thedeliciouscrescent.com
In practice, the term “moderation” is often used in conjunction with foods that are associated with increasing the risk of chronic diseases. Foods such as red meat, sugar, processed/refined foods, butter and so on. And these are also foods for which more people have a tendency to over consume. Seldom to do we come across that happening with vegetables, legumes, fruits etc. But I think that when we approach our eating experience, with the idea of consuming a wide variety of Whole Foods, celebrating all the foods for what they offer to the palate, then we automatically create a healthy balance.
Sarah Pflugradt, MS, RDN, LDN of Salubrious RD www.salubriousrd.com
We always like to say “everything in moderation”, but it’s more of a balancing act with the weight leaning slightly toward one side. It’s an easy concept to talk about, but it can be fairly difficult to learn, because what one person views as moderation, another may view as excess. I make the majority of my diet about wholesome, fresh foods, but I leave a little room each day for “the moderation foods.” As long as the majority of my diet is focused on getting the best nutrients possible to fuel up, I never feel guilty about having a treat now and then.
The take home: How we can unlearn dieting and restriction to eating in moderation
Despite the controversies and backlash with the term moderation, I think the core concept has merit. If you take anything away from this article (even if you can’t make it through the thick research), here’s what I want you to remember.
- Eating in moderation isn’t another rule. It’s not a strict 80/20 division of what foods can be fun foods and what foods have to be healthy foods.
- Eating in moderation is about listening to your bodies signs and signals to tell you what it needs and yes, even what it wants.
- Eating in moderation is about doing away with moralizing food and thinking in terms of “good food” vs “bad food”.
- Eating in moderation is enjoying all of the foods you eat, and making pleasure (both physical, in what makes you feel good and emotional too) the primary criteria for what you eat.
- Eating in moderation is about honouring and loving your body.
I hope you are able to put some of these tips from my fellow RDs into practice and take a stab at walking away from diet culture.
I want to know, what does eating in moderation mean to you?
Have you had success using mindfulness or moderation with your eating?
Sofia Tsalamlal, RD
Rachel Shim, RD 2 B
Abbey Sharp, RD
Updated on May 12th, 2020
Abbey Sharp is a Registered Dietitian (RD), regulated by the Ontario College of Dietitians. She is a mom, YouTuber, Blogger, award winning cookbook author, media coach specializing in food and nutrition influencers, and a frequent contributor to national publications like Healthline and on national broadcast TV shows.