“Eat in moderation.”
It’s the new clarion call for healthy eating, even touted as the new way to lose weight—especially now that there’s a big trend in the US away from restrictive weight-loss diets.
The idea: Depriving yourself of foods that you love is old-fashioned advice. It’s better to eat what you like, including your favorite high-calorie foods—but not too much.
Here’s a tip: It’s a trap. And it may be making you fat.
So finds a new paper entitled “How do people define moderation?” published in the respected peer-reviewed journal Appetite.
LET’S FEEL GOOD ABOUT EATING TOO MUCH
On the fast-food chain Chick-fil-A’s bags for takeout food, according to the paper, there’s this statement…
Moderation Is Key: All foods can fit within a healthy diet if consumed in moderation. With appropriate portion sizes and physical activity, you can enjoy treats like our Frosted Lemonade.
Moderation is one of many myths that Big Food uses to rationalize their calorie, fat and sugar bombs. (That Frosted Lemonade from Chick-fil-A contains 63 grams of sugar, the equivalent of 16 teaspoons.) But according to new research, food companies cynically proselytizing moderation is not the core of the problem with that seemingly healthy concept.
The real problem is you.
Chances are that you have no idea what moderation in eating really means—and that you might find it easy to twist the idea unconsciously to help feel good about yourself while you overeat. To learn more, we spoke with the lead study author, psychologist Michelle vanDellen, PhD, an assistant professor in the behavioral and brain sciences program at The University of Georgia, and to registered dietitian Susan McQuillan, MS, RDN, author of Low-Calorie Dieting for Dummies.
WHAT MODERATION MEANS IN REAL LIFE
In a series of studies, Dr. vanDellen and colleagues examined how people think about moderation, especially when it comes to foods that they know they should limit such as cookies, fruit-shaped gummy snacks, soda, pizza and fast food. Her findings held true for both men and women…and normal-weight and overweight people…
- Most people define “eating moderately” as eating a bigger amount than they think they should eat. For example, in one study, subjects were presented with a big plate with 24 cookies and asked how many a person should eat—and how many would constitute eating in moderation. On average, they said a person “should” eat about two cookies, but that “moderation” was a little more than three cookies.
- The more you like a food, the bigger a “moderate” portion will be for you. In another study, subjects were shown a picture of gummy snacks and asked to specify “should eat” and “moderation” portions. Once again, “moderate” portions were the larger portions. But the more a person liked gummy snacks, the researchers found, the bigger the “moderate” portion tended to be.
- The more often you eat a particular kind of food, the more frequent you’ll consider eating it in moderation to be. Eating in moderation isn’t just what you eat at any given meal—it’s also how often you eat it in a day, a week or a month. After all, eating ice cream daily is less “moderate” than eating it weekly or a few times a month. But here, too, perception was malleable—and (literally) self-serving. In a third study, the researchers asked subjects how often over two weeks they ate 12 different high-calorie foods, including pizza, soda, fast food and ice cream. No matter how often people ate a particular food, they consistently defined “moderate” frequency as more frequent than what they themselves did! Thus, if you eat ice cream once a week, you might define moderate as twice a week. But if you eat ice cream three times a week, you might define moderate as four times a week—so you’re still off the hook!
Dr. vanDellen believes that these malleable definitions are contributing to the obesity epidemic—by encouraging overeating. One way it happens occurs at the exact moment when you’ve eaten a portion of a food that you know isn’t really good to eat a lot of. That’s when you have a decision to make about whether eating more would be going overboard. To gain control over overeating, explains Dr. vanDellen, you need to recognize that you have a conflict at that moment—for example, that you’d really like to eat another piece of pie but you know you shouldn’t. Only then can you muster the motivation to override your immediate desire—for example, you know that you’ll feel good about yourself if you stick to your eating plan. But if you delude yourself that you’re eating “moderately,” you’ll never feel that conflict—and you’ll just keep eating.
HOW TO REALLY EAT IN MODERATION
The solution? Pay attention to good old-fashioned serving sizes—and calories. While there are many contributors to our obesity epidemic, including sugar and other low-fiber refined carbs, there is strong evidence that the increasing size of portions is a major culprit.
That’s not to say you should radically cut down on how much you eat, a dieting mentality that almost always backfires. “Severe food restriction is both physically and psychologically unhealthy,” says dietitian Susan McQuillan, MS, RDN. “But knowing your calorie limits and recognizing the calorie count of the various foods you eat is still important when you try to lose weight or maintain it.”
Ironically, paying attention to the actual amounts of foods that you eat may be the best way to actually eat in moderation. To illustrate this, let’s go back to that 16-ounce Chick fil-A Frosted Lemonade. It’s a 16-ounce, 330-calorie cup of lemonade blended with ice cream. It’s 63 grams of sugar is more than the 50 grams from added sugar maximum that the US Dietary Guidelines recommends for average Americans for the entire day.
But if you think of it as ice cream, and know your serving sizes, you’d realize that a serving size for ice cream is one-half cup—four ounces. For juice, a serving size is six ounces. So instead of drinking that entire thing, let’s say you enjoy six ounces—three quarters of a cup. You’ll get about 125 calories and 24 grams of sugar. That’s about half the added sugar daily maximum for an average American. So it’s a still a high-sugar treat, but a more manageable one…perhaps even “moderate.”
To learn more ways to curb oversized portions, see Bottom Line’s article “5 Tricks to Indulge and Eat Healthy When Dining Out.”