“A Little Bite Won’t Hurt”: The Failure of Moderation

One of the biggest problems I had with the nutrition education that I received during my path to become a registered dietitian wasn’t the low fat, high carb recommendations. I was fully prepared for hearing that stuff. Instead, it was the “everything in moderation” approach to weight loss counseling that I had the biggest issue with. We were taught that unless you told people that no foods were “off limits” and that all foods are healthy “in moderation,” you could be doing people a disservice.

I think this mentality largely comes from the fact that many dietitians are themselves recovering from disordered eating. My instructor, while drinking her diet coke in-between powerpoint slides, would tell us how limiting food groups could lead to “orthorexia” and this led to an eating disorder. I remember raising my hand and saying, “Don’t you think a certain level of orthorexia might be important in our modern food landscape with hyper-palatable foods everywhere we turn?” The entire class gasped and stared at me. I hear whispers among the students. This challenge to what we were being taught was blasphemy. I would clearly induce anorexia by suggesting someone avoid processed sugars. My professor stood behind her statement.

Someone recently told me she had bariatric surgery a few years ago. Clearly the moderation thing is working for her.

People going on crash diets often gain the weight back. Frustrated with this, many are gravitating to the “everything in moderation” theory, and simply trying to maintain their weight. This is supported by dietitians, our government’s advice and by the food industry (of course)!

Chick-fil-A’s to-go paper bag suggests that you “Stay Balanced” so if you splurge during the day, balance it with more exercise. Oh, and eat their 8-count chicken nuggets every three to four hours.

A new study, published in the journal Appetite, illustrates how “moderation” means different things to different people. The researchers hypothesized that people’s own food preferences would have a huge influence on what they consider “moderation.”

When considering their own food intake, people like to “favor themselves” and are notoriously poor judges of how much they’ve just consumed, both in volume and in calories. They can’t seem to remember what  they just ate, but often feel that they’re doing well with their food choices, regardless of their weight.

Proving their hypothesis, the researchers found that the more people consumed of a particular item, the larger their sense of “a moderate amount” was. Furthermore, people tended to view their own consumption as “better than moderate.” Meaning, what they ate was less than what they consider a “moderate intake.” This was regardless of their BMI, so both healthy and obese participants answered the questions in a similar manner. (Yes, I know that BMI isn’t always the best marker for health.)

“These results suggest people evaluate their own consumption as moderate. If anything, people seem to define moderation as greater than their current consumption, indicating that they do not actually think of it as limited consumption of an item. Moreover, definitions of moderate consumption are related to levels of personal consumption: the more people consume of a food or beverage item, the more of that item they consider to be moderate consumption. In contrast, people’s perceptions that they consume an item moderately were unrelated to the amount of each item they actually consumed and the amount of that item they consider moderate… That is, people may implicitly endorse their reported consumption as appropriate because the typical amount they eat is less than what they define as moderate.” The researchers concluded. 

Additionally, in “Better Than Before,” author Gretchen Rubin describes how moderation usually fails most dieters, but also mentions that most nutritionists are moderators. Her book is a fascinating look into what motivates people, and what works in order to change habits. If you haven’t already read it, I recommend it highly.

A few months ago, I was allowed to sit in on an Overeaters Anonymous meeting, to learn what they were like. It was really eye opening. People were describing how they would go to the store and buy cake mix, bake themselves a cake, and then EAT THE WHOLE THING. Others would talk about how they would have to take the junk food in the house and toss it in the garbage, then cover it with water so they wouldn’t go back into the garbage, dig it out, and binge on it. One woman reported that her car was her “vehicle” and that she could never make it home from the store without devouring and entire package of cookies. You know what worked for all of them? Abstinence. Nearly all said they were only successful when they cut out wheat and sugar, which were “trigger foods” for them.

The more I work with people, the more I realize that people are looking for clear answers. Most people really like to hear, “eat this, don’t eat that.” This is why paleo works as a weight loss tool. The reason why people sometimes gain weight following their 30-day challenge is because 80/20 is very hard to self-regulate. I’ve noticed it quickly becomes 60/40, then 30/70. I personally am blessed to have Celiac disease, because I am automatically abstaining from a large group of foods that most people have no “off switch” for. Sugar doesn’t really do it for me – but salt does! I know that I can’t go near potato chips and even gluten free pizza can be an issue for me.

It’s also completely NOT YOUR FAULT that certain foods can trigger overeating. Our brains are designed to seek out calorically dense foods. During our hunter-gatherer times, berries were hard to come by, so our receptors are highly stimulated by sweet and or salty foods. That’s what kept us alive. Today, however, our brains have not caught up to our modern 24/7 access to junk food. This food bypasses our normal satiety signals and we can’t help but overeat it. The only solution is to develop a mild form of orthorexia and eliminate certain foods from your lunchbox, pantry, diner plate, and dessert tray. If you know that you can’t have just one bite of ice cream, then it’s probably not a great idea to keep it in your house.

A note on paleo treats like cookies, brownies, cakes and everything in that category: I don’t have an issue if people eat them, but please don’t consider them in your first 30 days if you’ve had issues with overconsumption of hyper-palatable foods. A paleo brownie is still a brownie. If you’re trying to reset your palate, then do yourself a favor and abstain as you’re getting used to eating “normal” foods like meat and veggies. I don’t keep baked goods in my house, I don’t “bond” with my kids over making cookies, and I advise my nutrition clients to do the same.

Now, if you’re in the 1-4% of Americans that happens to have an actual eating disorder that requires you to view “everything in moderation,” I’m not speaking to you in this post.

Maybe you’re one of the few healthy, successful moderators. If so, great. But if you’re in the position of giving out nutrition advice, then it’s time to reconsider the “everything in moderation” stance, as it’s likely going to fail the majority of your clients. I know for many of my nutrition lients, if I tell them “a little bite won’t hurt.” they would eat the whole damn pie.

This post origionally appeared on Robb Wolf's blog.