The Trouble with Moderation

Earlier this week, I quicklinked to an article in the NY Times that talked about a study that essentially proved that what we eat matters, not just how much (here).

The study had a lot to say about the popular idea of “moderation”. You know, you hear this all the time. Let’s say someone asks you how you’ve lost the weight. You start to tell them, and they say, “Like Atkins?” And you say, “Kind of…” And then they launch into some authoritative lecture about how moderation is key. And you look at them with their extra 20 pounds and wonder what they’re talking about.

This study shows that conventional wisdom — to eat everything in moderation, eat fewer calories and avoid fatty foods — isn’t the best approach,” Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist and epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health and lead author of the study, said in an interview. “What you eat makes quite a difference. Just counting calories won’t matter much unless you look at the kinds of calories you’re eating…The notion that it’s O.K. to eat everything in moderation is just an excuse to eat whatever you want.

If you haven’t read Gary Taubes’s works, either Good Calories, Bad Calories or Why We Get Fat, I’d like you to get up, get in your car, and drive to your nearest friendly neighborhood bookstore and purchase one. It’s okay. I’ll wait for you. He talks about certain cases of people who eat very few calories and continue to gain weight and he talks about cases of people who can eat 3,000 calories or more and not gain a pound. What’s the difference? What they’re eating. Most of us are probably in the middle. But I can say from my personal experience that since going Primal, there hasn’t been a day that’s ever been marked by moderation. I eat all the bacon, ground beef, ribeye steak, eggs, butter, and Greek yogurt I could possibly want and I’ve lost 13 pounds, a bundle of anxiety, and a face full of acne along the way. Screw moderation.

I think there’s a lot left unsaid when someone claims that moderation is key:

  1. They feel helpless to control their own situation. They’re unhappy with their bodies but aren’t willing or able to commit to the perceived sacrifices involved in making a change. Maybe they’ve tried almost everything and they feel hopeless. They need to believe deep-down that moderation is key, otherwise they have nothing to cling to.
  2. They don’t want to be wrong. To admit that moderation isn’t key means admitting that the way they live their life is wrong. They would also have to go against Conventional Wisdom, and most people aren’t comfortable with that, even if it means they pay the price.
  3. They don’t know any different. Imagine, if you will, how threatening it can be to someone to tell them the foods they’ve grown up with, eaten all their lives, and are now serving their children (Hamburger Helper? Cinnamon Toast Crunch? Pop-Tarts?) are bad. That it’s the sole reason for their health problems, weight issues, and maybe even some of their cognitive and emotional troubles. Chances are they can’t afford grass-fed, organic beef anyway, so where does that leave them?
  4. They are so tired of all the advice. Can you blame them?

Mmm...doesn't that look...beige?

What is moderation anyway? It’s vague, which perfectly suits the purposes of whoever throws the word around. You can’t nail it down, it’s different for everybody, and it absolves them from having to actually be specific which means they don’t have to confront it for themselves. A moderate amount of ice cream for one person might be 3 servings a week and 1 pint a day for another. For me, it’s about once every three months.

Besides, most people looking to lose weight are in some stage of metabolic derangement. This means that moderation involves cycles of feeling voraciously hungry and dangerously overfull. By definition, it would have to. Because moderation means you can have that piece of cake, just don’t go back for seconds. But you’ll also need to adjust your diet and atone for it by eating a salad the next day. Which leaves you starving, meaning you overeat the pizza in front of you for dinner. And on and on. Because of the simple carbs, sugars, and processed gunk in these foods, true satiety is never reached. It’s just feast and famine. What’s so moderate about that? The Buddha is a master of moderation and I think he would agree with me that cycle isn’t moderation, it’s suffering.

I’ll go a step further. When your hunger cues are being determined by the spikes and dives of insulin, you don’t know the true meaning of the word moderation. You become a slave to hunger, and you have to feed it. If you’re reaching for a granola bar at 10am to get rid of the shakes, that ain’t moderation. If you need 3 cups of coffee and a Powerbar to get through the 3pm slump at work, that ain’t moderation.

So what is dietary moderation? It’s a pretty, idyllic place that doesn’t exist.


3 Responses to “The Trouble with Moderation”

  1. Great post; I’ll be linking to it from my blog this evening.


  2. I can’t do moderation. CAN’T. Can’t, can’t, can’t, can’t, can’t. I’ve tried, I’ve failed, I’ve lied to myself, and I’ve let myself down all because the neolithic sugar monster grabbed ahold of my brain and wouldn’t let go. It’s only when I’m out of the neolithic world, via paleo, that I have any sense of control over myself and my choices. My mother is horrible about this particular piece of baggage, always telling me that it would be easier if I would just let go of the frustration of paleo and go back to moderation. Like her. 20 pounds of belly fat and an addiction to Pepsi obliviously unmentioned. She doesn’t have a sweet tooth, so therefore no one else does either. Or so it must be, as she assumes that I’m physically capable of moderation. And I’m not, in case I hadn’t mentioned.

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