All things are fine… in moderation.
How often have we heard that phrase in regards to health and dieting? But what does it really mean? Experts tout a “balanced diet”, which, in theory, offers a bit of wiggle room for an occasional piece of cake, but what they really mean by “balanced” is choosing a variety of foods from all four food groups (the veg and grain and protein food groups, not the sugar, fat, alcohol and caffeine version) and eschewing junk food completely.
Oh, but that’s no fun, is it? We are drawn to diets that encourage moderation because we don’t want to feel deprived of our favorite foods. You’ve got to treat yourself occasionally, right? The problem is – few of us seem to know exactly what occasionally is. A recent study on obese people indicated that 75% of the study respondents claimed to have healthy eating habits which has led doctors to believe that most people don’t actually know what “healthy eating habits” are.
And the term “moderation” or the encouragement to “eat snack items in moderation” doesn’t help. Is moderation a junk food snack per day? Once a week? Or once a month? Do we save cake for a special occasion (such as a birthday), or is every day a special occasion because there’s cake?
Even the food guides of Canada and the US recommend foods high in fat or sugar to be eaten in “moderation”, but offer no examples of what that might be. The Canada Food Guide offers examples of “moderation” for alcohol consumption (an average of one drink per day) and caffeine, but oddly, not foods such as sugar, meat or dairy products, all of which can be high in fat and calories and have health concerns related to over-consumption.
But why is this?
It’s important to remember that many food industries hire lobbyists to influence the government agencies that create our respective food guides. The wording the consumer sees on the finished food pyramid or rainbow is directly affected by marketing boards for wheat, dairy, sugar and more. These industries want you to continue buying more of their product, not less, so any change in wording on the food guides has undergone the scrutiny of various lobbyists and industry insiders, and has likely been fought tooth and nail if there is any implication that cutting back would be a good thing. “Moderation” becomes the common ground between the lobbyists and the health organizations that keeps everyone happy – except for you and I, who are desperately trying to figure out exactly what moderation really means.
While it ultimately comes down to personal choice and a bit of common sense, there needs to be a middle ground between the undefined, eat whatever-you-like moderation diet, and an extreme diet with no room to accommodate special events. If you’re overweight and are trying to lose pounds, you need to decide for yourself what “moderation” means, because no one else seems willing or able to do it for you. If a small square of really good chocolate after dinner each evening is going to quell a craving for a massive piece of cake and keep you from going on a rampage in the candy aisle, then you should find a way to fit that little bit of chocolate into your diet. And there shouldn’t be any reason to turn down a piece of cake or a special dish at a wedding or a party (food is part of our culture, after all) – just so long as you’re not at a wedding or a party every single weekend.
Beyond that, we all have to decide for ourselves what “moderation” means to us and shape our eating plans accordingly. If your favorite food is fish and chips, you need to make a conscious decision as to how often you’re going to eat that dish, and adjust the rest of your meals for that time frame. Think about how long you can go without it – once a month, every two weeks – and make that meal a treat (dress up if you’re going out, or use candles and nice music while you eat at home), with the rest of your meals in between focusing on healthy items.
We may not have the guidance from health and diet experts on how to determine whether our own food choices reflect a sense of moderation, but a bit of common sense and a whole lot of caution should set most people on the right track.
For more information on the food guide and the impact of food lobbyists, check out the book, Food Politics by Marion Nestle.