On Nutrition: What is moderation?

Cutting out entire food groups without replacing missing nutrients can also pose problems.

“Everything in moderation,” says a friend, taking a few bites of her salad.

“Everything in moderation,” declares a co-worker, helping himself to a third scoop of ice cream.

What is moderation?

Do we wield it as an excuse, hiding behind it when we indulge or overeat?

If this concept of moderation confuses you, you’re not alone. Everyone appears to define it differently.

On one end of the spectrum, there are those who don’t put much thought into eating a healthy and well-balanced diet. Convenience and taste are the main factors influencing their dietary decisions.

Frequent thoughts may include: “I’m having a bad day, it’s okay if I indulge just this once,” and “I should treat myself since I’m having a good day.”

On the opposite end, one may find #CleanEating advocators who label food as either wholesome and pure or downright evil, with seldom anything in between. Typical “bad” foods such as sugar, carbs, dairy, and processed or refined foods are avoided at all costs.

Both extremes can have detrimental effects on health. Eating calorie-dense foods high in sugar, fat, and salt on a regular basis, combined with a sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.

However, cutting out entire food groups without replacing missing nutrients can also pose problems. While the clean eating fad might come in an attractive packaging, its severe restrictions can lead to cycles of binge eating, feelings of guilt and shame, and further restriction.

Abby Langer, a dietician, suggests that this type of risky behaviour may be linked to eating disorders.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, the term orthorexia nervosa is used to describe those with a “fixation on righteous eating”.

Which end of the spectrum do you tend to lean toward? Where is the fine middle ground?

Anne Myers-Wright, another dietician, believes that “moderation means being able to include all foods in your diet in just the right amount.”

Moderation is about a healthy relationship with food – balancing the pleasure of eating with our basic need for sustenance. It is not allowing food to control you, nor using food to have some sort of control in your life. It is realizing that eating one piece of cake a week probably won’t kill you, but that doing so everyday just might.

Perhaps moderation should be practiced not just in the way we eat, but also in how we consume new information. It’s easy to accept misleading facts, succumb to pseudoscience, and allow fear-mongering anecdotes into our lives.

As nutrition is a relatively “young” science compared to other disciplines, new studies are coming out everyday, sometimes with seemingly contradicting results. Remember that most trustworthy guidelines are based on multiple studies that reach the same conclusion, not just one.

Ask yourself the following questions whenever you come across questionable nutrition information:

• What/who is the source of information? Does the author have the expertise or credentials to be giving instruction on the subject?

• Is the research study well done and is it current? Are there blatant conflicts of interest?

• Is something being advertised, and do the promises appear too good to be true? Does the $80 drink or pill claim to help you lose 50 pounds in just two weeks?

• Are whole food groups eliminated based on vague scientific terms and explanations?

The question I get asked most as a dietitian is, “What’s the healthiest/unhealthiest food?”

We would like for things to be obviously good or bad, but the truth is that it’s not always cut and dried. Moderation is a good reminder of this, whether we apply it to how we feed on food or information.

Joyce Chang is a graduate of the dietetics program at McGill University and has experience in clinical and community nutrition in hospitals and schools (joyce.yile.chang@gmail.com).