Pin It

The Full Mind Weigh® to Lifelong Weight Management, a program of the Institute for Lifelong Weight Management – teaching you the skills you need to keep the weight off forever!

Does Moderation Work?

Often, we’re told, “Just eat everything in moderation and you’ll do just fine”. But does this advice really work? Not according to some authorities in the weight management field.

What is moderation, after all? One dictionary defines moderation as, “restraint, temperance”. Ultimately, eating in moderation means eating less than we really want to eat. The problem is, if we ate everything in moderation, we could end up eating more nutritionally-empty junk food, processed food and fast food than is really good for us –  but “in moderation”: a little of this and a little of that. Another problem is that moderation can mean something different to each of us.

When it comes to our genetic make-up, human beings are not programmed to operate on the basis of moderation, at least when it comes to food. After all, our long-ago ancestors knew only two states of being when it came to food: feast, or famine. In addition, our brain drives us to seek pleasure, and “moderation” just might not do the trick!

You see, the way the reward (dopamine receptor) system of the brain works means that the same amounts of the foods we crave will, over time, no longer satisfy us, leading us to consume more and more in order to experience the same degree of pleasure. It’s the same mechanism that leads to “tolerance”, where illegal drug users need more and more of the illegal drug to achieve the same effect. When this happens, the logical part of the brain that tells us to “enjoy in moderation” is overwhelmed by the reward-seeking part of the brain.

In addition, it’s so easy for us to develop habits when it comes to food. For example, we may come to associate the end of dinner-time with having a cookie – whether or not we’re still hungry.

In her book, Refuse to Regain, Dr Barbara Berkeley notes that the strategy of moderation does not work because none of us know what moderation really is, and we’ve become accustomed to eating such large quantities of food that what most of us consider to be a moderate amount of food is much more than we actually need to be able to maintain a healthy weight. Plus, she notes, this strategy does not differentiate between different categories of food, which impact our bodies in different ways, are processed differently, and have different levels of addictive potential. This is because they’re engineered by food scientists to make us crave more and more of them. Rarely are we addicted to broccoli or oranges, yet we can easily become addicted to chocolate, donuts, chips, pasta, and other refined carbohydrates!

There are a couple of different schools of thought when it comes to addiction. The abstinence model, on which 12-step programs are based, recommends that we completely avoid the addictive substance. On the other hand, the Moderation Management model for treatment of alcohol abuse is based on the belief that people CAN learn how to enjoy their alcohol in moderation.

Many health professionals recommend that people don’t completely avoid their addictive or trigger foods, because this will only lead to feelings of deprivation and subsequent bingeing. The problem with this approach is that many (but by no means all of us) are incapable of eating these foods “in moderation”. Once we get started, we have great trouble stopping. Have you seen the ad that goes, “Bet you can’t stop at one”? Does this ring true for you?

Ultimately, you need to be honest with yourself. If you know that eating everything in moderation doesn’t work for you, don’t do it.

We have a limited amount of reserve in our self-control tanks. The same self-control muscle is used all day long for many different tasks and challenges as we go about our day. And it gets tired. When we combine this fact with the ingestion of foods that are designed to alter the reward circuitry in the brain, we’re fighting a losing battle.

Another problem with the moderation approach is that we tend to make agreements with ourselves and then not follow through: “Everything in moderation, so I’ll have a piece of cake at the birthday party today and no dessert tomorrow”, but then tomorrow comes and someone brings donuts to the office, and we follow the moderation approach and have just one….you get the picture? We crave immediate gratification. Our brains are not wired to think long-term, and there’s always another reason to justify today’s “moderation”.

Many people I talk to try to use the 80/20 approach – they plan on eating in a healthy way 80% of the time, and then whatever they want for the other 20% of the time. The problem with this approach is that the 20% can be so nutritionally empty and full of sugar, unhealthy fats and unhealthy carbs that it overloads or undoes the positive impact of what we eat the other 80% of the time.

Again, be honest with yourself. If you’re doing 80/20, take a close look at what you’re eating (and, more importantly, what you’re not eating) on your “off days”.

Share your thoughts about this topic with me and other readers by commenting on this post. Has the moderation approach worked for you?

Have you seen my free report on using Mindful Maintenance to maintain your weight loss?  Download it here.

With your continued health in mind,

Doreen Lerner, Ph.D.

Director, Institute for Lifelong Weight Management

Creator, The Full Mind Weigh® to Lifelong Weight Management

The Institute for Lifelong Weight Management provides education and training. The Full Mind Weigh® is strictly an educational program and is not a substitute for medical or psychological evaluation or treatment. If you think you may be suffering from an eating disorder, please consult with a qualified mental health professional who is trained to evaluate and treat eating disorders.