What Does Moderation Mean?
By: Kerri-Ann Jennings, MS, RD
Is “everything in moderation” a mantra you should adopt? Find out what it really means and how to do it.
When it comes to eating healthy without going crazy, “everything in moderation” has become a commonly heard mantra. But what actually counts as moderation and does it really apply to everything?
Let’s contrast moderation with extreme eating. One means eating everything under the sun — French fries, Ho Hos, Skittles, hamburgers and milk shakes — all the time and in vast quantities. The other necessitates eating “healthy” foods and always shunning things you like that might be rich or sugar-filled, like the occasional scoop of ice cream or slice of chocolate cake.
There’s got to be a good middle ground and there is: eating healthy foods (like fruits and vegetables, beans, fish, whole grains and other lean proteins) often — think of these as the backbone of your diet. And then eating more indulgent foods in smaller quantities and more occasionally. How this plays out in your own regimen is up to you — you know what foods you like and which you want to make room for in your diet. And you also know how often you want those foods. If you want to have dessert every night, for instance, you might just learn to have a small portion of something and to really enjoy it when you eat it. Or you might find that your favorite butter-laden restaurant meal is something you want to splurge on from time to time, but that the next day you just crave lighter fare. At the end of the day, your body will tell you what it needs. So feed it well (at least most of the time!) and moderate your intake of junky fare.
How many times have you heard the phrase “everything in moderation?” But what exactly does “moderation” mean? There is no scientific definition to the term, though nutrition textbooks define a moderate diet as one that “avoids excessive amounts of calories or any particular food or nutrient.” But that doesn’t tell you very much and can be subjective based on how many calories and nutrients you think you need. Luckily, there are recommendations on how many calories, particular foods and even nutrients to consume. Here’s how to figure out what “moderation” means for you:
The average American should consume about 2,000 calories per day. If you divide that into three meals and two snacks, you’re talking around 500 to 600 calories per meal and around 125 to 250 calories per snack.
There are several factors that can influence calorie intake including gender, height, activity level and age. Men’s bodies usually have a higher proportion of muscle than women, and therefore they tend to require more calories. Someone who is taller has more body mass to feed and needs more calories, while someone who is more active also has higher calorie needs. During adolescence, calorie needs are at their peak because of rapid growth and development. And, as you age, your calorie needs decline.
Counting calories is tedious. Nobody wants to do it – and why should they? That’s when another term – overused but indeed important – is often tossed around: portion control. This term has come into play because of the massive portions presented in our country. The portions at restaurants in particular tend to be well over what should be consumed in one sitting. I’m looking at you, Cheesecake Factory. One dish should not contain close to or more calories than the amount recommended in one day!
Americans have become so used to excessive portions that they may serve four to five times a standard portion at home. Think of a large batch of ziti. A reasonable portion – about 1 to 1 1/2 cups – should be served alongside a green salad. Many folks pile on 4 to 6 cups, or about four times what a reasonable portion is. The same goes for packaged food. The serving size is required on all nutrition facts panels to help guide consumers on how to practice portion control. You may often laugh at the serving size. But the reality is that consuming one or two times the listed serving size is reasonable and a good practice of moderation. Eating an entire package of cookies or half a box of cereal, on the other hand, is no longer considered eating in moderation.
In reality, portions should look similar to airplane meals or hospital trays – but hopefully more appealing to the eye and tastier. Take notice the next time one of these trays is put in front of you since they also contain a variety of foods. Variety is a key component of nutrition that many people forget. Since no one food contains the nutrients you need in the portions you need, it’s important to eat a variety of foods from many food groups. This approach ensures that you’re taking in the nutrients your body needs to stay healthy.
According to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s report, released earlier this year, 90 percent of Americans don’t meet their daily vegetable recommendations, while only 15 percent meet their fruit recommendations. That’s pretty sad considering this country has an explosion of farmers markets, which bring a wider variety of fruits and vegetables to consumers than were traditionally available in the produce section of the supermarket.
But it’s not just a colorful plate of fruits and vegetables you need to take in. You should also be taking in a wider variety of whole grains than just brown rice and whole-grain pasta (though most people are pretty familiar with how to cook them). With the rise in popularity of ancient grains, you can now choose from whole grains such as wheat berries, amaranth, barley, bulgur, sorghum, kamut and millet. And the rules of variety don’t stop there! The same concept applies to lean protein (such as eggs, lean beef, fish, lamb and poultry), nuts (such as pistachios, almonds, peanuts and cashews), and low-fat and nonfat dairy (such as cheese, kefir, Greek yogurt and milk).
Eating a moderate and varied diet can help with weight loss, weight control and help you stay healthy. Moderation, however, is a subjective term. Still, guidelines can help you take in a reasonable amount of food. You just need to pay attention to them. I find it very helpful to use measuring cups for a few days or a week to help understand exactly what 1 cup or 1 tablespoon looks like. Also, paying attention to your how hungry you are before and after eating a small amount of food can help you gauge how much you should be eating or if you tend to overeat. Keeping a food dairy is an old dietitian trick and tends to work better than you can imagine.
If you’re really having a tough time figuring it all out, turn to a registered dietitian-nutritionist. That’s why they exist. They are clinically trained to help guide you based on your needs and likes. To find one in your area (many now take insurance!) go to eatright.org and click on the orange arrow that says “Find an Expert.”