The Moderation Trap

In the spirit of my little break from cooking this week, Erin and I went to a Thai restaurant last night.  Erin grew up in a really small town and she has this thing about old-fashioned good service, so whenever she has car trouble we need to drive 45 miles to the only guy in the state that she trusts with her car.  As you can imagine, this makes me very happy and not at all grumpy.  But the fact that we found a good Thai restaurant nearby made it all better.  I was really craving Thai because we’ve been eating SO much pasta and Italian food recently, and I think when I start posting recipes again (this weekend!) I’ll try to get away from the pasta a little bit.

Moderation in Food Matters

[Food Matters image]I’ve been reading the book Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating, by Mark Bittman, and I must say that I’ve not found it very inspiring.  That the guy spends a lot of time on the economic and environmental benefits of eating less meat is admirable; it’s his proposed solution that I find a little bit troubling.  In his words, “eat more vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains and less meat, sugar, junk food, and overrefined carbohydrates.”  Fine.  Seems easy enough, and not so different from the Michael Pollan stuff that I like so much.  My problem is that the message many readers get from him will fit into one word.


That devilish panacea that so many other health authors promote.  It seems so easy: you don’t have to give up anything for good; just make sure you enjoy whatever it is “in moderation.”  And what could be safer for an author than to recommend such a universally agreed upon approach?

Moderation works if you already eat well and you’re already healthy. It’s an ideal that one should eventually hope to get to; nobody wants to be “on a diet” for the rest of his or her life.  But moderation isn’t what people need when you’re trying to promote massive change on a cultural level.

Moderation doesn’t inspire, and it doesn’t last when you try to institute it. Tell yourself you’re going to make major changes to your diet, the ones Bittman suggests, but that everything is ok in moderation, and see what happens.  Mark refers his own habit of devouring “good white bread on the dinner table” (the word he uses is “attack”) to illustrate his moderate approach, so I’ll use that as an example.  Depending on how much you want to change, you’ll limit the white bread in the first day, maybe the first week.  But then you’ll remember the m-word, you’ll feel you deserve a reward for the changes you’ve made, and you’ll eat white bread at dinner one night. Then you’ll have it again two days later; it’s fine in moderation.  Then the next day at lunch.  I don’t think I need to keep going.  If you’re lucky and strong-willed, it might take a month or two before your diet and weight are indistinguishable from what they were when you told yourself that, this time, things would be different.

If it sounds like I’ve been through this, it’s because I have.  I tried this approach to giving up coffee a few weeks ago, with my moderation taking the form of one or two cups per week.  And now I’m back to drinking it almost daily. This isn’t how you make changes.  You make changes by making radical shifts and sticking with them through discomfort until the pattern is broken.  Once it is, and I mean once you’re really sure that it is, only then can you dip your toe in the moderation pool to see how it feels.  This is what I need to do with coffee.  It’s what I did with soda about eights years ago.  After completing an initial year of none at all, I’ve probably had less than 20 since then.  That is moderation.

I know that Bittman means well.  And it sounds like his plan helped him to lose weight and totally change his eating habits.  But a lot of people who could really use the help, and who are really anxious to help not just themselves but the world around them, are going to pick up this book and fall into the moderation trap.  And a few months later, as they pull into McDonalds for a supersized #4, it will be as if Food Matters never happened to them.



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  1. Great post! “Moderation works if you already eat well and you’re already healthy”- exactly, if you need to lose weight, quit smoking, stop caffiene, etc, moderation doesn’t work, you must make drastic changes to overcome those habits and get healthy.

    meatlessmama’s last blog post..Grilled Peaches

    • Two good points here. The first is the one I made, that moderation is tough because it doesn’t interrupt your old habits drastically enough to feel different. When you completely eliminate, say, coffee from your diet, your whole mindset changes and it gets away from “when am I going to get coffee next?” The other point you make, that I didn’t focus on much, is that even if you are able to moderate food consumption correctly, the change isn’t drastic enough to lose all the extra weight, at least not in a reasonable amount of time.

  2. I loved your post on moderation. I have to be strict with myself most days because I think moderation is REALLY hard! Also, your green smoothie in Thursday’s post looks identical to the green smoothies I make. I’m writing a post on it today : )

    Emily’s last blog post..DAILY BITE: The Truth about Healthy Fat and Nutrient Absorption

    • Thanks Emily! Being strict with moderation, funny. I was actually thinking more after I wrote this post about how to make moderation work. And setting strict rules might be the key, but then it’s hard to really call it moderation anymore. I much prefer the strictness until the habit is totally broken.

  3. My thoughts exactly! Since when do we even know what moderation means? We’re in a culture that worships “more” and we need to be deprogrammed from that by going cold-turkey. Unhealthy things don’t belong in our bodies…

    I always use the example of your 15 year old niece telling you that she wants to smoke cigarettes. You’d be horrified! You certainly won’t tell her that it’s fine, as long as she only smokes in moderation. Why? Because smoking is addictive and unhealthy! As are junk foods…

    I also have green smoothies every day!

    Hanlie’s last blog post..Mushroom & Barley Soup

  4. Moderation is such a moveable set of goal posts that it is meaningless. It also does nothing to assist you to be extraordinary, exciting, fabulous and to kick ass.
    Moderation doesnt get me up at 5 in the morning to run for 3 hours and never will.
    I am not moderately loving to my children and my partner.
    I am not moderately healthy.
    I am passionate, about love, life, food, running, sharing and so much other stuff and I am sure you are too.
    Your blog is inspiring and such a great read.

    vidi’s last blog post..afternoon pick me up bliss balls

  5. That’s interesting. I think moderation is unique to the person. I mean maybe for someone who drinks 5 cups of coffee a day, 1 cup is their moderation. And for the bread, maybe it is in moderation to have white bread twice a week if all your other bread is nice whole grain bread? I don’t know. I definitely see your slippery slope point though.

    • I think you’re right that you could set an limit on the moderation, but then I don’t know if it’s really moderation anymore. If you could set very strict rules and not violate them, then I suppose it could work.

  6. I agree with you. I think that doing things like eating healthy, starting to exercise, quitting smoking, etc. largely require an overnight commitment in order for them to work. Moderation doesn’t hold you accountable for any slip-ups, it tells you they’re ok. I love Mark Bittman’s recipes (do you have How to Cook Everything Vegetarian?! It’s a veg food bible!), but his approach does have problems.

    I do use moderation in certain areas where it works really well for me…like veganism :] As soon as I tell myself I can’t eat Nutella ever again because its tenth ingredient is skim milk powder, you know what? I’ll probably crave it like crazy. So being “almost vegan” fits me well. And it seems in your experience that moderation in vegetarianism (initially beginning with the more moderate pescetarianism) led you to the right place. I think you keyed in on the difference when you said that moderation in a healthy diet/lifestyle is quite different than in an unhealthy one. If my “slip-ups” include ingesting yogurt every now and then, or choosing to remain oblivious to a smidgen of egg in a restaurant dish, then I’m not doing too bad :]

  7. I completely agree with you!! Moderation works for me on things like desserts (vegan only) and soy lattes because I have a fraction of a sweet tooth and am not a coffee drinker, so I really only crave both things 2-3 times a month. Giving up meat for me was all or nothing though… if I hadn’t cut it out completely and then educated myself via Earthlings, The Cove and Food, Inc. I’d still be eating chicken drumsticks to this day.

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