“Everything in Moderation” Is Bad Diet Advice

By Temma Ehrenfeld  @temmaehrenfeld
January 04, 2017

People hear the phrase as permission to overeat and indulge in junk.

Chick-fil-A’s takeout bags state “Moderation is Key: All foods can fit within a healthy diet if consumed in moderation.” 

It sounds reasonable enough, but the message feeds the obesity epidemic. The phrase “eat in moderation” promotes overindulgence, according to a careful series of studies led by Michelle van Dellen, PhD, an assistant professor of behavioral and brain sciences at the University of Georgia. Other researchers have found that people who eat “all foods,” including junk, are more likely to get big around the belly, a risk factor for type 2 diabetes.  


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In a land of oversize portions, people often are surprised when they see pictures of food corresponding to a certain number of calories or ounces. When we’re not given those number or quantities, we make guesses that reflect our desires. 

In one of the University of Georgia studies, volunteers looked at a picture of gummies and answered two questions: how much they liked gummies and what a “moderate” portion would be. It turned out that the more you liked gummies, the bigger a portion seemed “moderate.” 

We get into further trouble when we interpret “in moderation.” 

Most people think “eating moderately” means eating a bigger portion than they think they should eat. Specifically when volunteers saw a plate with 24 cookies, on average they said that people “should” eat two cookies, but eating in “moderation” meant a bit over three cookies. 

People also consistently think that “eating moderately” means eating food more often than they usually do. If you eat pizza twice a week, you might think it moderate to eat pizza three or four times a week. 

“Moderate” seems to enter our brains as “Go ahead, don’t be stingy.” 

What about the idea that a little junk is fine, as long as you’re moderate? The Chick-fil-A's bag, quoted in the study, went on to say, “With appropriate portion sizes and physical activity, you can enjoy treats like our Frosted Lemonade."

That treat is 16-ounces and 330 calories of lemonade mixed with ice-cream, which contains 63 grams of sugar. The Food and Drug Administration recommends no more than 50 grams of sugar a day. So it’s not an “appropriate portion size.” 

To really eat in ways that will help you maintain a healthy weight, one rule of thumb would be to always eat less than standard servings. Commit yourself to having leftovers. Pick the smallest portion offered in a typical American store, and you might also share that serving with your eating companion. 

Even better, cut out all the junk food. The second study, titled “Everything in Moderation,” looked at data from nearly 7,000 Americans and measured diet “diversity,” including a measure of how often you ate “dissimilar” foods — at one extreme or another in factors related to health, such as fiber or trans fat content. So if you ate quinoa kale salad one day and a fried chicken burger with a frosted lemonade the next, your diet would count as more diverse on that measure. 

Led by Marcia de Oliveira Otto, PhD, an epidemiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, the researchers also checked for changes in waist circumference, a measure of health, five years after the beginning of the study. It turned out that people who ate more “dissimilar foods” — processed meats, desserts, and soda — had more than double the increase in waist circumference than people who stuck to a small range of healthy foods. “These results do not support the notion that “eating everything in moderation” leads to greater diet quality or better metabolic health,” the researchers wrote.


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April 09, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN