“Everything in Moderation” Is Bad Diet Advice

By Temma Ehrenfeld  @temmaehrenfeld
August 04, 2023
“Everything in Moderation” Is Bad Diet Advice

The phrase “eat in moderation” promotes overindulgence, and people who eat junk foods are more likely to get type 2 diabetes. Here's what you should know.

The message that all foods can fit within a healthy diet if you eat in moderation feeds obesity.

The phrase 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 are often surprised when they see pictures of food corresponding to a certain number of calories or ounces. When we don’t have 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 a person 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 more than 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? Many junk food offerings like frosted lemonades (often mixed with ice cream, which usually contains a large amount of the sugar your body needs) can have a sixth of your daily calorie requirements. The Food and Drug Administration recommends no more than 50 grams of sugar a day. So such treats are not an “appropriate portion size.” 

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

Even better, cut out all the junk food. One study, titled “Everything in Moderation,” looked at data from nearly 7,000 Americans and measured diet diversity, including a measure of how often they ate dissimilar foods at one extreme or another in factors related to health, such as fiber or trans fat content. Diversity, or dissimilar foods, means eating quinoa kale salad one day and a fried chicken burger with a frosted lemonade the next. 

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 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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August 04, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN