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What Does ‘Eating In Moderation’ Really Mean?

You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘everything in moderation’. I’ve used it myself as a way to refer to eating without restriction or eating without dieting. No one wants to feel like their eating is restricted, so moderation seems like a good word to describe how to make food choices.

But what does ‘eating in moderation’ really mean?

Moderation is a subjective term; it means something different for each person. For one person, eating in moderation could mean eating five french fries, while for another it could mean ordering a medium fry instead of a large. Many people have a skewed idea of what moderation is. One study found that the more someone likes a certain food, the bigger a portion their definition of a moderate serving is.

Ok, so moderation is a complex word. But it’s also an important one. Learning to eat in moderation can help you achieve and maintain a healthy body weight without having to restrict your food intake. Here’s how to figure out what ‘eating in moderation’ means for you personally.

Start With The 80/20 Rule

When speaking to groups of people, where I can’t individualize my advice, I refer to the 80/20 rule. 80% of the time eat healthy, whole, unprocessed foods and the remaining 20% of the time you can delegate for less-healthy, more indulgent foods. This is an eating principle where you have a foundation of healthy foods (vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, fish, lean proteins) while giving you the freedom to indulge occasionally.

One way to put the 80/20 rule into practice is to apply it to the number of meals eaten in a week. Three meals a day, seven days a week is 21 meals. 20% of 21 is equivalent to four meals per week to indulge in. Now this works well if we are only talking about full meals, but what about dessert? Or the pastries someone brought into the office? Or the chips and dip at your holiday party? Where do those fit in?

Define ‘Moderation’ For Yourself

How the 80/20 rule plays out in your diet is up to you. This is where you need to think about what eating principles make the most sense for you. What guidelines will help you make reasonable (or moderate) decisions when it comes to food. I call them guidelines instead of rules, because rules are rigid, and don’t work in our constantly changing lives. Being flexible is the key to having a balanced diet and developing a healthier relationship with food. So grab a pen and piece of paper (or your computer) and try this simple exercise.

  1. Write down all the situations or events that regularly occur in which you’re faced with making decisions about what foods to eat. This could be your monthly book club, your weekly coffee meeting, client dinners, family parties, Sunday brunch, weekend dinners out to eat, etc.
  2. Now divide up those foods and experiences into two categories, most important and least important. Which foods do you get the most joy out of eating, and which could you do without? This will help you figure out some eating guidelines that are pertinent to you, allowing you to indulge in the foods that you most enjoy, and skip those that don’t matter to you as much.

For example, here are some of my personal guidelines:

  • I don’t like candy, but I love chocolate. So I skip the office treat jar and indulge in good quality chocolate once or twice a week.
  • Donuts and pastries are ok, but I really love chocolate chip cookies. I pass over the coffee shop pastries and hold out for my favorite homemade cookies.
  • While I enjoy wine, there are some nights when I’m out and just don’t feel like drinking. I’ll listen to my body and drink water those nights, saving the wine for when I really want it.
  • If I am eating dinner at a restaurant I really love, I’ll eat a healthy breakfast and lunch with lots of protein and veggies to balance out a bigger evening meal.
  • I love New York bagels, so I’ll skip mediocre bagels and wait for when I can get to my favorite NYC bagel shop.

Once you have your set of guidelines, you’ll have a way to apply the 80/20 principle to your diet. This will allow you to indulge in the foods you like the most without overdoing it. Combine your personal eating guidelines with mindful eating habits, and you’ll be able to eat everything in moderation.

And remember: don’t settle for subpar food for your indulgences. Wait for the really excellent stuff, and savor it.

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