Is Moderation Meaningless?

by LindsayHill

MODERATION. We all know the word and the platitudes that surround it, but how many of us know exactly what a moderate amount of our favorite food is? And does the term moderation refer to the amount of something you can have on your plate or the number of times you can eat it per day or per week or per month? And couldn’t one person’s moderate portion be another person’s maximum serving depending on height, activity level, metabolism and food sensitivities? No doubt one family may view four ounces steak as a moderate portion, while another family may think eight ounces is moderate. An ounce of cheese may make one person’s stomach cramp while another person could drink an eight ounce glass of milk with no ill effect.

In my opinion, “moderation” is a lazy term totally overused by people in the food and nutrition world. It especially bothers me when media representatives for  companies like Nestle and Coca-Cola use it to justify selling a food product with no nutrient value. If you lived by the motto “everything in moderation” you could feasibly eat a diet consisting only of moderate portions of junk food without breaking your rule.

Consuming the right foods in generous amounts is much more important than consuming the wrong ones in moderation. If you have no vegetables in your diet, does it really matter if you have a half cup or a whole cup of pasta? Instead of the useless cliche “everything in moderation,” use this rule of thumb instead: Consume high quality foods in moderate to high quantities and low quality foods in low to zero quantities.  A high quality food (think avocado, salmon, walnuts, sweet potatoes, apples, kale, quinoa) is nutrient-dense; a low quality food (bread, pasta, cake, chips, soda) is mostly made up of empty calories.

The truth is if you want to maintain a healthy weight for life, the only food group you don’t need to eat in moderation is green vegetables. Because as good as almonds and sweet potatoes are for you, eating too much of anything with a moderate to high calorie content will make you gain weight. I like to live by food science writer Michael Pollan’s rule: ”Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.” A simple way to do this is to fill at least half of your plate with plant foods, eat meat and grains as side dishes and garnish with fats like olive oil, nuts and cheese. So breakfast might be a bowl of fruit topped with a few ounces of Greek yogurt and garnished with granola or almonds. Lunch might be a grilled vegetable and quinoa salad garnished with feta cheese and lightly dressed with olive oil.

However, a lot of foods, even some you may think are bad for you, can be enjoyed a few times a week or month in the appropriate quantities without compromising your health or weight. The key is to measure. Remind yourself what a Tbsp of butter looks like; measure out an appropriate portion of pasta or rice per person before you cook it! Cut blocks of cheese into 1 oz snack portion sizes and divide meats into 4 oz. portions for salads or stir fries. This will help you practice what I call “calorie awareness” without the drudgery of counting calories. Instead of moderation, focus on balance. While measuring is key to controlling the quantity of your food intake, balance is key to maintaining the quality of your life!

In order to make good health a habit, you have to have a realistic approach to food. Just like everyone should have a clothing budget, it is smart to have your own personal food “budget” as well.  Love butter and cheese? Can’t live without cream in your coffee? Fine, have an appropriate serving size of the real thing (meaning no “fat free” of “sugar-free” processed versions) and skim fat or calories from somewhere else in your diet.

Below is a table of foods people tend to over consume and the actual appropriate portion sizes per person. What I have listed may be different from what is on the package because I find the portion sizes on food labels are often unrealistic.

Cereal  1 cup dry with 1/2 cup milk of choice a few times a week or daily if it’s a high fiber option
Pasta (best as a side dish)  Cook 1/2 to 3/4 cup dry a few times a week
Rice and other refined grains (best as a side dish)  Cook 1/4 to 1/3 cup dry a few times a week
Granola  1/4 cup as garnish a few times a week
Cheese  1 to 2 oz a day if you tolerate dairy well
Juice  4 oz a day max
Nuts  1/4 cup once or twice a day
Nut Butters  1 or 2 Tbsp a day as part of a healthy meal (in other words, don’t stick the spoon in the jar between meals)
Wine  One or two 5-oz portions (measure a few times to eyeball a glass appropriately) a day
Oils (olive, flax, canola, rapeseed, sesame, coconut, peanut, etc)  Up to 2 or 3 Tbsp a day for cooking, dressing, flavoring, etc.

For information on my nutrition and weight-loss coaching services, email me at or call me now at 404-919-6237.

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