It seems like weight loss gurus are obsessed with saying “everything in moderation.”
Which means you can pick up a diet book, see those magical words, and think “see? a little ice cream won’t kill me. In fact, I’d better make sure to include ice cream as part of my new balanced diet.”
And then you proceed to devour the entire carton.
Why is this advice so widespread?
Weight loss gurus say “everything in moderation” in order to soothe readers’ fears, to assure us that we won’t have to give up our favourite foods.
Indeed, it would be silly to claim that eating a spoonful of ice cream will ruin your whole diet, so preaching “moderation” lets them appear somewhat reasonable.
(The gurus who don’t even attempt to appear reasonable — such as by claiming wheat gives you cancer, so you can’t have any bread, or some such nonsense — are a different problem.)
It’s like the advice-givers fear that if they tell overweight people to give up all their favourite foods and adhere to a strict diet of bird seed and lettuce, the overweight people will go crazy and either give up after 3 hours on a diet, or become obsessive and health-o-rexic (the technical term being orthorexic) which isn’t healthy either.
Has it worked for anyone you know? Probably not.
I have yet to see any overweight person lose the weight, and keep it off, just by being told to eat everything in moderation.
Why doesn’t it work? Because “not eating in moderation” is not the real reason why people are overweight.
1. What an overweight person thinks of as a “moderate” amount of food is often far more food than they actually need.
First of all, overweight people don’t know how to feel satisfied with moderate indulgences in the first place. Their mindset is fundamentally different from that of the people who can just eat everything in moderation. Otherwise they wouldn’t be overweight in the first place!
I know, because I was overweight for a long time. Every time I overate some well-meaning family member would tell me “remember, everything in moderation.” Well, I was eating “everything” in moderation — every day included a moderate amount of foods like dried fruit, whole wheat bagels and cream cheese, strawberry yogurt, and chocolate-covered protein bars.
The problem was that I ate so many different foods in a day that a reasonably-sized portion of each one added up to a ton of calories. And yet to me it seemed like I was following the rule of everything in moderation, because whenever I tried to reduce my portion sizes I felt like I was starving.
2. We already know what we’re supposed to be eating.
If the key to weight loss was just knowing you needed to eat adequate amounts of generally-healthy foods, then no literate person would be overweight.
It’s not like we don’t know what a “healthy diet” consists of. In Canada at least, you start learning about portion sizes and food groups in grade 5. But as you’ve probably noticed, most people don’t remain fat simply because they don’t know what to eat. There may be many areas of life where access to information is the main barrier to success, but I don’t believe weight loss is one of them.
Note: asymmetric information is a very real problem, particularly when food companies are doing everything they can to make their products addictive and obscure the truth about what goes into them. There’s also the issue of food deserts, where people don’t have access to non-processed foods even if they want them.
However, assuming you went to high school and don’t live in a food desert, most likely you’re not overweight because you lack information. You’re (probably) overweight because…
3. Overweight people are fundamentally insecure around food.
Food-insecure people often fear the feeling of hunger more than the feeling of being too full. In fact, we love feeling too full — it’s comforting to feel that “well I’m definitely not hungry anymore” sensation. (This is frequently linked with emotional eating as well, which is a topic for another post).
When you’re food-insecure, you’re constantly thinking about what you’ll eat next — even while you’re eating, your mind is focused on future consumption, not enjoyment of the present moment.
When you’re food-secure, meanwhile, you never need to stuff yourself because you know there will always be more food to eat. Most weight loss gurus probably find it natural and easy to feel secure around food.
(Except for the ones who advocate super-restrictive diets, exert tremendous willpower trying to stay on track, and then beat themselves up whenever they commit the “sin” of eating something too delicious.)
Anyway, naturally food-secure people can’t understand why overweight people don’t just eat moderately, when it seems so easy to do.
Eating in moderation is easy once you’ve attained food security — it’s getting to that point that’s the hard part.
How do you know if you’re food-insecure?
Maybe this sounds like you…
Fear of hunger leads you to panic when you think the food supply is dwindling. This is particularly true if you are not in control of your own food supply.
For instance, if you live at home and your parents buy all the food, then you know you’re not actually going to starve (I should hope).
But maybe they only buy cookies once a month. And you know that as soon as the cookie box gets opened, your family will descend upon it like a pack of wolves and devour them all before sundown. So, you learn to adapt by consuming as many cookies as possible as soon as you can get your hands on them.
A thinner person may adapt by hiding a stash of cookies in their room and consuming then slowly to make them last longer. But for some reason, we overweight people have decided that no hiding spot is more secure than the inside of our stomachs.
If only you had the willpower to stick to “healthy foods only” then you could leave the box of cookies alone. But when you hear “everything in moderation,” then you start to think “of course treats are part of a balanced diet,” which opens the door for you to eat one cookie, and before you know it you’ve polished off the whole box.
“Healthy foods only” doesn’t work either, because it’s too hard
Of course, it’s hard to maintain the willpower to follow a highly-restrictive diet for an extended period of time. Even if you can follow a strict diet for a few weeks and lose weight, the second your motivation flags you’ll probably decide you’ve ruined the whole thing and now you may as well eat whatever you want. Soon enough you’ll regain all the weight you’ve lost.
At least, this is what I’ve heard about why people so often find themselves on yo-yo weight cycles. I myself was never able to follow a strict diet for more than a few days, so luckily I never ended up in such an unhealthy cycle. (An unexpected perk of having very little willpower.)
Weight-loss gurus have taken the yo-yo issue into consideration when advising moderation, which is good of them. However, they have mistakenly skipped the step where you learn to understand what moderation actually is.
Plus, being told “everything in moderation” only makes things worse for people who take the “healthy foods only” route because now they feel guilty for even attempting to deprive themselves. If you try to stick to just salad and green smoothies, now you’re being too health-o-rexic and not living a balanced life. But if you give yourself a treat for being so good, as soon as you taste that delicious sugar you once again cannot stop yourself from devouring the rest of the box.
I’m not saying it’s impossible to follow a healthy diet. Super-strong willpower seems to be a characteristic of most bodybuilders, Olympic champions, diet gurus, etc., and if you want to look (or perform) like them you should probably follow their advice.
I’ll admit that simply learning to feel secure around food won’t get you first place in a bodybuilding competition.
However, it WILL get you an “average” non-obese body. It takes far less effort to just be non-obese than it does to look like an in-shape celebrity or athlete. That’s why I’d advise you to start with baby steps towards your goal, and once you become non-obese, then you can ramp it up to full-scale fitness.
Why not start by becoming non-obese, rather than going crazy with juice cleanses and 2-hour-workouts in an attempt to drop 10 sizes in 3 months?
I promise it doesn’t have to be so hard.
The key is not everything in moderation (if that hasn’t worked for you so far). It’s learning to become secure around food. In a future post, I’ll tell you exactly how to do that.