Home Clean Eating Boot Camp What Does “It’s Fine In Moderation” Really Mean?

What Does “It’s Fine In Moderation” Really Mean?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

I can remember going to the grocery with my daughter, and walking down the cookie aisle. I’d manage to bypass most of the cookies, and I’d make it to the little goldfish crackers that my daughter adored. She loved a good PB&J, a glass of lemonade anda handful of these little guys. They’re on sale – “2 for $3!” – so I grab two bags and promptly leave the aisle. If I stare at any of the cookies for too long, I may be compelled to buy them.

Once we’d arrived home, the little one would begin helping me put away the groceries. She wasn’t slick – she was looking for the snacks. Sure enough, she’d find her pot of gold.

“Mommom, can I have some?” with her adorable little toddler face that I clearly wasn’t about to turn down. I’d open the bag, pour some out onto her high chair, let slide into her seat and munch away. Before putting the bag away, though, I’d always pour a few into my hand. Not really knowing exactly why I had done that, I shrugged it off and said to myself “It’s just a snack… it’s okay in moderation.” Just have to moderate my intake. Right.

Sure enough, ten minutes later, I’d get back up and saunter off into the kitchen… grabbing another handful of goldfish. And fifteen minutes after that… a third handful more. Sure enough, before long I’d realized that I was so far away from the concept of “moderation” that I flushed it out of my mind so that I wouldn’t feel guilty about eating an entire bag of goldfish in approximately two hours time.

I can eat all of that... if I eat it in moderation. Duh.

Now, I’m in a different place mentally, with a different understanding and a brand new set of questions.

The idea of “fine in moderation,” quite frankly… is bull. That’s right. I said it. It’s baloney. It’s a farce. A myth. A unicorn. A leprechaun. Make-believe. Doesn’t exist. An excuse companies gave you so that you could justify still buying their product… even though you shouldn’t.

Now, when I hear the term “fine in moderation,” it’s usually attached to things like “soft drinks,” “potato chips,” “sweets,” “crap food,” “junk food” or “comfort food.” The word “moderation” is used like some vague measurement that never has any actual values or figures attached.. it’s just.. there. It’s used as an excuse to wash away any guilt one may have for buying something they know they should not.

I don’t hear people saying “Oh, broccoli is fine… in moderation.”

“Oh, water is fine… in moderation.”

“Oh, spinach is fine… in moderation.”

Maybe that’s the case because no one ever eats those things to a point of harmful excess. That should be a hint.

Foods that have their sugar/fat/salt ratio down perfectly are going to be “so good” that you’ll have a hard time controlling yourself around them. That’s the point. You eat it, the sugar makes you happy, the fat calms you down, the salt makes you want more. You eat it all and, after having had a good experience with it, you are that much more compelled to go buy more. Every time you have a good experience with “it,” that experience makes it that much easier to buy it again, that much harder to pass up, and that much more difficult to develop will power against it. It’s a cycle – a vicious cycle – that all starts with “I can buy this. It’s fine in moderation.”

It’s crap.

Even if you are someone who can only take a bite or two of something and put it back… how do you quantify “moderate use?” I’ve heard advice that said “one soda a day is fine.” Is that moderate to you? No, really – how do we quantify what is “moderate” use? Is it “just enough before I start to suffer the negative effects of doing whatever it is I shouldn’t be doing?” I hope that isn’t it… because if we, as a nation, can’t see the negative effects our current habits have on our bodies – if we didn’t know when to stop indulging before – we certainly don’t know how to gauge when to stop now… and keeping our heads in the proverbial lion’s mouth by buying things we simply should not have isn’t the proper way to teach ourselves. At all.

My next question is… are we talking about individual junk food items being acceptable in moderation, or all the junk food in our diet? Are we even identifying junk food properly? Do we think about these things when we decide to make the purchase, open the bag, or put it in our mouths? Do we think about what else we’re eating in moderation? Is a day of soda (in moderation), chips (in moderation), pudding (in moderation), kool-aid (in moderation) and ice cream (in moderation, of course) still considered someone who exercises moderation? I don’t think so.

How do I define moderate use of THIS?

When I think of the foods I enjoy nowadays, I think about how limited I used to be. Buying things that I felt guilt about, eating them in quantities that made me feel guilty and sad that I had no self-control.. and feeling emotionally forced to buy them again and “try to develop self-control” put me in a cycle that only made me feel worse about my “inability to be an adult” about food. Well, let me tell you. I figured out how to avoid that trauma. I stopped buying foods for which I had to feel guilty. There’s no sense in emotionally penalizing myself for not being able to control myself around foods that are especially engineered to make me lose control. I shouldn’t feel bad about eating. I should feel bad about justifying harmful foods with something as vague and excuse-ey as “it’s fine in moderation.” It’s a lame, pathetic way to avoid being realistic with myself about a very important truth: that I cannot simply just eat what I want, and expect health [and weight loss] to still come to me. It simply does not work that way.

Be realistic. Anything that you have to attach a disclaimer like “in moderation” to… is not “good for you.” If it is “devil’s food,” just admit it. Be honest. If you know you shouldn’t be eating it, work on that part – you know, the part of you where you stop buying it or start throwing it away – instead of trying to cover it up by putting a cute little undefinable label like “moderation” on it. Only then can you truly start to experience and enjoy progress.

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35 comments

Reecie August 26, 2010 - 10:15 AM

I’m a moderation queen. It works for me because I know that above that I should eat more fresh fruits and veggies than anything else–in abundance. I guess if I had to explain it moderation is once or twice a month. For my favorite dishes like macaroni and cheese maybe twice a year?! But then again I’ve never been a super junk food eater and don’t eat a bunch of bad things in abundance. When I have the taste for ice cream I eat enough to satisfy the craving, put it in a bowl–not out of the carton–I remember a discussion with you or post about portions 🙂
To me its the same thing as people having cheat days. *shrugs* I don’t feel bad about anything I eat. At all. LMAO. I know that other people have a different relationship with food though, and its an individual thing.

Erika August 26, 2010 - 12:19 PM

So, basically, “this doesn’t apply to me,” right? LOL

You’re not fooling yourself into thinking “this is okay” – you know it’s not an “okay” and you’re not lying to justify it to yourself, right? That’s why you don’t feel bad. I think that makes sense.

That’s where I am with food, myself. I indulge maybe once or twice a month, and I don’t feel bad about it – I’m also not justifying to myself that it’s “okay” or lying to myself about “moderate use,” either. LOLOL

Monika August 26, 2010 - 10:56 AM

Hi Erika, thanks a lot. I was wondering how I define “in moderation” for me. And it did not work out, defining it and eating those sugary, salty, soft, crunchy-chemical ladden foods in moderation. Thanks for pointing out why this is so. And because I have really messed up my sense of hunger with this crap I have completely lost control about portions, even in healthy foods. How much do I need and when it is enough? If you have any recommendations of how I can work my way back (used to do this once via a weeklong fast-no good idea btw…) I would greatly appreciate this. At this point I fear and crave food, any food at the same time and I am really tired of this…
Again- thanks a million for your blog!

BlackBerry Molasses August 26, 2010 - 10:56 AM

I also believe that “fine in moderation” is a bunch of bull. If its something that sets off your Pleasure Center (full of sugar/salt/fat), “moderation” will not and never can apply. Its pleasurable. Who wants pleasure in moderation?! I read an article that if table sugar had to be up for FDA approval, it would be listed as a controlled substance because its so addictive.

I had a very clear experience with it not too long ago. I’m a sucker for those maple sandwich cookies. A complete sucker. So much of a sucker that I can literally eat half the bag before I even get home. And that is one hell of a calorie bomb considering one serving is TWO cookies. So I avoid that aisle of the store every single time. And it works. I refuse keep sweets in my house. Then I don’t have to work to avoid eating too much of them.

Well 2 weeks ago, my mom asked me to bring over some sweet treats for my little cousins from Ghana. The crap we eat here, they don’t have there, so for them it really is a “treat”. I bought them some Oreos… and myself some maple sandwich cookies. That bag didn’t last 4 hours. I was so ashamed. I “punished” myself with 2 hours of straight cardio and swore I’d never do it again (Hello, Food Guilt).

It was then that I realized I can NEVER be within 10 feet of those things… cuz I’ll never have them in moderation. So I won’t tempt myself. I won’t have them. And then I don’t have to “punish” myself for failure. Now I indulge my sweet tooth with fresh berries, grapes, apples, etc. Hard to feel guilty about fruit.

missfitbliss August 26, 2010 - 10:56 AM

This is a good post and it really made me think. My philosophy is that everybody is different. I personally like the balance I can achieve by enjoying bits of very tasty rich food while mostly eating healthy. But such a formula fluctuates for us all depending on where we are in life. For example, if I were pregnant my version of ice cream in moderation would probably be much different from my current version (I’d probably heap on a few extra scoops). If I were hooked on sugar and junk for a long period in my life, venturing down a candy aisle would probably lead to disaster for a good few years until I could trust my body to tell me when enough was enough. But I do think we all can find that happy medium spot for the majority of our lives where our bodies help us make the best food choices for us.

Erika August 26, 2010 - 12:28 PM

“But I do think we all can find that happy medium spot for the majority of our lives where our bodies help us make the best food choices for us.”

True, but I think it’s also vital to make sure that we’re not walking into a fire without an extinguisher, too. If you know you can’t (limit yourself), don’t fool yourself into think you “can.” A lot of us have a problem understanding that.

ChellBellz August 26, 2010 - 11:26 AM

You have a good point. I just ate a cupcake today, and told myself it was okay because it was in moderation…i didn’t have any business eating it, or i would justify eating it by saying oh I’ll burn it off later in the gym, well if i didn’t eat it, i wouldnt be clocking in more time at the gym.

The Cali Diva August 26, 2010 - 12:04 PM

Agreed. I am going to have to keep this in mind the next time I go for the Lay’s potato chips.

aisha August 26, 2010 - 12:30 PM

I think the point you are making is more about concious eating than the idea of “in moderation” itself. We buy stuff and eat it mindlessly. I stopped buying snack foods a long time ago because I can’t handle them mentally. Plus I rather have something homemade. If I’m going to eat it I must enjoy it fully.

I think “in moderation” is a useful concept because some people have a hard time giving things up. Having to give something up completely blocks a lot of people from making change. I rather a person make some change than no change. I do agree that people have to look at the total picture of their habits and then decide how things fit into their plans. You have to stop and think and review all the time. I think putting a plan together that meets my personal goals has helped me. I went from Large fries, to small fries (that was my moderation) to hardly ever eating fries. It’s a process.

Erika August 26, 2010 - 12:35 PM

Nope. I’m talking specifically about lying to ourselves about whether or not something is okay for us when it isn’t. Eating consciously is secondary to that.. because we had to lie to ourselves about whether or not we could handle it in the first place.

Like said earlier, that gauge is different for everyone. You were able to wean yourself off of it, but you had to be aware of whether or not it was okay or not first… not lying about whether or not it is acceptable. “Moderation (the concept)” is one thing. “Moderation (the excuse, the lie)” is not. People need to recognize that part of the equation.

Elecia August 26, 2010 - 3:09 PM

I’ve grappled with this whole “moderation” thing in the past as well. I’m finally in a good spot and approach food from a much healthier space. I make great efforts to eat well, exercise and make conscious food choices. No food is off limits, but, because I maintain a food journal, I understand the impact that my choices will have on my stated goals. When I want to indulge in a potential “trigger”, I do so with the understanding that there will be consequences for this choice. For me, that means that it will take approximately 2 weeks for me to shake the desire to get another “hit”. Getting that sugar off my tongue is tough and it slows my progress. These days, I’m not willing to lose focus so it’s less of a challenge. That moderation lie definitely doesn’t help you. It’s just another deception that hinders progress.

sunshyne84 August 26, 2010 - 4:54 PM

🙁 But I love my Cheez-Its duos. Parmesan & Cheddar in one box! *sigh*

Nikita August 27, 2010 - 3:47 PM

For me, sweets are comfort food triggers so I do not keep them in my home. When I want something sweet I get one serving and leave it alone. Honestly, when folks tell me that they eat fast food in moderation, I consider the fact that since I have began working on changing how I eat, I don’t know how they do it. Certain fast food which I admittedly loved at one point now make me… ill and very uncomfortable. The only sweets that are allowed in my home are fruit popscicles. For some reason, I do not gorge on them. I think the key is you have to be honest with yourself and respect your limits when it comes to food. A lot of people unconciously eat and have no idea what their triggers or limits are which is why eating moderately does NOT work for them.

lafemmenoir August 28, 2010 - 1:21 PM

25 mg/day is the maximum amount of HFCS you should intake per day to still be considered “in moderation” or a safe amount to consume.

A can of cola-flavored soda has 74 mg of HFCS. By drinking a simple can of soda you have almost tripled the “safe” amount of HFCS your body can handle per day!

Personally, anything that turns off the brain/stomach “fullness” switch, or surpresses it, should be something that you would want to keep a close eye on or steer clear of, anyways….my personal opinion.

Streetz August 28, 2010 - 1:31 PM

Sup E money!

So.. yall all know how I feel about junk food. I know you side-eyed my popeyes twitter avatar, but as I dig into my weekly Popeyes date, lol, I say I agree with the premise of this blog.

I think the willpower to look at brownies, cookies and chips for hours in a training session and not eating it (like I had to this week) and say no, is the type of resistance we should all build up. I workout 6 times a week, and the workouts are so rigorous that I dont think about throwing that all away for a few days of indulgence. I do feel that you should allow yourself a guilty pleasure every now and again, as you do.

I’ve done research through sites like Mens Health and Tom Venuto (whose book “Burn the fat, feed the muscle”) showed how having that one cheat meal can assist in the overall maintennace of a diet (you wont feel prone to say “eff this broccoli” if you’re eating well 95% of the time and see this as a reward”).

I think its all a mentality thing. You have to train your mind first, then the willpower will follow! And specifically for our people, we have to get out of the notion that you can eat what you want and “still be good”. Its hard work to eat right, but I’d rather be fit noe than trying to get in shape again at 45 when my doctor tells me my health sucks!

Sorry for the book!

Erika August 28, 2010 - 2:41 PM

LOL Books are okay, here!

See, I think those kinds of books and websites cater more to an understanding that people have of “rewarding” themselves with food. Tom Venuto kinda gives up and is like “Okay, if you’re GONNA reward yourself with food…do it like THIS.” I can understand that… but if left unchecked, it can lead to dangerous thinking… thinking that tells you popeyes is rewarding. *side eye* LMAO

You do have to train your mind – that’s exactly what I’m saying here – but you also can’t lie to yourself about your abilities and limitations. Some of us just have too tough a time with that and don’t wanna admit it, I think. 🙁

Kjen August 30, 2010 - 11:37 PM

I still like the concept of “in moderation” mainly because it helped me wean myself off of some very negative dieting style thoughts where i was dependent on celebrity nutritionist, diet plans, which food was bad, etc.
The fact that the term is so vague is a plus because so many people can adapt it to suit their nutritional needs in the way that four food groups have morphed in the the personal “my pyramid.”
I think you’re worried that the junk food industry has co-opted the term to continue to sell their wares. And they have, but I think that as the push continues to get people to eat more fruits and vegetables that co-option will be nullified.

Erika August 31, 2010 - 6:49 AM

My point, really, is that the word “moderation” is used to justify poor eating. The idea that “everything” is “fine” if you moderate your use of it is ludicrous, regardless of whether or not people have success with weight loss… because, again, HEALTH is the important thing, here. Not just how you look. Just because you “look” okay on the outside doesn’t mean you are on the inside… and the foods that promote health on the inside are ones that don’t have this giant question of “moderation” – a term that still has yet to be defined – looming above them.

Tabitha December 3, 2010 - 4:46 PM

Hey E – we gotta ask ourselves, Would we smoke crack “in moderation?”

evertime I have binged for days at a time ALWAYS started with me grabbing one little bite “in moderation”. Can we say SNOWBALL EFFECT lol!

Chloe May 17, 2011 - 6:36 PM

I hate to do food in moderation and the word moderation does not come in to play especially when eating sugar, so when I started on my journey I decided to focus first on what I could eat in unlimited quantities. Works for me. I keep sugar and carbs out of the house.

Milaxx May 18, 2011 - 8:59 PM

I don’t know how to label it. Right now I’m just focused on eating right Now I know there are going to be time when I want a piece of chocolate or some ice cream. I’m just trying to make conscious make choices and not mindless eating or tell myself lies about why I’m snacking on something. I buy expensive chocolate like Lindts or Godiva and put it in the fridge. I don’t know if it’s the price or what but I plan my daily meals around it. I’ve also been making my own popsicles and that’s been satisfying. If I’m still absolutely dying for some ice cream I buy either the little 4 oz ice cream cups or the rice dream ice cream sandwich. Soda is never coming back in my life. So far it’s working.

Asia June 4, 2011 - 10:08 PM

So if you dont agree with moderation, do you think you shouldnt eat those at all, like ever?

Treating yourself once in a while is not bad. RIGHT?

Erika Nicole Kendall June 4, 2011 - 10:51 PM

Of course I’m all for treating yourself every now and again! However, I think some things simply shouldn’t be eaten. Ever. And a lot of the things that we refer to as “being okay in moderation” fall into that category. ROFL

Asia November 8, 2011 - 3:29 PM

So what are the things we shouldnt eat ever?

derevolushun November 8, 2011 - 8:27 AM

This is fyah!
I always say “moderation is for losers” which translates to “moderation is difficult for me to practice”. I can eat a family-size bag of Cheetos or Tortilla Chips in an hour, and I’m always so upset with myself for not being able to control myself after. But you’re right, those foods are not designed to be eaten in moderation, they’re designed for you to want more and more and more. So power to those who can have the institutionally sanctioned serving sizes. To others like me, we just need to be honest with ourselves and not have these things as snacks in our homes.
Thank you sooooooooooo much!

Lolita November 12, 2011 - 2:12 PM

I totally agree with the first response…from Reecie. That’s exactly how I see it…like she said each has their own individual relationship with food.

Kalila February 5, 2012 - 4:19 AM

This is my rant about that moderation stuff. My bad cholesterol was always higher than it should be even after eliminating red meat and eating things like eggs “in moderation”. Finally, I learned that I should be limiting myself to 4 egg yolks per week. My question is which foods in what quantity constitutes moderation. That’s what I need health professionals to tell me. “In moderation” is the catch phrase for all the enablers, co-conspirators, and food pushers. Now when folks try that mess on me, I tell them no thank you, I had that yesterday. Ends the discussion/debate and I don’t feel guilty for turning down somebody’s well intentions.

Jasna April 9, 2012 - 7:37 PM

I feel like the saying was originally coined for a *few specific cases only, and now it is intentionally misinterpreted and generalised to include other food (specifically rubbish food), never mind the fact that moderation has no effect on rubbish – it’s still rubbish whatever the amount.

*e.g. wine – good for you, as long as you take it in moderation

Jasna April 14, 2012 - 9:55 AM

Aw, girl, just been through your alcohol post. So much for wine being good for the body 🙁

Kay December 20, 2012 - 10:28 PM

Seems like you’re saying certain stuff is poison…almost like we wouldn’t drink teaspoons of bleach once a month saying ‘bleach, in small quantities, is okay in moderation’. So I guess cheetos, cake, ect are poison too…so if were going to eat them we should at least tell ourselves what they are? If you are saying that, interesting point.

Chasing Joy February 3, 2013 - 10:41 PM

Two things spoke to me in this post. 1. to stop buying things that make me feel guilty. 2. “I cannot simply just eat what I want, and expect health [and weight loss] to still come to me. It simply does not work that way.” I need to print that and carry it with me.

Emilie June 1, 2013 - 9:58 AM

I believe in moderation… I am just not the person to do it! Once every other month I fool myself into thinking that I can eat that way. I will buy a box of cookies, half gallon of ice cream or a large bag of cheetos and I will eat a serving size and walk away. Usually by the next day, or sometimes that same evening I have revisited the item so many times that it is gone. So I know that I can’t moderate, and I will be a single item, or a single serving of ice cream. But I know ppl that can do it. They aren’t emotional eaters or addicted to sweets like me. The don’t turn to food, it’s just there and they can ignore it. While I always know where the item is hidden, and how much is left. I also agree with the commenter that said would you do crack in moderation. That is interesting, because sometimes when I open the gate and have a snickers, I am at another store the next day getting a twix. How can I successfully wean myself off of all the junk..uh

Chelsi September 12, 2013 - 7:31 PM

This is so me, I love it. I have no control over junk at all… love it…too much. Especially chocolate x_x oh geez

Ann September 23, 2013 - 3:35 PM

Loved it. I don’t do moderation. I cut it out of my diet, because it’s one of those foods I can’t control. Most recently I’ve cut out simple carbs and will splurge on a meal. However, the meal becomes a weekend of meals when I eat that crap. I got to stop. Thanks.

Laveta October 27, 2013 - 9:25 PM

I am a fan of moderation. Simply, it worked for me. But then again, I was a glutton for everything. Junk food, sweets, fruits, vegetables, lean protein…EVERYTHING! I just ate, A LOT! If it’s good for me I can have as much as I want, right? Wrong!! I love sweet potatoes. Good for you, right? Not when you bake the biggest one you can find and eat that with your too large piece of baked chicken and your too large portion of brown rice. Moderation triggers my portion control. In the beginning I was totally using it as an excuse for eating foods I shouldn’t. “Well, I’m only having this small apple fritter. I used to buy the really big ones!” It didn’t click until the weight loss slowed down. “Why am I eating apple fritters???” The calories and fat that thing cost me was more than two full meals! And I was getting the “small” ones every week! Along with the two scoops of ice cream instead of three. And the small order of French fries instead of a large. I was wasting my time. And the weight wasn’t coming off anymore. I felt like healthy eating was a punishment for over-indulging all my life and I wasn’t ever going to enjoy eating ever again. Don’t get me wrong. I love most of my healthy meals, but I love deep dish pizza too! And I just couldn’t eat it the way I used to. So some things I completely gave up on the “in moderation” thing with. Things that weren’t of any nutritional value at all and used up too many of my daily calories and fat. Most fast foods, soda, almost everything that comes out of a vending machine, frozen meals. I don’t serve myself heaping portions of anything anymore. I love brown rice, but I keep it to a cup instead of the mountain I used to put on my plate. And once a month, instead of a whole deep, dish pizza, I order a small for us and our neighbor and have one slice. And I ENJOY that one slice! Instead of buying packs of cookies every week, I buy one snack size a week(9 cookies) and limit myself to 3 per serving. I don’t have the multigrain bagel slathered in low fat cream cheese. I have half a bagel with a thin covering of low fat cream cheese. Is moderation an excuse to eat some of the things you shouldn’t? Kinda. But you’re meal plan shouldn’t have to exclude the stuff you like for the rest of your days. Being miserable with your food choices will just set you up for a binge session. This is moderation for me. It works, for me. Everybody is different. But yeah, I get the excuse thing.

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