Moderation might be the most overused word in the entire nutrition universe.
I know, I know. You like the idea of not restricting yourself and being able to eat anything you want so long as it’s not “too much.”
It sounds healthy. Balanced. Sane.
You might have even mistaken some of my willpower bashing here at Summer Tomato as an endorsement of moderation. Something like, “Use a little willpower, but not too much.”
It sounds lovely. If only it actually helped you achieve your goals.
The problem with moderation is that it’s a fantasy, not a strategy.
Let’s say, for example, that I am Italian and really love pasta. This is very far from the truth, but bear with me.
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Currently I eat pasta every day, but am about 30 lbs overweight and just got a warning from my doctor about rising blood pressure and triglycerides.
My doctor recommends cutting back on pasta, but I tell her there’s no way I could ever give it up. It’s part of my heritage and I can’t be happy without it.
She says that’s fine, but to try to eat it in moderation.
I go home, take a deep breath, and force myself to make a pot of brown rice for dinner tonight. I am able to skip pasta a couple of nights this week and feel pretty good about myself.
I do it again next week, but the following week my kids are in a school play and rice takes too long so it’s back to pasta.
In 6 months I go back to my doctor hanging my head, another 4 lbs heavier.
Your brain has no idea how to picture what moderation means, so has trouble acting on it.
Without clear boundaries, old habits will always win.
Behavioral research has repeatedly shown that the more specific an action is, the more likely you are to actually do it. And it’s hard to get any less specific than “moderation.”
Another problem is that moderation is a relative term. Specifically we relate what is moderate to our unconscious ideas of “normal.”
That might be fine if we lived in a time of strong cultural norms that dictated the how, when, what and why of proper eating. Before the industrialization of agriculture this was how most cultures maintained a healthy population.
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But most of what we now consider normal is hazardously dangerous.
Americans currently eat 17x the amount of sugar we did in 1822. Is cutting back to 10x the 1822 amount of sugar “moderate?”
Most people would accuse you of being a low-carb psycho if you tried that, but in reality it is still far more than you need or is probably healthy.
The exact opposite is true of vegetables and exercise. We are at such abysmally low amounts that a small increase can seem impressive, but still fall short of the levels needed for optimal health.
In this case moderation would leave you content with not doing enough.
I’m not trying to say that incremental improvements aren’t valuable. They are, and I always recommend making changes gradually so you don’t burn out.
But you should focus your energy on specific actions (habits), rather than trying to reach a vague and arbitrary ideal.
When you want to develop a healthier habit, don’t just try to cut back a little or do a little more. Identify the exact time and place the behavior occurs, and consciously construct a way to guide yourself toward the new action.
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If you want to do less of something find an alternative.
If you want to do more of something identify a strong trigger and remove barriers to action.
If something works do more of it.
If it doesn’t work adjust your strategy.
Changing behavior isn’t easy, but positive change rarely happens on a whim.
A version of this article originally appeared on Darya Rose’s website, Summer Tomato.