When you’re working on improving your healthy eating habits, some strategies are pretty obvious, such as adding more veggies to each meal and sipping on more water. Other advice, like “eating everything in moderation,” can be a little trickier to define. In other words, what does moderation mean?
“Moderation means including all foods in a healthy diet without guilt,” explains Amanda Lemein, RD. “This is easier said than done for most people, and it requires a lot of unlearning.” All of us consume not-so-nutritionally dense foods and drinks we love, and we’ve likely been conditioned to believe these foods are “bad.” When you make comfort foods forbidden, you set yourself up for painful feelings of deprivation and guilt, leading to binges, overeating and a harmful cycle of yo-yo dieting.
The truth is there’s no need to avoid less nutritious foods to get fit or lose weight. In fact, “learning to incorporate all foods into a healthful diet is a more realistic approach and helps you nourish a healthier relationship with food,” says Lemein.
To adopt an everything-in-moderation lifestyle, try employing these four strategies:
The first step is to free yourself from food labels that pin moral judgment to your eating choices, says Lemein. Instead of believing some foods are “good” while others are “bad,” start using terms such as “more nutritionally-dense” (which includes foods like whole grains, lean proteins, fruits and veggies and healthy fats found in nuts, seeds, olive oil and fatty fish) and “less nutritionally dense” (foods like refined carbs in white bread and pastries, processed foods and sugary drinks). Over time, this shift in perspective can remove the guilt and shame we feel when we enjoy less-healthy foods.
One way to drive home the idea that less nutritionally-dense foods aren’t “bad” is to remember they come with benefits, too, says Tiffany Ma, RD. They might make you happy, bring you comfort or provide ways for you to connect with others and celebrate special events (hello, birthday cake).
“Eating in moderation is enjoying food to the fullest, but also knowing in what quantity to eat certain foods,” says Bansari Acharya, RD. Research shows portion sizes outside of the home have increased dramatically since the 1970s, with items like pasta, muffins and bagels exceeding USDA standards by 480%, 333% and 195%, respectively. When it comes to less nutrient-dense foods, shrinking the portion size (Think: kid-sized for a scoop of ice cream) can allow you to still enjoy it without going over your daily calorie needs. You’ve likely heard dietitians talk about the 80/20 rule (eat the super nutritious stuff 80% of the time and the not as nutritious stuff 20% of the time). Another way to think about it is choosing to eat those foods that are lower in nutrients in a kids size portions — a kids ice cream cone, a mini-chocolate bar or a small personal pizza.
If you tend to speed through meals, especially pleasureful foods (restaurant meals or “junk” food), one way to avoid overdoing it is to slow down the experience. Research shows eating slowly can make you feel fuller. For starters, try chewing each bite 25 times, suggests Acharya. (One study published in Obesity finds chewing thoroughly helps your body burn about 10 extra calories for each 300-calorie meal.) This also helps you fully focus on the flavor and texture of the food. “When you eat mindfully, you really take in the pleasure of enjoying that one piece of food, and your body will be satisfied, which will decrease cravings for larger portions in the future,” she says.
Another way to practice moderation is to add more nutritional value to recipes you love, says Acharya. For example, mix oats into your cookie batter to up your fiber intake, slow digestion, and avert a sugar crash; swap high-fat sour cream for high-protein 0% Greek yogurt for healthier party dips; and add roasted veggies to your pasta and sauces for a flavorful antioxidant boost. Increasing the number of nutrients you get in less-nutritious foods you already love is a win-win: You keep the foods on your menu while also ensuring they’re healthier, and you’re fuller and more satisfied.
Make progress every day while you work on nutrition goals, like learning to track macros. Go to “Plans” in the MyFitnessPal app for daily coaching and easy-to-follow tasks to keep you motivated.