Everything’s All Right In Moderation?

About 3 years ago I was advised to make significant changes to my diet by a nutritionist, due to my need to lose some weight and reduce my high cholesterol levels. I was advised to cut right down on fats, eat less highly-refined and processed foods, and eat a lot more whole plant foods. A family member responded to this advice with a familiar saying, “oh, but everything’s all right in moderation.” We’ve all heard this clichéd remark at some time, and it sounds quite reasonable, doesn’t it? Eat a little bit of this; drink a little glass of that. No harm done, eh? The problem is that this can be a huge barrier to positive change.

Thinking about this ‘everything in moderation’ idea made me realise why so many people fail to reach their goals. Goals for sustainable weight loss, eating more healthfully, cutting out harmful influences, getting fitter.

excellence mediocrity

7 Reasons Why Moderation Doesn’t Work

  1. Moderation breeds mediocrity, and mediocrity never brings outstanding results. When advice is given to promote real, lasting, positive change, how often have you heard someone say “take moderate action”? Doesn’t sound very inspiring, does it? To be, and keep motivated to progress, you shouldn’t accept mediocrity, or the Aussie attitude of “rough enough is good enough”. In most cases, it’s not.
  2. Moderation doesn’t help change habits. When someone tries to give up smoking, they are advised to quit, period; not to smoke “moderately”. When an alcoholic wants to get off the booze, moderation is not going to cut it. A heroin addict is never advised to “shoot up in moderation”. If you carry a lot of excess weight, a few less chips or donuts or melted cheese toasties, or whatever your personal vice is, is not going to create a slimmer, healthier, more energetic you.
  3. Moderation avoids taking big steps to create big change. Small steps can be fine at first to help lay the foundation for good habits, but in the long run big steps are better to create a momentum to effect change. Why? Big steps bring you closer to the desired change, quicker. Big steps make a powerful statement, and psychologically prepare you to break ingrained habits. If you want big results, you need to take bold, decisive action.
  4. Moderation is avoiding risk – when in reality it’s the risk of living and being much healthier. Now, by taking bold action I don’t mean that you take potentially harmful risks, or that you don’t follow sound medical advice. It doesn’t mean that you won’t sometimes falter, and find it difficult to stay on track to your goals. But it does create a mind-set to break unhealthy habits and replace them with healthier ones.
  5. The truth is, the ‘moderation’ excuse is really about resisting change and holding on to the status quo. Dietary habits are rooted in family and cultural norms, and the thought of changing them may be to threatening some; even offensive. Change can be uncomfortable at first, but if it means ditching negative practices and embracing health and vitality, the rewards can be life-transforming.
  6. Moderation can mean poor diet and lifestyle choices. Significant change in dietary terms means not just cutting down, but cutting out foods that are detrimental to your health and weight loss goals, and especially foods that you simply don’t need. Foods such as animal fats, animal products, butter, margarine and oils, and highly processed foods high in fat, sugar, and chemicals, such as commercially produced bread, buns, processed meats, dairy products, and others. Focus instead on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and legumes. You’ll experience a big change for the better, both in your weight loss and enhanced metabolism.
  7. The ‘moderation’ mind-set can be harmful, even deadly. When someone has serious health issues, like my recent (very) high cholesterol and blood pressure, a little moderation in lifestyle change is simply an admission of failure, which could potentially have a fatal outcome.

In a video by Dr Michael Greger from Nutrition Facts, “Everything in moderation. Even heart disease?” Dr Greger is critical of the mainstream health advice of keeping cholesterol levels below 200 mg/dl. He believes that medical authorities are withholding the full truth about heart disease to avoid recommending lifestyle changes that some might see as too drastic (or not ‘moderate’ enough!).

According to decades of data from the Framingham Heart Study, 35% of heart attacks occur in people who have cholesterol levels between 150 mg/dl and 200 mg/dl. And so a target level of only around 200 mg/dl ensures that millions of US citizens will die of coronary disease.

As Dr Greger puts it, “If the coronary artery disease epidemic is seen as a raging fire, and cholesterol and fats are the fuels, the American Heart Association has merely recommended cutting the flow of fuel. The only tenable solution is to cut off the fuel supply altogether – by reducing cholesterol levels to those proven to prevent coronary disease.”

The ‘moderation’ advice is misguided at best; and at worst, downright dangerous. It allows people to justify and keep following bad habits, while the reality is many people do not consume unhealthy foods ‘in moderation’.

Obesity continues to increase, and is now considered the most serious health issue facing the developed world. Obesity and being overweight pose a major risk for chronic diseases including Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension and stroke and certain forms of cancer. My country, Australia, is today ranked as one of the fattest nations in the developed world. The prevalence of obesity in Australia has more than doubled in the past 20 years; becoming the single biggest threat to public health. An article in Web MD referred to the US obesity epidemic as “astronomical”.

Clearly, the ‘everything in moderation’ advice isn’t working for our obesity epidemic.

What’s the alternative?

How to Switch from Moderation to Motivation

What do you do, then, if you want to give up or reduce your consumption of meat, dairy, eggs, sweets or junk food? Or perhaps you want to start working out regularly, drop a dress size (or two!), or just start eating healthier? What mindset and motivational words help you the most?

Author and motivational expert James Clear talks about attempting one key change at a time, creating small habits that lead to larger ones, and focusing on the behaviour, not the outcome.

In another one of his articles, James writes that the very words we use when we set out on a quest to eat healthier or exercise more make a difference. Maybe a big difference! As James says, saying ‘no’ to unnecessary commitments and daily distractions can help you to focus and recover, while saying ‘no’ to temptation can help you stay on track and achieve your health goals.

In one study, a group of students were split into two. One group was told that when faced with temptation, they would say “I can’t do X”, while the other group was told they would say “I don’t do X”. When offered the choice between a chocolate bar or a granola health bar, 61% of the “I can’t do X” students chose the chocolate bar, while only 36% of the “I don’t do X” went for the chocolate.

The same researchers formed a group of 30 women for another study, that were split into 3 groups of 10, and told to think of a long–term health and wellness goal that was important to them. If they felt tempted to lapse on their goals, the first group was told: “just say no”; the second group was told “I can’t…miss my workout today” (for example), and the third group was told to implement the ‘don’t’ strategy, such as “I don’t miss workouts”.

After 10 days of implementing these strategies to meet their health goals, the women reported their findings:

  • Group 1 (the “just say no” group) had 3 out of 10 members who persisted with their goals for the entire 10 days.
  • Group 2 (the “can’t” group) had 1 out of 10 members who persisted with her goal for the entire 10 days.
  • Group 3 (the “don’t” group) had an incredible 8 out of 10 members who persisted with their goals for the entire 10 days.

gym room

Why “I Don’t” Works Better Than “I Can’t”

As James explains, “every time you tell yourself “I can’t”, you’re creating a feedback loop that is a reminder of your limitations. This terminology indicates that you’re forcing yourself to do something you don’t want to do.”

However, adds James, “when you tell yourself “I don’t”, you’re creating a feedback loop that reminds you of your control and power over the situation. It’s a phrase that can propel you towards breaking your bad habits and following your good ones.”

According to Heidi Grant Halvorson, the director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University, “I don’t” is experienced as a choice, so it feels empowering. It’s an affirmation of your determination and willpower. “I can’t” isn’t a choice. It’s a restriction, it’s being imposed upon you. So thinking “I can’t” undermines your sense of power and personal agency”.

So next time you’re offered food you know you shouldn’t eat, or you think of avoiding exercise, don’t think “a little bit in moderation is okay”. Just try saying: “I don’t eat that” or “I don’t skip workouts”, and let me know how it works for you!

Tom Perry