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Moderation: Key to Success or Sabotage?

Written by Tom Nikkola - Director of Nutrition & Weight Management

One of the most common "tips" people read and hear about nutrition is "Everything in moderation." "No food is bad as long as you don't eat too much of it." Is that really the case for everyone? Or, can food have enough power over us, that even a small taste of certain foods can send us in a downward spiral of uncontrolled eating?

The foods we eat today are not the same things we've traditionally considered "food." With a blend of science and psychology, many of today's foods are designed to appear healthier than they are, subconsciously call your name and keep you from feeling full until you've eaten far more than you had planned. The combinations of salt, fat and sugar are intended to trigger your brain into craving foods in the same way your brain can become addicted to drugs or alcohol. When people say they can't stop eating something, it may be true that they really can't stop eating.

Feeding Your Brain Instead of Your Body

David Kessler recently wrote a fascinating book called The End of Overeating. This text provides an interesting look behind the curtain of food design. After understanding the incredible amount of thought and research that goes into your favorite flavor of potato chip, cookie or snack food at the grocery store, or meal at your favorite restaurant, you may understand how futile the idea of eating those foods in moderation may be.

It is rare for someone to have strong cravings for whole foods, such as plain vegetables, fruit, meats or dairy products. To make you crave those foods, it takes adding salt, fat, sugar, more fat and more sugar. Oftentimes, additional sauces are added which contain more salt, fat and sugar. Foods are designed to go down easy, with just a few chews, so you'll be less likely to have your hunger signals triggered. John Haywood,  who designs  restaurant concepts, was quoted in Kessler's book, "Processing creates a sort of 'adult baby food.'" The food goes down easier so it feels like we haven't eaten as much. The ingredients are designed to provide pleasure and make you want to come back for more. Going back to the idea of eating "real food," it would be tough to eat 2000 calories of lean meat, vegetables and fruit. It's pretty easy to take in those kinds of calories without realizing it when the food is processed for you.

Problems With Moderation

Why is moderation so difficult for people? For many people, having a small amount of an addictive food causes something called priming. Priming with food is much like the response when an alcoholic has just one taste of alcohol. The mechanisms in the brain are not totally understood, but it's very clear that a small amount of some foods for some people will create a strong drive to eat more. Chips, crackers, cake, coffee drinks - everyone is different. The addiction to these foods can be caused by how it makes people feel, and the more those foods are relied on for those feelings, the stronger the addiction becomes. As Kessler explains:

When we're hungry, almost any food can have a priming effect - in fact, that's one of the risks of dieting. But in the absence of hunger, only highly palatable foods are likely to spark further eating. "Having a little bit makes you want more. And then you have it, and it makes you want still more," observed (Harriet) de Wit.

How Can I Gain Control?

As explained above, hunger can be a major spark to fuel uncontrolled eating. Eating small, frequent meals helps to control hunger. The key with small, frequent meals is to avoid the high-carb snacks so often marketed for snacking. Snacks such as 100 calorie snack packs, granola bars, pudding snacks and other foods you see advertised on television, do little to control hunger and often result in people eating more than they otherwise would. If you are going to eat every few hours, it's important to eat plenty of protein with those meals, healthy fats and include fruit and vegetables whenever possible.

Eating frequently can help avoid excess hunger, but what about those foods that seem to call our name day after day? Kessler provides offers four steps in the process or reversing the habits of overheating:

  1. Awareness - Simply understanding that there are foods that have some control over some of us is an important first-step.
  2. Engaging in competing behaviors - Keeping yourself away from the possibility of being pulled into those foods is the next step. If it means driving a different route to avoid a certain restaurant, eating on a full stomach or shopping with a friend or family member so you don't buy thing you don't need may be necessary. It may also be necessary to get out of the habit of buying foods for other family members that you have trouble with. If those foods are not good for you, they're not good for your other family members.
  3. Formulate thoughts that compete with, and serve to quite, the old ones - Understand that you may not be able to have "just have one bite." Understand that you won't reach your fitness goals by eating those foods. You may increase your health risks by eating those foods, because it can result in one after another.
  4. Support - Finding the right support is critical to controlling cravings and managing weight. Find other people with similar goals and challenges. Look for the right kind of friends to share your goals with. You will have a much better chance of success discussing your goals and challenges with people on the same page as you are. It's also important to beware of other friends or family members who don't care about what they eat or the shape they're in. They can quickly cause you to sabotage your plan. Programs like TEAM Weight Loss and eat are also great places to find support.


When discussing whole-foods such as vegetables, fruits, meat, dairy, nuts and seeds and high-quality nutritional supplements, eating in moderation makes total sense. It's also quite easy to eat in moderation when those are the foods your diet consists of. If it doesn't consist of those foods and includes more processed foods, moderation may not be the key to success, especially in those foods that seem to speak to you.

Share your thoughts or ask question below.



David A Kessler, MD. The End of Overeating. 2009. Rodale. New York, New York.

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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