“Never go to excess, but let moderation be your guide.” Marcus Tullius Cicero
Moderation is defined as the avoidance of excess or extremes in behavior or expression; observing reasonable limits. Many of you have probably experienced that extreme restriction does not tend to work for trying to lose weight since it can lead to feelings of deprivation followed by binges. You have probably also heard that eating the foods you love in moderation is a good plan. However, as I have spoken with patients, a theme has emerged: moderation is very challenging for many people. Some people choose to cut out foods that they have trouble eating in moderation (such as sweet treats or chips) taking an all or none/black and white approach rather than enjoying these foods occasionally (viewing eating in shades of gray).
Moderation is a skill that can be learned through practicing it. Learning moderation can lead to living life more fully, experiencing more enjoyment in life’s pleasures and allowing you to feel more free when you are in social situations. So how do you learn moderation, especially in terms of eating?
Having strategies that you can rely on is essential to help you learn moderation:
Eat something healthy before you have a treat. Eat a meal before you have a sweet treat or eat a large salad before you start eating pizza. This will ensure you are not super hungry and therefore won’t be as tempted to eat a large amount of the treat.
Give yourself permission to eat the foods you really enjoy and that bring you pleasure.
–Focus on eating good quality foods and savor what you are eating. If you buy a lower calorie or less expensive version of your favorite treat, you may feel compelled to eat more of it to feel satisfied. Once you choose your food, take a few minutes to use your senses to enjoy it. Look closely at how it looks. Smell it. Take a small bite of it and let it sit on your tongue for a few seconds so you can feel its texture. Eat it slowly and savor its flavor. Eating a small square of high-quality chocolate can be much more enjoyable than wolfing down an inexpensive, low-quality chocolate bar.
–Choose foods that have less fat and added sugar but still taste good and help you feel satisfied. You may be able to find some foods that are satisfying for you which you can substitute for your favorite foods. If you are craving ice cream, try Yasso Frozen Greek Yogurt Bars. If you are craving chocolate, choose JoJo’s Guilt Free Chocolate. If you enjoy a warm beverage in the mornings, try having unsweetened herbal tea instead of a latte. Experiment with different foods to see what satisfies you.
Plan out when you will have indulgences. If you know a special occasion is coming up, make sure you focus on making smart choices and avoid temptations in the days leading up to that occasion. Rather than skipping meals to “save your calories” for a big meal later in the day, eat your normal meals and snacks (but perhaps eat a little less than you normally would). Make sure you have eaten something within a few hours of the event so that you are not ravenous when you arrive. And when you have your indulgence, find joy in the experience and don’t allow yourself to feel guilty.
Portion out foods that you tend to eat too much of. Most of us have foods that we tend to eat a lot of if given the opportunity: candy, popcorn, crackers, etc. Measure out portions of these foods ahead of time and put the food back in the pantry, out of sight. Do not eat out of the bag or container! This is a sure-fire way to overindulge. As mentioned earlier, eat the food slowly and savor it.
Avoid having too many food options at a meal (unless it’s vegetables). The larger the number of foods available at one time, the more likely you may overeat. Even if you only sample a small portion of each food, it can add up to a lot of food if there are too many options.
Track all the food you are eating, making sure to note portion sizes. When you look back over an entire day of food you have eaten, you may find you are surprised at how much you have eaten. If you are eating mostly fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein, this is not usually a problem. However, if there are other types of foods that you ate large portions of, you may need to focus on limiting yourself to one serving of these foods.
Use smaller plates and bowls for meals and train your brain to recognize smaller portion sizes as “enough”. When you use smaller plates and bowls, a reasonable size serving will fill the plate or bowl so you will not feel like you are depriving yourself. Eat slowly, enjoy your food and know that you can always get more food if you are still hungry. Avoid distractions such as watching TV or working on the computer while you are eating since these activities can interfere with noticing that you are full.
Don’t be too hard on yourself if you slip up. You are bound to occasionally overdo it with food. Rather than beating yourself up and continuing the binge for the rest of the weekend (or week), refocus on your goal of moderation and continue moving forward. Spend a little time reflecting on what contributed to the slip up so you can avoid similar circumstances in the future.
Figuring out moderation is going to be somewhat different for everyone. It will take some time and energy to decide what is a good middle ground for you as an individual and what strategies work best for you. It’s about figuring out what you can sustain over the long-term, but also about being flexible enough to make adjustments as needed. Learning to live moderately is a life-long project that is well worth the time and energy because you will feel good both physically and mentally and also find pleasure in eating while taking care of your body.