These days, you're more likely to hear someone advise people watching their weight not to diet but instead eat in moderation.
A growing body of evidence suggests that diets set people up for overeating and weight gain through rigid rules that don't meet individual needs. Eating in moderation puts you in charge. You decide what and how much is right to eat.
But according to a study published this month in the journal Appetite, the definition of moderation can be a moving target. When it comes to foods you like, you may end up eating more than seems wise.
"People do think of moderation as less than overeating, so it does suggest less consumption," says Michelle VanDellen, the lead author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Georgia. "But they do think of it as more than what they should eat. The more you like a food, the more of it you think you can eat in moderation."
The bottom line, she says, is that people aren't good judges of what they're eating. And that is cause for concern in a time when so many people are struggling with their weight.
But is the problem really with how we define moderation?
Or is it with how we attempt to put it into action?
Looking at Moderation Through a Different Lens
I wanted to blog about this study because I think it is a prime example of how the results of studies can mislead us. When it comes to research about eating and weight, this is a big problem for several reasons, including common misperceptions about the "right" way to eat.
It starts with the fact that in this country, for many people healthy eating has come to be defined by weight loss diet rules. Rules such as calorie counting, eating low fat, watching carbs and more. What's more, the rules change frequently.
After over a half century of these rules being promoted by everything and everyone from public health policy to your parents, many people are confused. In my over 30 years of working with women who struggle with eating and weight, I am clear about one thing: the majority do not know how to eat anymore.
They don't know that their bodies can guide them in eating. That they have a built-in system that evolved to tell them very effectively what, when and how much to eat for well-being, even when eating foods they love. There's no need to limit portion sizes. Indeed, that can set up overeating through feelings of deprivation.
Doing this requires that people listen to and trust their bodies' cues, though.
And therein lies the real problem. They don't even know how to listen. Because, instead, they're trying to follow diet rules. And nowhere in diet rules is there a mention of moderation.
How to Make Moderation Work
So I'd like to propose a new set of "rules" that might better serve those who worry about their weight. They're designed to help make moderation happen naturally because that's what feels best.
1. Stop worrying about your weight. Focusing on your weight can lead you down the wrong path to stress, weight gain, and a pretty miserable life.
Focus instead on how you feel by listening for the many ways your body tells you that you feel well. Do you feel energetic, positive, ready to take on the day? How else does your body tell you that you feel good? We're all different so learn how your body talks to you.
2. Practice mindful or intuitive eating. This involves giving up the "shoulds and shouldn'ts" and starting to heed your body's signals for hunger and satisfaction. If that sounds like a recipe for eating with abandon, consider this: a recent study of over 50,000 people showed that intuitive eating is associated with lower body weights. This is exactly the opposite of what studies tell us about diets or restrictive eating.
3. Do things regularly that make you feel good. Feeling good is your body's signal that all is well. As you listen for your body's signals that tell you that you feel well, consider what you've been doing to make it so. Then continue doing it!
Listening closely to your body also helps you build trust that it can and will tell you when you're overdoing. For example, as you savor your favorite ice cream, when does it start to not taste as good? When does it start to feel like if you had more, you may not feel so comfortable?
That's how your body defines moderation, and it's a definition of moderation that works marvelously for well-being. (Btw, it applies to vegetables, too. We can overeat them and not feel well.)
4. Mix things up. Our bodies love balance (called homeostasis in technical terms), whether it be in what we eat, how we exercise, how much sleep we get, you name it. Do something too much or too little and it doesn't feel good.
If you're listening, your body will tell you when it needs something different. Bonus: Variety keeps things fun! Indeed, that's a good example of how your body tells you what it needs.
You might sum up these rules as guidelines for finding pleasure in your life. Because that is what it is all about. And it works to support your health because pleasure is great medicine.
Marsha Hudnall is president and co-owner of Green Mountain at Fox Run, a women's retreat for healthy weight and well-being, where she has been teaching mindful eating for over 30 years. She also serves as the vice president of The Center for Mindful Eating.