Moderation: How Much Is Too Much?

A new study by led by Michelle vanDellen in the journallooks at people's definition of moderate consumption.
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Moderation is such a welcome word! Avoiding excess or extremes -- especially in eating and in politics -- sounds like the soundest of advice, and after decades of crazy diets the everything-in-moderation mantra is popular again, with craveable and unhealthy foods accepted, as long as they're in sensible amounts.

But what is a sensible amount? Can we be trusted with moderating moderation? Is moderation modulated after what we think we should eat? What we see our friends eat? Or, in the case of food we really enjoy, on how much we'd like to eat?

A new study led by Michelle vanDellen in the journal Appetite looks at people's definition of moderate consumption.

In the first study, 89 students were given a bowl with 24 chocolate chip cookies. They were asked how many cookies one should eat, how many cookies constitute moderate eating, and what amount would be indulgent.

Moderation, by the majority of this group, is a number of cookies greater than one should eat -- the group thought they should eat 2 cookies, but that a moderate amount is 3 cookies.

In the second study 294 participants were shown a picture of 24 gummy bear candies, and were asked how many should be eaten in one sitting and what consists moderate amount. Here, too, eating in moderation amounted to 2 extra gummy bears over what the participants thought should be eaten. Another interesting finding was that the more the participants liked the candies, the greater the number they suggested as a moderate serving.

In the third experiment 121 people were asked to report how often they consume foods and beverages and how many servings they take, and to assess whether they're exercising moderation. The researchers found that participants rated their consumption as moderate, and when asked to define moderate consumption defined moderate amounts as greater than what they eat -- if they drink one soda can a day moderate amounts would be assessed as greater than one a day. In other words, their personal consumption was always moderate or better (lower) than moderate.

Everyone's above average

According to this study moderation is a number greater than what one should eat, and forever greater than what people personally ate -- a completely biased definition.

If this is so, messages of moderation may sound good, but are unlikely to reduce consumption to healthy amounts, unless moderation advice contains specific information.

We are an optimistic lot, this study shows. Unless it's spelled out that moderate amounts of alcohol are at most 1 drink a day for women, 2 for men, that moderate sugar intake is 6 teaspoons a day for women, 9 for men, and that no smoking at all is the only reasonable amount, people easily fall into self deception, believing that what they do is better than average.

Dr. Ayala

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