What is Dietary Moderation?

Moderation. If you’ve ever had a conversation with a dietitian, they’ve no doubt uttered this word, usually in reference to consuming foods that aren’t exactly considered healthy. Everything in moderation sounds like a great dietary philosophy...but what the hell is this moderation, anyway?

The problem with dietary moderation is that it’s hard to define. The dictionary defines moderation at the avoidance of extremes or excesses. Okay, that makes sense but, again, what does that really mean when we are talking about food and diet?

Moderation is subjective. It’s a nice little way of saying that you don’t need to deprive yourself but just don’t have too much. But how do you decide what is too much? Where do we draw that invisible line between of what is acceptable and what is excess when it comes to eating? The truth is that it’s all a little arbitrary, and will change with the type of food, a person’s health and/or overall diet.

The fact is that my version of moderation could be very different from your version. Depending on which diet dogma you choose to follow, your view of dietary moderation will differ. Take cookies, for example. While one person may think moderation is to have cookies two times a week, another person may think having cookies each afternoon is moderation. And yet another person may believe that cookies in moderation means once per month. So...who is correct? One could argue that all of these versions of moderation are correct depending on which dietary beliefs they follow.

So, we still haven’t gotten anywhere, have we? I still haven’t been able to provide a black and white definition of what moderation in diet actually is. What I can do, though, is tell you what moderation is not.

Moderation is not abstaining from whole food groups.

Moderation is not having rigid rules around mealtimes.

Moderation is not attaching guilt or shame to foods.

Moderation is not having “bad” or “forbidden” foods.

Moderation is not avoiding the dessert table at a party.

Moderation is not needing to compensate through diet and exercise for “bad” food eaten.

Moderation is not avoiding social situations because of food.

Moderation is not always ordering a salad when sometimes you want french fries.

Moderation is not giving food uncontrollable power over you.

Moderation is not counting calories.

Moderation is not feeling uncomfortable.

Moderation is not deprivation.


Of course, moderation means a completely different thing for medically necessary diets. A person with celiac disease can’t justify a slice of wheat-based cake by saying “everything in moderation”, nor can a person with dialysis-dependent kidney disease have a daily glass of orange juice if the potassium in their blood tends to run high. Sometimes, there are instances where people do have to stick to a particular way of eating and there is no "everything in moderation”.

For most healthy people, though, moderation gives us a little wiggle room. It stops us from being miserable at meal times or social engagements. Food is meant to be enjoyed and sometimes we seem to forget that fact. Having a dietary mantra of eating healthy but allowing ‘treats’ in moderation takes the rigidity out of eating and gives us permission to have those foods that we crave. “Everything in moderation” eliminates negative emotions that arise when we don’t completely comply to a diet. 

No food should be forbidden. Look how sad this piece of bread is when you totally exclude it from your life! 

No food should be forbidden. Look how sad this piece of bread is when you totally exclude it from your life! 

While I haven’t been able to define moderation, I hope you have a better understanding why so many dietitians preach moderation. We want you to be healthy, to eat healthy and to have a healthy relationship with food. So, go ahead and embrace moderation.