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Why “Everything In Moderation” is a Bad Idea

Shannon Harvey

The Australian media went into hyperdrive this week after former Miss Universe Australia and healthy living advocate Jesinta Franklin was announced as the face of a new range of Cadbury chocolates. The 25-year-old model has published a book (under her maiden name Jesinta Campbell) called Live a Beautiful Life, which among other things, includes sugar free recipes and advocates eating unprocessed foods. But after her deal with Cadbury reportedly worth up to $250,000, she’s facing wide-spread criticism for having transformed overnight to being “officially a chocoholic.”

Franklin defended her new spruiking gig on morning television saying “If you’re guilty having a couple of pieces of chocolate, then how are you going to enjoy life? It really is about balance.” In fact, smiling in front of the enticingly packaged new range of chocolates she exclaimed that after a fashion show, she always has “a glass of champagne and a block of dairy milk chocolate.” And not just a small block, “A proper block,” she declared.

There is of course a discussion that needs to be had about why being a celebrity qualifies people to give health and lifestyle advice, but I don’t actually have a problem with the fact that Franklin is endorsing both healthy living and junk food, or even that she’s endorsing eating an entire block of chocolate in one sitting. Rather, this cash-for-Cadbury controversy has got me thinking about another idea being promoted not only by Franklin, but also by just about every other health guru. In fact, I think it’s something we’ve all been guilty of advocating at one time or another.

My problem is with the message that we should “eat everything in moderation.”

This I because while the idea of taking a “balanced” approach is seemingly sensible, there is a fundamental flaw in the concept of moderation. It is arbitrary and subjective. And I have science to prove it.

In a series of studies published in the journal Appetite, researchers demonstrated that the size of what people generally consider to be a "moderate" portion is highly dependent on how much a person likes the food and how much of it they eat in their everyday life. They also found that most people think that “moderate consumption” involves eating greater amounts of an unhealthy food than what they also think we should eat.

Therein lies one of main issues I have with Franklin’s message who has spoken at length about the fact that she trains hard and “eats clean” Monday to Friday, but on the weekends she indulges. Even if we were to ignore 2016 research, done on mice at the University of New South Wales, which demonstrated that eating a poor diet that includes things like meat pies, cakes, and cookies even a few days a week can change the balance of gut bacteria and lead to weight gain and ill health, the vast majority of us are not eating kale salads and cooking from scratch Monday to Friday like Miss Universe Australia is.

If you look at a typically Western diet, many of us are eating excessive amounts of cheap, nutritionally-deficient, low-quality food on a regular basis. Here in Australia over one-third of our total daily energy is coming from “discretionary foods” such as cakes, muffins, pastries, soft drinks and fries. Over one-third of American children and adolescents eat fast food every day. Even if we were to agree that eating a block of chocolate after a hard day of work can be part of a balanced diet, this would only be true if you didn’t also eat the muffin for breakfast on Monday, the pie for lunch on Tuesday, the cookie for afternoon tea on Thursday, and the pizza for dinner on Friday.

The idea that taking the “eat everything in moderation” approach is “healthier” because of “balance” is also a misnomer. A study of more than 5,000 people found that the more variety of foods people ate (both healthy and unhealthy), the more likely they were to be overweight and have type 2 diabetes. People who ate a more “diverse” diet actually gained more weight, with a 120 percent greater increase in waist circumference than the people who eat a more monotonous diet. The researchers suggested this is because the potential benefits from increased intakes of fruits and vegetables may be outweighed by the unfavourable effects of eating foods containing trans-fat, sodium, starch and refined carbohydrates. In other words, junk food is junk food even if you eat your vegetables.

While you might be reading this thinking that it doesn’t apply because you’re super savvy when it comes to healthy eating, the evidence also shows that we are all notoriously poor judges of portion sizes, the caloric content of food, and even the amount of food we have just consumed. This is in part because subtle environmental cues around us, such as package size, plate shape, or lighting, can increase how much we eat far more than we realise.

My favourite series of studies demonstrating this have been done on movie goers given free popcorn. The catch in these studies is that the free popcorn is always stale, but what’s fascinating is that people who are given large buckets of stale popcorn eat an average of 53 percent more just because it comes in a bigger bucket. The same research team have also demonstrated that even after people have been lectured to, shown videos, watched demonstrations, and separated into groups to discuss strategies they could use to prevent themselves from succumbing to “mindless eating,” they still ate more party snacks at a function when they were served in bigger bowls. (Check out my blog post and podcast episode featuring the head of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, Brian Wansink for more on this.)

As a health journalist with a chronic health condition which is worsened by unhealthy lifestyle behaviours, I totally understand that the message of moderation and balance can make healthy living seem more attainable. In fact, anyone who has read my book will tell you that I’m all about finding balance in this crazy busy modern world, so I do understand that knowing that it's ok to treat yourself can make it easier to stick to your healthy eating goals, and alleviate your guilt when you slip up. (Read my blog post You Can’t Do It All So Stop Worrying for more.)

I'm also very aware that our efforts to be healthy can swing us way too far in other direction. Orthorexia nervosa is the term being used to describe people who are excessively preoccupied with eating healthy food. I want to make it clear that I’m no saint and that I do eat chocolate, and fries, and sugar, and cake, and countless other junk foods from time to time.

Having said that, we now live in an age where the concept of “moderation” has been distorted, where junk food manufacturers pay models to tell us that eating an entire block of chocolate after a hard day’s work is normal, and where “sometimes” food has become “everyday” food. At times like this, once you give yourself a licence to eat anything "in moderation," it quickly becomes permission to eat anything, anytime. So rather than eating “everything in moderation”, my approach is to eat healthy food all the time, and to strive to cut the crap whenever I can.

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