I planned to post a link to my On Nutrition column in today’s Seattle Times, but it hasn’t appeared online yet (a glitch, I think), so I’m posting my original version of the column. [Monday update…the column posted early this morning on the Times’ site.]

Moderation: It Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

“Everything in moderation.” Can you remember a time before that expression existed? I can’t. That simple phrase has been used as shorthand for a balanced diet for so long that it’s become nutritional dogma. Here’s the problem: “Moderation” doesn’t mean what you think it means. Too many people think they eat in moderation when, in reality, their eating habits are off the rails. I lay the blame on one major fallacy and one serious miscalculation.

The fallacy: “Everything in moderation” gives the impression that all foods are nutritionally equal. Well, they aren’t. You should not be eating moderate amounts of vegetables and moderate amounts of dessert. You should be eating abundant amounts of vegetables and tiny amounts of dessert. 

The miscalculation: People don’t know how much they eat. Unless you keep a food journal or otherwise track what you eat, you lose the big picture of what your food pattern looks like over the course of a week, a month or a year. That makes it shockingly easy to think you eat more healthfully than you really do. You tell yourself, “I only eat doughnuts once in a while,” forgetting that you also eat chips once in a while, cheesecake once in a while, and so on. Add up too many once-in-a-whiles, and you get a total consumption of fatty, sugary, salty, calorie-rich, nutrient-poor food that is far from moderate. 

Of course, quantity includes portion size, and that’s another area where we can easily lose perspective. If you’re eating too much food, you are not eating in moderation. It’s possible to overeat healthy foods, too, especially those that are more calorie-dense, like nuts, nut butters and whole-grain breads and pastas. Learning proper serving sizes—and how to measure them—is one way to reign in portion distortion. Another is to start paying attention to why you’re eating. Are you eating because you are truly hungry and it’s been at least two or three hours since you last ate? Or are you eating simply because the food tastes good or because you’re tired or bored? That could be a problem. 

“Everything in moderation” often goes hand-in-hand with “There are no good or bad foods.” It’s an important notion, because many of us tend to feel virtuous when we eat salad but guilty when we eat a whole pint of ice cream. I agree that no one’s feelings of self-worth should be based on how healthfully they eat. However, from a nutritional point of view, there are definitely foods that are good for your body and foods that are bad for your body. If bad foods make up too large a chunk of your total diet, sooner or later it will take a toll on your waistline and, worse, your health.  

While we’re on the subject, you’ve probably heard the advice to “eat a variety of foods.” It’s excellent advice that often gets misinterpreted. The idea is to eat a variety of healthy foods, not simply a variety of foods. Eating a variety of junk food can leave you feeling run down. Eating a nice mix of healthy fruits, vegetables, whole grains and protein foods (lean meat, poultry, fish and seafood, beans, eggs, nuts, soy or dairy) will help you get enough of the nutrients you need to look and feel your best. Isn’t that what we all want? 

Next time: The (leafy) green revolution.

P.S. I completely forgot to post a link last week to the podcast interview I did with my classmate Seth during Spring Break. We talked about the paper I wrote on conjugated linoleic acid and grass-fed beef for my Nutrition and Metabolism class last term. You can listen to it on his blog, The Science of Nutrition.