This a guest blog post by Carol Plotkin, MS, RD, CDN
Moderation is a word that has been used quite often when describing healthy eating and drinking patterns. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines moderation as avoidance of extremes or tending toward average. What does this really mean when we are talking about food? Does it mean one cookie a day or one less cookie than we usually eat? Perhaps it means that we don’t eat the whole cookie jar? Does it mean once a day, once a week, once a month or once a year? The problem is that it can mean anything that we want it to mean. This isn’t good enough when we are talking about promoting healthy eating behaviors. To say “all things in moderation” to me seems like an excuse to maintain the status quo, which arguably is average.
Paula Deen announced this week that she has had type 2 diabetes for the past three years. Her announcement mentioned very little about following healthy dietary habits. Rather, she stated that she has always been a advocate for moderation (there’s that word again). Deen’s recipes are not known for being healthy and it must be extremely embarrassing for her to have developed a disease that has a strong tie to dietary factors. Regardless of the cause of diabetes, diet and exercise are integral for its management. They are much too important to be passed off by the use of a non-specific word such as moderation. Deen’s announcement this week motivated me to write this blog post, but this post is not about her.
The food industry loves the term moderation for the very reason that it is non-specific. Hershey’s has created the Moderation Nation to help consumers find balance in their lives. Part of their message is that 100 calories a day of chocolate can fit into your balanced diet. That’s fine, if you do not need to lose weight, but about one third of American adults are obese. George Blackburn, MD, PhD, Chief of the Nutritional/Metabolism Laboratory, and Director of the Center for the Study of Nutrition Medicine, which are affiliated with the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts, reports that for a vast majority of obese Americans, as little as 200 calories a day prevents them from losing the 20-30 pounds necessary to gain significant health benefits(1). That is less than a small package of M&M’s (240 calories). Often, that 100 calorie treat becomes a 200 or 300 calorie ”nibble” especially when the whole package contains more than 100 calories. The concept of moderation keeps consumers buying products, which is the primary concern of major food manufacturers and restaurants. In the case of Deen’s Savannah, GA restaurant, it keeps the line of patrons circling the block waiting to be seated. Moderation promotes sales and keeps the customers coming through the door.
Last month the marketing research group NPD discovered that Americans are following MyPlate guidelines only 2% of the time. That translates to seven days out of the year! That surely is not moderation and I would argue that the message of moderation is not working. MyPlate promotes such a simple concept and advises Americans to consume half of their plate from fruits and vegetables. It doesn’t get much easier than that!
So what can we do that is better? The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in collaboration with the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases developed the WeCan Program to teach children and families how to choose healthier diets and exercise more. This program uses the Stoplight Approach to teach which foods should be eaten every day (green light), which foods should be eaten in smaller quantities and less often (yellow light) and which foods should rarely be eaten (red light). Another way to define this approach uses the words “Go, Slow, and Whoa.” These three simple words convey more meaning than the word moderation and help to underscore that not all foods can be eaten regularly in moderation if you are trying to lose weight. This approach can be used to teach adults how to better control their food intake too and shows great promise in some area weight management programs.
Stoplight symbols have been added to packaged foods in some European countries to help consumers choose healthier diets. It’s doubtful if food manufacturers would allow such a system in this country because many food products would be labeled yellow or red which could potentially negatively impact sales. You can understand why manufacturers prefer the use of the term “moderation” when it comes to promoting healthier diet habits.
Smart phone users can benefit from using the Fooducate application which independently grades thousands of grocery food items and provides a stoplight color code and letter grade to help consumers make appropriate food choices. The app also discusses the reason for the grade so that you can better understand what makes a food more or less healthy.
1. Blackburn, GL and Waltman, GA. Expanding the Limits of Treatment-New Strategic Initiatives. J Am Diet Assoc. 2005;105:S131-S135.