What Is Moderation?

For awhile, I’ve planned to write a post on whether it is better to eat certain things in moderation or whether it is better to abstain. I’ll skip ahead a bit and answer that now:  Yes.  The trick, of course, is recognizing when that “yes” is to moderation and when that “yes” is to abstention.

But, in thinking about that future post, I realized that one sticking point is in defining moderation.  I’ve seen so many people mean radically different things by using that word.


The definition of “abstain” is not so controversial.  If someone is a vegetarian and abstains from meat, most people understand pretty quickly that that means that not eating meat.  Period.  In fact, when someone says that she is vegetarian who occasionally eats fish, you will almost always have someone quickly say that that isn’t being a vegetarian.  And, if someone says that he abstains from something and then doesn’t, well, that is seen as cheating or falling off the wagon, etc.  There is a real air of doing something you aren’t supposed to do.

In the food world, particularly the weight loss world, this topic of moderation versus abstaining will usually come up with regard to foods that some people feel are either unhealthy or make weight loss more difficult or cause weight gain.  And, the lines are often very clearly drawn between those that favor abstention (no dairy, no grains, no sugar, no red meat, etc.) versus those that favor moderation (all things in moderation is the cry while taking a piece of chocolate cake).

In these debates, it often seems like abstention and moderation are opposites, each in their own corner.  If to abstain from something means to not partake in it at all, then the opposite of abstaining is to partake in it.  If I say that I will eat chips in moderation, then I’m definitely not abstaining from chips.  But, the word moderation doesn’t just mean to partake. The word moderation has a limiting component to it.

It sometimes doesn’t seem that way, when I read about whether to eat certain foods in moderation.  It often seems that those who favor abstaining, think that the alternative to abstention is wild excess.  If abstention is one extreme, then advocating for “moderation” is sometimes seen as advocating for gluttony.

But, this ignores the real definition of moderation.  For example, from dictionary.com, the first definition of moderation is “the quality of being moderate; restraint; avoidance of extremes or excesses; temperance.”  Note, the sort of “in the middle” part of moderation.  While moderation is obviously not abstention, it is also just as far from excessive indulgence as it is from abstention.

I would also suggest that , with regard to food, there is a subjective component to it that may vary depending upon individual circumstances and depending upon the specific food.  In other words, what I consider moderation in eating pistachios may be quite different from what I consider moderation in eating frozen yogurt.  And, what I consider moderate consumption of specific foods for me with my health and weight characteristics may be very different than that for someone else who has different characteristics.

In the end, I consider my consumption of some foods that I eat daily to be moderate while there are other foods that I may eat once a month and consider that moderate.  Then, there are foods that I eat rarely or occasionally.  I do consider eating those foods as being eating in moderation.  While I don’t abstain from them, I limit how much I eat of them.  I use restraint and am temperate.  Today, I went to Tutti Frutti and had frozen yogurt.  I measured it carefully, weighing after adding each ingredient.  I knew about how much I wanted to eat there and had that amount (I recorded it at just under 400 calories, 11 Points Plus).  I enjoyed it.  My “rule” is that I don’t have this more often than once a month.  To me, that is moderation.

I eat a serving of Antep Pistachios almost every day.  I’ve eaten pistachios on a regular basis for many, many years. (No one was more overjoyed to read about how pistachios are good for you than I was).  To me, even though I eat them almost daily, that is still moderation because I don’t eat an excessive amount.

What is not moderation?  Eating an excessive amount.  Obviously, what will be excessive depends upon the type of food and your individual characteristics.  We are all different.  But, if abstaining is at one end of a continuum and excessive indulgence is at the other end, then moderation is what is in between.  It is just that my moderation may not be the same as your moderation.  That is, what is excessive for me may not be what is excessive for you, and vice versa.

Another thing is that foods of a similar type may seem moderate when consumed alone, but if all are consumed then the totality may be excessive.  For example, I had frozen yogurt today.  Imagine that tomorrow, I go out to eat and order dessert at the restaurant.  And, then, the next day I eat at Subway and have a chocolate chip cookie.  And, the next day, I attend a birthday celebration and have a good-sized piece of chocolate cake.  And, the day after that I stop at Starbucks and have a double chocolatey chip frappuccino.  The next day my daughter offers me a couple of fun sized Butterfingers and I eat them. And, the next day, I stop at a convenience store while driving across town and I’m tired and hungry and eat 200 calories worth of potato chips.

I actually have done each and every one of those things during the last year, most of them within the last 6 months.  And, it is moderation.  I share in a restaurant dessert a couple of times a year.  I have a Subway chocolate chip cookie a few times a year.  I have a piece of birthday cake 2 or 3 times a year.  I have a tall chocolatey chip frappuccino (no whip, nonfat milk), every 2 or 3 months.  I eat fun sized Butterfingers around Halloween and Christmas.  I have a 200+ bag of chips once every month or two. That is moderation because I spread them out all over the course of a year.  If I did all of them in one week that would not be moderation.  Because I had frozen yogurt today, I certainly won’t have any of those things this week and will severely limit the others that I have for the rest of this month.

Obviously, my definition of moderation may not be yours.  (And, I’m not even discussing in this post when it is better to abstain entirely).  The main point is to recognize that moderation is not the same thing as excessive indulgence.  It is not an excuse to eat anything at any time.  Moderation always involves restraint and avoiding excess.