The ‘Everything In Moderation’ Rule Is Making You Fat

everything in moderation

Last week, our friends at Well+Good NYC gave us a peek at the refrigerator of triple board-certified nutritionist Dana C James—and when they asked her about her dual stock of coffee and chlorophyll, they joked that she must be following the rule of moderation. Her response? Hell, no. “I’m actually not one for moderation but more about balance on both sides.” This stopped us in our tracks: How could a nutritionist (who stocks wine and coffee in her fridge) not love the classic health rule, ‘everything in moderation’? We called her up to ask.

James, who works with clients through Food Coach, a nutrition consulting service she founded in New York City, told us that she was hoping people would catch that line of her interview. And when we asked what she meant by it, she explained that, in a word, the “moderation” myth is what’s making people less-than-happy with the results of their diets and workout routines:

Moderation to me is boring, it’s beige, it’s not how we live our life. You wouldn’t tell someone to exercise in moderation; you have to do it with passion, and do it with intensity. Moderation gives you an excuse to be loose with your diet. So people say: ”Oh, just a little bit of chocolate…a little bread…a little wine…and a bite of a cupcake—it’s all in moderation so I can do that every day.” If you take that view it’s really not going to get you to your goal. It could keep you where you are, but if you want to go from having a pretty good body to having an awesome body, you need to be a little bit extreme.

To James, that means following a clean diet consisting of protein, lots of vegetables, and a little bit of carbohydrates based on activity levels, with occasional “treats”:

Punctuate that with things that are indulgent — maybe it’s an amazing bottle of red wine, or macaroons, or brownies, or whatever is your choice of food, but you have that once or twice a week. Whereas the rest of the time you stick to a really clean, healthy, vibrant diet.

But figuring out how much, how often, and when to indulge is often the biggest pitfall of dieters (and even those of us who just want to maintain a balanced diet). Some people spend an entire “cheat day” gorging on their favorite junk foods at every meal; others determine that, if they eat salads and lean protein all day, they deserve a candy bar, too. So what’s the best rule of thumb for keeping indulgence in check? James says she follows the 90/10 rule…exactly:

What I recommend to my clients is 90% on plan, and 10% off. So that means two meals a week, not an entire day. But for most of my clients, the first time they do that, they might decide to overindulge and have pizza and a cupcake and alcohol…and the next day they feel incredibly ill, and decide not to do it again. But it really is two meals off, and you need to be really strict the entire rest of the time. That means no little bit of somebody’s chocolate, no two bites of 70% chocolate and thinking that it doesn’t count, because it all does count. If somebody’s trying to lose weight, it’s the little things that make a difference or keep people where they are.

James’ ideas make sense, but the words “strict” and “extreme” are practically taboo in the world of nutrition and dieting. When I point out that many people are afraid to tell people to be extreme about their diets, she quips:

Having a diet full of vegetables and protein and a little bit of carbohydrates is not extreme. Having a diet full of processed food is extreme.

She also warns against the kind of crash dieting and weight obsession that are associated with “strict” diets:

I have to stress, you can’t have a bipolar diet where all you eat is junk, and then go on a juice cleanse for three days. You’ll just feel sick. And there’s no point being overly obsessive about it, because the stress that it places on your body is going to counter some of the the good that you do.

However, people tend to obsesswhen they have a negative relationship with food Whether it’s calorie counting or only eating raw food—someone who’s super, super strict is really in the same category as a binge eater, and if that’s the type of person they are, you need to work on the emotional side of that to break through it. I don’t want anybody to have an obsession with food: One of my key goals with clients is to liberate them from that obsession with food.

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    • holly

      love this. its not easy to get the body we want, and someone is actually coming out and saying that. its not hating your body or “embracing it just the way it is”….this is a realistic, and dare i say, healthy way of viewing what we put in to our bodies.

      • Briana Rognlin

        Yes! Holly, when I was interviewing Dana I was very skeptical (and she called me out on it), but I think her comments about what an “extreme” diet is are what really made me think differently about her advice: It’s not extreme to eat a diet full of vegetables, lean protein, and some carbs; it’s extreme to eat processed junk all day and let it deteriorate our health (regardless of whether it actually “makes you fat”). And yes, I think she’s being brutally honest, which is a nice change from all the diets out there claiming you can “eat whatever you want” and still lose weight.

    • Avodah

      Hold on, Briana. Are fat-shaming, now?

    • johnzarriaga

      The types of free samples you can get from “Official Samples” are shampoo, coffee, diapers, medicine, greeting cards and more.

    • Amy

      I am slightly confused.

      “Eating everything in moderation” and “eating a balanced diet” sound like the exact same thing to me. Even the descriptions were the same, seems like a pretty big deal to make over symantics.

    • jennfizz

      The day I summon something akin to passion for grinding out an hour long cardio workout or eating lean protein in order to achieve an “awesome body” is the day I’ll fucking off myself. Jesus H Christ on a Fucking Rice Cake.