My Fourfold Philosophy to Eating in Moderation

In a society known for dietary extremes, here's how to find and maintain balance.

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“Moderation” is a pretty vague and meaningless concept to most people. It assumes an inherent understanding of how much is too much or how often is too often when it comes to indulgent foods – an understanding most of us lack. “Moderation” also tends to be missing from the philosophical food fights we wage in our quests to identify the “right” diet, as evidenced by the eagerness with which proponents of various regimens declare every food they choose not to eat as “toxic.” Many of my patients sicken themselves physically and psychologically as the result of the struggle with moderation in eating-related thoughts and behaviors.

[Read: Calling for an End to Nutrition as Religion.]

In a society known for dietary extremes, it can be hard to find and maintain balance when it comes to eating. Here are four basic philosophies that help me navigate my own diet – and that of my family – away from excesses in either direction.

1. We are principled eaters, not dogmatic ones. I have specific principles when it comes to the diet I choose to follow and the foods I feed my children. These principles govern where I shop; how much I’m willing to pay for certain foods; which foods will and will not cross the threshold into my home; and how meals are planned. And from time to time – when we are guests at another person’s home, my kids are at a birthday party or eating conditions are simply out of my control – I allow these principles to be relaxed without worry.

While you won’t find hot dogs in my fridge, for example, I do not begrudge my kids the pleasure of eating them at a summer afternoon cookout in grandma’s backyard. Similarly, a fellow dietitian I know runs a strictly vegan household, but she allows her young son to eat cheese when he’s away from home so he can, say, enjoy a slice of pizza at a birthday party.

Rather than allow my dietary principles to isolate me and my children from the world around us, I believe in building in a degree of flexibility. The aggregate of all our food choices are what influence our individual health and our food system, not the content of any one mouthful in particular. By establishing healthful habits at home – family mealtimes, home-cooked food, drinking water and lots of plant-based foods – I hope to teach my children the foundation of healthful eating for life. And by modeling flexibility when the situation calls for it, I hope to protect my children from adopting rigid “rules” about food and eating that characterize the troubled relationships with food among so many of my patients with eating disorders. By being principled but not dogmatic, I’m acknowledging how important food is to nourishing my body and my social and cultural life.

[Read: When a Healthy Diet is Anything But.] 

2. We try to plan more meals around the vegetable, not the protein. I was a fish-eating vegetarian in my 20s, and although I have since transitioned back to an omnivorous diet, I’ve tried to preserve one important habit from my more vegetarian days. That is: building a meal around the plants, not the protein. When you think of meat or protein as the main event, vegetables tend to be relegated to an afterthought. You put the most time and thought into preparing an appetizing “entrée,” and take care to ensure there will be a large enough portion to satiate everyone. Then, you thoughtlessly toss a small bag of green beans in boiling water or open up a can of peas and check off the “vegetable” box from the to-do list. The result?  Veggie portions are relatively smaller than meat portions, and veggie “sides” are uninspired, unappealing … and uneaten. 

If, however, you start building a meal around which vegetables you’d like to eat – or those you have around the house – the meal dynamic shifts. If I have a load of bell peppers on hand, for example, I might start thinking stir-fry. That leads me to other stir-fry veggies – such as broccoli and green beans – and before I know it, there is a mound of colorful vegetables going into this entrée, ready to be seasoned with a super flavorful curry sauce that brings them to life. Once I’ve decided on my veggie preparation, the corresponding protein and carb decisions easily fall into place – and I wind up with a plate whose proportions aren’t ever too heavy on the animal protein – even as a non-vegetarian.

[Read: 7 Reasons to Choose a Plant-Based Diet.]

3. If I don’t want to eat it (or my kids to eat it), I don’t bring it into the house. I’m amazed at how many of my clients get stuck in a cycle of night eating, feeling powerless to resist grazing on high-calorie snack foods that they, themselves, bring into the house. We’ve all certainly been there, but not all of us have internalized the moral of the story: If you don’t want it to end up in your mouth, don’t buy it. Maybe you think the rule can’t apply to you, since you have kids – and you’re buying all this stuff for them, not for you. To which I retort: If it’s not healthy for you, it’s probably not healthy for your kids, either. 

In addition to fresh fruit (which is a given), there are plenty of snacks and treats that are nutritious enough for daily use and appealing to all members of the family: cocoa-dusted almonds, frozen bananas, dry roasted chickpeas and homemade trail mixes. There are also ways to enjoy more indulgent treats – or to bestow them upon your children – that don’t involve keeping econo-sized bags of them in your fridge or pantry. If you had to leave the house to make a special trip each time you decided to treat yourself to an ice cream or to treat your child to some chips, then you’d almost certainly eat a whole lot less of these foods. You might even enjoy them more! (See more on how this works in practice below.)

[Read: In Pictures: 10 Healthy Desserts – and They’re Tasty, Too.]

4. There is a time and place for ice cream. I love ice cream. I love it so much, in fact, that I don’t keep it in the house (see above); otherwise, I’d eat it every day. But rather than deny myself the hedonic pleasure of creamy, delicious ice cream entirely, I’ve developed an ice cream policy to govern its use. If I want it so badly that I am willing to get up off the couch and walk a half mile to the local ice cream parlor, then I go for it. I order a kids’ size cup – which these days is plenty generous in portion – enjoy it immensely, and then return home on foot. Sticky fingered but empty-handed, I need not worry about struggling against pints (or worse, gallons) calling to me from the freezer. Also, on principle, I eat ice cream on days when it’s 90 degrees or above, because a scorching hot day is precisely when you’re supposed to eat ice cream. (Not unlike the reason I reserve cupcakes for birthdays … because that’s when you’re supposed to eat cupcakes.) 

My ice cream policy reflects my overall approach to moderation when it comes to the special treats you love. Specifically, I advise my patients to carve out an appropriate time, place and portion for such indulgences in advance – whether it be ice cream, alcohol or French fries – and then grant themselves permission to enjoy them, guiltlessly, under those circumstances. Granting oneself such permission makes it easier to say "no" when faced with unexpected opportunities for unplanned indulgences, of which there are no shortage in our society.