What Does Eating in Moderation Really Mean? A Dietitian Explains

Joy Bauer, MS, RD
Photo credit: paul mansfield photography

From Woman's Day

You’ve heard it before (definitely from me!): Go ahead and enjoy your favorite foods—just do so in moderation. It’s a phrase meant to help prevent feelings of deprivation when you’re trying to maintain a healthy diet, and while in theory it’s sage advice, in reality it’s meaningless.

That’s because it’s too ambiguous to be helpful and can be problematic for those trying to maintain or lose weight. Take my friend Lisa, who defines “moderate” as a small slice of cake or pie twice a week (she’s got the right idea!). But her husband, Tom, who also loves dessert, is convinced it means a sweet treat twice a day. One study from the journal Appetite illustrates just how wishy-washy the term can be. Researchers found that the more a person liked a certain food, the more forgiving he or she was with the word “moderation.” For example, Tom’s twice-a-day sweets habit is moderate in his mind because he’d actually like to eat treats three or four times a day! (Ha ha!)

Photo credit: Jose Luis Pelaez Inc

To figure out what moderation means in your day-to-day eating, here’s some help:
I follow a 90/10 approach, which means I make 90% of my food choices healthy, leaving 10% wiggle room for my favorite indulgences (pizza, cookies, ice cream). By the time
you’ve loaded up on wholesome picks, there’s not much room left for the less nutritious stuff (see the handy chart at right for guidance). If you’re counting calories, try to limit treat foods to 150 to 200 total calories a day—and don’t forget to enjoy yourself!

Joy's Plan for Healthy Moderation


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Servings to aim for: 1 to 2 per meal (about 100 calories each serving)

Approximate serving: 1 cup cold cereal; 1 slice bread; ½ cup cooked rice or pasta; 3 oz any potato.

Examples: ½ bagel at breakfast, sandwich with 2 slices of bread at lunch, ½ large potato at dinner. Or skip starches at breakfast and lunch and enjoy 2 cups of pasta at dinner.


Photo credit: Claudia Totir - Getty Images

Servings to aim for:About 200 calories daily or about 700 twice a week. (One or the other, not both!)

Examples: One of these daily: ½ scoop ice cream; 1 oz chocolate; small
fast-food fries; 2 to 3 small cookies; ½ slice pie or cake Biweekly: 1 large slice or 2 small slices of pizza; 2-piece fried chicken entrée; cheeseburger; chocolate milkshake; or restaurant dessert.


Photo credit: Jose A. Bernat Bacete - Getty Images

Servings to aim for: Up to 1 standard drink per day for women.

Approximate serving: 12 oz regular beer, 5 oz wine, or 1.5 oz (1 shot) distilled spirits.

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