What does "in moderation" mean?

Hey League of Wildness!

It’s Friday again and we hope you have epic wildness planned for your weekend! 

In the world of human wellness, there is often a lot of talk about “all things in moderation.” Obviously, this makes a lot of sense. Part of a healthy life includes a balance of life’s smaller pleasures, like a heavily frosted cupcake, a few too many drinks with friends, or my personal favorite, a salami sandwich. 

But what does moderation really look like? My “unpopular opinion” recently has been that there are foods that are bad for us. I often hear that “There is no such thing as a bad food” and yet studies have shown that some foods cause chaos in our bodies shortly after eating them. I like this article because not only does it point out the immediate impacts of an unhealthy meal but the author, who is a dietician, likes the same 80/20 rule that I like and discuss later on. In this email, the “junk food” I am referencing is the most processed of our ultra-processed food: fast food, soda, candy, most frozen pizzas, gas station microwavable sandwiches and so on.

Lately, I’ve seen people claiming to be dieticians hawking junkfood on TikTok. It turns out that large food corporations are paying them to do so. I find that to be atrocious, because people trust professionals such as dieticians to give them accurate health advice, and even they are selling out to make a buck on social media. The article also mentioned that the FDA is attempting to require better food labeling so that consumers can easily see the sugar and fat content. A General Mills spokesperson said, “We're doing everything we can to prevent this from happening.” Food giants are knowingly and actively lobbying to harm the people who purchase their foods. That fact alone makes me mad enough to not buy their stuff.

But what does “bad food” look like, and can those foods still be enjoyed in moderation? What is moderation? 

We understand about alcohol that if we have a glass of wine or a beer with dinner, that is fine for most people. Alcohol is a toxin and it has an impact on our body, but assuming we drink a small amount, infrequently, our body can handle that impact and recover completely. Even if we drink a bit too much on a rare weekend, our body can recover from that. On the other hand, we also know that if you drink 6 beers every night for 10 years, the impact of the alcohol is compounded and can lead to liver disease (among many other problems). It is the compounding impact that matters because your body never gets enough time to recover. If you cut your finger, it heals over time if you protect it. If you cut it in the same spot every day, it won’t heal. The same is true about junk food. 

Eating just one fast food meal weekly can increase your abdominal fat, raise your blood pressure, decrease your body’s sensitivity to insulin (which, over time, can lead to type 2 diabetes and other metabolic diseases) increase your risk for cardiovascular disease, and even impact your brain cells. The concerns surrounding highly processed meats such as hot dogs, lunch meat (my beloved salami!), and pepperoni continue to rise to the point that those foods are considered carcinogens by many experts. 

Yet we are told that those foods “in moderation” are ok. Most people who say that don’t explain what moderation looks like so we are left to decide for ourselves. We can lie to ourselves pretty convincingly when it comes to things that are pleasurable or comfortable, and food is heavily related to comfort for many of us. Our memories also fail us in this regard, as most of us don’t remember what we had for lunch 2 days ago, nevermind for the whole week. 

I want to be clear that not all processed food is bad. Often we hear “Only shop the outer aisles of the grocery store.” Which is great advice for whole foods, but it assumes that everything else is worthless, which isn’t true. Steel-cut oats are a great option. So are quinoa, canned veggies, and frozen fruit and veggies. Just because oatmeal and Fruit Loops are in the same aisle doesn’t make them equals. Plain Greek yogurt isn’t the same as the sugar-laden yogurt that comes with a side of candy. 

So what is moderation? 

Currently, average Americans are eating 60% of their calories from ultra processed foods. That is a 10% increase in the last 20 years, and a several point increase just since Covid. If you change that up allowing up to 20% of your calories from ultra processed foods but 80% from unprocessed, whole foods, that seems to tip the balance the most. To me, the 80/20 rule makes the most sense and is now being backed up by studies. This article covers some of the information from those studies.

One of the mistakes I made when I was first considering the balance of foods I ate was viewing it through my meals. As long as 80% of my meals were good, then I considered myself to be doing well. But this can very easily skew what is really happening in your diet. It needs to be about the calories and not the meal count. If you have a huge bagel covered in cream cheese and a caramel macchiato for breakfast, fast food for lunch and then have a salad for dinner, your balance is still off because your total calories for the day were 90% junk food. That doesn’t mean the salad wasn’t beneficial, but it’s not enough to counteract the other foods if you eat that way every day. 

I try to keep a wide view of the makeup of my meals by the week rather than the day. I absolutely have days where I don’t eat well, especially when I am traveling. I always have good intentions but they often fall apart because my routine is off, I get hungry to the point of starving and I grab the first minimal-effort thing that looks good. This is where the balance comes into play. I might have had peanut butter cups for lunch and a blooming onion for dinner, but I know that my nutrition was on point the other 6 days of the week. I don’t have to worry about whether a weekend of traveling is going to have a long-term impact on my health because I strive to hit that 80/20 balance the vast majority of my days.

Human health is about the long game, and the compounding impact over time has a big impact. But it works both ways. If you eat a majority of your calories in junk food, the compounding impact is going to catch up to you. But so will the compounding impact from eating a majority of your calories from whole foods! It’s about consistency – doing the right things most of the time. If you aim to hit your workout and nutrition goals 80% of the time, you’ll be moving forward consistently and the benefits will stack in your favor.

Have a wild weekend!

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