How To Tell If "Eating in Moderation" Is Right For You

By Dr. Brooke Kalanick

Moderation, I kinda love you. Thank you for making nutrition and dieting sane again, we’re all oh-so-glad you’re back. But, you see, the thing is, now may not be the best time for me to get into a new relationship. I’ve got a lot going on, I’m going to be really busy and well… it’s not you, it’s me… really.

Should You Flirt With Moderation?

Moderation is a lovely idea. Being moderate instead of overly strict, and keeping a few things that you really, really enjoy, while making concessions in other areas (what we call nutrition non-negotiables at GGS) is such a welcome reprieve from what many of us have done for so long. It sure sounds more pleasant than going round and round on the restrict-and-binge cycle, or falling off of and getting back on the proverbial wagon.

Who hasn’t:

  • devoured a pint of ice cream and a chocolate bar (and maybe even things they don’t really like all that much) after a strict no-sugar stretch?
  • drank wine every night for a month after giving it up for a bit?
  • ended up neck-deep in French fries after a low-carb stint?

So many of us have done the diet/no diet, on plan/off plan thing—some of us for decades!

There are times when moderation is the perfect strategy, like when you’re trying to heal your relationship with food in general, or with certain foods (treats, sugar, wine, or carbs, for example). But there times when it’s just not the answer for you.

If you are recovering from diet obsession and the all-too-common restrict-and-binge cycle, then moderation is probably a good change of pace for you, instead of yet another diet or new three-week plan. Moderation can be your savior if you’ve historically jumped from one diet to the next. It can help you slow down, learn a bit, and create lasting habit changes.

However, depending on your goal, food sensitivities, and foods that trigger cravings or make eating behaviors hard to manage based on hormonal mechanisms, moderation may not be the best approach. No doubt, moderation is a means to establishing a healthier relationship with food, but sometimes it’s simply not the relationship for you—at least not right now.

Know These Three Things About Moderation

Moderation is relative.

It’s relative to your metabolism and your hormones. It’s relative to your goals and lifestyle. It’s relative to you and only you.

One woman’s “moderation” is another woman’s “bender” or “restrictive diet.”

Let’s look at our GGS leader, Molly Galbraith, for example. She has PCOS, adrenal issues, and Hashimoto’s. She trains hard and is one heck of a busy woman. Molly trains regularly (but is careful not to overdo it), she takes her medication and supplements, consumes minimal sugar, eats adequate (but not too many) carbs, loads up on veggies, ensures she gets quality protein, completely avoids gluten, and has absolutely zero alcohol.

molly-food-paraguay-450x340That might sound like utter freedom to one woman and may sound crazy restrictive to another. For Molly, stepping outside of the above lifestyle on occasion, in the form of ice cream and her beloved queso, is her idea of moderation. She doesn’t strictly avoid these foods that contain sugar and dairy, but she doesn’t have them every day, and there are other things like wine and gluten that she avoids entirely. That’s her moderation: including some foods she loves on occasion, foods that aren’t ideal but don’t totally wreck her, while sidestepping others that create bigger metabolic or hormonal issues for her.

When it comes to your brand of moderation, you have to respect your unique chemistry. For example, when it comes to foods like gluten that are so misunderstood, things can get tricky. Is it a problem for everyone? Definitely not. Is it a problem for some people beyond those who have Celiac? Absolutely.

I don’t mean to always pick on gluten. There are certainly other foods that can be sensitivities for you. Gluten, dairy, and soy lead the pack as troublemakers, but it can be anything from rice to chicken to spinach for some people.

Ya know that advice we give a lot around here, “listen to your body?” Do that. Or get tested. I recommend Cyrex testing above all for food sensitivities. It’s the most accurate, looks at actual immune reactions, and even looks at your sensitivity to cooked food compared to raw foods, for those that you’d normally eat cooked.

Beyond food sensitivities that cause a bellyache, what if you get acne or increased carb cravings when you eat white rice? Simply put, that food doesn’t work for you based on your hormonal response—even if it’s on your friend’s or favorite expert’s fat loss or training plan. (I’ve previously written about what you can do to figure out what works and what doesn’t work for you.)

Take a step back from all the “general” advice and simply ask, “How is this working for me? Is this something I should consume in moderation, or avoid altogether?”

If you’re going to go for moderation, is it with a food that’s worth learning moderation for? Does it bring joy and ease, or does it make life harder for you in the end?

And always keep in mind that what works for you may not look like moderation at all to someone else and vice versa. Do you baby, do you.

Moderation is a skill. It can be learned.

Can it really be learned? With most foods, yes of course. However, you have to put in the time to understand your need or desire for that food, what causes you to abuse it or go over the edge, and be willing to make several mistakes as you learn how to have a healthier relationship with certain foods, like sugar or wine.

brooke-coffee-tea-rose-mug-350x350As an example, let’s look at me here for a moment. I love wine. Pink, white, red—love it. Like Molly, I have PCOS, but I haven’t slept much in the past five years, raising little kids and running a business. I gain fat easily and sugar makes my skin break out. When I have much sugar at all I have increased cravings. Consequently, I have very, very little of it. This has been one that I’d rather let go of than learn to wrangle. It always makes doing better so much harder for me, and I know it impacts my health significantly.

Obviously I’m not 100 percent sugar-free, but it is something I am OK with keeping to rare occasions. I guess that’s ultra-moderation. Wine, on the other hand... I had to learn moderation with that because, unlike Molly, I wasn’t willing to totally give this up. Give me a glass of wine over dessert any day.

Because I love it so much I would prefer to have it every day, perhaps with all of my meals. Is that crazy? Clearly this doesn’t work for me—but, does breakfast wine really work for anyone? Email me if you’ve mastered this! Daily wine (although I’ve never actually had it for breakfast) affects my sleep, keeps me several pounds heavier, and overall makes me more foggy-headed and less productive.

I was able to let go of sugar easily, but those times when I’ve cut out wine completely, I have felt overly restricted and bummed out. So with wine, I put some effort into creating moderation and a healthier relationship. I learned about my cravings and took the time to find a balance that keeps my health and hormones, as well as desire for a glass of great vino, in check. Because I can’t have everything all the time and keep myself in check, 99 percent of the time I will opt for wine over dessert, and I don’t let the occasional glass of wine turn into daily glasses of wine. This is my moderation.

If there’s a food that you want to include in some manner, but you know that it doesn’t serve you to have it regularly, take the time to make peace with it, take back control, and find a happy, balanced place.

You may find my six-step process for habit change helpful as you explore this. It’s exactly how I found my moderation “sweet spot” with wine.

Sometimes, though you love a particular food and continue trying to practice moderation with it, you may find that your efforts are thwarted by hormonal or metabolic responses, making moderation a constant challenge.

woman-chocolate-bar-big-eyes-350x375Going back to my thing with sugar, for example: Another woman may find that a square of dark chocolate per day is the perfect moderation tool to avoid sugar binges. But with my insulin resistance/PCOS, that square of dark chocolate increases cravings for more chocolate and sugar for me. If I have it, I’d better be prepared for the craving battle a-comin’, lest I overeat and indulge in sugar all day. Except on a rare occasion, I have chosen to not fight that battle with my hormones and save my energy for other things.

This one isn’t about willpower or moderation for me, it’s about my unique hormonal issues. In order to be my own best friend, I’m careful with sugar, and I’ve adjusted my mindset around that to keep from feeling miserable about it. With wine, on the other hand, I took several months to figure out moderation and make a lasting change. Again, my own flavor of moderation looks different with these different foods.

Do you love a particular food and know it doesn’t work super well for you, but it doesn’t make you fall apart or have a very hard time recovering? Then by all means, take the time to learn moderation with it. If you’ve struggled with practicing moderation with a food before, look to see if it seems like a hormonal challenge or a mindset/willpower/behavior challenge. If it’s not a hormonal issue, try again. You’ve got this.

If a food doesn’t work for you at all, don’t try to learn moderation with it.

What I described above with sugar and wine are foods that don’t work well for me. They’re not ideal but they don’t totally wreck me. There are other foods that don’t work at all for me. When it comes to these foods, I don’t flirt with moderation. I avoid them.

When a food causes you physical pain (headache, tummy ache, bloating, stuffy nose, achy joints, breakouts, bleeding gums, etc.) or makes you feel otherwise crappy (anxious, tired or have insomnia), these foods are doing damage. They are hurting you, and they have to go.

I had to give up two foods that fit the bill for both of the aforementioned issues. Gluten was one. It gives me instant bloody gums and fatigue, and subsequently brings on breakouts and depression. This one was more of a pain in the rear than it was sad—at least until I got a bit better about looking for it.

Fbrooke-gluten-free-pizza-wine-350x350or example, I had to start asking about soy sauce in marinades and dressings as it contains enough gluten to bother me. It’s annoying sometimes, but I didn't have too much heartbreak over this. I felt crappy when I had it and felt better when I didn't. Avoiding it felt like a no-brainer, an easy way to make life my life easier. Sure there are times when I want a flaky croissant, or regular pizza instead of gluten-free, and I’m a bit bummed. I’ll admit it can be frustrating when traveling sometimes. I hate being unprepared, starving, and trying to find something in an airport or gas station without gluten that's not loaded with sugar, but I avoid gluten at all costs because nothing is worth feeling the way I feel when I have it. I can work around it. I've learned to be cool with that.

Now, let's talk about coffee. I had long known that coffee made me feel like hell. It gave me a quick rush. but I knew full well that overall it made me much more fatigued. My insomnia was horrible, and my face tended to breakout the more coffee I had. But I loved it.

Oh, how I loved it.

Let me take you back a dozen years ago. I was living in Seattle, in the thick of naturopathic medical school and totally in love with coffee. I loved the smell, the taste, going to get it, the cute guy who made it for me, the music they played at the coffee shop where I spent six years studying. The day I had my last clinic shift before graduation I stopped in for my coffee, and they all cheered, clapped, and whooped for me. All the baristas came around the counter to hug and congratulate me. If that’s not true love, I don’t know what is. And love like that dies hard. To this day, come summer time, there's still nothing I want more than an iced coffee with half and half. Nothing.

Letting go of coffee did indeed break my heart. I put my head in the sand about this for years because I really loved it. This was a definite non-negotiable. If a nutrition coach would’ve told me to give this up to lose weight I wouldn’t have cared if I ever lost another pound, so long as I got to keep drinking my coffee. I had a hard time imagining my day without it. Not only did I have an emotional attachment to and a sheer love for the stuff, but I needed it to wake up. Scratch that. I needed it to wake up and to keep going. It seemed the more I had, the more I needed.

Yet, it made me a little anxious. On the rare days when I didn’t have my coffee, I certainly noticed I was not nearly as tired overall, especially in the afternoon. I suffered from pretty bad insomnia at this time, and I chalked it up to stress, as I rarely had more than one cup of delicious coffee each day—and never after 11am. I ignored the fact that I was sad every time I tried to give it up, but I overall felt much better without it.

Six years ago when I was pregnant with Lola, my very first pregnancy symptom—before I knew I was even pregnant—was an aversion to coffee. Three days in a row I went to the coffee shop downstairs in my building, bought my coffee, took a few sips, and felt like I just didn’t want it any more. It sat next to my computer for a few hours, until I tossed it. Finally, I stopped buying it and figured I’d magically somehow nixed my habit!

brooke-kalanick-trainingfortwo-297x375Come second trimester my aversion was gone, I was ready to go grab an iced decaf! Oh, happy day! Immediately after I had it I felt tired, sluggish, and even with the decaf, I was up all night.  And yes, of course, I tried it again....just to be sure. And again. Ok, maybe even a few more times after that.

Clearly it wasn't the caffeine that kept me up all night; I was having a reaction to coffee. Given my gluten issues, this was not a surprise to me. Coffee is a common cross-reactor, and when I tested positive for a sensitivity to it, well… I was hardly shocked.

Again, this is not a food that I can do in moderation—unless I want to feel agitated and unable to sleep. I mean, it’s a free country. I can have it, but it's not in support of my physiology, or mood, or energy. This one is still sad for me sometimes, and it took time to get there. I went through a mourning period, and had to take an honest look at what this food was doing to my hormones and physiology.

If there’s a food you to which you are clinging, it’s worth taking a look at that.

Is there anything else going on there? Why are you so resistant? Is it simply enjoyment, or is there something else to it? Do you know on some level that it doesn’t work for you, yet you are stuck or scared to let it go?

Ask those questions.

Is your non-negotiable the exact thing you need to re-negotiate?

Maybe, maybe not. At least right now. Be willing to ask that question again as your metabolism changes, your food issues change, your symptoms change, your priorities change. Your answer to “Can I give this up?” may also change.

I'm not saying you definitely have to give up your nutrition non-negotiable, but often that super-strong emotional reaction is fueled by something bigger than merely liking a particular food. It can be fear of restriction, fear of missing out, or sometimes fear of looking at our own health and what we might find.

For me, thinking I might have an actual sensitivity to both coffee and gluten made me feel like an unhealthy or sick person. I was concerned my increasing food reactions were indications of worse hormonal balance and possible autoimmunity, and that scared me. I didn’t want my physiology to be so “off” that that certain foods needed to be off-limits, so for many years I continued to ignore my symptoms and go on as if nothing were wrong.

Now I wonder how much inflammatory damage I caused in my body by eating foods that didn’t work for me. Could I have stayed healthier had I been willing to take a closer look sooner? I do wish I hadn’t ignored it for so long, but there’s no use in beating myself up over it. I got there eventually, and along the way I learned a valuable lesson: those strong emotions around food are often the foods we need to look at more closely.

We can’t always take on someone else’s recommended diet and workout plan and expect to get the same results they’ve had.

Many colleagues and friends of mine are nutrition experts, and I love them all dearly, but I know that I can’t follow all of their advice. While I want to in some cases, because I love their overall message so much, it simply doesn’t work for my psyche and my hormones—and that’s totally OK. It doesn’t make them wrong, or make their message any less perfectly suited for someone else. It’s that I have to honor what I know to be true about myself and my health—despite how much fun a diet that includes coffee and wine looks.

Honor yourself.

Even if you love the taste or freedom that comes with not avoiding or restricting certain foods, it’s hard to be truly happy when you don’t feel well, when your hormones are off balance, or when you’re not reaching your goals; sometimes those foods are part of the reason. Take the time to think about the foods you really love and see what type of relationship you need to have with them in order to be happy. Be honest and honor yourself—and remember, as former GGS Advisory Board member Jessie Mundell often says, “It’s just food.”

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About the author:  Dr. Brooke Kalanick

Dr. Brooke Kalanick earned her Doctorate in Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University. Known as “The Hormone Whisperer,” Brooke's balanced approach to health, using both conventional and alternative therapies, allows her to successfully treat patients with Hashimoto’s Hypothyroidism and PCOS as well as other female hormone imbalances. Learn more about Dr. Brooke on her website and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

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