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“I believe in everything in moderation—including moderation.” ~ Julia Child
Although she wasn’t the first to popularize this quote, it was cute when Julia Child said those words to America on her famous cooking show.
It was an invitation to enjoy life and revel in the pleasures of cooking and drinking.
As someone who loves to cook, I respect the role Child played in bringing French food and cooking techniques to the United States during a time when processed, convenient foods were first taking hold. As a health conscious vegan, however, I’m concerned about the long-term consequences of an “everything in moderation” lifestyle.
Today, the vast majority of Americans are overweight or obese. Cardiovascular disease, metabolic disease, and cancer continue to escalate at alarming rates. Diet is the number one cause of death, and yet most Americans remain confused about what constitutes a healthy diet. Diet fads range from South Beach to Paleo to Keto. Headlines like “Butter is Back!” sell millions of magazines while gravely misinforming the public.
All the while, life expectancy in the U.S. has dropped for the third year in a row.
The “everything in moderation” myth, as it surrounds diet and health, is the idea that we can eat and drink anything and everything without consequence. The cliché has gained traction over the years as access to processed, fatty, and salty foods has grown easier and more abundant. Americans eat more calories now than ever before in history, mainly because food is always available—particularly cheap, processed food.
In a world where a broken food system tempts us with toxic, addictive foods at every turn, is the moderation myth truly serving us or our health?
Here’s where the moderation myth breaks down:
1. The phrase “everything in moderation” is essentially meaningless. It’s a wistful saying we’ve all heard (and probably said at some point) that seemingly justifies 500 calories of cake or another glass of wine. Ask 50 people what moderation means in terms of living a healthy lifestyle and you will get 50 different answers.
Does moderation mean you have one donut for breakfast, because that’s moderate compared to three donuts? Does moderation mean you have two sodas a day, or two sodas a week? Or does moderation mean you have dessert once a week, as opposed to every day?
The relativity of the moderation myth allows us to justify anything, including unhealthy eating and drinking habits, food addiction, and lack of physical activity. It removes any boundaries that might protect us from substances that do not support our health.
2. Believing that we can have everything, “in moderation,” can lead to the idea that as long as we consume a few “healthy” items, then we have license to consume anything else, healthy or not.
I grew up with the common notion that as long as dinner included a few green beans or some iceberg lettuce, everything else was fair game. This common type of eating pattern removes the focus from healthful foods that support our bodies and mistakenly assumes that a few bites of vegetables cancels out any harmful effects of unhealthy choices.
3. Yet another problem of the moderation myth is that it simply isn’t true in all cases. Not all foods or food-like substances are safe to consume, even in small amounts. Things like trans fats and processed meats cannot be safely consumed without incurring at least some risk to our health.
For example, one slice of bacon a day increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 20 percent. When it comes to breast cancer, one alcoholic drink a day increases a woman’s chance of developing breast cancer by 13 percent. Rather than assuming that everything is safe to consume in moderate amounts, we need to be fully aware of the risks involved with consuming things like meat, dairy, saturated fats, and alcoholic beverages, so that we can make choices with eyes wide open.
4. The last issue with this idea of moderation is that it’s not possible for everyone to consume everything in moderation. Addicts cannot consume their drug of choice in moderation, whether that’s alcohol, drugs, or food.
In a world where we are offered endless options created by a food industry that wants us hooked on their products, it’s no wonder that food addiction is more prevalent than ever. I personally have a sweet tooth and battled a sugar addiction for years. I know that if I have a single chocolate chip cookie, I will want five more. In my case, it’s better for me to avoid those types of sweets all together.
After many years of overuse, it’s time to retire the notion of “everything in moderation.” Given the health crisis we’re facing in the U.S., it’s clear that this myth isn’t helping anyone. And while heart disease, cancer, and metabolic diseases such as Type II diabetes are all on the rise, most are preventable (and sometimes even reversible) with lifestyle changes. A plant-based, whole foods diet coupled with an active lifestyle and stress reduction is most highly associated with longevity and disease prevention. Turning our focus to the foods and activities that support our health—as opposed to detracting from it—will not only add years to our life, but life to our years.
How to Make the Shift to a Healthier Lifestyle
But wait, does this mean we can’t enjoy what we eat and drink? Not at all! If you had told me 20 years ago that I would one day be vegan, I wouldn’t have believed you. My younger self couldn’t have imagined not eating a hamburger, but these days I love my veggie burgers so much that I can’t imagine eating a hamburger.
Taste buds change and the foods we eat regularly become the foods we crave. Small, simple steps such as eating more plants and cutting out processed foods can make a huge difference in shifting toward a healthier lifestyle. Stick to the changes long enough and you’ll naturally move to more healthful options as you begin to feel better physically.
Each time we choose what to eat, what to drink, and how to move our bodies, we can choose between supporting or hindering our health. In moving toward greater health, vitality, and quality of life, it’s okay to accept boundaries that protect our health. Personally, I don’t view these as limitations, but as invitations to a healthier, stronger body and a longer life.
This isn’t to say that we can never enjoy a slice of birthday cake or a delicious pastry while traveling (France, I’m looking at your croissants). Celebrating special occasions is a beautiful part of life and those times should be savored. The problem arises when an occasional treat slides into a junk food lifestyle. When it comes to highly addictive, processed foods, it can easily become a slippery slope.
Instead of life expectancy continuing to decline, I’d like to see it rise as we all enjoy healthy bodies that supports us until the end of our days. Greater health means we can serve greater purpose in our lives, even in our later years.
With every bite and every sip, let’s put ourselves first by making health a priority. Let’s break up with the moderation myth.