“Eat everything in moderation”. You hear it all the time, yet what does it even really mean?

The formal definition of moderation is “avoiding extremes of behavior or expression; observing reasonable limits.”

The more informal breast cancer nutrition advice would be “Moderation is the key.” “Everything in moderation”, or “Eat whatever you want, in moderation.”

It’s easy to observe “reasonable limits” if we know what they are. Like speed limits. Blood alcohol level limits. Credit card limits.

But food?

The upper limit isn’t always so clear, which makes how to eat in moderation tricky!

The suggestion to “eat everything in moderation” is a murky one. I’m not a fan. In fact, “eat in moderation” is not something I would ever recommend someone do.

Here’s me poking a little fun at the advice to eat everything in moderation. . .

Nutrition advisor: “Eat everything in moderation.”

You: “Everything?”

Nutrition advisor: “Yes. Everything.”

You: “What about donut holes? And peanut butter cups?”

Nutrition advisor: “Moderation still.”

You: “Depending on my craving, donut hole moderation could mean 20. Peanut butter cup moderation is determined by my stress level. Moderate stress = moderate consumption. High stress? All bets are off.”

Nutrition advisor: “Rules are rules. They’re meant to be followed.”

You: “If you could only be more specific, I could stick to the rules.”

Nutrition advisor: “Specifics don’t exist. You should know your own level of moderation. And by the way? Until your moderation is in check, I can’t help you.”

Why “Eat Everything in Moderation” Doesn’t Work

I’m sure you’ve never had a nutrition counseling experience even remotely like that (at least I hope not!). But you’ve likely experienced frustration at receiving nutrition advice EXACTLY like that.

I’m sure we agree:

“Eat everything in moderation” is too loose, too vague, too unhelpful.

I’ve worked as a nutrition therapist for twenty years. I know firsthand that “moderation” has no role in day-to-day eating. Especially when that eating involves emotions.

Wait.

You do know emotions, feelings, cravings, culture, and even family traditions matter? They help you answer “What do I want for dinner?

When you don’t feel well, you’re over-hungry, over-tired or completely over-everything? That’s when “eat everything in moderation” becomes a pipe dream.

Since that advice isn’t going away, allow me to introduce an “eat in moderation” concept.  I want to help you navigate “eating in moderation” with confidence, so let’s get started.

What is the Stop Light System?

Taught in many child nutrition and/or weight loss programs, stop light nutrition isn’t new. In recent years, research has even begun to look at this concept for food labeling and dining programs. (1, 2)  

The stop light system uses a red, yellow and green light approach to moderation and choice. The system allows you to make the best choice for YOU, without focusing only on calories, fat, sugar or sodium.

The stop light system also considers nutrient density, or how nutritious a food is. Choosing foods based on their nutrient value is a smart approach to moderation.

Stop light nutrition, as I call it, isn’t a rule book. It’s not about tightening self-control, enlisting self-deprivation or riding the guilt train.

It’s about using a logical system to make thoughtful, mindful choices.

stop light showing eating in moderation

Red Light Foods = Stop & Think

Contribute very little, if any, nutritional value, AKA low in nutrients. These foods are not essential to the diet. They tend to be high in calories, sugar, sodium and unhealthy fats. They lack essential nutrients and fiber. They may even contain artificial colors and/or flavors, hydrogenated oils or trans fats. Consider “red light foods” a treat.

Examples:

  • Alcohol
  • Candy
  • Chips
  • Cured and processed meats
  • Deep-fried foods
  • Pastries, desserts, sweets
  • Sugar-sweetened drinks
  • Juice

Your options: Make a different choice, enjoy a smaller serving, choose less often.

Notice I didn’t say never choose these foods. You don’t have to cut out certain foods completely to eat healthy. Just like at a red light in traffic, take a moment to stop and decide which direction you’re going to go before proceeding.

You might decide you don’t want that food after all, and choose something different that will satisfy you. You might decide that food is exactly what you want right now and so you enjoy some fully without guilt.

Both are perfectly ok!

beer and chips eating everything in moderation

Yellow Light Foods = Slow Down

These foods contribute essential nutrients, can be eaten daily, and make up a large part of a healthy diet, but not the majority of it.

Some versions of these foods may be moderately high in calories, sugar, sodium and fat. Also be aware of the serving sizes of these foods, as they are often served in portions larger than we may need.

Some of these foods could be healthier versions of “Red Light” foods. For example, 85% dark chocolate versus a traditional candy bar.

Examples:

  • Refined Grains (bread, cereal, pasta, noodles)
  • Olive oil
  • Dried fruit
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Lean meats
  • Poultry
  • Whole soy foods

Your options: Choose “healthfully” prepared versions (baked, grilled, heavy and fatty sauces on the side), be mindful of portions, choose daily.

 

boiled egg on toast eating everything in moderation

Green Light Foods = Go

Contribute high level of essential nutrients such as vitamins & minerals. These foods also tend to be high in fiber and lower in calories, sugar, sodium, and fat. Typically “grown” vs “manufactured” (many choices okay to eat raw.) These are considered the healthiest choices, so include them most often.

Examples:

  • Vegetables
  • Fruit (fresh or frozen)
  • Pulses (garbanzo, black, pinto, and kidney beans, lentils, split peas)
  • Legumes
  • Oats
  • Quinoa
  • Rice
  • Barley
  • Whole grains (breads, cereals, crackers, pasta, noodles)
  • Herbs & spices

Your options: Eat many times each day. Eat vegetables in unlimited amounts.

tomato avo corn tortilla eat in moderation

Putting Stop Light Nutrition Into Practice

The food examples above aren’t all inclusive, but they’re a good overview. I find people tend to know which foods fit under which light, but more education never hurts.

To summarize:

  • Eat unlimited vegetables, fruits, & pulses.
  • Eat whole grains throughout the day.
  • Eat healthy oils daily but in small portions.
  • Eat lean meats and refined grains (if you choose them) daily in smaller portions.
  • Eat highly processed foods and alcohol (if you choose them) in smaller amounts, less often than daily.

Eating in moderation is certainly not as easy to follow as listing specific amounts and frequencies of foods. Hopefully the stop light system gives you a bit more guidance without misleading you into thinking there is one “right” way to eat.

Tell me in the comments below about your experiences eating “everything in moderation.” And please, tell me what you think about STOP LIGHT NUTRITION!

Helpful? Not helpful?

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SOURCES:

  1. Using a traffic light system to encourage healthier eating habits
  2. Traffic-light labels could reduce population intakes of calories, total fat, saturated fat, and sodium