What Is Moderation?

Outrageous experiments in sensible eating.
Jan. 11 2011 2:51 PM

What Is Moderation?

When discussing what to eat and how much, people often come to the conclusion "Everything in moderation." This is too vague for me. What exactly is "everything"? Every kind of Drake's Cake and candy bar? There's a lot I could justify with this "directive." Twinkies in moderation? Pop-Tarts in moderation? Ice cream in moderation? I could make an entire "everything in moderation" diet in which I eat nothing but crap.

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Ellen Tarlin Ellen Tarlin

Ellen Tarlin is a former Slate copy chief and writer of the "Clean Plate" blog. Her essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Boston PhoenixBrooklyn Bridge, Bark, and  the RISK storytelling podcast. Follow her on Twitter.

Of course, this is not what "everything in moderation" means. It means lumping these foods into one category (junk food, or refined carbohydrates, or sugar, or desserts, or processed foods) and taking the whole category in moderation. But what exactly is "moderation"? What, pray tell, would a "moderate" amount of chocolate be? An ounce a day, a week, or only on special occasions? And what would a moderate amount of trans fat be? Aren't some things better avoided altogether, or is this what people mean when they say, "Everything in moderation. Even moderation"?

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And where did this "Everything in moderation" come from?

Moderation was an esteemed concept in Ancient Greece. Meden Agan, "Nothing in excess," was inscribed in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Bartlett's Quotations attributes the adage to Ancient Greek historian Hesiod, who wrote in Works and Days in the 8 th or 9 th century B.C.: "Observe moderation. In all, the fitting season is best." Similar notions were echoed in the Greek playwright Euripides' Medea about 400 years later: "Moderation, the noblest gift of heaven"; then by Plato in Gorgias : "We should pursue and practice moderation." References also appear in Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde and William H.G. Kingston's translation of Swiss Family Robinson.

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"Everything in moderation" seems to have become our national dietary mantra. But since it isn't specific enough for me, I sought advice from some of our most esteemed food gurus.

The oft-quoted Michael Pollan has reduced his maxim to seven words: Eat food . Not too much . Mostly plants . He elaborates on these in his book In Defense of Food and offers many common-sense edicts in Food Rules: An Eater's Manual . But I was seeking even more daily guidance.

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Marion Nestle is one of the greatest sources of no-nonsense information. Her books offer in-depth information about general food categories and groups, with heavy emphasis on the politics of the food industry and the government. Her 15-word overall dietary creed is simple: Eat less, move more, eat lots of fruits and vegetables . Go easy on junk foods .

She castigates food companies for nonsense labeling of products with claims like "More fiber! Less fat!" "Less than what?" she asks, yet her use of less and more inspire the same questions. If I eat one less pea, I am eating "less," am I not? And if I get up from the couch to get one more chocolate bonbon, I am moving more, am I not? OK, maybe I'm being a little nitpicky.

Cookbook writer Mark Bittmann describes his motto, "Sane eating, simplified," in his book Food Matters :

Here's the summary: Eat less meat, and fewer animal products in general .... Eat fewer refined carbohydrates, like white bread, cookies, white rice, and pretzels. Eat way less junk food: soda, chips, snack food, candy, and so on. And eat far more vegetables, legumes, fruits, and whole grains-as much as you can.

If you followed those general rules and read no farther, you'd be doing yourself and the earth a favor. And I'm by no means the only one who thinks so.

The most useful advice, however, I find to be Bittmann's " Simple Till Six ," in which he advocates eating simply until dinnertime, because it jibes best with my busy life: snacking on healthy things during the workday, then eating a real meal at night.

What's your favorite eating philosophy? And how do you define moderation ?

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