Mindfulness vs. Moderation

The words we use matter. In fact, the way we speak about things actually changes our perception of our world.


Try this exercise. Repeat the following phrases to yourself, and notice how you feel after. What thoughts come to mind? What emotions are you feeling? Where in the body do you feel them?

I can have cupcakes if I eat in moderation.

I can have cupcakes if I eat in moderation.

I can have cupcakes if I eat in moderation.

I can have cupcakes if I eat in moderation.

I can have cupcakes if I eat in moderation.


Now, try telling yourself this:


I will mindfully eat this cupcake.

I will mindfully eat this cupcake.

I will mindfully eat this cupcake.

I will mindfully eat this cupcake.

I will mindfully eat this cupcake.


We’re all going to have different reactions to the phrases. Personally, the first phrase makes me feel like I “have to do something”. Like if I don’t eat in moderation, I’m not allowed to have the cupcake. Like cupcakes are a reward for moderation. To me, the word moderation sparks images of a referee calling out a foul play, or a moderator at a political debate, and brings up a feeling of stress. That’s not the vibe I want when I’m eating!


The second phrase is more directive. It is a simple instruction for me to focus on, a goal to work towards. The emphasis is on mindfully, meaning that my energy is directed to that, not the cupcake. This helps me focus on my relationship with food, not the food itself.


“All foods fit in balance, variety, and moderation”. Like many of my clients, black and white thinking is hard to avoid. I fall into this pattern of thinking occasionally (thanks, anxiety). My anxiety hears “I’m only allowed to eat all foods if I have a variety of food, I balance my plate, and I moderate what I’m eating”. It’s up to us as thinking humans to find ways to interrupt our thoughts to guide more helpful actions.


Your thoughts and language are still yours. So if the word moderation helps you with your nutrition goals- great! But for me, I’m sticking with mindfulness. Here 5 reasons why I choose mindfulness over moderation:


1. Gives me a mindset of how to approach my meals

Before I even start the meal, remembering to approach the meal with mindfulness can help reroute any negative thoughts that may pop up. I am set to be aware of these thoughts, and let them pass like leaves on a stream. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r1C8hwj5LXw)


It takes the focus from what we eat to how we eat it. It gives us the freedom to search out our natural body cies and sensations. With this shift, we give permission to remove the sometimes cumbersome focus on food. Many people feel it’s what they’re choosing to eat, when they really need to shift how they approach the relationship with food, and then they may see permanent changes in their food choices.


2. Allows for flexibility

Sometimes things just aren’t in ‘moderation’. A good example of this is my previous blog, “I ate fast food everyday this week”. Read it if you’d like! It was realistic and beneficial for me to get a grab and go meal, and eat it mindfully, instead of worrying that I might not be moderating my intake appropriately.


The word moderation implies that there’s some limit we should adhere to. This can put an accidental restriction on what we choose to eat. So if we’re truly craving chips, but avoid them because we feel we have to moderate that food, we are more likely to binge on them later. And then feel really guilty that we didn’t uphold the principle of moderation. With the mindfulness mindset, if I’m truly craving chips, I’m allowed to be aware of this craving and also aware of what my body needs, so I can pair it with a sandwich, cheese stick, or fruit depending on what I need nutrient-wise.


3. Lessens Guilt

I feel like I talk about this on every blog, but it’s that important. Restriction, cravings, binges, guilt, restriction- that’s the (simplified) binge restrict cycle. To stop this cycle, we have to break one of these chain links. We can reduce the intensity of guilt by removing rules around food. By allowing ourselves to desire anything, and yes I mean anything, to eat, we break the guilty feelings after eating. This will then lessen restriction, and so on.


4. Lessens Anxiety

You don’t have to moderate your food. You don’t have to play neighborhood watch dog and chase away the shadows. The shadows might actually be something nice. Anxiety overrides our brain, so if we have even the slightest anxiety at meal times, there’s a chance we might miss some body cues. If we’re on high alert to ‘moderate’ our meals, we may miss natural cues of hunger and fullness. Or, we may miss a craving that could lead to a binge later.


5. More Individualized

Mindfulness looks different to everyone. Moderation might not. It implies that there’s a good rule of thumb, and people usually go with the USDA’s guidelines. These guidelines are based on the national average, and don’t reflect everyone’s needs. And don’t even get me started on marginalized groups and their reflection in studies, they typically aren’t considered when coming up with guidelines.


Mindfulness = the whole picture. Your cravings, your environment, your time, your nutrient needs, are all considered in this one word. This is what I want myself and my clients to focus on during eating times, not if they’re moderating their intake.


Mindfulness encourages flexibility. Moderation, to some, may feel like a rule that they must follow in order to be intuitive eaters. Choose what word works best for you!


Take Care,

Brenna Topham, RDN, LD

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