You won’t be surprised to know that my conversations with people often turn to discussions about food. As soon as someone finds out I’m a dietitian, one of the first questions they ask is, “What do you think of <insert “low carb”, “Atkins”, or name of some other diet>?” The second most common thing that gets said to me is by people who generally follow a healthy eating pattern. They will say, “Everything in moderation, right?”
The expression was derived from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, in which he examines the philosophy of morals. In one of the books, Aristotle states that every virtue is the result of finding the mean (or the average) between the two extremes of a state of being. For example, courage is the mean between acting rashly and being a coward, whereas generosity is the mean between being wasteful and being stingy. Thus came about the expression (and all its variations): Moderation in all things.
While I see where Aristotle is coming from as it relates to morality, I actually think it is a terrible philosophy as it relates to food, and this is why:
- There are some things we should never eat. Included in this category for everyone are things like transfats, artificial sweeteners, and any other food-like product that was created in a lab. People who have IgE or non-IgE mediated allergies should never eat foods to which they have an allergic reaction. People with an autoimmune disease should seriously consider never eating gluten or dairy or any other food that has been shown to trigger or exacerbate their autoimmunity.
- Some foods should be eaten sometimes or rarely, depending on your physiology and environment. These categories include:
- Real foods that are not going to kill us (either quickly or slowly), but that don’t really have any nutritional value. This includes alcohol, desserts, and other treats like pizza and potato chips.
- Any food to which you have been shown to have a sensitivity or an intolerance.
- The less-than-ideal versions of real foods… like grain fed meat or fish raised on a non-eco-friendly farm or non-organic produce on the EWG’s Dirty Dozen list.
(Note: I admit there is a bit of subjectivity here because you have to figure out how often you want to have that food that makes you feel bad or how well you detoxify so you know how much alcohol you can drink or how available the ideal versions of foods are. This is another example of why nutrition should be personalized.)
- Some foods can always be eaten because they are just so dang good for us (so long as you don’t have an allergy, sensitivity, or intolerance, of course). This includes vegetables, fruits, legumes, grass-fed meat/poultry, wild fish/seafood, dairy and eggs from grass-fed animals, and whole grains.
I first heard the “always, sometimes, rarely, never” guideline for food from Andy Bellatti, MS, RD, and I have to say I kind of like it! It better describes the scale of nutritional value in food and food-like products, so we don’t inadvertently lump them all together. (Even though I know you are an intelligent person who knows it’s not really true that you can have all things in moderation, saying it can make it feel true.)
As well, allowing greater variability in food consumption frequency gives us the freedom to personalize our diets such that we can look and feel like the most vibrant versions of ourselves. And that’s what we all really want, right?
—Environmental Working Group. Dirty dozen. In EWG’s 2015 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. Accessed on March 31, 2015. http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/dirty_dozen_list.php
— Kemerling G. Aristotle: Ethics and the Virtues. Accessed on March 31, 2015. http://www.philosophypages.com/hy/2s.htm