Research has confirmed what probably seems obvious: people will define their own concept of moderation to justify how much they actually eat, or want to eat.
One problem with current dietary guideline advice (apart from that most people don’t follow them) is use of the word ‘moderate’.
Eating a ‘moderate’ amount of fat, sugar or how often to eat take-away food is a concept that can mean different things to different people.
‘Everything in moderation’ is very simple advice to promote healthy eating. However without a fixed definition, it gives people the freedom to define moderation as how much they want to eat.
Researchers from the United States set out to find out how much variation can be expected in people’s definitions of moderation.
In the first experiment, 89 female participants were each given a plate with 24 chocolate chip cookies on it.
They were asked how many cookies a person should eat, how many they considered to be moderate consumption and how many cookies would be considered an indulgent amount.
Only 9 percent of people defined moderation as being less than what a person should consume. Two-thirds of people defined moderation as greater than what they believed is a reasonable amount for a person to eat.
The next experiment involved 294 male and female participants being shown an image of fruit-shaped gummy lollies. They were asked to rate their liking of the sweets and also what they considered a moderate amount to eat. The more that people reported liking and eating lollies, the more pieces they considered to represent moderate consumption.
In the final experiment, participants reflected on messages about moderation for different categories of foods such as soft drinks, alcoholic drinks, ice cream and fast food.
Similar to experiment two, the more food or drink that people reported eating from a particular category, the more likely they were to report that ‘moderate’ consumption was more than what they ate.
Part of the reason moderation messages are so appealing is their simplicity but without defining what ‘moderation’ actually means people will provide their own definition.
These experiments show that a subjective definition of moderation grows in size as a person’s liking for a particular food increases.
The use of the word ‘moderation’ should be moderated in favour of giving more prescriptive examples of just what it means.