The most frequently dispensed advice from nutritionists and doctors regarding diet is: “everything in moderation.” But what happens when it’s clear this approach isn’t working for so many in our society? It’s time to reconsider moderation.
Upon significant reflection, the “everything in moderation” mantra that I, as well as the vast majority of health care providers espouse, might be terrible advice. Moderation is a squishy term. It’s nebulous. Moderation leaves us vulnerable to marketing and societal pressures to engage in consumption patterns that are deleterious to health. Think about the top two items we discuss moderating: sugar and alcohol, what do they have in common? They’re both heavily marketed and addicting. Coincidence? No. The profit margins on alcohol and high-sugar foods are outstanding and because they’re both addicting, we tend to be easily lured into excessive consumption masked as moderation.
We are bombarded with advertising of (to borrow a phrase from Michael Pollan) food-like substances — particularly those that are deleterious to our health, such as sugary beverages, cereal, fast food, and alcohol. Children are particularly susceptible to food marketing and as a result of exposure to ads containing these foods, their intake increases. Considering that half of the advertisements directed at kids are for food, their susceptibility becomes rather alarming. Who hasn’t witnessed a child react to seeing an add for a fun-sounding, rainbow-colored breakfast cereal by exclaiming, “I want Surfer Smurf cereal for breakfast!?” Look at the back of that cereal or any packaged food item marketed to children and you will likely find an alarming amount of added sugar. Research done by the American Heart Association determined that children in the U.S. consume 4-5 times the recommended daily limit for added sugar. Yes, we are heavily activating the addiction pathway in toddlers. Of course, toddlers grow up quickly and those of us who were fed high sugar diets are pre-programed to over-consume sugar as adults and to be more susceptible to other addictive substances. The average American adult now consumes an average of 82g of added sugar per day, which is 3-4 times the recommended intake limit of 25g for women and 38g for men. Clearly, that moderation message isn’t working well and it doesn’t stop at sugar.
What sugar marketing is to children, alcohol marketing is to teens and adults.
In the U.S., there has been an over 400% increase in alcohol marketing over the past 40 years. That marketing has consequences. Exposure to alcohol marketing results in an earlier age of first consumption and in higher consumption patterns in those who already drink. While the percentages of people who drink versus abstain in the general population have remained relatively stable over the past few decades (about two-thirds of the U.S. population consumes alcohol and about one-third abstains), the rates of consumption for those who do imbibe have increased. According to physician and addiction specialist, Dr. Ruth Potee and an article she references from the Washington Post, half of those who consume alcohol (one-third of the general population) do so in relatively small amounts — “on average less than one drink per week.” The other half of people who consume alcohol, about one-third of the general population, do so in far greater amounts. One drink per day puts you in the top thirty percent of alcohol consumption. Two drinks per day puts you in the top twenty percent and the percentage of people in this category is rising. Then there is a gigantic leap to the final ten percent, those in this group consume an average of 10 drinks per day. Let that sink in, ten percent of the U.S. population consumes on average the equivalent to 10 drinks per night. If one in ten of us is drinking on average ten drinks per night, what is moderate? Moderation is no more than 1 drink per day for women or 2 drinks per day for men. And what constitutes one drink might surprise you: 12 ounces of 5% alcohol by volume beer (i.e. not a pint of a standard microbrew), 5oz of wine at 12% alcohol, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor. While alcohol consumption is a less widespread issue than sugar consumption, the effects of excessive intake are far more damaging. Considering that most restaurants, bars, and alcohol manufacturers profit by encouraging immoderate consumption, we have to take it upon ourselves to realize that many times what we casually consider “a drink” is in fact more. With an intake pattern above moderation, it’s a short and slippery slope toward heavy drinking and addiction.
Our consumption patterns are dramatically influenced by marketing, but they’re also molded by social norms. Most of us struggle when we act in a manner different than that of our peers, colleagues, friends, and family. If those in our social circles eat high sugar foods (or “normal” even “healthy” processed foods), it’s hard to be the one to deviate from those choices. Alcohol is the same way. Many social circles function on a steady influx of alcohol. Many working professionals, especially parents, have come to bond over or commiserate about the stresses of life with a bottle of wine.
If we want to live healthier lives, if we want our children to develop good habits, sometimes we need to set the first and better example. Instead of saying “everything in moderation” and passively approving an excessive intake of unhealthy substances, we can take a critical look at what moderation actually is, and adjust our habits accordingly. Setting a higher standard for ourselves helps others do the same.