Moderation… The Covert Killer.

Back in 2008, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released their Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. In it, they recommended Americans get 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week. This comes out to about 20 minutes per day of brisk walking, cycling, or playing doubles tennis. But in previous years, the surgeon general and the CDC had recommended people get at least 30 minutes per day of moderate intensity exercise. So why were the guidelines lowered? Is exercising 30 minutes a day less healthy than 20 minutes? Can that extra 10 minutes cause debilitating consequences or increase my risk of injury and therefore I need to avoid this at all costs? Well… no. It was because only half of Americans were meeting the previous 30-minute per day guideline, and they wanted to provide more attainable guidelines to the general public. And while this may seem logical, it can have the opposite effect. Because people believe their current activity level is now closer to the minimum recommended amount, they feel less pressure to change their behavior and may even decrease it. It’s one of those scenarios where instead of making recommendations more palatable to the public, shouldn’t we just provide the most optimal guidelines available? Shouldn’t the information distributed align best with the scientific evidence? And shouldn’t we let the public decide for themselves how much they want to comply with the ideal recommendations for ideal benefits rather than a moderate version with moderate results? Let’s get into!

What is Moderation?

Most of the time, there’s no set or defined guidelines for what moderate is. It’s more or less made up. Not only by national health organizations but also by you! And they’ve performed studies on this too. For example, one study asked participants how many cookies, or ice cream, or fast food would be considered a moderate amount to eat. They also asked the participants how many cookies, or ice cream, or fast food they tend to eat determine their fondness of the food. And what they found was that people defined a moderate amount of food consumption based upon their own habits or fondness for the food. So, if you love fast food and eat out for two meals a day, you likely consider three fast food meals a day to be moderate amount. Whereas me, who doesn’t eat or like fast food, would probably say one meal every three days is a moderate amount. And this is the issue with moderation. People determine what moderate intake is based upon their own behaviors rather than an unbiased evidence-based source. So, what’s wrong with that?

Isn’t Moderation Good?

Well, first I’ll detail the reason for moderation and then I’ll detail why it doesn’t always work. So, everything in moderation, right? Sure. A hot dog a week isn’t going to make you fat. An alcoholic drink a week isn’t going to kill you. And a cigarette a week won’t give you lung cancer. Any single item in moderation likely won’t harm you. Our body is so resilient that when it’s healthy, these unhealthy activities in moderation won’t send you off the tracks. You’ll be fine without anything to worry about. And this is true and its why alcohol producers advertise that people drink in moderation and processed food companies advertise that people eat chips, cookies, and sweets in moderation. And if you were to eat these foods based upon evidence-based guidelines of moderation, and not your own interpretation, you’d be fine. But here is where this can all break down. Here is where moderation can be a covert killer.

  • Self-licensed Moderation: It’s rare for people to not only be aware of their current consumption, but also be aware of the evidence-based moderation guidelines. For example, many people think they drink alcohol in moderation. But most people underestimate the amount of alcohol they actually drink and overestimate the correct moderation guideline. The CDC has determined that 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men is moderate consumption. Anything over that is considered heavy drinking. But as I mentioned earlier, people don’t always know the evidence-based guidelines and commonly define their own behavior as moderate. So, this idea of moderation is giving themselves the license to consume as much alcohol as they deem fit.
  • Combining Moderation: If you eat one hot dog a week then that’s moderate consumption. One hamburger a week, one steak a week, one cookie, one muffin, one bagel, it’s all moderate consumption in and of itself but not in totality. It can be hard to take a step back and see moderation in the big picture. And this makes it easy for people to think they’re eating moderately when in reality, their total consumption is far from it.
  • Moderation Maintains Cravings: Smoking one cigarette a week likely won’t cause lung cancer. But we don’t tell people that one cigarette a week is ok because smoking can be addictive. People enjoy smoking enough to where it’s difficult to maintain moderation because they develop cravings to smoke. The same goes with processed food. Eating one Oreo cookie won’t make you fat but how easy is it to eat one Oreo cookie? It’s hard! And not only is it hard to maintain moderation, but the extreme amounts of added sugar, salt, and oil within the Oreo cookie desensitizes your pallet enough to where healthy food won’t taste good. And so, moderation leaves you craving more of the unhealthy habit because your body can’t fully adapt to healthy alternatives.

And while some people can do moderation well, others need hard strict rules. Some people can do certain behaviors in moderation well while other behaviors are more difficult. For example, I’m good with eating desserts in moderation at events like birthdays or celebrations. But, if I have desserts in my apartment, it’s an entirely different story. Therefore, I don’t keep any unhealthy food options in my apartment. But even that type of moderation can be difficult at times. So, what’s a better approach than moderation?

What About Optimal?

I think it’s critical to publish and advertise the optimal recommendations or guidelines and then let people make informed decisions based upon that information. So instead of telling the public to shoot for 20-minutes of exercise per day, let’s let them know that the more exercise that you perform the better. So, 40-minutes of exercise per day could produce twice the results as 20-minutes per day. And 80-minutes can products twice the results of 40-minutes per day. And instead of telling people that two alcoholic drinks per day is fine, let’s let them know that no amount of alcohol is healthy, and each serving increases your risk for cancer. Instead of telling people that 10% of your daily diet can be made up of added sugar, how about letting people know that no amounts of added sugar are healthy. It’s these recommendations and guidelines that provide clarity for people so they can make informed decisions. They can know that the more exercise they do, the healthier they get. And the more processed food they eat, the less healthy they get. Let’s not try to confuse everyone by thinking that a moderate amount of an unhealthy behavior is entirely ok because this isn’t always the case. Plus, by shooting for optimal targets, we get optimal results. And these optimal results make us less dependent on unhealthy habits. And these optimal results better reinforce the optimal behavior. In contrast, moderate targets get moderate results, making us moderately dependent on unhealthy habits and we all know how that’s turned out with the average American achieving a moderate about of cancer, obesity, and diabetes.

Final Thoughts

Everything in moderation is hard to argue against because it’s true. But moderation is much more difficult to maintain than it would lead you to believe. First, because moderation is so subjective that it gives people the license to continue performing their current behavior. Second, because it’s easy to see individual habits as moderate and dismiss the larger picture of moderation. And third, because moderation doesn’t allow your body to fully adapt and relinquish its cravings for the unhealthy habits. And it’s these reasons why moderation is our covert killer. So instead of talking about minimum recommendations and moderate guidelines, here at myHealthSciences I detail the optimal approaches for optimal results. And then you can decide how much you’d like to commit and comply. Because to me, this sounds like a life that’s healthier and happier.

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Hey, I am Brandon Zerbe

Welcome to myHealthSciences! My goal has always been to increase quality-of-life with healthy habits that are sustainable, efficient, and effective. I do this by covering topics like Fitness, Nutrition, Sleep, Cognition, Finance and Minimalism. You can read more about me here.


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