By Dr. Shawna Darou, ND
We live in a culture that embraces extremes – extreme work hours, extreme ambition, and high performance in all areas of life. When this translates to nutrition and exercise, it can actually become… well… unhealthy.
Extremes with diets, exercise, fasting, cleanses, detoxes can turn out to be not so healthy on several fronts:
- The extreme mindset is stressful. Having too many rules and restrictions adds more stress.
- On again, off again diets (also known as yo yo dieting) actually lead to weight gain.
- When people fall ‘off the wagon’ it creates so much negativity in their thoughts, that it impairs their decisions for self-care.
- Overexercising, especially when stress is high can actually make your body more stressed out.
- All of this feeds into the diet mentality, which really offers nothing to do with health and wellbeing. Skinny does not equal healthy.
Although I will admit there are a few circumstances where more extreme measures with nutrition are warranted and necessary, for the majority of us a practice of healthy moderation is far better at promoting long-term health. The most important reason: it is sustainable. My goal, every day is to teach you how to be healthy throughout your entire life, and practice excellent self-care.
I believe that moderation is actually something most of us need to practice and cultivate, since we have not grown up with many positive imprints and examples. Our parents were part of the diet culture, and sugar-free and fat-free foods have taken over shopping experiences. I still hear the term “healthy low-fat” regularly in my conversations with patients, and would full-heartedly disagree with that phrase.
So how do we cultivate moderation?
1) Build treats into your healthy nutrition plan
The absolutely best way to avoid binging is to allow yourself planned treats in reasonable portions. For example if chocolate is the food you can’t live without, this could look like either a few squares of very good dark chocolate every day, or one great chocolate dessert per week. Note that I have carefully avoided the term ‘cheat’, because this is actually part of your plan.
The key here is to keep the portion reasonable, and to choose what you really want – only the best quality. Don’t settle for a processed muffin when you really want an almond croissant.
The next important part is to enjoy this treat mindfully and without guilt. It is part of your plan, it is part of your self-care, and it’s ok to enjoy it.
And finally, get right back onto your healthy eating program with the next meal. This especially applies if you happen to go overboard (which will happen, once in a while). Don’t let one poor decision snowball.
2) Be realistic about how much moderation is really healthy
How do we determine how much moderation is really healthy? Part of this depends on how you feel afterwards. If you enjoy an almond croissant, but feel bloated and cranky afterwards then perhaps that quantity was too much, or it was a poor choice for your health. The more consistently you are eating well for your body, the more easy it is to tell how much is too much, and whether it’s worth it. For example, my body really doesn’t do well with gluten and dairy, so my indulging in these foods is just not worth it to me. My choices would more likely be dark chocolate, home-made energy balls or dried figs with cashews.
Another way to help determine how much is too much, is actually to pay attention to the grams of sugar you consume. We know that a healthy upper limit is 25-30 grams per day. Start reading labels, and becoming aware of where your sugar is coming from. This will also allow you to consciously choose your treats, within a reasonable limit. (This also works with bigger kids – you will find them turning down juice boxes so they can enjoy the treat they really want!).
3) Build rest periods into your workout plan
Regarding exercise, moderation very much depends on your fitness level, your current stress, and the health of your adrenal glands.
What I have learned from high performance athletes I have worked with, is that they are very aware of their need for rest days, weeks off, and recovery seasons. The downtime is just as important as the training time when you are training hard. If you are running or going the gym 5 times per week, every week of the year, you are likely stalling with your metabolism, creating injuries that are not healing, and adding more stress to your body. Consider speaking with a trainer to put together a program that also builds in rest.
Adrenal health is the final part of the exercise discussion, and this comes up very frequently in my practice. High intensity or high duration exercise actually increases your stress hormones (adrenalin and cortisol). If your life is already running at a high pace, and you have significant stress, then over-doing the exercise can cause more harm than good. When your body is stressed, the best way to exercise is ‘moderately’. In practical terms this may mean keeping your cardio sessions under 40 minutes each, avoiding high-intensity workouts until your stress comes down, and building in adequate rest days. All of this depends on your current fitness level of course – a moderate workout for one person may be too intense for another.
I am very passionate about teaching moderation with food and exercise, as this is one of the big foundations to long-term health. I know that for most of us, it doesn’t come naturally! I would love to hear from you – how do you create moderation in your life?