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(Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
(Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Why the tyranny of 'everything in moderation' sets us up to fail Add to ...

If you ate bacon this morning, here’s hoping you did so mindfully, conservatively, stopped after one piece, and plan to reduce your sodium intake for the next six days.

Take it from the experts: Life, sadly, is to be measured out in teaspoons and step-counters and one-inch dark-chocolate squares.

Our (red wine) glass is supposed to be full only once a day, no more! Our sleep is meant to last 7.5 hours. Never mind abandonment, passion, the sweetness of gluttony. (And give up those marathon dreams, 42 kilometres is hardly moderate.) Healthy living, as we are so often told, is all about balance – and high household debt demonstrates how good human beings are at balance. If moderation is the key, we’re already locked in the cage. Binging on Häagen-Dazs.

“Moderation is for the birds,” says Nathalie Foy, a blogging mom of three boys in Toronto, who does not eat chocolate by the square. The middle road, she says, sounds good in principle, if it weren’t so dull, and, frankly, impossible to travel. “It is the fight of desire over logic. We’re not Spock.”And who wants to be? Human beings are pleasure-seekers by nature; blame our brains, which light up at the first perfect bite of cheesecake, but fail to properly alert us to the diminishing returns of that happy beginning until the plate is long empty.

In North America, we have plenty of enticements to excess, especially while strolling the grocery aisle. As Terese Weinstein Katz, the author of Eat Sanely observes, ours is not a culture built on restraint (if our ancestors had been moderates, they would have stayed home), and if we’ve fattened up too much during the construction, blame abundance and cultural diversity, which made shopping and food, respectively, way too much fun. Unlike countries in Europe or Asia, she says, “there isn’t a core set of habits that is passed from one generation to the next. It’s left us a bit unmoored.”

Moderation, however mythical, is an industrial approach to health policy. Timothy Caulfield, the Canadian Research Chair in Health Law and Policy, and the author of The Cure for Everything!, argues that it’s based on the idea that if the most sedentary in society would just move a little more, society would benefit. “From a public health perspective, it’s the idea of ‘just do something, for God’s sake.’ ”

For the individual, then, moderation is the cure for practically nothing. It’s promoted by food companies that would, as Caulfield suggests, like to avoid assessments of good and bad foods, and it ignores science that says weight loss and fitness require more extreme behavioural changes.

And it’s not as if the demands of moderation are easy. Virtue is exhausting. Even if we start strong in the morning, and skip the bacon, research shows that willpower weakens as the day goes on – right about when work deadlines hit, daycare closes, and the kids expect to be fed. And then try getting the optimal night’s sleep.

Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, says: “Life is too short for me to have precious mental bandwidth taken up by ‘brownie now or brownie later? Big brownie or little brownie? Does this brownie count if it’s only a little piece of a brownie?’ Forget about it.”

In fact, Rubin can’t name a single person she thinks is actually succeeding at living a life of moderation. Her own solution: abstaining. In her new book, Happier at Home, she details how, rather than trying to eat a little bit of everything, she chose what bad stuff to give up completely. This included hors d’oeuvres and eating at children’s parties, and recently sugar. (Also crackers, but she fell off the cracker wagon.) Meanwhile, she guzzles diet soda like water, and doesn’t feel a tad guilty.

“It’s so much easier and more fun,” she says. “You’re not agonizing over it. Otherwise you just wear yourself out trying to make decisions and justifications.”

Even defining moderation is confusing: One person’s bowl of potato chips is another person’s binge. Try sorting through the conflicting studies on how much coffee to drink (and does it count toward your eight daily glasses of water?), how long to sleep, how much sun to get and whether taking a “cheat day” in your diet actually helps you stick with it. We tend to assess what’s moderate based on the behaviour of our social group. Judging ourself against a skinny friend who considers one mocha latte a day moderate behaviour is neither scientific nor a path to happiness.

You can’t eat crap in moderation, Caulfield argues, just like a 30-minute stroll won’t make you super fit. “Can you eat a moderate amount of French fries every day, forever? No.” That’s assuming you could stick to a “moderate” amount, whatever that means.

So if moderation is an elusive stress-inducing feat, dreadfully dull and, by Caulfield’s account, ineffective anyway – why is it the dumbed-down mantra of modern health?

As individualized medicine becomes more common, a better message would be: Listen to our bodies and set our own goals, while raising the occasional (carelessly portioned, wee-hour) toast to Oscar Wilde, who famously said, “everything in moderation, including moderation.”

 

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