We’ve heard it a million times: “Eat a well-balanced diet with everything in moderation.” After all these decades of clear failure, it’s a hazy cliché still delivered by physicians, dietitians and nutritional “experts” with earnest assurance. The same goes for exercise and stress. Moderate amounts of stress are okay, moderate cardiovascular work is good, etc. We accept the concept of moderation so readily, I think, because it sounds so rational and simple. If we follow common sense, moderation suggests, we’ll be fine. But if it were that easy, most people would be healthy—and statistics on the rising rates of obesity and chronic illness tell us otherwise. So what’s the problem?
Something critical is missing in the picture. Unfortunately, the moderation mantra—as we tend to invoke it—is too often a comforting abstraction we use to delude ourselves and to justify engaging in the same sabotaging behaviors again and again. After all, moderation as a blurry standard conveniently doesn’t exactly ask us to change anything specific or question what we’ve come to accept as normal lifestyle patterns. It’s limited by our own subjective interpretation. So to that old mantra, I’d like to make an additional recommendation.
What if we could take the low-pressured positivity of this concept and reframe it within specific, personalized, meaningful bounds?
In short, what would it mean for our health goals if we truly took moderation in hand and clarified it for our own individual use?
Because the fact is, I see a genuine opportunity here. As those who have been around MDA for a while know, I’m not a stickler for minute detail. I don’t promote counting calories or weighing food. There’s no need to run daily arithmetic around Primal “points.” Likewise, your daily exercise needn’t be measured obsessively to get and stay in good physical shape. The Primal Blueprint, after all, is about principles—the basic, straightforward, physiological principles that have governed ancestral diet, movement and lifestyle for hundreds of thousands of years. When we align our lives with those principles, the beauty is we don’t need to bother much at all with the math. It makes good primal health easy.
The Problem of Perception
But the concept of moderation as most people commonly think of it suggests something totally different. Moderation is almost always put in context of “all things in moderation.” As in, anything goes as long as you don’t eat or do too much of it—except research doesn’t support the idea that this leads to actual health gains. In fact, the opposite appears to be true for weight and metabolic health.
Add to this question the complete and utter fuzziness of what constitutes “too much.” How much is too much cardio? How much is too much sugar? How much is too much stress? What about too much sleep?
The problem is, we’re not particularly good at defining moderate amounts for ourselves without the haze of self-justification getting in the mix. Case in point: a recent study published by the University of Georgia. In one part of the overall study, subjects were asked to define how many chocolate chip cookies constituted an appropriate amount (how many people “should” eat), how many constituted a “moderate” serving, and how many constituted an “indulgent” serving. The average responses were a little over two for the appropriate amount, just over three for the moderate amount, and just under six for the indulgent amount. In other words, people tend to situate “moderation” between “ought” and “indulgence.” Researchers observed the same trend when they repeated the experiment with candies.
But in the most telling of all results, participants were asked to both describe their consumption of specific unhealthy food choices (e.g. pizza, ice cream, etc.) and their definition of a moderate serving for these foods. Not at all surprisingly, the more people ate of a certain food, the more generously they defined a moderate serving for it. I don’t think it’s far-fetched to believe the same can be said for self-justifying our other lifestyle factors.
For example, just how does a cardio junkie hope to define moderation for his/her aerobic activity? How could an avid Cross-Fitter settle into a moderate HIIT routine? Can a couch potato come up with a meaningful sense of appropriate and moderate physical activity? And in terms of dietary transition, how can someone who’s used to drinking a liter of soda per day conceive of a moderate sugar intake? Someone who eats fast food every day—how does he/she find a moderate standard for SAD foods? What about the vegan adopting a “moderate” amount of meat and animal products? And that workaholic? How will that person come to a reasonable, moderate balance for work and play? Or how about the person who’s spent decades avoiding sun exposure at all costs. What’s going to feel “moderate” to him/her?
Where do all of these scenarios and their difficulties leave us with the moderation question? Is it a hopeless enterprise, or can we learn to bring more objectivity to bear? If so, how?
Moderation as a Process
For one, I think we need to embrace the idea of growing into moderation. This means accepting that it’s a process to learn to live “in the middle” when for too long we’ve lingered along the edges in one degree or another. Moderation, if we ever hope to intuit it as a broad standard in our lives, seems a whole lot easier coming from an internalized compass (if not temperament) of moderation. Perhaps the Stoics had it right.
What pulls us to the edges and keeps us in our less moderate behaviors? What’s behind our obsession with work, with chocolate, with muscle mass, with soda? What are we hiding from, substituting for, and asking of our lives? We may not have an instant answer here, but I’m guessing most if not all of us will have some inkling. Start there.
Next, get clear on how the body works as a system. The mentality as well as physiology of moderation is rooted in understanding and appreciating the holistic mechanisms at work. Take a real look at the Primal Blueprint for this very principle—one of inclusive, intersecting logic. We’re seeking to bring balance to all systems. If we’re living off cortisol and caffeine all day, it doesn’t bode well for our hormonal homeostasis. Exercising a lot but justifying eating the conventional carb intake will eventually take us toward any number of ailments, including insulin resistance.
Take a moment to apply that idea of physiological balance to your life as a vision toward self-attunement, keeping in mind where you’re off the Primal grid. The beauty of the Primal Blueprint is that it focuses on balancing a number of essential inputs. We often go through a period of transition if we’re coming out of unhealthy metabolic states that spur everything from fatigue to sleep issues; cravings to brain fog. But once we’re over the hump, we’ll be working with reliable physical feedback. The basic guidelines for making this shift are there—a blueprint for physiological balance as determined by ancestral patterns. “What Would Grok Do?” in that way becomes a resourceful question in imagining moderation.
Now it’s time for the rubber to meet the road.
Instead of languishing in vagueness, start setting a new “working” standard, understanding that moderation will be a process of experimentation and refinement.
I’m not one for excessive recording, but it can be a great tool for awareness—the raw numbers that demonstrate the crucial difference between perception and practice. Use a notebook or app to record your day’s activity/diet/sleep patterns/stress perceptions—whatever you’re trying to rein in. At the end of each day, take a look. Where exactly is the 80/20 Principle falling apart in your day? How much time did you really spend lifting or performing heavy cardio today? How does it compare to the Primal Blueprint recommendations?
When Moderation Isn’t the Answer
Finally, I think it’s well worth coming back to the question of elimination. A rational adult knows better than to believe that every option under the sun needs to be at the table for life to be worth living. We maturely eschew certain things because we accept they aren’t good for us—for us as individuals.
Some people can have a brownie at the family picnic and be done at one. For other people, it just doesn’t work that way. They’re better leaving it out altogether. Learn to accept that some things resist moderation for you. They’re a set-up every time. Gluten allergies, sugar addiction, adrenal fatigue or other health propensities (e.g. aggressive cancers that run in your family) call us to ditch moderation for the sake of well-being.
In the interest of your own health and satisfaction, learn to reject the fixation on deprivation—the assumption that if we don’t have the freedom to indulge in everything at the buffet table or to run ourselves ragged because we’re obsessed with FOMO (fear of missing out), we’re being held back from life. A smart approach to moderation knows what to leave out of the picture entirely.
Ultimately, the question of appropriate and effective moderation may boil down to a lifelong commitment to reading the body’s feedback. At what points do we realize we’ve extended ourselves beyond the range of tolerable impact? The further along we are in the journey, the more attuned we’ll be to these shifts in mood, sleep, energy and performance.
Thanks for reading today, everyone. I’d love to hear how you’ve honed your way to moderation in Primal living. Have a great end to the week.
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About the Author
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.