Moderation Redefined: Setting yourself up for Success

This article was originally posted on, April 10 2013. 

"Everything in Moderation" ... That expression is everywhere lately! At first this really frustrated me, but then I realized, how  could I blame the expression when moderation itself has never been  clearly defined. -  The term is nebulous at best. We assume that  moderating certain things in life is beneficial, particularly when working towards a long term lifestyle goal, but what does it actually mean?

If you go looking, you will find the definition of the word moderation to include the following:

  • being within reasonable limits, not excessive or extreme
  • not violent of subject to extremes
  • of medium or average quantity or extent; of limited or average quantity

So far so good...

We can conclude then that intake of _________ in moderation implies: in a reasonable quantity (?) and does not cause any issues due to said exposure.

So, for our purposes, moderation = frequency of exposure to a factor that does not result in any acute adverse side effects.

Which begs the question - what is this "reasonable" frequency exactly? Does it vary depending on the individual or the item in question? The answer is a resounding YES. Moderate frequency could be any of the following:

  • once a day
  • once a week
  • once a month
  • once a year
  • once in 10 years
  • etc

Exposing yourself to something 1x/10 years may seem extreme, but again, that depends on the circumstance in question.

BUT " I BELIEVE IN (insert: eating/doing) EVERYTHING IN MODERATION"...

Those of us who express this thought do so with purely good intentions, thinking that "doing things in moderation" will allow us to stick to habits and effect change, however they are missing a big part of the picture. This sentence generally implies a belief that doing/eating a little bit of everything on a regular basis will have no adverse effect. The issue here lies in the "I", "everything", and "regular basis" parts of the equation. The use of "I" denotes personalization, however how can one personalize such a generalization? Moderation should rather be catered to:

(a) a specific issue/topic

(b) a specific individual

(c) over a specific period of time.

If you have knee pain upon running, and go for a run once in a while (let's say once a week), and get knee pain following or during the run - that is NOT moderation, that is an extreme.

If you drink diet pop with aspartame (let's say several times a week) and it causes GI distress, inflammation, and fatigue - that is NOT moderation, that is an extreme.

If my dog Phil eats too many apples daily (he has an apple obsession), but have no adverse immune or digestive consequences other than some weight gain, then eating an apple every other day or on the weekend is fine - that IS moderation.

Eating chicken even 1x/10 years for him, on the other hand, is not even long enough as he is severely allergic. Again, the frequency depends on the circumstance.

So let's not generalize the inherently specific, please!


One of the biggest issues with repeating habits resulting in a negative physiological or psychological state regularly is that your brain adapts. In other words, while we think we are being reasonable, we are actually training ourselves to efficiently illicit a negative response to the stimulus in question. That's not such a good thing.

One of the most basic principles in physiology is the SAID principle (specific adaptation to imposed demand) - which means that you get really good at exactly what you practice. That can be a sport, it can be pain, it can be inflammation, it can be a fear response, it can be music.. anything. The more repetition, the greater the learning, until the response becomes highly conditioned. You can actually get really good at being in pain when running or  developing GI distress in response to a food. Fun times. This adaptation is actually a great thing, and not only protects us but allows us to excel in our areas of expertise. However, as you can see, it can also be a double edged sword. Neuroplasticity is one of the most powerful concepts in science, and so we should always keep it in the back of our minds when making lifestyle choices.

As I mentioned, learning generally takes time and repetition, however when a big threat to survival is involved, your brain may immediately neurally chunk exposure to the stimulus with a signal that would prompt you to action ie inflammation, pain, fatigue, etc. So if the threat is severe enough, the next time you are exposed to the stimulus, the associated reaction will be even worse. A great example of this would be someone who is allergic to bee stings. After the first sting, if the reaction is severe enough, future stings could result in reactions that are up to 60  percent worse than the first allergic response.

Same thing with a food, or any other habit.

So we want to moderate our exposure to stimuli (ie food or movement) based on our current tolerance level and not illicit or train negative responses so that over time we can actually be less restrictive. Otherwise we are actually stabbing ourselves in the back. After all, the end goal for any long term change, whether it be nutritional,  lifestyle, movement, etc - is for the moderation marker to increase in  allowable frequency over time. This is a reflection of the body's health  overall, it's ability to maintain homeostasis despite environmental  stressors, and is critical to survival. You may still choose to avoid  that movement or food, but you will no longer be fearful for your health  with it = freedom!


The first thing to address is the specific change you wish to start with - again here the notion of threat for your brain comes in. Decision making and therefore habit change requires executive function, which is generally a very calorically costly endeavour for your brain. Since again the main goal physiologically speaking is survival, caloric expenditure is ideally minimized and saved for fight/or/flight situations. In other words, your brain does not like change. You're still kicking, so the status quo must be fine,  right?  Survival is generally a moment-to-moment endeavour so long term   considerations are *generally* not included here. So.. how to get  around  this process?

Well, as Dr.  Cobb of Z-Health Performance will tell you (he recently did a whole vlog series on this topic), the best place to start is in the place of least threat. Write a  list of 10  items you would like to change, and cross the most important one off the list. Continue until there is only   one item left on the list, the one with the least importance and therefore the one you are least invested in. Get yourself organized, succeed there, and then continue to the next goal.

Remember the whole neuroplasticity thing? Well it applies here! Good news - we can actually get better at changing.


All this talk of habit change is really aimed at helping you prioritize the goals you wish to achieve, and determining your "80/20"/moderate frequency so to speak without impeding progress. It will help you maintain your sanity and increase compliance, if you know you can have that primal cookie once a week without any fear of failure at your goal, but not once a day. Be specific.

Essentially, it's up to you now to become your own quality-of-life-detective, and use that information to your advantage!

1. Choose your goal by prioritizing changes according to least threat

2. Monitor effects of exposure to change/item/goal

3. Determine your 80/20 - frequency of moderate exposure sans negative effect

4. Stick with it.

5. Monitor: ASSESS/REASSESS. Change frequency if necessary as you progress

6. Progress to another primary goal when you're ready. = True habit change will occur when you no longer have to think about it/it has become autonomous.

Here's an example of how this would work in practice:

1. ie. Molly wants to stop eating primal coconut flour cookies daily, to lose weight.

2. ie. Molly feels fine after eating them but sometimes it affects her digestive regularity, particularly on days where she eats a lot of fibre.

3. ie. Molly will limit her primal coconut flour cookie intake to 2x week on lower fibre days, and thus will avoid "binging" and will be more compliant to her goal.

4. ie. Molly continues with above guidelines.

5. ie. Molly has been working on her digestion and intestinal health with a naturopath  and no longer has such a response to the primal cookie. Molly can now have  one more often, but chooses not to since she is still working on weight  loss goals.

6. Molly has dealt with the cookie issue (She doesn't even think about them daily anymore, but enjoys the occasional one) and weight loss issue, and now wants to work on improving her sleep quality. She will repeat steps 1-5 to determine the guidelines and set herself up for success.

The one caveat to this process: sometimes we get so adapted to being in  discomfort/pain that we no longer notice the effects that certain stimuli have on  our bodies. This is where following a slightly stricter protocol and working with a practitioner who can guide you  on your journey, and teach you what to look for until you learn to listen  to you inner voice again is useful. ... After all, everyone needs a coach. I have several myself.

Anyway lovelies, I hope this was helpful! Wishing you success on your journeys and goals, no matter what they may be.

- Varya