Moderation and a Wildly Thrown Ball

March 15, 2011 in Psychology of Food, Weight Management by Joyce Bunderson

I’ve been meaning to write about moderation as related to food and eating for quite awhile, but as I mentioned last week in Clearing Up Carb Confusion – Be Picky,  food/eating/nutrition are really rather complex.  My original idea was to use some examples like eggs and beef for illustration and to talk about the benefits of moderate consumption. Having studied nutrition decades ago, I’m used to the complexities, but this week my subject spiraled out of my hands like a wildly thrown ball.

First, I’ll tell you about the moderation as planned. Personally I think, moderation in eating and moderation in the actual food choices, is an extremely useful tool in keeping me from the desperate feelings of deprivation. For me it’s very uncomfortable to ‘give up’ foods that I’ve enjoyed during my life; it’s much easier to limit how often and how much I have of foods that I deem, ‘difficult to include in my diet.’ This position works for me; considering foods ‘forbidden’ makes them somehow seem even more attractive than if I allow myself a taste once in a while. I have counseled enough people in my life to know that people display an enormous variety of perspectives and personalities. Some people, for example, say that they are better off never touching food ‘X’ again than to endure the torture that the decision-making involves; and I can appreciate their perspective. It’s important for us to identify our individual thinking – that is, to learn what works for us as individuals. But having said that, moderation is one of my powerful tools, and there are others like me out there that it can work for as well.

Being an individual, who has worked at personal weight management for a lifetime, I have gathered a number of skills that work for me. Having read Brian Wansink’s Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, during the past few years has helped me to further hone my weight management skills. Some of his ‘hints’ were already part of my weight management repertoire (not eating chips/nuts out of the bag/jar, for example – too easy for the portion eaten to get out of control); I did, however, add some new Wansink ideas to my list of skills. One was to utilize the concept of cutting back, just enough to make a difference, without becoming uncomfortably hungry – instead of having to go on an rigorous weight loss plan. I’ve done that for quite a while, but did not pay attention to how small the differences can be, to make a significant impact on the scale. Cutting back on the amount dished up by just a small proportion can be managed easily, without discomfort from hunger and can yield the management of a lower body weight. Thank you Brian Wansink for the loss of those extra pounds. This moderate way of managing weight is also a pain-free method.

Meat example

We Americans consume far more meat than we need. Per capita, it’s more than any other country on Earth. The new Dietary Guidelines say that we should eat less food, but since it doesn’t specifically say ‘eat less meat’ the meat industry appears to be happily going forward as though the overall goal is not to ‘eat less’ food, including meat.

One way that the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which represents beef producers, is trying to assure that as we cut back, it will come from the vegetables instead of the meat is through their underwriting of their MBA program – Masters of Beef Advocacy. Do we really more people among us advocating for beef? While I know that my husband and I can survive nicely without beef, we continue to eat it sparingly; usually when served at a friend or family’s home. And once in a while (every couple of months or so) I will cook something with beef, like chili with beans – mostly veggies, but it includes beef. It seems logical to us, we who enjoy vegetables, to be moderate in our consumption of meat. It’s not a secret that beef puts quite an ecological load on our planet. Moderation is our decision, rather than abstinence. We have a granddaughter who is a vegetarian; we respect that too, as well as many family members who are frequent beefeaters. We don’t feel strongly that we need to strive to force our decisions upon others. We offer an informed source with a particular point of view, if asked. Meat can be a nourishing food – however, consider thinking ‘moderation’! You may want to contemplate cutting back on the frequency meat is consumed and the amount per meal. Remember, a 3-ounce serving of meat should only be the size of a deck of playing cards.

Eggs were the other example that came to mind

According to the latest USDA tests, eggs contain less cholesterol than they did a decade ago. A large egg has about 186 mg of cholesterol, down from 215 mg. If you’re striving to keep your cholesterol intake below 300mg/day, it’s still a number that should be noticed.  Having said that, I should also mention that eggs are a good source of vitamin D at 41 mg/egg. Nevertheless, we may want to ask ourselves if we really need a five-egg omelet. Or can we be satisfied on a moderate 1-egg reverse omelet. Eggs are an excellent source of lutein (a phytonutrient found in the yolk) that may ward off age-related macular degeneration. There are quite a few other nutrients in eggs too; many are in the yolk where the cholesterol is located. In addition, the cost of egg protein is hard to beat when comparing the price of other protein sources. Our recommendation is to enjoy eggs in moderation, but do skip the cheese, sausage and bacon that are commonly served with or on them. The new Dietary Guidelines suggests limiting eggs to one per day on average. Moderation may not be an exciting concept for many, but it is a valuable skill to have in your kit.

The amount of food and number of calories in a well-balanced diet are all about moderation. Even if you’re eating healthy whole foods like whole grains, if you’re eating too much, it will contribute to a weight problem. It’s a balancing act – moderation is key.

The Wildly Thrown Ball

While I was still in my thoughts on moderation, I came upon an article in the Atlantic, by B. R. Myers called Fed Up: Gluttony Dressed Up as Foodie-ism is Still-Gluttony. I should begin by telling you why I was drawn to read the article. In the past couple of years, during one of our family visits, a family member introduced Vic and me to a television show that could best be described as a reality show on gluttony. I should probably admit right here that I don’t have a chance to watch very much TV; so the ‘eating contests’ in this series are probably not a news flash for you. If, however, you haven’t seen the weekly ‘eating contest’ programs, I’ll explain in short what I remember. Essentially, the show’s hero goes from restaurant to restaurant that serves absolutely outrageous amounts of food. Each restaurant he chooses has a special dish with a super portion size, and an associated award if you can eat it all. It appears to me that the audience must admire the ability to consume these extremely outsized servings in one sitting, and keep it down. Then the hero tries to consume the entire ‘serving’. Others may be recruited to do so as well – it’s like an athletic event of endurance. The audience watches the contestant suffer to try to keep down yet another bite. The “hero” tries to pretend he is loving it, so the restaurant will get good publicity. I frankly do not consider my self a wimp; but in all honesty, it made me feel queasy, and the whole thing seemed depraved and disgusting – glorifying gluttony.

The other reason for wanting to read the Meyers’ article is that I’ve secretly harbored a desire to be a foodie – frankly, it just sounds cool so I thought that I’d learn more about foodies. I did! I thought it’s a cool word that says that the foodie does something with food. What I do is to try to translate scientific information about nutrition into practical everyday language to help consumers understand how to best nourish themselves – basically I’m striving to generate food ideas for our readers.

So I read Myers’ article. It’s an article that stirs tremendous emotion - I marked up my print version with yellow highlight. One of my observations is that Mr. B. R. Meyers must be a vegan, one especially devoted to our Earth. Now I don’t know if he is, but you could almost feel his passion and disgust for meat, shell fish and so on, or at least for the gluttonous pursuit of them. Having said that, not being a vegetarian, I must admit, that some of the writing painted a vivid picture of disgusting consumption. I agree with some of his perspectives. I certainly cannot relate to people eating Ortolans, songbirds on a protected list, that are trapped in a dark box to affect their feeding cycle and thus their fattening, because it improves their flavor. Are we so short of animal protein? Can any flavor be worth this practice? In his article, Myers reports on a number of other eating oddities that seem barbaric to me, but I’m not in the gourmet circles that travel the earth to obtain meals involving strange offerings – mostly animals. In all honesty, I should admit that I ate some fairly strange foods offered in Tibet this past year, but none of them were endangered species.

Myers takes on “foodies” with positive messages as well as more in-your-face gluttons. For example, Michael Pollan – Myers slams him pretty hard. I regard Michael Pollan, as a magnificent writer and investigative journalist. He has done far more in the advancement of improved nutrition than to advance gluttony, the focus of Myers’ essay. From the beginning of reading Pollan’s books (The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, Food Rules: An Eater's Manual), I had my differences. But I certainly am grateful for his work and that of others, in bringing forward the hidden world of the food processors, and the government’s role in sustaining food monopolies. One of the issues of my differences with him is that we can’t all eat from the small farms; for both cost reasons and availability reasons. I appreciate Myers pointing out in print that the “Magruder Ranch veal” – produced in a sustainable way that doesn’t exploit workers, served as a typical offering at Alice Water’s Chez Panisse, “is environmentally sustainable only because so few people can afford it.” I felt this way, when I read Pollan’s book. How many people can afford meals at Chez Panisse? How many people in our nation can take the time to make a 36-hour meal? Just encouraging the public to make cooking anything a priority, is a difficult enough challenge for those of us trying to steer the public away from fast food and restaurant meals.

Myers strongly criticizes hosts’ who feel their food priorities and rules are prime – and quotes Pollan who says he sides with the French in regarding “any personal dietary prohibition as bad manners.” A few years back, I was putting on a company dinner party, which honored an individual who loved prime rib. The menu included the Yorkshire pudding and all the trimmings. The snag of the whole event was that two of the guests were vegans – charming people, but vegans all the same. As the host, I felt it my obligation to accommodate their needs. I first went to the bookstore and bought a lovely volume called Passionate Vegetarian. I have to admit that it added considerable effort to my work; but I must confess too, I felt it my responsibility to meet the needs of my guests; and it felt good to do my best to meet their wishes. I will also note here that they were especially grateful for the extra dishes prepared specifically for them. So the question in my mind is: Who has the bad manners, the host that tries to trick his Jewish guest into eating pork, or his vegan guest, or his diabetic guest into eating foods against their values? Is common courtesy a consideration? Can moderation spill over into control of our emotions and respect for the differences of others? As a guest, is it not possible to eat less of the food than is offered, foods that don’t work for our diet, rather than making an issue out of it? Can we eat moderately and then have a larger than normal evening serving of something appropriate, if necessary. It seems that it’s not just moderation of eating, but courtesy and moderation of behavior.

The Myers article really stirred up a hornet’s nest. People are blogging in response to Myers’ passionate writing. I thought that Myers’ approach was a bit aggressive, but it has taken off from there. I don’t want to go into the responses to his article on gluttony, but I’d like to mention a couple of ideas.

Civil Discourse – can we not have a different opinion without calling an author a ‘stupid jerkface’? The attacks go on from there.  Can someone’s writing not put us off without getting into a slugfest of words? I like reading about different ideas, even those that I don’t fully embrace, without having to attack the author personally. It seems that common courtesy (however, uncommon, it may be) is not even a consideration. Can we not glean the nuggets of truth, contemplate the diversity, and enjoy clever writing, without losing our decent and moderate social graces?

Myers’ writing did make me realize that I don’t want to be a foodie if it is a slippery slope down to disguised forms of gluttony, or to expensive elitism. (But I really doubt this is the only definition of foodie or foodism).  I do want to remain a moderation-seeking advocate for improved nutrition. I want to sit back and let my hands cool off after catching that wildly thrown ball. I gladly bow out of all thoughts of notoriety through foodism. Instead, I will quietly sit back and enjoy good writing from many sources, and snuggle comfortably with moderation in food for the body, and in moderation in food for thought.