You know the cliché—all things in moderation. It applies to all kinds of activities, but nothing more so than with what we eat and drink. But is it true? Can you eat all things in moderation? And what does moderation mean anyway?

For most of us, the word moderation means it's OK to have something (say, a steak, ice cream or BBQ chips) once in a while. That's actually a fair definition of what "moderation" means and unless an item is blatantly toxic, you're probably not going to do any damage if you consume a little now and again. 

The problem occurs when people don't keep in mind all the different foods they consume collectively "in moderation" that aren't part of a healthy diet. For instance, they might recognize it's not healthy to eat fatty foods very often, but might not be aware that chips, ice cream and onion rings are all fatty. Even when you don't eat any one of them very often, if you eat other foods that are fatty (or salty, sugary, processed, etc.) more than every once in a while, it's no longer "in moderation." 

People may also be confused about which foods should be on the "moderation" list compared to the "eat often list."

The Secret to Eating in Moderation

Let's start with a solid understanding of what a healthy diet really includes. For most people, that means consuming veggies and fruit, whole grains, lean proteins, low-fat dairy, small amounts of healthy fats and plenty of plain water. That's your baseline. Anything that's not on that list should be on the "in moderation" list. That means if you want to have some chips, ice cream or fried chicken, you need to consider how long it's been since you last ate other salty, fatty and sugary foods. 

If your baseline diet has been squeaky clean all week, then a serving of something special is a moderate choice. If you had a large bag of fries one day this week, a large piece of cake on another and a cheese burger the day before that, then making the choice to have a bag of doughnuts today is not a moderate choice, even if you haven't eaten doughnuts in a while. 

Keep a Food Journal

Most people who live in countries like ours where food is abundant and stores and restaurants are filled with endless choices are somewhat unaware of how much and how often they eat both healthy and unhealthy foods. They don't track portion sizes or log nutrient contents. That makes it hard to know if you're eating enough of the good stuff and not too much of the "in moderation" stuff. That's where a food journal comes in handy. 

Spend two weeks writing down every bite that goes in your mouth. The process of tracking your diet will make you more aware of your food choices and eating habits, reveal where you have nutritional gaps and where you have wiggle room for treats and snacks. It might also reveal times when you're eating for non-nutritional reasons like boredom, stress or fatigue. This can help you make better decisions about whether you can afford to indulge your cravings or whether you should do more to boost your healthy diet baseline.   

Allison Massey, MS, RD, LDN, CDE, reviewed this article.