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Everything in moderation – is this the key to health and a healthy weight?

How often do we hear the following phrase: “There are no good or bad foods… everything in moderation”?

It is routinely used by people defending unhealthy food choices or from fast food companies feeling threatened. I personally hate the word ‘moderation’ when applied to food; it means nothing really, and is so often used to stifle rational debate about food and nutrition.

So what is ‘moderation’? The three dictionaries I referred to defined it as ‘the quality of being moderate’! ‘Moderate’ is defined as ‘not extreme or excessive’ so I guess we can take moderation to mean the ‘quality of not being extreme or excessive’. All good stuff, but what does extreme or excessive mean? Without going into further dictionary definitions, it is obvious that ‘moderate’, ‘extreme’ or ‘excessive’ are very subjective terms. How people perceive them and the circumstances in which they are used will greatly influence their meanings in real terms.

What is a moderate consumption of fast food, for example? The big food companies often say having their product once a week is not excessive. But how much of their product… and does this mean that we can have KFC, Maccas, Burger King and take-out pizza once a week as well? And can we add in a ‘moderate’ amount of chocolate, doughnuts, chippies, biscuits, soft drinks, energy drinks, alcohol etc? I think you get my drift!

And what is excessive in terms of portion size? Serving sizes delivered in USA food outlets are excessive to me but if you were American, however, and had grown up with such portions, they would be ‘normal’ (and not excessive) to you.

So how can we classify food and give simple and more precise advice about how to eat for health?

My approach is to classify foods into those that promote health and a healthy weight and those that do the opposite. I believe food exists on a spectrum, with the foods that best look after your health (eg. fruit, vegetables, lean meat, nuts, seeds, low-fat dairy products and legumes) and foods that are most likely to promote ill health at the other end (eg. foods high in sugar, saturated fat and salt will obviously sit there).

As a guide, I would suggest around 80–90 per cent of your food should come from the healthy end of the spectrum – this will ensure you get the nutrients you need to stay well and should promote a healthy weight as well. It also allows some room for foods/drinks from the least healthy end – I certainly enjoy my chocolate and wine! If you are gaining weight, however, or want to lose some, something has to go – and it should never be the nutrient-rich foods as these are the ‘non-negotiable foods’ that keep you well. It is the least healthy foods, ie. foods you don’t need for health, that need to be trimmed – unless of course you up your activity levels and can maintain a healthy weight that way.

Food is defined as ‘any substance that can be taken into the body by a living organism and changed into energy and body tissue’. There are certainly substances that do this more effectively than others. If we are to be the ‘best version of us’, these are the ones we should mostly choose. This is not rocket science or ‘food zeal’ – it is just plain common sense!


Bronwen King is a NZ-registered nutritionist and qualified chef, and regular contributor to Healthy Food Guide magazine. She specialises in population health nutrition and weight management and currently manages Appetite for Life, a primary care-based healthy lifestyle and weight management programme in Canterbury. She enjoys everything about food! Check out Bronwen’s personal blog, www.eatlosewin.com.

Date modified: 3 November 2020
First published: Oct 2012


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