How to master moderation

We deprive ourselves of things we love for fear of bingeing, then we over-exercise so as not to feel guilty about slip-ups. What happened to the fine art of moderation? By Rebecca Ley

 } by Psychologies

From the woman who won’t have a biscuit in case she ends up eating the whole packet, to the running fanatic who won’t stop until she’s done her allotted distance, I see many people trapped in cycles of excess and deprivation.

Some of us, it seems, don’t know how to achieve consistent moderation in our lives.

‘Any kind of extreme or obsessive behaviour is unhealthy, for both your body and mind,’ says nutritionist and obesity expert Zoe Harcombe. Certainly, we know that eating nothing but sweets and refined carbs is unhealthy, but we fail to recognise that too much ‘healthy’ behaviour can do damage, too. While regular exercise is, of course, good for us, over-exercising is not.

‘People devoted to going to the gym every day are storing up trouble for themselves,’ says GP and author Dr Tom Smith. ‘Doing too much exercise doesn’t allow the muscles to rest before you next expose them to activity. This can lead to muscle and tendon damage, the least of which are sprains and muscle and ligament tears.’

Studies show that excess exercise can increase your risk of heart damage, osteoporosis and weaken your immune system. There can be negative psychological effects, too, says Smith. ‘While normal exercise gives most people a boost, excessive exercise can lead to obsessive and solitary behaviour, leading to exclusion from family and friends. It almost equates to an addiction.’

A little of what we fancy appears to do us good, even if the benefit of a piece of cake or a glass of wine is simply the feel-good effect of a treat. ‘If you are going to indulge in something, you should do so joyfully and not guiltily,’ says Professor Paul Gilbert, author of The Compassionate Mind. ‘Mentally, this is very important.’ Constantly depriving ourselves of little indulgences is a fast track to feeling awful.

And cutting out certain foods because you don’t trust yourself to have just one will often trigger binge-eating, the thing you tried so hard to resist, says Harcombe. Stretches of deprivation followed by excess also cause our health to suffer, especially our immune system. Not to mention the psychological impact of veering between extremes.

‘You obsess over foods you can’t eat, feel guilt as soon as you give in to them, deprive yourself again,’ says Harcombe. ‘And any kind of boom and bust has a significant impact on self-esteem.’

So why are some of us unable to have just one glass of wine, or one biscuit? Smith believes that our need for extremes is part of our physiology. ‘Even though we have stopped being hunter-gatherers, we are physiologically engineered for extremes, which may be why we seek the highs that certain behaviours afford us,’ he says.

Harcombe thinks it’s a subconscious method of distraction. ‘People focus on trivial things – what diet they’re on or a missed yoga session – so they don’t have to think about the big questions, such as what they really want from a relationship, or what they want to do with their lives,’ she says. ‘But if you put all that passion and energy into something meaningful, just think what you could achieve.’

Yet surely part of the problem is that we want to distract ourselves from some of the more serious aspects of our lives? The problem with being moderate is that it doesn’t sound like it’s very much fun. 

Harcombe disagrees. ‘There are plenty of things that you can enjoy – chocolate, red wine, a nice steak – that are good for you as well,’ she says. She points to the fact that our definitions of what is good and bad for us are so fixed. Exercise, fruit and green tea (good). Carbs, saturated fat and chocolate (bad). ‘We tend to label things in very black and white terms,’ she says. ‘But we need to start seeing things in shades of grey.’