This Date in UCSF History: New Year's Resolution, Moderation

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Originally published in Synapse on January 11, 2008.

For many people, ringing in the New Year is synonymous with setting goals and making changes for the coming twelve months in hopes of getting closer to what we consider our ideal self

For Americans, some of the most common New Year’s resolutions involve our body: eat right, stop smoking, fit into those jeans, stop wasting that gym membership.

And in recent years, science has shown us that all these goals actually converge into a single goal with many faces: be healthy.

The best evidence indicates that excess body weight is the second most preventable cause of cancer (smoking still holds the trophy) and also contributes to most leading causes of death in the United States, including heart disease, stroke and diabetes. We have also learned that fad diets work only temporarily, and that the old mantra “eat right and exercise” is still the most reliable method for achieving permanent weight loss.

Science has even convinced us that there is a way to “eat right” and that it is relatively simple: avoid sugar, refined carbohydrates and saturated fat.

Eat mostly vegetables, fruits, whole grains, unsaturated fats and lean sources of protein as part of a diverse’ diet. Drink water.

Eliminate cigarettes and trans-fat. One hour of exercise three to five days a week (some cardio, some strength training) is sufficient.

Do these things and you will be healthy; you will fit into your skinny jeans and your body will not let you down as you age.

So if we know all this, what is left out of the equation? Why do we need another resolution to be healthy in 2008? After all, if these are lifestyle changes to be made permanently (as opposed to one of those fad diets), shouldn’t we have already accomplished our goals?
At this point some of your minds are inevitably yelling: “Are you crazy?! IT’S TOO HARD! Being ‘bad’ feels too good! We love sugar, potato chips and vegging in front of the TV!”

But you see, those things are not the problem. Rather, it is how you look at them. Because sometimes despite everything we know, we can lose sight of one of the most important behaviors we must embrace: moderation.

Moderate is the opposite of extreme, but we live in a society that loves the extreme.

We have extreme sports and extreme resolution on our televisions. Super-sized meals and lemon water with cayenne pepper detox diets easily fulfill our feast or famine mindset so we happily latch on to them whenever the time seems appropriate.

We can’t help but classify foods as “good” or “bad,” and similarly we tend to dive into one or the other head-first.

But there is no need to guzzle cabbage soup or banish cookies from the planet. Episodes like that are what lead to relapse and binging. Instead, to be moderate we need to think of foods in terms of “eat more” or “eat less.” It will take some practice, but over time moderation is the tool you need to achieve your health goals.

So throw out those crash diets. Cabbage soup and grapefruit cannot change your life. You may lose a few pounds and kid yourself into thinking you feel great as your body is starved of nutrients, but research shows you are all but guaranteed to gain it back, and probably a bit more.

If you want to lose weight and eat healthier start by simply eating more vegetables. Doesn’t eating “more” of something sound more fun anyway?

But what about those cookies, you ask?

Moderation applies to those as well. It is foolish to think that you are not going to eat dessert again for the rest of your life and cutting them out for a prescribed period of time will only keep weight off in the short-term.

As soon as you let your guard down weight will start creeping back on. Similar things can be said about fat and carbs. Making a single food or food type completely off-limits is setting yourself up for failure. I can only think of two things that should be banished completely from your life: cigarettes and trans-fat.

Luckily for us, California law has taken several steps to protect us from these two deadly substances and it is becoming easier and easier to avoid them completely. But these two evils aside, there is room in your diet for just about anything.

The way to deal with your favorite desserts and birthday cake is to simply treat them as they were meant to be treated, as treats!

Remember the French “paradox.” French cuisine never shies from fats and sweets, but they eat even more vegetables and “know when to say when” when it comes to the rich stuff.

So make your treats a real treat.

Plan for them and be selective, there is only room for your favorites. And of course, not too much. Eat enough to feel satisfied, but no more.

Keeping this in mind should help you avoid eating an entire tub of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream like there’s no tomorrow. Because when you have convinced yourself that you will never eat dessert again and finally, inevitably break down, there really is no tomorrow.

You had better eat as much as possible right then because you are never going to have any again for the rest of your life.

But in a world of moderation there is a tomorrow, and the next time you want your favorite ice cream you can have a little bit and save the rest for later.

So if you find yourself a little heavier at the start of 2008 than you would like to be, start by cutting back on (not cutting out) sweets and eating just a little less of everything at each meal.

Replace some of your refined carbohydrates with more vegetables and whole grains. Try replacing a few desserts with fruit instead.

Get to the gym as often as you can, but don’t beat yourself up if you miss a few days, or even a whole week. Just get back on the horse and try again, because this is not a race, this is your life and throwing in the towel is not an option.

I confess that weight will not come off as quickly with this method as it will with a few weeks on the cabbage soup diet, but it will come off. The beauty though, is that the weight you will lose will actually be fat and not water or worse, muscle mass.

The more muscle mass you have, the higher your metabolism. Crash diets are famous for inducing water and muscle loss, thereby causing your metabolism to slow (not to mention malnutrition), so when you go back to your overeating you put on weight even faster than it went on the first time plus a little extra.

But if you practice moderation in 2008 you will reach 2009 closer to your ideal self, a self with fewer resolutions. Happy New Year!