What Eating, Drinking, And Working Out In ‘Moderation’ Actually Looks Like

The idea of moderation is something we either love or hate. When we’ve diligently eaten healthy salads all week long, ‘moderation’ in the form of a delicious Friday night cookie can really keep us sane. But if that moderation totally backfires, and that one cookie turns in to three or four, it just leaves us feeling frustrated with ourselves.

The reason the term ‘moderation’ is so tricky: “There’s no real definition of the word,” explains Lauren Harris-Pincus, M.S., R.D.N., author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club and owner of Nutrition Starring You.

And aside from it not having a clear definition, the word can mean something different to each of us, and even our own personal definition can change pretty frequently. “What someone considers moderate is highly influenced by what’s around them and what seems normal,” explains Ryan D. Andrews, M.S., M.A., R.D., author of A Guide to Plant-Based Eating.

Based on research published in the journal Appetite, nearly 70 percent of us are generous with our idea of moderation. We might identify two chocolate chip cookies as one serving, but still consider eating three pretty ‘moderate.’ And, unsurprisingly, we’re more likely to be liberal with our definition of moderation for types of junk food we really enjoy, the study suggests.

So how do you practice moderation in a way that keeps you feeling balanced while still prioritizing your health and well-being? We asked the pros for their best advice—not only for eating in moderation, but for drinking and exercising as well. Keep their guidelines in mind next time yet another cookie, cocktail, or CrossFit® class calls your name.

Eating In Moderation

Having guilt-free moments to indulge is important, says Andrews. After all, our relationship with food is pretty nuanced: There’s more to it than the bad-good binary (i.e. that eating for pure nutrition will always lead to positive outcomes and treating ourselves will always lead to negative outcomes). “When we view our meals or food choices as restrictive in any way, we get into a scarcity mindset, which can lead to food obsession and potential overcompensation later on,” Andrews explains.

But how often you treat yourself depends on a whole slew of factors, like your overall health, your personal fitness goals, and your schedule, says Harris-Pincus. As a general guideline, she recommends following the 80/20 rule, meaning 80 percent of your calories should come from nutritious foods that fuel your body and are packed with protein, healthy fats and carbs, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. (Think fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, lean poultry, and fish.) The other 20 percent of your daily calories are saved for guilt-free treats. So if you eat roughly 2,000 calories per day, for example, 400 of those calories can be more indulgent.

Go Ahead, Treat Yourself

If you’re trying to lose weight, Harris-Pincus recommends adjusting your ratio to 90/10, so you can reach your goals while still having some wiggle room to enjoy yourself on special occasions.

Beyond your general eating habits, ‘moderation’ is especially important for a few specific foods and ingredients, says Andrews. At the top of the list: added sugar, which has been linked to various health issues, like heart disease. “The average American adult eats 23 teaspoons of added sugar per day, but from a health perspective ‘moderation’ would be more like six to nine teaspoons per day,” he says.

Meat is another food we may need to adjust our definition of ‘moderation’ for. “The average American adult eats eight ounces of meat per day, but ‘moderation’ would be more like three ounces per day,” says Andrews. (Andrews recommends limiting red meat, like beef, to two ounces a day, and getting the rest from other sources, like poultry.) Why? Red meat consumption has been linked to cancer risk in some research, and the World Health Organization (WHO) has classified it as ‘possibly carcinogenic’ to humans.

On top of moderating meat intake for health’s sake, there are plenty of other good reasons—like environmental sustainability. Get this: Livestock production accounts for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations.)

Boozing In Moderation

Moderation may be nuanced when it comes to food, but it’s pretty cut and dry when it comes to alcohol. According to the CDC, moderate alcohol intake is one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. One drink means 12 ounces of beer, eight ounces of malt liquor, five ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits or liquor, says Harris-Pincus. More often than not, though, we pour ourselves more than this.

Alcohol has been linked to serious health risks, like high blood pressure and various cancers, so consider the CDC’s daily drink recommendation an acceptable upper limit of moderation, not the ideal, she says. Drinking less than that—or not at all—will better benefit your health.

We get it—sometimes you want to unwind after a long day with a glass of vino or a cocktail. When you do drink, avoid as many excess calories as possible by using unsweetened flavored seltzer or club soda as mixers instead of sodas or syrups, she says. Acknowledge that drinking doesn’t fuel or nourish your body, and sip slowly so you really enjoy the treat, she recommends.

Sweating In Moderation

You know exercise is important: It can help you maintain a healthy weight, keep your energy levels up, and even boost your mood—but moderation applies here, too! Striking a balance between couch potato and gym junkie will help you get the most mind-body benefit from exercise.

When it comes to the type of workouts you’re doing, moderation means balancing strength training and cardio, says Baltimore-based strength coach Erica Suter, C.S.C.S. They’re both great for fat loss, but strength training will help you build muscle, so you can eventually burn more calories at rest. Ideally, you’d strength train around three days per week, she says, and opt for cardio two to three days per week.

Moderation applies to your intensity, too. Three of your weekly workouts should be high-intensity, meaning they keep your heart pumping and involve little rest, says California-based trainer Mike Donavanik, C.S.C.S., C.P.T. For strength training that means lifting heavy enough that your last few reps are very challenging. For cardio, that means doing sprints or another form of high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

Schedule two or three ‘moderate’ days in between your two or three high-intensity days, in which you’ll lift lighter loads for more reps or do some steady-state cardio, says Suter. Play around with how many all-out and moderate workouts you do to find your personal sweet spot. Ideally, you’ll exercise four to six days a week.

There is a such thing as too much exercise. “If you notice your energy levels starting to wane, that you’re not sleeping well, or that you’re just not looking forward to your workouts, you’re not practicing exercise in moderation and might be going a little too hard,” says Suter. Listening to your body and not going overboard is crucial.

Related: 5 Signs You Need A Day Off From The Gym

That’s where rest days come in. If you’re just beginning an exercise routine, start with two full rest days per week. As you get more comfortable, you may be able to bump it down to one. Rest helps you come back stronger, motivated to work out, and ready to take on new challenges, says Donavanik.

That rest day shouldn’t be an all-day Netflix binge, though: Both Suter and Donavanik believe in active recovery, meaning you still move on your day off. Going for a walk or a hike, taking a yoga class, or even spending some time stretching can help keep your blood flowing and help your body recover from previous workouts, Donavanik says.

Ultimately, when you find your ideal ‘moderation’ for exercise, you’ll enjoy working out and get excited about your routine, he says. You may need to try a few different things to get there, whether it’s spin classes, running, weight lifting, or even an intramural sport—but the best thing you can do for yourself is to get up and move your body, however works best for you, he says.