It is summer! Barbecues, beer and ice cream! The kids are off school, farmers markets are rammed with fruits and vegetables, and being outdoors is the ultimate prize for winter-weary Canadians. I will bet money that we’re drinking more wine, eating more treats and not exercising as much as we should. But it is summer! Live it up! Everything in moderation, right?

Let’s stop for a second.

Everything in moderation.  What exactly does that mean?

Everything in moderation should be easy to understand: eat well, exercise, have a glass or two of wine, indulge in a square of dark chocolate to satisfy that sweet tooth and sometimes have the fried chicken.

But who does that?

Is this way of living easy?

More importantly, is it realistic?

One of my friends told me summer is the worst time for her to try and live healthily – in spite of the odds. Yes, we crave salads more and when the days are hot our appetite is often suppressed. But the days are longer, we eat later, socialize more and wine isn’t simply for the weekend, right?

In the health and fitness world, we throw “everything in moderation” slogan with reckless abandon. It means to eat a balanced diet with plenty of variety, to focus on fresh fruits and vegetables, eat meat sparingly, drink alcohol within guidelines (Canada’s Guidelines state 1-2 glasses of alcohol daily for women, a bit more for men), limit sugar and unhealthy fats and drink water when you are thirsty. You can have a big bowl of pasta, but not every night of the week. Dessert is wonderful – so long as you aren’t tucking in nightly to the Haagen-Dazs after the kids go to bed. Love those potato chips? Have them once in a while.  

There are a lot of rules to live by. It is no wonder it is so hard to be “good”.

The lexicon of words used in the fitness industry is troubling, too – “ being good” and “cheat days” are massive potholes on the road to wellness. It implies that unless you eat like a fitness trainer, you are damaging yourself. Or, you aren’t disciplined. The fact is, a lot of us fitness and health professionals eat disciplined – but it is our job to be that way.  We work out – for work. Our fridges are stocked full of produce, our cupboards stacked with coconut oil and almond butter, and maple syrup is our go-to sweetener.

Sometimes, we even take it up a notch: one of my colleagues recently competed in a fitness competition and for months ate nothing but chicken breasts, brown rice, green beans and eggs.  I know what you are thinking: that’s no way to live.  I’m with you. But it worked for her, and she came 2nd in the competition with a ridiculous muscle-to fat ratio.

Most of the time, I practice what I preach – I try to live the 80/20 way (80 percent healthy and 20 percent fun). But we all have our food kryptonite: for some, it is french fries; for others, it is bread. For me, it is a warm, gooey chocolate chip cookie, straight from the oven. Sugar makes me happy; I can go on sugar binges like a kid in a proverbial chocolate factory. We can all agree that too much of any one thing isn’t healthy, hence why everything in moderation is a comfortable way to live. But the problem is that the 80/20 way of life can easily become the 20/80 way of life.

A few months ago, I decided to “quit” sugar again. My brother did an eye roll when the cleanse fell over my birthday. It seems like a rite of passage: hit another milestone, deprive myself of the thing that I love the most. Here is what happened: I became that person you don’t want to invite to a dinner party. Oh, that has sugar in it? No thanks – I don’t eat sugar. I read labels and purged my pantry of sweets and treats. For close to a month I was pure, clean and – let’s be frank – smug. I had beaten sugar!  Suckers!

(I also felt fantastic to be free of it, but that’s another blog.)

And then…

I can’t remember what broke me – I’m pretty sure it was a cookie. From then on, it was rather insipid: a little from time to time, some chocolate covered almonds bought from the Bulk Barn on a trip to get basmati rice. Then, like a full-blown addict, sugar was a food group again. Ice cream, freezies and popsicles, coffee dates out with the kids, and who is going to say no to that flourless chocolate cake? Not this gal! I am living proof that you can easily slip from special occasion treat mode to a daily fix – it is a slippery slope. Sugar is a beast.

A few years ago best-selling author and podcast star Gretchen Rubin asked the question Are you an Abstainer or a Moderator?  She raises a good point – is it easier to cut something out entirely and never give yourself permission to have it, or can you moderate it? Do you have to be black and white or are there shades of grey?

I think I have to err on the side of Abstainer. But I have to believe that moderation is possible. It’s just not simple.

All this has made me think of the millions of people out there who are struggling with food addictions. It is one of the reasons why fifty percent of the Canadians – and two-thirds of Americans – are overweight or obese. Ottawa’s Yoni Freedof, whose blog Weighty Matters should be on your required reading list, was succinct when he said that not only do diets not work, but the shame and guilt we associated by being “bad” or “cheating” simply doesn’t work. This is a public health crisis and we’re not facing it.

A recent New York Times blog discussed how food subsidies for agricultural products such as corn and soy – used in cheap, packaged foods – are making us fat. For close to 20 years, the U.S government has been making us fatter and fatter by making those products cheaper. You know how they say it is cheaper to eat crap than it is to eat healthy? It is true.

Cooking has to become a central piece of the puzzle. If you buy a bag of frozen broccoli, chicken breasts on sale and rice you can make a healthy, cheap meal for your family. People eat too much ready-made and processed food, get too much sugar and salt, and are dying of because of Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease because of it. This is a massive issue, and part of the solution lies in the kitchen.  

When we say “everything in moderation” I believe it is a cop out. Because there are things you shouldn’t be eating in moderation: trans fats, sodium and sugar are the three biggest culprits in our public health crisis.  

At the Nutrition and Behavior Change summit at the IDEA World Fitness Conference a few weeks ago David Katz – whose organization True Health Initiative is a game-changer – said it best, “Eat a plant-based diet with a heavy focus on nuts, seeds and legumes, eat tons of vegetables and a little fruit, eat meat products sparingly, and consume healthy fats like EVOO (extra-virgin olive oil) and avocados.

Most importantly, drink water when you are thirsty. This is how to eat to live a healthy, balanced life. It is how we are going to turn the tide of rising health epidemics in our adults and, most frighteningly, child population. At the rate we are going our children are going to have a lifespan decreased by ten years because of health problems related to diet and inactivity.

That’s next month’s blog: how we have to get our kids active, and get ourselves active.

If your summer traditions include repeated trips to the chip wagon for blaring hot french fries smothered in ketchup, and everyone brings a bottle of rosé over for a backyard gathering, that is ok.  We have to remind ourselves to be gentle.

Life should be a journey of progress, not perfection.  

And summer is short.


Erin Phelan is a health and fitness professional, personal trainer and writer. Find her at www.80-percent.com, Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.