Moderation on a Plant-Based Diet

What is moderation?

Moderating serving sizes? Calories? Macronutrients? Grams?

We often hear about the need to moderate intakes of certain items such as saturated fat, trans fats, junk foods and soda. While this may appear to be an easy thing, many people don’t know what moderation is.

For example, let’s say that you eat a “healthy” diet for a standard American and hypothetically the calorie ratios and diet allowances set by the USDA are acceptable.

  • Breakfast: Cheerios and skim milk
  • Lunch: salad with iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, canned tuna and Italian dressing and Sunchips
  • Dinner: spaghetti with pasta sauce, ground turkey and parmesan with a side of peas

Sounds healthy, right?

After all, according to, you hit 95% of your nutritional targets and you stayed within the accepted calorie range for the standard 2,000 calories for the day with 2,015 calories. You even stayed pretty close to the recommended percentage of calories from protein, carbohydrates and fat according to the USDA with 56% of calories coming from carbs, 25% coming from fat and 19% coming from protein. The government recommends that 53% of calories come from carbohydrates, 29% of calories come from fat and 18% of calories come from protein.

However during the day you also consume these things outside of your regular meals:white chocolate frapp coffee
• Your usual Venti Starbucks Chai Frap on your way to work
• 2 cans of diet soda to keep you awake throughout the day
• 3 doves promises milk chocolate squares out of a bowl of them sitting on your coworker’s desk
• 1 glass of red wine with supper

Without thinking about it, you added 604 calories, over 1/4 of your daily calorie allowance of around 2000 calories, to total the day at 2619 calories. These “treats” or “extras” now make up 23% of your calories for the day!

Does that sound like moderation to you?

Moderated foods and treats should make up 10% or less of your calories for the day. The majority of what you eat should be foods that fit your chosen dietary profile.

Now, you can argue one could eat 51% of their calories from acceptable foods and still have the majority of their diet coming from those foods. But science doesn’t lie. And you can’t lie to your body. It will know if 90% or if only 51% of your calories are coming from “good” foods. Your body is always watching.

Perception vs. reality

Do you know how many calories are in olive oil?

When we eat with our eyes and in volume, we think about the calories coming from the most visually prominent food on our plate. This is one of the reasons why it is detrimental to count with grams and not calorie percentages.

When we eat a salad we think about the amount of calories that come from the lettuce. However, when you add just a tablespoon of olive oil to 4 cups of lettuce, the majority of the calories no longer come from the lettuce but the fat from the olive oil. Olive oil has 120 calories per tablespoon. 4 cups of shredded lettuce has only 40 calories in it.

The snacks and treats do not come into mind either when we think about what we ate for the day because they are not part of meals and they are not supposed to make up the majority of our diet. That is one reason why it is so easy to over consume on treats–we forget about the other treats we have consumed in the day when we make decisions on whether or not we should consume another one.

The harm of “just one”

It's never just one.

Another issue that is part of this whole moderation problem is people do not count all of their treats together–they place them independently in their mind. So if a person wants to have a Starbucks Chai Frap each day, they think to themselves, “Hey, what’s the harm? It’s just one”.

That is where the problem lies. “It’s just one”.

But just one Starbucks drink, two diet sodas, just three small squares of doves chocolate squares and just one glass of wine all add up. They’re all treat calories, but they’re separated because they’re a small amount of a certain type of treat. For some reason, it’s not acceptable to eat 604 calories of chocolate in one sitting yet it’s normal to eat 604 calories of treat food over the course of the day.

We need to start realizing where the majority of our calories come from. Even setting aside the recommendation of following a plant-based diet, are the majority of our calories coming from an “acceptable” source? How much of your food is actually treat food?

So, what is moderation?Moderation of meat is sometimes surprising

I calculate moderation in terms of calories.

Moderation is eating the majority of our calories from foods that are healthy and wholesome, also known as whole foods. Moderation does not mean the exclusion of anything from a diet. It means that the major percentage of ones calories, around 90%, come from whole, plant-based foods.

Is anything off limits?


But it’s necessary to understand that some foods are better and some foods are worse. Eating a steak has greater negative health effects than eating a teaspoon of wheat germ oil. The wheat germ oil could be incorporated every day in small amounts while a 3-ounce serving of steak could be consumed a maximum of one time per week. The steak has more calories and more negative health consequences than the wheat germ oil does, thus making a greater impact on the overall healthiness of our food consumption.

Would I advocate for the consumption of moderated foods in a diet?

That depends.

On one hand, there are not sufficient benefits to recommend eating steak or any piece of meat. On the other hand, the wheat germ oil has vitamin E that is not found in many plant foods. I could advocate for the consumption of around a teaspoon daily as long as the majority of your calories come from whole foods.

The majority matters

What you eat the majority of the time matters

If you get one message out of reading about moderation I hope it’s this: what matters is the majority.

Just like eating a few fries doesn’t make somebody an unhealthy individual, eating a single salad does not make a person healthy either. While it’s not necessary to exclude any food from your diet following a plant-based lifestyle, it is imperative to be conscious about what foods make up the majority of your diet.

The easiest way to do this is to approximate the percentage of your calories that come from whole, plant-based foods. If this number is 85% or above, then you are moderating acceptably. If not, then you need to consciously eat more whole foods.

  • Updated 3 years ago
Sara Binde

Sara is a health and nutrition coach. She advocates for a whole foods plant-based lifestyle and teaches the world how to achieve weight loss.