When you think of “eating in moderation,” what does the term mean to you—just enough to satisfy, until you’re full, only one portion, or leaving food on your plate? According to “‘Everything in moderation’ advice is unlikely to be effective: Study” by Niamh Michail (Appetite Journal, Dellen, Isherwood and Delose, appet.2016.03.10), the term is too vague to be meaningful or helpful for judging what’s enough food for you.

Researchers from the University of Georgia ran a series of experiments concluding that “people tend to define the concept [of moderation] to justify how much they actually eat, or want to eat.” This result is not surprising considering that the term has never been defined as a certain amount of food. Moderation for one person is too much or too little for the next. In fact, “The researchers found that around two-thirds of the [study’s] participants believed a moderate amount of cookies was more than they ‘should’ eat.”

The first experiment involved giving participants “a plate piled with 24 chocolate chip cookies and asked them to specify: how many cookies one should eat, how many they considered to be moderate consumption, and how many cookies would constitute an indulgent amount. More than two thirds of the participants defined moderation as greater than what they believed one should consume.” The second experiment showed “an image of fruit-shaped gummy sweets and asked [participants] to rate their liking of the sweets. They found that the more people reported liking and eating gummy sweets, the more pieces they considered to represent moderate consumption. In the third experiment, subjects reflected on moderation messages for categories of foods: soft drinks, alcoholic drinks, ice cream, and fast food” and “the more people reported eating of a particular category, the more they were considered to fall within moderate consumption.” The authors’ conclusion: moderation messages aren’t very helpful and are widely interpreted. They call for “clearer serving sizes on-pack, arguing that current serving sizes do not accurately reflect the amount that people actually consume.”

Do you tell yourself before eating that you’ll do it in moderation? Best to forget the term. You’re better off considering how hungry you are, what and when you might be eating next, how much you expect to enjoy the food in front of you, and how filling it will be. Visualize a quantity of food which you believe will satisfy you (start small), then eat with awareness and stop when you get to the envisioned amount. If you’re satisfied, you’re done. If not, eat just a little more and see if that does the trick. Trust your appetite cues more than the term “moderation.”