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Whenever I counsel someone about their weight loss progress, I have to delve deeply into their daily nutritional habits. How are you nourishing yourself? Are you snacking? On what… and how much?

“Oh, I still eat junk food, but it’s fine in moderation… right?”

In the more recent months, book after book after book after book has come out discussing something very important: that the non-produce foods that we buy are engineered to make us overindulge.

No, really.

Taken directly from Salt, Sugar, Fat, the story of an experimental psychologist who uses statistical analysis to create “the best recipe” for a brand:

Moskowitz likes to imagine that his computer is divided into silos, in which each of the attributes is stacked. But it’s not simply a matter of comparing Color 23 with Color 24. In the most complicated projects, Color 23 must be combined with Syrup 11 and Packaging 6, and on and on, in seemingly infinite combinations. Even for jobs in which the only concern is taste and the variables are limited to the ingredients, endless charts and graphs will come spewing out of Moskowitz’s computer. “The mathematical model maps out the ingredients to the sensory perceptions these ingredients create,” he told me, “so I can just dial a new product. This is the engineering approach.”

Moskowitz’s work on Prego spaghetti sauce was memorialized in a 2004 presentation by the author Malcolm Gladwell at the TED conference in Monterey, Calif.: “After . . . months and months, he had a mountain of data about how the American people feel about spaghetti sauce. . . . And sure enough, if you sit down and you analyze all this data on spaghetti sauce, you realize that all Americans fall into one of three groups. There are people who like their spaghetti sauce plain. There are people who like their spaghetti sauce spicy. And there are people who like it extra-chunky. And of those three facts, the third one was the most significant, because at the time, in the early 1980s, if you went to a supermarket, you would not find extra-chunky spaghetti sauce. And Prego turned to Howard, and they said, ‘Are you telling me that one-third of Americans crave extra-chunky spaghetti sauce, and yet no one is servicing their needs?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ And Prego then went back and completely reformulated their spaghetti sauce and came out with a line of extra-chunky that immediately and completely took over the spaghetti-sauce business in this country. . . . That is Howard’s gift to the American people. . . . He fundamentally changed the way the food industry thinks about making you happy.”

how they think about making me happy? Hmmm.

With food processing, the way these processed food brands “make you happy” is by creating a product so tantalizing that you eventually wind up giving up your ability to control your urges. In some cases, it’s the perfect storm to cause a binge-eating episode.

How does this relate to the idea of moderation, though? Simple: how can you moderate your intake of a food engineered to make you want to eat it all, and eat it quickly? You can’t. If a company is investing millions of dollars in creating the most desirable form of its recipe, you can be assured that you’re going to lose.

What does this mean for you? It means that it is your responsibility to be honest with yourself. Are you sensibly controlling your intake of a given food? No? Then… should you be buying it? Probably not.

Besides, when you get to the point where you have to rationalize your intake of something by saying “Oh, it’s fine… in moderation,” chances are high that you’ve already lost, and it’s just not worth the ensuing guilt. I’m sure you’re not saying to yourself how spinach is “fine… in moderation.

There are delicious, healthily-made foods that you can enjoy without them stealing your self-control, and you should moderate your intake of those too. However, there’s a difference between enjoying a food and binging on it, and if your experience with a food is blurring the lines between “enjoying it” and “binging on it,” then it may be time to stop buying it.

And that’s the best kind of moderation.

Erika Nicole Kendall is a trainer certified in women’s fitness, fitness nutrition and weight loss coaching who also chronicles her own 160lb weight loss journey on the award-winning blog, A Black Girl’s Guide to Weight Loss. Hit her up on Twitter, or check her out on Facebook.

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