Have you heard of the concept of moderators and abstainers. Today we’re talking why abstinence doesn’t work, and how to find balance in moderation.
Last month, my husband had a dinner event for work and was coming home pretty late, so I made plans to go out to dinner with a few of my girlfriends. We decided to checkout Warmouth, a new upscale Southern restaurant (which just might be my new favorite!). Being a Southern restaurant and being with three of my dearest girlfriends, as you can imagine, it was a pretty rich meal that was washed down with more than a little bit of wine!
When we both got home, Scott surprised me with two big brownies he snagged from the dinner event. They were really dense, fudgey brownies (just how I like them!) baked over a layer of cookie and drizzled with caramel. I know, right?
I took a couple bites and put the rest back, saving them for later so I could really enjoy and savor them, rather than shoving them into an already full stomach and not fully tasting them because I had a wine buzz.
When Scott saw me do that he asked, “Did you really just take one bite then put the rest back?”
Me: “Ummm, yeah.”
“I guess Rachel from work was right, you’re a moderator.” (Heeeey other Rachel!) “She says everyone is either a moderator or an abstainer. A moderator can have just a little bit of something and be okay with it, but an abstainer has to eliminate things entirely. She says all dietitians are moderators.”
At the time, I thought this was just a random concept she came up with. Then a few weeks ago while on an epic 9 hour road trip to Fort Lauderdale (where my friend Sandra and I enjoyed an epic 9 hour podcast binge) we stumbled across the podcast 10% Happier featuring The Happiness Project author Gretchen Rubin, and I learned moderator/abstainer was a real thing.
Poor Sandra. I was so frustrated I kept pausing it to rant to her about how this concept was total baloney. As if being stuck in a car on 95 for nine hours wasn’t bad enough.
Since then, I’ve been meaning to write a post on the topic but putting it off. I finally sat down to write this post (and promptly procrastinated by checking facebook instead) when this email from my dear friend Anne popped up.
That’s a sign, don’t ‘cha think? So, it’s about time I delve into it. But first, here’s my response, aka the short version of what I’m about to tell you.
By the way, do you like that I said I was writing the post when I already confessed to be checking facebook 😉
Back to the issue at hand. I do believe there are some people in this world who are actual, legit abstainers. However, there are also people in this world who can climb Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen, people who actually like Justin Bieber as a person and people who don’t like cheese. As with abstainers, these people are few and far between.
But, you wouldn’t think that reading the comments of any post on the topic. In this one posted yesterday by PB Fingers, 43 of the 63 comments were people who claimed to be abstainers! WOW.
So why do so many people swear up and down they are abstainers? Because abstinence works…that is, until it doesn’t. When you abstain from sugar or gluten or carbs, you get results. You follow the rules and if you stick with it (supposedly) you get the outcome you’re promised. You lose weight and you feel powerful and successful and in control as a result. Sort of a dieters high. When you’re able to control your environment by eliminating certain foods from the house or planning/cooking meals at home, abstinence is easy. But what happens when you’re at a party or go out to eat or stuck in an airport waiting for a delayed plane and nothing is open except McDonalds? Not so easy then. If you identify as a moderator, these situations are just part of life, but as an abstainer, you’ve failed.
The other reason so many people identify as an abstainer is because there just aren’t resources out there to teach moderation. You always here the phrase, “everything in moderation,” but what does that actually mean? Most traditional diet advice is still all about abstinence, calorie counting and avoidance. No wonder most people suck at moderation – they have no clue how to do it!
I think the idea of moderation scares a lot of people because it leaves them feeling out of control. Abstinence is an attempt at control, like a security blanket of sorts. But the thing is you’ll only feel out of control if you’re trying to control something.
I think most people like the idea of being a successful moderator, but think they don’t have the willpower to successfully moderate (p.s. it has nothing to do with willpower but that’s another post entirely!). If you’re a self declared abstainer, wishing you could be a moderator, my first recommendation would be to change your identity – start thinking of yourself as a moderator! One thing Rubin said in the podcast that I thought was interesting was that once she started thinking of herself as someone who didn’t eat carbs (she follows a pretty extreme diet), it became easy because that was jus who she was. That just shows the power of identity based habits. However, we can flip that around to say once you start thinking of yourself as someone who can eat a bite of brownie and put the rest back, it becomes easy too! Seriously, just start calling yourself a moderator – you’ll be shocked at how your behaviors follow!
Keep in mind, changing your environment so certain foods aren’t as available isn’t the same thing as abstaining. I don’t keep ice cream in the house for the same reasons many abstainers list – I’ll eat it all! That doesn’t mean I abstain from it though. I mostly eat it outside of the house during the occasional trip to the ice cream store and a few times a year, when the really good stuff is on sale BOGO, I buy a pint or two we (attempt to) slowly savor. If I told myself I wasn’t allowed to have ice cream, it would make me crazy!
Now, there are some situations in which I think abstinence does work. The main one is the same reason I think Rubin has been so successful as an abstainer. One thing she mentioned in the podcast was that she wasn’t much of a food person. To her, food isn’t exciting – she tends to gravitate towards a more simple palette. Not being a food lover, the idea of abstaining from whole groups isn’t so distressing. I mean, I find it easy to abstain from reading books about the economy of Germany in the 1600s, but that’s not because I’m an abstainer! Ha! But seriously, I did used to drink huge amounts of diet coke back in college. When I realized it wasn’t something bringing me joy, it became easy to abstain. If there’s a low nutrition food you eat out of habit, rather than pleasure, it would be a good candidate for abstinence.
Would love to hear your thoughts – do you consider yourself a moderator or an abstainer? Or does it depend on the situation? Please share in the comments below.
If you’re someone trying to find the balance in moderation, I hope you’ll check back tomorrow when I’ll be making a HUGE announcement with an incredible new resource to help you make peace with food!