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Abstainers vs. Moderators
January 17, 2017

 
The topic of ‘abstainers vs. moderators’ has been on my mind lately after listening to a podcast called “Happier” hosted by Gretchen Rubin. You might recognize Gretchen as the author of The Happiness Project, a self-help book that provides concrete ideas to increase your personal happiness. Gretchen’s work investigates the multiple strategies she’s identified that help us make and break our habits. Gretchen believes that the secret to changing a habit is to understand ourselves so we can suit our habits to our personality. When it comes to changing nutrition habits, I agree with Gretchen that understanding whether we are an abstainer or a moderator can be helpful.

If you are unfamiliar with the concept, below is a brief breakdown of how Gretchen describes abstainers and moderators:

Abstainer:
  • Has trouble stopping something once they have started (eg. would rather watch an entire season on Netflix rather than one episode per week)
  • Aren’t tempted when they have decided something is ‘off-limits’ (eg. can easily say “no” to the bread basket if they’ve decided not to have any)
Moderator:
  • Finds the occasional indulgence strengthens resolve (eg. a square of dark chocolate each day improves their ability to make nutritious choices for other meals)
  • Panic at the thought of “never” getting to do or have something (eg. would quickly rebel if their diet prescribed that they never eat a particular food)
It can be easier to figure out whether you are an abstainer or a moderator when you think about it in a certain context. Moderators succeed more frequently when they avoid absolutes and defined lines. For example, the thought of a nutrition plan where they could never eat bread is enough to immediately turn them off. Following a restrictive diet would lead to a ‘panic’ or a need to rebel against the defined line. A plan that allows a square of chocolate or a handful of chips would be much more appealing to a moderator.  
 
An abstainer would have an entirely different perspective on the same scenarios. Abstainers have a harder time with moderation. Completely removing something from the life of an abstainer is easier than indulging daily. A plan that encourages a square of chocolate or a handful of chips would be frustrating for an abstainer who would struggle to stop eating the treat once they have started.
 

 

Gretchen notes that understanding whether you’re an abstainer or a moderator can increase your personal happiness as it allows you to make decisions that best suit your character.

I believe that it is possible to be an abstainer AND a moderator in different areas of your life or even with different food groups. For example, I love ice cream. A tub of ice cream would be gone within a day or two as I would be tempted to sneak scoops all day long. However, I am not an abstainer in the sense that I don’t decide ice cream is completely off limits. But I know that having immediate access to it doesn’t work for me. I would rather go to an ice cream shop and purchase a serving of ice cream when I feel that I want to indulge. By keeping the ice cream out of the house, I eliminate the stress of avoiding sweets on a daily basis. On the other hand, a bag of chips wouldn't tempt me at all. One or two could satisfy a craving. 

I can easily adopt the moderator mentality in other areas of my life, for example, with television or technology. I would have no problem watching one episode of a show on Netflix instead of the entire season or playing Candy Crush for 10 minutes (unlike those who purchase additional lives for $1 - ha!).   

 



Like Gretchen, I believe there is no right way or wrong way–it’s just a matter of knowing which strategy works better for you. When moderators try to abstain they will likely rebel. If abstainers try to moderate, they constantly fight back the urge to go overboard.

Being an abstainer in some areas of my life, I recognize that it would be helpful for me to learn how to be a moderator. I can’t avoid cake and desserts forever so learning how to be moderate instead of going overboard is helpful to prevent the negative feelings that follow over-indulging.  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 the holidays roll around? Not so easy then. If you identify as a moderator, these situations are just a part of life. If you are an abstainer, like me, learning moderation can be hard and leave you feeling like you have zero control.

Despite being an abstainer, I don’t encourage that people limit or avoid certain foods. Instead, I encourage them to include them in their diet in such a way that they can enjoy them moderately. Going back to the ice cream example. I don’t tell myself I can’t have ice cream. Instead, I plan to go to an ice cream shop, purchase a reasonable portion, and savour the flavor - this is my personal strategy to incorporate all foods in my diet (while eliminating the daily struggle). 

Are you an abstainer or a moderator? Do you think understanding whether you are an abstainer or a moderator could help you make healthy living easier? 
 

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