I spend a lot of my professional and personal time thinking about health. Healthy food, healthy exercise, healthy recipes, and the ever-evasive healthy lifestyle. “Living a healthy lifestyle” is something I’ve heard/learned/spoken about for years, ever since I started studying nutrition in college.
But only recently did I start to really understand what that elusive term means. And it was when my approach to health started to feel less like trying and more like breathing.
There were a few “aha” moments that led to this feeling. One major one was doing my first (and second, third, and fourth) Whole30, another one was giving myself permission to stop using exercise as punishment, and then there’s the idea that I want to talk about today— moderation vs. abstention.
I can’t take credit for shining the light on this poignant distinction. Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, originally coined the terms. But my approach to diet issues (both my own and those of others’) totally changed once I understood this differentiation and how to identify oneself as one or the other.
Here’s how Gretchen distinguishes moderators from abstainers:
You’re a moderator if you…
– find that occasional indulgence heightens your pleasure–and strengthens your resolve
– get panicky at the thought of “never” getting or doing something
You’re an abstainer if you…
– have trouble stopping something once you’ve started
– aren’t tempted by things that you’ve decided are off-limits
By nature, I’m an abstainer. It’s why Whole30 is so easy on me cognitively. Or why I can happily decline the donuts that greet me in the office break room on a Monday morning. And why trying my mother’s well-meaning suggestion to “have anything I want, but just not too much of it,” never quite worked for me. My father shares this same black-and-white mentality when it comes to healthy eating. When we’re on, we’re on. But the occasional indulgence definitely has the potential to lead to an all out, chronic food frenzy.
My mom, sister and sister-in-law, on the other hand, are total moderators. They do a great job of eating everything and anything they want until they’re comfortably full. Half a cookie is just the right portion to satisfy a craving and prevent any feelings of deprivation. To them, a few crackers with cheese is a satisfying snack. For me (at least for the first 25 years of my life), a cheese plate was an invitation to a no holds barred, munch-until-you’re-stuffed fest. Oy.
(I’m not totally sure how to classify my older brother, to be honest. He’s this weird human specimen who can eat a fistful of chocolate chips before breakfast in the morning and yet still maintain a six pack??? My parents insist we share the same genetics but I’m not convinced.)
So for years and years, I was trying to live my life as a moderator, failing at every food opportunity. The only thing that sorta felt like I was successfully moderating was tracking my calories and macros, but we all know how well that ended. I really didn’t realize there was any other way! It’s what I grew up hearing and what I was taught in school. Seriously, I could sum up my nutrition education in one sentence: Everything in moderation, including artificial sweeteners and processed, low calorie snacks.
But for me and all my abstainers out there, this just isn’t the case! While we don’t need to eliminate entire foods or food groups all the time, we do need to approach everyday eating through a different lens. We need to make intentional decisions about what we eat, how much, and why. Melissa Hartwig says it perfectly (which should come as a surprise to precisely no one):
…if you’re an Abstainer, you still get to think about every interaction with potentially less healthy food as an “on or off” moment—no “moderation” in sight. Even more important is realizing that each instance is totally independent… There are no rules, but it’s NOT “moderation.” It’s conscious, deliberate decision-making in the moment, one hundred percent of the time.
And none of this is to say that moderators are less healthy, or lack willpower, or anything even resembling that. It’s to say that it’s important that we should all take a moment for self-inquiry and find our own identity before continuing through our health journeys, and certainly before we espouse our own methodology upon others.