Abstain or Moderate?

Are you an abstainer or a moderator? What, you say? Think about a food that you really love, but one you know is unhealthy for you. It can be something you consume often, rarely, or something you used to love but no longer consume. Imagine that you want to cut back on this food item. Is it easier for you to abstain–to say I will never eat that food; or is it easier for you to moderate–reduce your intake without eliminating it altogether?

A personal example. I love tortilla chips. When I have them in the house, I do not necessarily eat the whole bag, but it will easily become a daily habit and in a given sitting (or standing at the cupboard), I will eat more than I am comfortable with. I have learned that I am an abstainer when it comes to tortilla chips. If I do not eat them at all, if I decide I am a person who does not eat tortilla chips, then I do not think about them. At a party in their vicinity, because I am not a person who eats tortilla chips, I am not tempted and can easily avoid them. As long as I do not have one, I am fine. Does this mean I will never have tortilla chips again? Not quite but close. I have eaten tortilla chips twice since January 1, 2017.

Chocolate on the other hand is a food that I occasionally will eat too much of, but for the most part I can keep high quality dark chocolate in the house and enjoy just a small amount on occasion. It is a food that I prefer to moderate.

Overall I am more of an abstainer. I really like rules – I do eat this or don’t. I don’t particularly like being this way, it makes me very unflexible, and I am often changing the rules to experiment with different ways of eating. But it is who I am, and if I want to change habits, it is best to figure out how I can make it easier on myself and thus more likely to stick with it. Getting to know ourselves better is a key to habit change.

One way to identify where you fall with certain foods is to consider if it is something that you cannot stand the idea of giving up entirely. Abstaining might make you obsess over wanting the thing until you cave, but so long as you can have a little occasionally you might be just fine. Where you fall with different items may not be obvious at first, look at your own choices with curiosity and flexibility to figure out habit change with the least resistance for yourself.

I am not sure where I first heard this principle of abstainers vs. moderators, however it is a concept that Gretchen Rubin talks about. In her book Better Than Before, she provides this insight: “for Abstainers, having something makes them want it more; for Moderators, having something makes them want it less.”

Action item: Where do you fall? Can you moderate some things but need to abstain from others? Or is it easier for you to always abstain or always moderate? Choose one food that you would like to eat less of than you are currently and experiment with either moderating or abstaining. Be kind with yourself as you experiment with change and getting to know yourself better. Let me know how it goes!

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