Does the concept of abstainers vs. moderators really exist?
I’m in the mood for something a bit deeper today – care to join me?
Last week, I saw a really interesting post about abstainers vs. moderators on my friend Julie’s blog. In the post, she writes about a podcast she listened to by Gretchen Rubin (author of The Happiness Project) that talks about the idea that everyone is either an abstainer or a moderator. As the name implies, moderators are people who avoid absolutes and defined lines. In the case of food, that would be an everything in moderation approach – nothing is off limits. Abstainers, on the other hand, make things black and white. In the case of food, this would mean placing something off limits because once they start eating it they struggle to stop.
I found this concept fascinating and immediately emailed my Joyful Eating, Nourished Life Program co-authors, fellow intuitive eating dietitians Rachael and Alex. “Do you think there’s really such a thing as abstainers and moderators?” I asked them. “Or do you think it’s more a function of diet history?” Rachael replied immediately that great minds think alike – she was writing a post on the topic at that exact moment! What are the odds? (Here’s her post – it’s great!)
In my opinion (and I’d love to hear your thoughts, too), while I’m sure some people tend more towards absolutes in general than others, I think with regards to food this moderator vs. abstainer mindset mostly depends on whether you have done a lot of dieting in the past.
Here’s why: the vast majority of my AnneTheRD nutrition coaching clients come to me at first as abstainers. They have done a lot of diets and were always told certain foods were “bad” or should be avoided, and that if they ate them they should feel guilty. They talk a lot about how when they do eat something they deem to be a splurge or off limits they have a really hard time stopping and may even binge on it. As a result, they try even harder to avoid those foods because those foods make them feel out of control and like a failure, which makes the situation worse because they are giving the food more and more power over them. In my opinion, if something if off limits, you will want it way more. And when you do eventually have it (because you can’t avoid certain foods forever), you will most likely binge on it because there’s that feeling of “oh, screw it, I’ve already had this and ruined everything so I might as well just go to town on it now.” Or “I’ll never eat this again after tonight so I better have ALL of it.”
I have had a lot of success changing my abstainer clients into moderators simply by giving them permission to have the foods they love, but with one catch: they have to actually pay attention and enjoy the experience. (See also: A Guide to Mindful Eating.)
Ironically, when my clients intentionally and mindfully eat a food that they had placed off limits for a long time (and binged on occasionally), they sometimes find they don’t even LIKE that food. They realize they just wanted it because they couldn’t have it, and then once they started eating it they felt out of control and just kept going without even tasting it or paying attention because they were so checked out.
I think moderators, with respect to food, are moderators because they are intuitive eaters. They don’t view food as the enemy and they are allowed to eat whatever they want, so food loses its power over them, and as a result, they are able to eat a little of something, enjoy it, and then stop when the pleasure from it decreases because they know they can have it again. There’s no need to feel like they are doing something shameful because they are simply listening to what their body is telling them – whether that’s to eat a kale salad or to enjoy a homemade cookie.
What do you think – are there truly moderators and abstainers or is the mentality more a function of diet history?
Would you consider yourself a moderator or abstainer? Have you changed over time? And if you consider yourself an abstainer, do you think it has anything to do with a history of dieting? Maybe not – but I’m curious!
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