To Moderate or Abstain?

This is my last post in a series on whether it is better to eat in moderation or to abstain from certain foods.  To set the stage, I first talked about how changing what I eat has helped my weight loss.  Then, I talked about what moderation is and what it isn’t.

A big part of that last post is recognizing that while moderation isn’t abstention it is also not just totally eating something without restraint. If you look at, the first definition of moderation is “the quality of being moderate; restraint; avoidance of extremes or excesses; temperance.”  Note, the sort of “in the middle” part of moderation.  Moderation isn’t the same as abstaining, but it is a long way from wild abandon.

So, should I eat in moderation or should I abstain?  The answer is “yes.”  That is, for some foods or some situations abstention works better.  For others, moderation works better.  And, that is just for me.  What works best of you may be very different from what works best for me.

Unfortunately, when reading about weight loss, I often see a lot of polarized positions on this.  And, sometimes a “one size fits all” attitude.  The reality is that both abstention and moderation have things going for them.

I will be honest here and say that I tend to not be an Abstainer.  That said, some of my taking part is so close to abstaining that I am bit hard pressed to really think of it as moderation.  It might be more accurate to say that I eat certain things rarely, not moderately.  An example of this would be alcohol.  I don’t really like the taste of alcohol and it tends to make me feel nauseated and I don’t need the calories.  So, I partake very, very rarely.  Most of the time I think of myself as mostly an abstainer. But, a few months ago I went to a family wedding and I drank and a couple of swallows of champagne during the toasting.  That was my first alcohol in several years.  So, I guess a better way to put it is to say that I drink alcohol rarely.  Or, maybe say that I abstain except when toasting at family weddings.  Or, perhaps to say I abstain except when I don’t.

There is one food that I abstain from.  I don’t eat beef.  I quit eating beef 14 years ago.  During the early years, I had beef intentionally once, maybe twice.  A few times I ate something I thought was pork sausage and found afterwards had beef in it.  But, to my knowledge, I haven’t eaten beef for several years.  This is mostly for ethical reasons, but also contains elements of food safety.  Theoretically, grass fed, pastured beef (for the entire lifetime of the cattle) would alleviate most of my concerns.  But, I still don’t eat it.  Why?  Two main reasons:

  1.  I don’t love beef.  My parents worked for a meat cooking factory when I was a child and I ate steak 5 or 6 days a week during most of my childhood and adolescence.  I got really tired of it and even when I ate beef later on, I tended to prefer other things more.  So, giving up beef is not a major hardship for me.  There are rare occasions when I see something with beef that I think I would like to eat (usually it is pepperoni pizza or some sort of sausage).  But, over the years as I haven’t eaten beef, that has faded more and more and I don’t think about it much any more.
  2. Abstaining is easier.  It is way easier to abstain from eating beef than to mess with trying to figure out if the beef I am thinking of eating meets my ethical standard.  Was it truly grass fed for life?  Was it truly pastured?  I try to eat chickens ethically (I do love chicken) and I spend a lot of time researching restaurants and grocery stores and their products.  By abstaining from beef, I don’t have to make any decisions and I don’t have to think about it.  I don’t to worry about whether eating that piece of pepperoni pizza is justified.  I just don’t even consider ordering something from beef.  I almost don’t see the beef items on the menu.  They might as well not be there.

One of my favorite books is Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin.  I need to do a whole post on this book.  Anyway, she talked about the moderation v. abstention thing in the book.  She tends to be an Abstainer.  She points out that she finds it easier to just abstain:

As an Abstainer, if I try to be moderate, I exhaust myself debating: How much can I have? Does this time “count”? If I had it yesterday, can I have it today? In Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, a character remarks, “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it,” and it can be a relief to give in, to end the tiresome mental chatter about whether and why and when to indulge. But, I’d discovered, abstaining cures that noise just as effectively. I’m not tempted by things I’ve decided are off-limits. If I never do something, it requires no self-control to maintain that habit.

Rubin, Gretchen (2015-03-17). Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives (p. 137). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition.

While she tends to be an Abstainer she also makes the case for the Moderators.

Many people aren’t Abstainers, of course. Moderators, for their part, find that occasional indulgence both heightens their pleasure and strengthens their resolve; they get panicky or rebellious at the thought of “never” getting or doing something. They do better when they avoid strict rules. They may even find that keeping treats near at hand makes them less likely to indulge, because when they know they can have something, they don’t crave it. One Moderator posted: “By allowing myself an occasional splurge, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on something … Tell me ‘no’ and I just want it more.” In fact, from what I’ve seen, Moderators shouldn’t try to abstain; if they try to deny themselves, they can

Rubin, Gretchen (2015-03-17). Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives (p. 138). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition.

She used an example, that really resonated with me because it talks about something that I do:

Abstainers and Moderators behave very differently. A Moderator told me, “Every month or so, I buy some bars of really fine chocolate. Every afternoon, I eat one square of chocolate.” “You’re never tempted to eat more?” “No, I just want the one square,” he said. It would be impossible for me to eat one square of chocolate a day. For the rest of the day, I’d be thinking about that bar of chocolate. In fact, I discovered that the question “Could you eat one square of chocolate every day?” is a good way to distinguish Abstainers from Moderators. All Moderators seem to keep a bar of chocolate stashed away to eat one square at a time. (Maybe this explains the mystery of why chocolate bars are divided into squares.)

Rubin, Gretchen (2015-03-17). Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives (pp. 138-139). Crown/Archetype. Kindle Edition.

And, yes, in my desk drawers I have a bar of dark chocolate and I eat between 60 and 100 calories of it most days (on most it is a single square, but on some brands it is 2 or 3).  I find it not difficult to do this at all.  It often takes me a full week to eat a bar of chocolate.  I don’t suffer and I’m not miserable and I am content with eating what I planned.  Could I eat more?  Sure.  But, I don’t choose to.

So, for food, I am mostly a Moderator.  I don’t usually find it difficult to decide how much of X I am going to eat and then stick with the decision.  I might occasionally eat a little more (maybe a few times a year I have an extra square of chocolate), but I really do much better with eating moderately.  These are mostly foods that, unlike beef, I truly love and I just don’t want to give up.  I get pleasure from them and I think that is an OK reason to want to eat them, if I can eat them in a way that I feel is not unhealthy for me.

On the other hand, I do abstain from certain eating situations.  And, I do it for mostly the reasons Rubin cites.  It is easier to just make some food situations off limits and to not have to constantly make decisions.  The catch is that it is the food situation I declare off limits, not the food itself.  For example, I don’t buy cookies for the house.  I find that — unlike the chocolate in the drawer — cookies call my name constantly.  I have to always make the decision whether to eat or not eat.  Even if I make a “good” decision, I am exhausted by it.  Once I decided not to buy (or make) cookies for the house, it was all so much easier.  I didn’t have to make decisions.  I knew there were no cookies in the house.  Do I make exceptions?  Yes, two.  On rare occasions, I will get a single cookie elsewhere and eat it at home (think a single chocolate chip cookie from a store).  Also, I have occasionally made or bought cookies when I was having guests and they would consume them all (think Christmas).

You might wonder if I shouldn’t just entirely abstain from cookies.  Perhaps.  I don’t think cookies are a health food, but at the level I eat them I don’t feel that they really hurt my health either.  Unlike beef, I really like certain cookies.  And, the thought of not eating them ever bothers me.  The thought of not eating beef doesn’t bother me.  And, for the last couple of years I’ve controlled how many cookies I eat.  I eat them several times a year, but I don’t even average one cookie once a month.  So, it works for me.

But, I’m mostly a Moderator.  Some people find it easier to be Abstainers.  And, that works.  What I think doesn’t work is making a choice that makes you unhappy.  It is hard to do well with losing weight and maintaining weight loss if you are miserable.  The book The Diet Fix by Dr. Yani Freedhoff addresses this.  He gives some ideas in the book about how to eat moderately.  I think that experimentation is a good idea.  I find that I can do fine with a bar of chocolate in my drawer.  I find that I can eat a small bag of potato chips at Panera Bread, but it is better for me not to buy potato chips for the house.  Others will draw their lines elsewhere.  And, where the line is drawn may change over time.

It is easy for others to try to tell us what to do.  A dedicated Abstainer may find it hard to see that a true Moderator can eat moderately without problem.  On the other hand, someone who embraces moderation and would hate abstaining, may not understand the relief that can come with being an Abstainer.  In the end, there is no one answer.  It is what works for you.  And, it may chance from food to food or from situation to situation.  And, that is OK.

P.S.  A picture of one our cats playing with the gecko on the window.  She was upset she couldn’t catch it.  She wasn’t in favor of moderation or abstention.  She wants all the geckos.





  1. says

    Hola, Ms. Kitty. I’m back. (from hiding.) I am definitely, going forward, totally abstaining from chocolate and alcohol. Probably abstaining from sugar and nuts…but still trying to determine if total abstinence is necessary for me or not. And I still believe all could benefit from the minimal amounts of wheat or sugar…but other than that, our bodies, and our psyches, are different, and we must respect that.

    • says

      I think what is important is to figure out individually what works for us and realize that it may vary from food to food. And, this is something where One Size Does Not Fit All. And, I think the experimentation you have done (and will do) will help you to know what is working best for you.
      Kitty recently posted…Third Quarter Goal ResultsMy Profile

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