Does “Healthy Eating” Mean a Restrictive Diet?

With Weight Watchers’ new SmartPoints, I keep seeing some variation of the following: Weight Watchers is now a diet that isn’t sustainable for the long haul. You can’t eat like that for a lifetime. Weight Watchers is no longer a lifestyle, but a restrictive diet.  Is this true? Or, to broaden it beyond Weight Watchers, is “healthy eating” so restrictive that it can’t be followed for a lifetime? I put “healthy eating” in quotes because different people mean different things by that term.

I am not asking whether the new Weight Weights plan is good or bad, or even whether it is healthy or not. My question goes beyond Weight Watchers. Is changing how you eat in order to eat a healthier diet necessarily so restrictive that it can’t be sustained as a permanent lifestyle? In addressing that question I use Weight Watchers’ SmartPoints as an example, but the question replies to any “healthy eating” plan.

For those who don’t follow the new SmartPoints plan, it is part of the Weight Watchers Beyond the Scale plan. Food is assigned a SmartPoints value based upon the amount of calories, sugar, saturated fat, and protein in the food. This goes beyond simple calorie counting because sugar and saturated fat increase the SmartPoints value of a food while protein decreases it.

To give an example: 150 calories of skinless turkey breast is 1 SmartPoint. 150 calories of sugary Coca Cola is 10 SmartPoints. This is important because you are assigned a certain amount of SmartPoints that you can eat each day and each week. If I get 30 daily SmartPoints to eat, I have used 1/3 of them if I have 150 calories of Coke. The result is that, while I am allowed to eat any food, the points penalty for eating something high sugar or high saturated fat heavily discourages eating very many of those foods.

Essentially, the new plan is encouraging us to eat much less sugar and saturated fat, while encouraging the eating of more lean protein. It is treating other carbs and fats in a neutral fashion. By doing this, Weight Watchers is encouraging what it sees as healthier eating. [Read more…]

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.




What Is Moderation?

For awhile, I’ve planned to write a post on whether it is better to eat certain things in moderation or whether it is better to abstain. I’ll skip ahead a bit and answer that now:  Yes.  The trick, of course, is recognizing when that “yes” is to moderation and when that “yes” is to abstention.

But, in thinking about that future post, I realized that one sticking point is in defining moderation.  I’ve seen so many people mean radically different things by using that word.


The definition of “abstain” is not so controversial.  If someone is a vegetarian and abstains from meat, most people understand pretty quickly that that means that not eating meat.  Period.  In fact, when someone says that she is vegetarian who occasionally eats fish, you will almost always have someone quickly say that that isn’t being a vegetarian.  And, if someone says that he abstains from something and then doesn’t, well, that is seen as cheating or falling off the wagon, etc.  There is a real air of doing something you aren’t supposed to do.

In the food world, particularly the weight loss world, this topic of moderation versus abstaining will usually come up with regard to foods that some people feel are either unhealthy or make weight loss more difficult or cause weight gain.  And, the lines are often very clearly drawn between those that favor abstention (no dairy, no grains, no sugar, no red meat, etc.) versus those that favor moderation (all things in moderation is the cry while taking a piece of chocolate cake).

In these debates, it often seems like abstention and moderation are opposites, each in their own corner.  If to abstain from something means to not partake in it at all, then the opposite of abstaining is to partake in it.  If I say that I will eat chips in moderation, then I’m definitely not abstaining from chips.  But, the word moderation doesn’t just mean to partake. The word moderation has a limiting component to it.

It sometimes doesn’t seem that way, when I read about whether to eat certain foods in moderation.  It often seems that those who favor abstaining, think that the alternative to abstention is wild excess.  If abstention is one extreme, then advocating for “moderation” is sometimes seen as advocating for gluttony.

But, this ignores the real definition of moderation.  For example, from, 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.  While moderation is obviously not abstention, it is also just as far from excessive indulgence as it is from abstention.

I would also suggest that , with regard to food, there is a subjective component to it that may vary depending upon individual circumstances and depending upon the specific food.  In other words, what I consider moderation in eating pistachios may be quite different from what I consider moderation in eating frozen yogurt.  And, what I consider moderate consumption of specific foods for me with my health and weight characteristics may be very different than that for someone else who has different characteristics.

In the end, I consider my consumption of some foods that I eat daily to be moderate while there are other foods that I may eat once a month and consider that moderate.  Then, there are foods that I eat rarely or occasionally.  I do consider eating those foods as being eating in moderation.  While I don’t abstain from them, I limit how much I eat of them.  I use restraint and am temperate.  Today, I went to Tutti Frutti and had frozen yogurt.  I measured it carefully, weighing after adding each ingredient.  I knew about how much I wanted to eat there and had that amount (I recorded it at just under 400 calories, 11 Points Plus).  I enjoyed it.  My “rule” is that I don’t have this more often than once a month.  To me, that is moderation.

I eat a serving of Antep Pistachios almost every day.  I’ve eaten pistachios on a regular basis for many, many years. (No one was more overjoyed to read about how pistachios are good for you than I was).  To me, even though I eat them almost daily, that is still moderation because I don’t eat an excessive amount.

What is not moderation?  Eating an excessive amount.  Obviously, what will be excessive depends upon the type of food and your individual characteristics.  We are all different.  But, if abstaining is at one end of a continuum and excessive indulgence is at the other end, then moderation is what is in between.  It is just that my moderation may not be the same as your moderation.  That is, what is excessive for me may not be what is excessive for you, and vice versa.

Another thing is that foods of a similar type may seem moderate when consumed alone, but if all are consumed then the totality may be excessive.  For example, I had frozen yogurt today.  Imagine that tomorrow, I go out to eat and order dessert at the restaurant.  And, then, the next day I eat at Subway and have a chocolate chip cookie.  And, the next day, I attend a birthday celebration and have a good-sized piece of chocolate cake.  And, the day after that I stop at Starbucks and have a double chocolatey chip frappuccino.  The next day my daughter offers me a couple of fun sized Butterfingers and I eat them. And, the next day, I stop at a convenience store while driving across town and I’m tired and hungry and eat 200 calories worth of potato chips.

I actually have done each and every one of those things during the last year, most of them within the last 6 months.  And, it is moderation.  I share in a restaurant dessert a couple of times a year.  I have a Subway chocolate chip cookie a few times a year.  I have a piece of birthday cake 2 or 3 times a year.  I have a tall chocolatey chip frappuccino (no whip, nonfat milk), every 2 or 3 months.  I eat fun sized Butterfingers around Halloween and Christmas.  I have a 200+ bag of chips once every month or two. That is moderation because I spread them out all over the course of a year.  If I did all of them in one week that would not be moderation.  Because I had frozen yogurt today, I certainly won’t have any of those things this week and will severely limit the others that I have for the rest of this month.

Obviously, my definition of moderation may not be yours.  (And, I’m not even discussing in this post when it is better to abstain entirely).  The main point is to recognize that moderation is not the same thing as excessive indulgence.  It is not an excuse to eat anything at any time.  Moderation always involves restraint and avoiding excess.