abstainers and moderators – an insight into your food behaviours


I first came across Gretchen Rubin on the Sound Bites RD Podcast and have since heard her speak on many other (especially productivity-related) podcasts. The Queen of Habits and Happiness, Gretchen has lots of quizzes on discovering more about your self, and how you make and break habits.

One of these is figuring out whether you’re an abstainer or a moderator.

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

There’s no right way or wrong way–it’s just a matter of knowing which strategy works better for you. If moderators try to abstain, they feel trapped and rebellious. If abstainers try to be moderate, they spend a lot of precious energy justifying why they should go ahead and indulge.

Does one of these ring a bell? For me, this was a massive revelation! I am 100% an abstainer. If there’s a packet of biscuits I really love in the fridge, some Easter eggs on the counter or even some deliciously sweet bite-sized pieces of fruit in the fridge, unfortunately, they won’t last long. While I’m eating, I enjoy them to the fullest, I eat mindfully and I eat to satisfaction, but it won’t be long before my lack of satisfaction reemerges and I have an urge to reach back for the deliciousness. On the other hand, if I don’t have any high-energy, low nutrient-density foods around, I don’t even think about them. Sometimes I can practice moderation, especially if I bake some cookies that I plan on lasting me a week or two, but it’s a lot easier when I’m not tempted by these foods. Instead, I love surrounding myself with delicious whole foods because I’ll be thinking about them instead. It’s not as though I never allow myself ‘treats’ or even to occasionally ‘binge’ – but I do try to buy in smaller quantities or have them while I’m out instead. I acknowledge that sometimes I might need to rely on external cues as well as just my internal hunger and satisfaction cues.

I also find it really interesting that most nutritionists are moderators – it’s no surprise that things like ‘moderation’ get thrown around so much in the nutrition space, while many people have no idea what moderation means or could even look like for them. For me, I can’t even imagine only eating two squares of chocolate, whereas I’m sure others are surprised by my ability to make high-fat, high-sugar foods just disappear.

The reality is that food is food, not nutrients. Unlike alcohol or cigarettes/nicotine (where abstaining is the only realistic solution), you can’t ‘quit food’. And it’s also impossible to actually ‘quit’ sugar or ‘quit’ fat – they’re crucial nutrients that make up every food as well as our own bodies. We can, however, choose what foods we surround ourselves with – whether that facilitates balanced moderation or abstinence from a certain food that makes you regularly feel overfull but unsatisfied. Thinking about whether these tendencies might influence your behaviour when it comes to your eating (as well as that of those around you) might bring you improved control over your eating. Knowledge brings power. Get back in the driver’s seat instead of being taken along for the ride.

If you’re interested in making your habits work for you, check out Gretchen’s books or her podcast. I’d also recommend The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. You wouldn’t believe how much power habits have over our lives!

Did this make anything click for you? Are you an abstainer or moderator? And let me know if you want to see more like this!

Tess x

P.S. This is about creating environments where you don’t crave foods that aren’t particularly nutritious or satisfying for you, not restricting yourself from having foods you feel like. Please note that unnecessary restriction (or abstaining) can cause disordered eating. If you don’t know what’s healthy restriction, please see an Accredited Practising Dietitian.

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