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“Everything in moderation.” You’ve heard this one, right? It is supposed to be the key to everlasting nutrition changes.
Except for when it’s not.
You see, there are two different personalities when it comes to moderation.
Some people need to have little bites of chocolate once a day to strengthen their resolve. Telling them they cannot have these foods on a specific program makes them feel trapped.
Some people eat one bite of chocolate and they need to eat the whole chocolate bar. They OBSESS over the chocolate bar until it’s gone. They do better with clear guardrails and off limit foods.
These two groups are known as the abstainer and the moderator.
I found the theory of the abstainer/moderator from Gretchen Rubin’s article “Quiz: Are You a Moderator or an Abstainer?” I encourage you to check the article out or grab a copy of her amazing book Better than Before for a primer on how to make habit changes sustainable.
The Abstainer and the Moderator
When we tell our kids a fairy tale, it usually has a good guy and a buy guy. The Tortoise and the Hare, for example. One fast and reckless, one slow and intentional. While we relate to the hare, we know the tortoise is the hero. And we apply this approach of “good/bad, desirable/undesirable” to the rest of our lives.
When it comes to abstainer/moderator traits, there is no good or bad. These are personality indicators of who we are. The fight comes in when we want to be something we are not.
But understanding what these indicators are and making adjustments to our decisions and routines is key to sustainable nutrition changes.
The abstainer can easily make changes if foods are totally off limits. Rather than having small bites of chocolate every day, they manage better if they only eat chocolate on special occasions. Or not at all.
Probably the most notable characteristic of an abstainer is the inability to stop once they start eating. They have likely never uttered the phrase “This chocolate cake is too rich. I’ll only have one bite.”
An abstainer will also obsess over food until it’s all gone. If you’ve ever thought “If I eat this all tonight so I won’t have to worry about it tomorrow,” you’re probably an abstainer.
If you have trouble stopping once you start, you’re an abstainer. Full stop. Don’t let any of the descriptions of the moderator woo you to changing sides.
The moderator can easily make changes if they can have small amounts of certain foods. A small square of chocolate every day keeps a moderator from feeling caged.
Moderators will rebel against the idea of giving up foods, even for a short period of time.
If you’re a moderator, you do well sharing food and are happy taking just one bite. If I suggested you give up a food, even for a short period of time, you will backpedal quickly from the idea.
The (Quickest) Abstainer/Moderator Quiz:
What if I said to you, “Would you like to do a Whole30 with me?”
What is your response?
A tingle of excitement? A feeling of “Yeah, I can do that.” Or a generally positive thought about the idea of cleaning it up for 30 days? You’re an Abstainer.
Feelings of dread? A drop in the pit of your stomach? The thoughts “I’m not giving up bread, beer, or pizza for 30 days. It’s not going to happen.” You’re a Moderator.
Play to your strengths:
There is no right answer to the question “Are you an abstainer or a moderator?” You are who you are and there is no switching sides.
Each personality type has Pros, Cons, and Utilization Strategies. Understanding these can be the difference between long term success and endless frustration.
The Abstainer Breakdown:
Pros: You can set clearly defined limits and abide by them. Rules and totally cutting out certain foods work well for you.
Cons: Just a little bit will send you on a binge. Since there is no stopping once you start, overeating when you put one toe out of line is endlessly frustrating often results in feelings of guilt and shame.
Utilization Strategies: Use the rule setting approach to your advantage. Tell yourself out loud that the ice cream in the freezer is off limits or that you may not have chocolate today, only on holidays or at birthday parties. Be clear and specific.
The Moderator Breakdown:
Pros: You can have small amounts of off plan food with likely no impact on your goals. In fact, small amounts of off plan food will help you stick to your nutrition plan for longer and keep you happier.
Cons: There are some foods that are inflammatory, even in moderation. Being a moderator can be an excuse to keep eating foods that are harmful. Oscar Widle wisely said “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”
Utilization Strategies: Plan to allow some wiggle room in your nutrition plan. A few squares of dark chocolate or a handful of chips regularly can help strengthen your resolve. Just remember to find better versions of these foods- chips and chocolate my strengthen your emotional resolve, but they won’t move you closer to physical goals.
Don’t worry about what the other side is doing…
I remember, as little kid, seeing my brother doing something wrong. I often ran to my mother to inform of his misdeeds. Eventually, she would tire of this (I feel ya now, Mom!) and she would say “Don’t worry about what your brother is doing. He’s not hurting you.”
Abstainers, don’t worry about what moderators are doing. Moderators, don’t worry about what abstainers are doing.
They are not hurting you.
I know. This is incredibly difficult, especially when you live with or are close to someone with of the opposite type.
I am an extreme abstainer. “A little piece of chocolate” will cause me to go on a binge of anything and everything sweet that I can find.
My husband, on the other hand, is a hard moderator.
When I first decided to go Paleo some 10-ish years ago, he said “Ok, but I’m not giving up beer, bread or pizza.”
I thought he was uncommitted.
He thought I had no willpower.
Until THE INCIDENT.
His step mom gifted us each with a big, beautiful chocolate bar for Easter. I, being an abstainer, ate my entire bar by the end of the day. He, being a moderator, ate one square and put it away for later.
A few days later, I was rummaging through the pantry and happened upon his one-square-eaten bar. Remembering it had been 3 whole days since we received them, I figured he was done with it. So I ate a square. And then another. Within minutes, the whole thing was gone.
A few days after that, he went to look for that chocolate bar.
“Hey, have you seen that chocolate bar?”
“Yeah. I ate it.”
…….. “You ATE it?”
And to this day, I still remember the argument that followed and week long tension surrounding The Chocolate Bar Incident of 2015.
Serendipitously, I caught Gretchen Rubin on a podcast not long after. She explained the theory of the Abstainer and the Moderator. It was like the heavens parted and the choir sang. It finally all made sense.
And I’m not even kidding- this realization may have saved our marriage. Or at the very least, made everything that much easier.
My husband now understands that I cannot just have one bite. Not because I don’t have any willpower, but because I’m not wired to “just have one bite.”
I now understand that my husband cannot cut out whole groups of foods. Not because he’s not committed, but because he’s not wired to do elimination diets.
And most importantly, I understand how I’m wired. I do not feel guilt or shame because I “cannot control my urges to have just one bite.” I set clear boundaries on what I can and can’t eat, as well as when.
And I never, I mean NEVER, eat a claimed chocolate bar from our pantry.
How has your personality type impacted your success with nutrition changes in the past?
Think back over your past attempts at nutrition changes. How has being an abstainer or moderator impacted these attempts?
How can you adjust your approach using the Abstainer/Moderator theory to make changes stick? Join my free Facebook group to discuss with me!
If you need some help with this, I work this theory into both my group coaching and personal coaching programs. Understanding your Abstainer/Moderator status makes me a better coach and gives you valuable insight into your behavior. It’s a total game changer!