5 min read

Moderation vs Abstinence

Let's have some complexity
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I came across a thought-provoking article on the web today by Gretchen Rubin, whom if you didn’t know, wrote a fantastic book called ‘The Happiness Project,’ that I highly recommend for your next vacation.

She recently posted to her blog — of the same name as the book — outlining an idea to distinguish between two different personalities.

Are You an Abstainer or a Moderator?

 In it she outlines a theory that people are either abstainers or moderators.

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

~Gretchen Rubin

What if you’re neither?

I applaud the effort to establish two different personality types based on human perception, however, it’s really not this simple.

Really this distinction plays into a psychological principle of ‘classification‘ and a fixed mindset.

If I’m a moderator then, “I need to give myself free reign to indulge, if I don’t, I’ll never get to do X again and I’ll lose my mind!”

If I’m an abstainer then, “I can’t stop drinking a bottle of wine after one glass, I’ve got to finish the whole bottle. I guess I’ll just have to quit drinking it entirely until New Years.”

Do either really sound appealing?

On the one hand you’ve got the self-described moderator, who is convinced that indulging leads to positive emotion and that not indulging means I’ll be emotionally deprived.

Therefore indulging on things that are not necessarily good for me, is the only option and I’ll never be able to find a substitute.

On the other hand, the abstainer, who is convinced that their absolute-all-or-nothing thinking will resolve the issue indefinitely, believes they must rob themselves entirely of an experience to find success.

Therefore if you can’t stop myself from doing it all, so you must stop doing it entirely and there really is no difference between enjoying or ignoring anyway.

The latter in my experience tends to work for a little while at best, particularly with nutrition/fitness related issues.

Here is where it gets interesting, both are the wrong approach in my opinion.

There is actually a plethora of research outlining how the all-or-nothing approach (absolute thinking) is damaging:

  • Increases levels of distress (stress is a known factor in weight gain…)
  • Increases cortisol and other stress hormones as a result (these hormones increase fat storage…)
  • Likelihood of failure increases, and failure is more psychologically damaging to people in this mental state
  • Narrows focus into a tunnel, which then ignores other possibilities, solutions, possible outcomes, etc…
  • Negative language typically used (i.e. stop eating, or can’t eat) lowers mental state/mood
  • Increases cheating and justification/substitution patterns (well I can’t eat frozen yogurt, but I never said anything about cafe latte yogurt)

While the moderator is more likely to overconsume and reward themselves as justification.

Both — according to the descriptions above — are incredibly likely to fail, particularly if the objective is weight loss.

 Don’t Confuse ‘Moderation’ with Moderators

From that same article…

A nutritionist once told me, “I tell my clients to follow the 80/20 rule. Be healthy 80% of the time, indulge within reason, 20% of the time.” She wouldn’t consider my point of view–that a 100% rule might be easier for someone like me to follow.

In my experience in the fitness and health industry, I have designed well over one thousand programs (both fitness and nutrition) for people — many of whom who would or have classified themselves as Type A personality or an Abstainer by these definitions.

Want to know how many of those programs have been followed to a tee for longer than three months time?


Wanna know why?

Because life is not a static box of inputs and outputs.

It never as simple as do this, get that. It’s a holistic system.

Not only do I not expect the people I work with to be perfect, they shouldn’t either.

People get sick, have off-days, vacation, travel, get busy with work, get busy with kids, get in tempting situations, have responsibilities and the best you can hope for is to do your best.

[alert] The best you can hope for is doing your best in that moment. 

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At best I would say that a small percentage are even capable of adhering strictly to a plan for one or two months.

And you know what?

That’s perfectly fine!

Moderation shouldn’t equate to panic nor self-satisfaction in indulgence.

Moderation just happens incidentally.

Moderation isn’t the intent, it’s the reality of life.

Now this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t strive to do the best you can, the aim is 100%, you should still be putting in the effort, just knowing that it’s more likely you’ll won’t hit 100% consistently, all the time, and rather trying to establish an acceptable rate of consistency depending on your desired outcomes.

Your desired outcomes will reflect how close to 100% you need to be to reach them and also what is realistic for your particular situation.

The lower the percentage of consistency, the longer it takes to get results and the lower chance you have of hitting really lofty objectives.

The higher the percentage of consistency, the shorter it takes to get results and the higher change you have of hitting lofty objectives.

What the nutritionist really means there is that if you added up all the meals over a week or month, 80% should be top notch, while you should cut yourself some slack on the 20% that weren’t perfect.

This mentality, can and will yield results, but you don’t deliberately plan to be bad 20% of the time, you deliberately plan to stay consistently above 80%, sometimes it will be 80/20, other times, 85/15, on a really good week maybe it’s 92/8.

Moderation is really about preparing yourself for adversity.

Prepare for Adversity

One of the biggest mindset changes you can make is a tip from top athletes (coincidentally the Olympics are on right now…).

Prepare for the challenges you will face.

Or prepare for adversity as I prefer to word it (from Dr.Peter Jensen).

A critical mistake many people make is believing they cannot fail, and when they do, it’s far more damaging to the long haul, the recovery time is long and dragged out.

Rather believe you will win, but go in knowing that it is acceptable to fail.

You’ll either win, or the failure means you have something new to work on, something new to learn, something to overcome.

Either way you still come out with something positive and worthwhile.

You will fall down once or twice, and that’s O.K.

Usain Bolt, just lost the Jamaican qualifiers before the Olympic games, but he got over it and won gold in the 100 m and 200 m just months after losing.

This is exactly what it means to prepare for adversity, so you can move past mistakes or failures and learn from them quickly.

Have a moment where something like this worked for you?

Leave a note, let me know how it went…