Is “Everything in Moderation” Terrible Advice? Part II
By Teresa Wagner, RD, LD
March 16, 2021
If you read last week’s blog post, you’ve had some time to ponder whether or not your food personality type is the natural moderator. Or if that doesn’t sound like you, you likely fall into the all-or-nothing abstainer category.
I wouldn’t be surprised (or offended) if you were a little mad at the idea that abstinence might be the best option for you. Our inner toddler screams “That’s not fair, I should be able to eat whatever I want!”. You’re absolutely right - it’s not fair. As an abstainer myself I fully agree … but I know how much better my mind and my body feel (and weight is one aspect of that), when I completely abstain from certain food and drink.
Before we get into it, let’s review – the popular diet adage is “everything in moderation”. Practice self-discipline with certain foods and you will lose weight, restore your health and find abundant happiness. However, there is a significant amount of research that suggests that many people do better (and experience noticeable freedom!) when, instead of trying to practice moderation, they avoid troublesome foods altogether. When trying to use portion control, it leads to overeating. Instead of satisfying a craving, it fuels the fire.
Here’s a perfect way to know what category you fall into: let’s say you have a craving for chocolate. To satisfy that craving you buy the chocolate and then …
A: You break off a square, eat it and think “Yum, that hit the spot” and then put it away and don’t think about it again until the next day or next week. Just whenever the mood strikes.
B: You break of a square, eat it and think “Yum, I think I’ll have another piece.” A few minutes later you have another and then another. You start justifying your decisions. “Well, I had a small lunch so some extra chocolate won’t hurt.” Or “I’ll just run/walk a little farther today and burn it off.” Or “This morning was so stressful, I deserve this little treat!” You then start thinking about the “appropriate” amount and feel shame, or guilt, and want yourself to stop but continue to eat more. Then it’s common to decide that the best decision is to eat the whole thing so you can stop thinking about it.
There is a big difference between those scenarios and the experiences of a natural moderator and an all-or-nothing person. In the above example, denying chocolate to the natural moderator is not great advice and abstinence is not appropriate or needed. Natural moderators can find great success with ‘everything in moderation’ food plans. On the flipside, for the all-or-nothing person, having no chocolate would suit them best. To not even have to enter into the mental tug-of-war in the first place.
Now for you, it might not be chocolate. It may be potato chips or candy or crackers and cheese. You know you best, so only abstain from what triggers you to eat more, more, more. Easier said than done, right? In this world of hyperpalatable foods (foods like sugar and salty carbs that are just too easy to eat, eat, eat) abstinence can really be a tall order. I get it two-fold, because I’ve discovered I am an abstainer and because I’m a dietitian.
Here’s how I like to break down the abstinence approach for myself, my nutrition counseling clients, and maybe you if this is all sounding a little too familiar.
- REMOVE: Keep your home environment “safe” from triggering foods. If it’s not in your home, it adds an element of inconvenience and you most likely will just skip it all together. Not having it in your home also removes the visual reminder of the food. This can be tricky if you live with other people. As you grow in your comfort and strength with abstaining, some of these foods may be able to come back into your home.
- PROTECT: Keep your blood sugar balanced – we all have a blood sugar to manage and when it swings from high to low it puts you in a vulnerable position. Low blood sugar (which usually follows high carbohydrate meals and snacks i.e., the standard American diet) will leave you craving more high sugar and processed foods and then you’re more susceptible to overeating them. The simplest way to keep your blood sugar balanced? Eat protein and fat with your carbs. If you are choosing an apple (carb) for a snack, pair it with some natural peanut butter (a great source of fat but skip the low-fat versions as they just replace the fat with sugar). Add a beef stick on the side (protein) and that’s a balanced snack. If you like a salad for lunch (veggies in salad are your carbs), add a palm-sized amount of protein and throw on some avocado (fat), dry-roasted seeds or olives (more fat, which is helpful at lunch time) for some blood sugar stabilizing. Once again, skip the low-fat dressings (think, sugar!) and go for olive or avocado oil-based versions. Timing of meals and snacks is important too. To stabilize blood sugar try to eat every 3-4 hours: breakfast at 8:00, lunch at 12:00, snack at 3:00, dinner at 6:30/7:00 for example. Many people find that it takes about 3 days of balanced eating to shake their strongest cravings and weeks to months to get out of a state of vulnerability.
- NOURISH: Choose nutrient dense foods. Fill your plate with vitamin and mineral-dense, fiber-full, and water-rich vegetables (Broccoli, greens, Brussels sprouts, cucumber, the list goes on!). Some specifics to keep in mind: add moderate amounts of higher-carb foods like starchy veggies (like potatoes, winter squash, and sweet potatoes). For fruits or grains, I recommend keeping it to 1/2c total of this type of carb per meal or snack. Include adequate protein (organic, sustainably raised if possible) about a palm size for meals, half a palm for snacks. Then, and this is critical, ADD FAT. If you are afraid of fat, now is the time to stop believing that myth. Fat is satiating and your best blood sugar stabilizer. The natural types are wonderfully healthy (avocado, olives, olive oil, nuts, seeds, butter, ghee, coconut oil). There are highly processed fats to avoid at all costs, which are refined vegetable and seed oils (soybean, corn, canola, cottonseed etc.).
- PLAN: This is a way for abstainers to come full circle and to be able to include some foods that have derailed them in the past. Inevitably there will be times in your life that you will want to include a food that can cause trouble for you. Being an abstainer does not mean abstaining 100% of the time, forever. Food is fun and should be enjoyed but for abstainers this may mean the very occasional exception, not a daily or weekly treat. Here are some example plans to think over: Perhaps ice cream is a food you have trouble with. Being an abstainer doesn’t mean you never eat it again. Wait for a time when it tastes the best, like when it’s really hot outside, and then go out for it. Choose a place that serves really great high-quality ice cream, eat it there, SAVOR it and when you are done you go back home to your “safe” environment. Birthday cake. If you truly enjoy cake, reserve eating cake to your birthday and those who are the very closest to you. Buy a cake with the number of servings of people who will be there so it’s gone when the celebration is over. If it’s just you and your spouse, don’t buy/bake a full cake … because what are you going to do with the leftovers? Let’s be real, if you are all-or-nothing with cake, you’re going to eat the whole cake no matter what your intentions are prior to piece #1. Buy/bake a 2-person serving. The candles don’t even need to fit! If parties or social gatherings are your downfall, position yourself away from the food. Certainly eat if you are hungry but fill your plate with foods your future self will thank you for. As best as you can, balance that plate with proteins, healthy fats and vegetable carbohydrates. Don’t even take a bite of trigger foods - once you have that taste in your mouth it becomes hard to resist. If alcohol is present your inhibitions will be lowered making it even more difficult to moderate. Know though, that the days to follow are usually pretty difficult and the internal sugar monster will rear his ugly head. So as you are planning, ask yourself if the upcoming cravings battle is worth it. If yes, just knowing that information can be helpful and you can prep your house and food for the next few days so you can be successful at returning to your old, in-control self.
- REGROUP: This is the most important step. Getting on a plan isn’t usually the hard part, it’s what happens after you veer off that usually gives people the most trouble. All-or-nothing people tend to say things like “Well since I ate X the day is ruined. I might as well eat Y and Z too.” They also tend to have the “diet starts Monday” mentality so the weekend is filled with poor choices making getting back on track even more challenging. If possible, before the exception, go grocery shopping and stock your refrigerator and pantry with healthy, balanced options. Start re-grouping immediately – the very next meal or snack. Honestly, the difference between success and failure is what happens next. Being successful with food is not about making 100% perfect choices 100% of the time. It’s what you do after you eat the indulgent foods: do you continue to indulge or do you get right back on track? Strive to give yourself about three days of balanced eating and you’ll be back in the driver’s seat free of cravings.
Finally, this concept of abstaining is NOT about caloric restriction. It is a concept or lifestyle change that can help those who have struggled in the past with diet plans that leave them feeling like a failure. This can be very challenging and sometimes different deficiencies or issues are happening within the body that need to be addressed. For support and help covering all bases I’d highly encourage you to set up a virtual nutrition counseling with myself or one of my colleagues. We are trained to identify what your body is telling you through symptoms and issues, big and small.
When you work with your natural tendencies and basic physiology, managing boundaries becomes easier to sustain. Again, for many abstinence is FREEDOM and making this switch is extremely helpful and rewarding.
Learn more about successful abstinence: