April 10, 2017

Dear Melissa: Abstainer or Moderator?

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Welcome to Dear Melissa, where I answer your questions about transitioning into or completing a Whole30, successfully sticking to your new Food Freedom habits, and figuring out how to make a healthy, sustainable lifestyle work in the real world. Today, I’m walking you through the idea of Moderator or Abstainer, as proposed by Gretchen Rubin, as it relates to your food freedom.

Dear Melissa, Would you say you’re a Moderator or Abstainer by Gretchen Rubin’s standards? (Assuming you’re a Moderator), I wonder if that classification makes your food freedom easier? I’m an Abstainer, and my food freedom doesn’t seem so free. Thanks! -SKHW on Instagram For background: Gretchen Rubin is both a friend and a best-selling author. In her habit book Better Than Before, she talks about people generally falling into one of two camps when it comes to temptation: Abstainers (who find it easier to give something up entirely than do it just a little) and Moderators (who get panicky at the thought of “never” getting or doing something again). I suspect you already know which camp you fall into, but if you’re not sure, take Gretchen’s quiz, then come back here. Dear SKHW, I’m an Abstainer all the way. Like, if there was a definition of “Abstainer” (other than Gretchen’s), it would just be a picture of me. I’m a recovering drug addict. I’m black or white, on or off… as with many addicts, there are no 50 shades of anything in between. This will make total sense if you’ve read the Whole30 rules, by the way. Habit research does support the idea of black-or-white rules being easier for the brain to follow, but the program is also written this way because that’s how MY brain, specifically, works. You’d think us Abstainers would have a hard time with the idea of food freedom, because most people assume that food freedom IS moderation. Eat everything you want—just not all at once, or every single day. If that were a case, I’d be sucking at food freedom. It’s exhausting for me to think about “moderating,” as the concept makes my brain go into overdrive. “What’s ‘a little?’ What’s ‘too much?’ What’s ‘too often?’ If I eat one bite of a cookie every day, is that better or worse than a whole cookie once a week? If I add this cookie to that wine, is that too much? I haven’t eaten any treats all week—does that mean I have no balance?” It. Never. Ends. But praise Bieber, food freedom has NOTHING to do with moderation. Which is damn good news for us Abstainers.

Food Freedom as an Abstainer

Food freedom isn’t about moderating, it’s about making conscious, deliberate decisions in the moment, and honoring whether it’s worth it and you want it right then and there. Every opportunity to eat or drink something less healthy is a discrete instance; a stand-alone moment in time where you get to decide, “yes” or “no.” Which makes it sound kind of like “black or white” doesn’t it? Let’s illustrate with a story: I’m at dinner with friends, and the dessert menu comes around. I look, and the churros are tempting. Right then and there, I run through my Food Freedom checklist: “Do I want it? Is it worth it? Will it mess me up? Am I willing to accept the consequences? Do I really want it?” There are only two answers here—yes, it’s worth it and I really want it, or no, it fails one or more of those criteria. Because when it comes to food freedom, a “kinda” or “maybe” or “sort-of” is a NO. (Plus it’s not like you can kinda eat something. You either do, or you don’t… even if it’s just one bite.) Which means if you’re an Abstainer, you still get to think about every interaction with potentially less healthy food as an “on or off” moment—no “moderation” in sight. Even more important is realizing that each instance is totally independent. You may say yes to the wine tonight, but tomorrow night it’s just not worth it. You may pass on the cupcakes at your own birthday party, but choose to savor one for breakfast the next morning. You may order your entire meal gluten-free… then ask for chocolate cake for dessert. There are no rules, but it’s NOT “moderation.” It’s conscious, deliberate decision-making in the moment, one hundred percent of the time. Now, this is just how I think about it, because moderation doesn’t work for me. If you’re an Abstainer, you’ll probably love this approach, and it may open doors to food freedom that were previously nailed shut.

Food Freedom as a Moderator

If you’re a Moderator and LOVE thinking about your food freedom in terms of “I can have anything I want, any time I want, in moderation with the other healthy things in my diet,” then go on with your moderating self! You need to make food freedom work for you, so if it helps you to think about it in terms of allowing yourself the occasional indulgence, fantastic. But YOUR decisions must be conscious, deliberate, and honor what you really want in the moment too. Case in point: I’m at dinner with friends, and the dessert menu comes around. I look, and the churros are tempting. But I don’t run through my Food Freedom checklist: “Do I want it? Is it worth it? Will it mess me up? Am I willing to accept the consequences? Do I really want it?” Instead, I bypass self-awareness altogether and just tell myself, “Everything in moderation!” So I eat one. Or two. And a glass of wine, because moderation! That’s NOT food freedom—that’s being a slave to your brain screaming for reward under the guise of “balance” or “moderation” as a healthy pursuit. You’re not in touch with what you really want, you’re not making a conscious, deliberate decision, and you don’t feel totally in control—which is the fastest way to sabotage your heathy eating efforts altogether. Translation: you won’t find food freedom lazily drifting down a river of sweets and treats on a “moderation” floatie. You must commit to honest self-awareness throughout the process.

Food Freedom for All

In summary, if you’re an Abstainer, there’s a way to think about food freedom in a way that totally works for you. If you’re a Moderator, you can think about it our way, or your own way—that’s cool. Just remember that regardless of your big-picture approach, food freedom only exists when you make conscious, deliberate decisions, honoring what you really want in that moment. For more on Gretchen Rubin’s approach to healthy habits, read her best-selling book, Better Than Before. For more on obtaining and sustaining true food freedom, read my best-selling book, Food Freedom Forever. And if ever two books complimented each other beautifully, this it is. Best in health, Melissa

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Remember, we aren’t answering questions about the Whole30 rules via this column (use the forum!), nor are we able to offer you specific advice about your medical issue, health condition, or body composition. 3-15a small Melissa Urban is a Certified Sports Nutritionist, and the author of the New York Times bestselling books It Starts With Food and The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom; Food Freedom Foreverand The Whole30 Cookbook (coming December 6, 2016). She has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Details, Outside, SELF, and Shape as the co-founder of the Whole30 program. Melissa lives in Salt Lake City, UT. Photo credit: Marie Carmel Photography This post may contain affiliate links. We earn a small commission when you purchase products through these links. We only recommend products and services we like and use ourselves. Thank you for supporting our Whole30 partners.