Business and self-development coaches will often tell you that the secret to success is to focus on your strengths, while either outsourcing your weaknesses or becoming just good enough at them not to mess everything up. This approach allows you to avoid spinning your wheels doing the tasks you aren’t suitable for and quite frankly dread, and instead focus your precious time and attention toward the things that have the biggest impact.
Why should this be any different from finding success with a nutrition plan? When it comes to food intake, most people fall into one of two categories: moderators or abstainers.
Moderators feel restricted by the concept of “off-limits” foods, leading to feelings of depravity. They are better off with more frequent, controlled indulgences and can easily control this intake to reasonable amounts (a few bites of dessert or only one cookie out of the package, for example). Moderators are better at regularly including their favorite treat-foods into their diet in reasonable and controlled amounts.
Abstainers feel a moderate intake of guilty-pleasure foods doesn’t exist. Whether fun-sized or family-sized, everything is a single serving. Yet, abstainers can cut foods out of their diet cold-turkey without feeling deprived. Abstainers are better off eliminating all treat-foods from their diet and including more infrequent (yet often larger) indulgences.
The “Pint Test”
How can you decide whether you are better off moderating indulgences, or abstaining from them altogether? There is a very easy test you can use to figure it out—I call it the “pint test.” Ask yourself, are you the type of person who can open a pint of ice cream and have just a little bit of it at a time? If you can successfully eat just a few spoonfuls before returning it to the freezer, then you are likely a moderator. However, if you can’t imagine NOT finishing a pint in one sitting, you’re more likely an abstainer. (This test works with any food that tickles your fancy—for those who don’t/can’t eat ice cream.)
Regardless of which category you fall into, society tends to judge whether or not you’re “doing it right.” That is, the moderator approach is often held as the “healthy” approach to eating. It is a common perception that if you can’t have a relationship with food that allows you to be mindful of your intake, while simultaneously being able to indulge in your favorite foods and control your portions while doing so, then you must have a broken relationship with food (and thus, you’re judged as pretty broken, too). In other words, being an abstainer is seen as having a poor relationship with food—sometimes bordering on disorderly.
As a self-proclaimed abstainer, I’m calling BS on the notion that you can’t healthily and happily subscribe to this method of eating your favorite treats.
Fitting The Mold
Research is clear on one fact: as a society, we are losing the battle with obesity. More people than ever are starting to get active and take their health seriously—the fitness industry is booming—and yet the obesity rates continue to rise. There are many variables that contribute to these poor outcomes, and one such variable is the incessant need to try and fit round people into square holes.
If you are an abstainer, trying to live by the rules of moderators is more likely to lead to constant failure and overindulgence. Remember, once an abstainer starts to consume a “restricted” food their self-control plummets—one piece of cake turns into half of the entire thing, or one cookie turns into the entire package. By trying to eat these foods in moderation, you’re more likely to stimulate eating episodes that involve multiple pints of ice cream or three packages of cookies within a single week totaling hundreds (or thousands) of extra calories.
Why are the methods of abstainers (infrequent but large, single-sitting consumption of treats) seen as unhealthier than moderators? This may be because people will look at the differences between consumption methods at the micro-level. We most often view our calorie consumption on a daily basis—a certain number of calories we have to spend on food over the course of the day. By limiting our view to one day, it’s easy to see why the idea that only eating one or two cookies is healthier than eating a dozen.
Calories Don’t Reset
However, calories aren’t limited to the confines of any single day; there isn’t a magical time of day when your calorie allotment suddenly resets for the next day. Instead, you could begin to evaluate calorie consumption as a rolling weekly total. Once you consider your calorie allotment over a larger span of time, the differences between these self-control strategies doesn’t seem so drastic.
For example, if your daily calorie goal is 2,000 calories, then your weekly total equals 14,000 calories. Imagine you consume 1,000 calories from cake in single, 250-calorie pieces, two times a week over the course of two weeks. Now compare this to consuming all 1,000 calories of cake in four pieces, eaten on the same day, but only one time over the same two-week time period?
According to Dr. Mike Israetel, Co-Founder and Chief Sports Scientist at Renaissance Periodization, there is no meaningful difference between these approaches: “If you control your calories over the course of the day or even the week, there are no definite negative health effects of eating a large volume of calories in one sitting. In other words, there’s nothing about the practice, per se, that’s unhealthy or will lead to higher levels of fat gain to any meaningful extent.”
Rebecca Livingstone, Registered Dietician from London Ontario, Canada, agrees with Dr. Israetel that there’s not much difference at all in the grand scheme of things: “…consuming a much higher amount of calories (no matter the source) during a single day or sitting is less likely to result in weight [gain] than consistently overeating calories.”
The prevailing research supports the positions of Dr. Israetel and Livingstone. Our bodies tend to acutely increase metabolic activity after a large intake of calories in order to help maintain a stable body weight. Additionally, studies have found that we will naturally eat less over the following few days to make up the calorie balance.1,2 Among individuals who maintain a stable body weight, meal-to-meal caloric intake might vary somewhat but the general trend over a longer duration remains at a stable level.
There are some important caveats to these indulgent, “mega-meals,” according to Dr. Israetel:
- Individuals prone to acid reflux might find their symptoms exacerbated for a few hours following these large meals.
- Consuming a larger than usual amount of food in a single sitting can cause distress of the GI tract in some individuals—causing noticeable discomfort.
- Sleep can be negatively affected if these large indulgences are consumed too close to bedtime. Dr. Israetel recommends giving yourself at least four hours from the conclusion of your celebratory “cheat meal” before lying down to sleep.
Indulging Versus Bingeing
It would be an oversight not to touch on binge-eating disorder, which many might find eerily similar to the methods of an abstainer. Bingeing is defined, rather vaguely, as “eating, in a discrete period of time (often a two-hour window), an amount of food that is larger than what most people would eat in a similar time frame under similar circumstances.”3 Additional criteria include a loss of control when eating, eating more rapidly than usual, and often eating alone during binge episodes due to embarrassment overeating behaviors. Additionally, sufferers of binge-eating disorder will often show non-purge compensatory behaviors following binges, including both excessive caloric restriction and exercise.
You’d be hard-pressed not to see the resemblance between binge-eating and the methods of abstainers. However, here is my argument why they are different.
Every person likely satisfies the criteria of a binge-eating episode, on occasion. Thanksgiving is a prime example of just this sort of occasion. The vagueness of what is defined as enough food to be considered a binge makes it hard to pinpoint the moment when over-indulging becomes pathologic.
Not all abstainers feel embarrassment over their indulgences, and won’t necessarily feel the need to consume these treats in solitude. Abstainers don’t need to refrain from attending social events where food may be present, nor will they necessarily have trouble avoiding the buffet table at such events.
The thought of abstaining, or their next indulgence, doesn’t have to be an all-consuming focus of attention. Not all abstainers have to incessantly control their thoughts around food. In fact, embracing that they are better off avoiding some foods altogether can make it easier not to think about food.
Being an abstainer doesn’t necessarily mean you will feel guilty after your indulgences. One warning sign of binge-eating disorder is the experience of disgust, depression, shame, or guilt after a binge episode. This is not always present in abstainers who indulge in occasional, larger quantities than their moderating counterparts.
To summarize, abstainers can still maintain a healthy relationship with food while successfully restricting various food items on a regular basis and indulging in larger quantities less frequently.
Finding Success In Any Case
If you want to be successful in your nutrition plan and live an overall healthier life, then you need to first determine whether you are a moderator or abstainer. Then, you need to stop pretending you’re anything else. Once you can accept your strengths (or weaknesses, depending on how you view them), you can begin to craft strategies that enable you to thrive under those conditions. Below are some strategies for success based on which category you fall into.
Moderator Strategies for Success
- Avoid the complete restriction of any foods from your diet. This will only lead to increased feelings of deprivation.
- Plan for frequent, small treats. Carve the calories out of your day to help ensure you aren’t overeating on a consistent basis.
- Be careful not to create bad habits from frequent indulgences. One good strategy to avoid this is to vary the circumstances in which you allow yourself to have these foods. Instead of having a pastry for breakfast every day, allow yourself to indulge in dessert only when you’re out to eat with friends.
Abstainer Strategies for Success
- Avoid having trigger foods present—don’t buy them or store them at home.
- Don’t lie to yourself that you can control your urges with just one bite. Avoid taking any bites of the trigger foods—except during your planned indulgences.
- Stick to smaller containers (individual or fun size) that allow you to reasonably consume the whole package. (Remember, everything is single-serving for abstainers.)
- Plan for these “mega-meals” by balancing the calories elsewhere. Perhaps you eat a little less during the early part of the day if you know you’re going to have a larger-than-normal dinner. Additionally, intermittent fasting—a dieting protocol that involves consuming your total calories in shorter time frames (resulting in larger meals)—is one strategy to avoid the overconsumption of calories on a regular basis.
Find the Balance That Works For You
The key to a successful diet and exercise regimen is finding a program that integrates seamlessly into your life. There is no research to suggest one approach is better than the other in regard to your body composition or overall health. Find the method that best suits your style of eating—it is imperative to your long-term success and overall happiness.
1. Harris, R. B. (1990). Role of set-point theory in regulation of body weight. The FASEB Journal, 4(15), 3310-3318.
2. Hall, K. D., Heymsfield, S. B., Kemnitz, J. W., Klein, S., Schoeller, D. A., & Speakman, J. R. (2012). Energy balance and its components: implications for body weight regulation. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 95(4), 989-994.
3. Binge Eating Disorder. (2018, February 22). Retrieved April 16, 2018.