Back by Popular Demand: Are You an Abstainer or a Moderator?

Every Wednesday is Tip Day,  or Quiz Day.

This Wednesday: Quiz–Are you an abstainer or a moderator?

For the last week and a half, I’ve been traveling on my book tour for Happier at Home. I love getting the chance to talk to so many people about happiness.

When I gave my talks, the issue of abstainers and moderators came up several times, so I thought it might be helpful to post this quiz yet again. Recognizing this distinction has been one of the most important insights that I’ve had into my own nature–more helpful, say, than understanding that I’m an under-buyer, not an over-buyer.

When dealing with temptation, I often see the advice, “Be moderate. Don’t have ice cream every night, but if you try to deny yourself altogether, you’ll fall off the wagon. Allow yourself to have the occasional treat, it will help you stick to your plan.”

I’ve come to believe that this is good advice for some people: the “moderators.” They do better when they avoid absolutes and strict rules.

For a long time, I kept trying this strategy of moderation–and failing. Then I read a line from Samuel Johnson, who said, when someone offered him wine: “Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult.”

Ah ha! Like Dr. Johnson, I’m an “abstainer.”

I find it far easier to give something up altogether than to indulge moderately. When I admitted to myself that I was eating my favorite frozen yogurt treat very often–two and even three times a day–I gave it up cold turkey. That was far easier for me to do than to eat it twice a week. If I try to be moderate, I exhaust myself debating, “Today, tomorrow?” “Does this time ‘count’?” “Don’t I deserve this?” etc. If I never do something, it requires no self-control for me; if I do something sometimes, it requires enormous self-control.

There’s no right way or wrong way–it’s just a matter of knowing which strategy works better for you. If moderators try to abstain, they feel trapped and rebellious. If abstainers try to be moderate, they spend a lot of precious energy justifying why they should go ahead and indulge.

In my experience, both moderators and abstainers try hard to convert the other team. 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.

People can be surprisingly judgmental about which approach you take. As an abstainer, I often get disapproving comments like, “It’s not healthy to take such a severe approach” or “It would be better to learn how to manage yourself” or “You should be able to have a brownie.” On the other hand, I want to tell moderators, “You can’t keep cheating and expect to make progress” or “Why don’t you just go cold turkey?” But different approaches work for different people. (Exception: with an actual addiction, like alcohol or cigarettes, people generally accept that abstaining is the only solution.)

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

So…do you identify as an abstainer or a moderator? Do these categories ring true for you?

  • peachesandcake

    I guess I’m a moderator. For example, I am PASSIONATE about making ice cream. I think about it all the time and devise ways to make it creamier and more delicious. I know that ice cream is not good for me in large quantities, so I have a little bit of it, and then pawn the rest off to my husband and friends. I could never go cold turkey, because I ENJOY the process of making it so much as well as the one scoop I allow myself to have from each batch.

    • Anne

      I tried that with chocolate truffles. I made them, tasted them, and passed them out. Alas, I found out that many people who absolutely shouldn’t eat them find them irresistable. One friend told me after he took some that he’s diabetic. Another guy’s girl friend, who had just had major surgery for obesity, ate a number of his. I decided my friends weren’t benefiting from those truffles, and I quit making them. Maybe this is abstention in others’ behalf? Anyway, the idea of over-tempting a diabetic sort of freaked me out.

  • Acappellalady

    When it comes to sticking to a diet, I have to be an abstainer. I have been back on the low carb Atkins diet and have lost 30 pounds in the last seven months… but only by totally cutting out all bread, snack foods, pasta, potatoes, sweets, etc. I don’t even have them in my house or office. I did this before and lost weight… I then allowed myself to have “good” carbs like whole grain brean or pasta in what I thought was moderation. I promptly gained back about 16 pounds over six months! My family & friends think my approach is a bit harsh, but being an abstainer is the only thing that works for me. Otherwise, the temptation is just too strong. My new motto is “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels!”…

    • Rachel

      Is it really possible to be an abstainer with carbohydrates? They’re essential to health. Or are you just referring to bread and pasta?

    • Kim

      I too have to abstain from carbs (grains and white potatoes) because I have realized that I am literally addicted to them. It is much easier to eat none that to try to moderate them. If I eat a bite of carbs, I want to eat a bucket of carbs!
      Last week I was at a party and they had pasta catered in. The only other option was plain green salad so I allowed myself a very small portion of pasta (about 1/2 cup). Big mistake! I could not get my mind off the stuff all night. I was completely distracted by the trays of pasta in the kitchen – it was like they were calling out my name. So I am definitely an abstainer when it comes to carbs. Sweets too!

  • I am an abstainer. My biggest downfall is potatoes, prepared any way, but fried? I can go through a big bag of potato chips in a couple of hours, and french fries are the best part of a take out meal for me. If they aren’t in the house, I don’t miss them, but if they come in, I’m like a rabid raccoon, and I will bite you if you try to take them from me! Husband can attest to this….

  • Leslie

    I think I’m a moderator. I definitely feel trapped and rebellious if I try to deny myself something altogether. But I definitely have not perfected the moderation strategy yet.

  • Thinking of myself as an abstainer changed my life, Gretchen. And you helped! Thanks!

    I hope you don’t mind if I expand on that a bit, here…

  • ravenrose

    I’ve had this discussion with a number of people, and it amuses me how judgmental people are, as you say. People can’t accept that the difference is legitimate. A Moderater insisted on calling Abstainers “Obsessive Compulsives”! Whereas, yes, I do think of Moderators as dangerously undisciplined. This is a particularly helpful thing to keep repeating, because many of us work so hard to be compassionate and understanding of people with temperaments different than our own, but this is a distinction we seem really blind to.

    I do wish you had a different word for “Moderator” though. That is used as a common English word for something quite different. You are so good with words, I’m sure you thought long and hard before using that term, trying to find something less confusing. Oh well! LOL

    I recently brought this up on the huge Low Carb forum I frequent. It engendered an interesting conversation there, since abstaining or indulging in “cheats” is one of the biggest bones of contention in sticking to a weight loss and health enhancing eating plan. Thanks for bringing it up again.

    • shannon

      I myself am on Weight Watchers, which is basically a plan that takes the moderators into consideration – is in fact, arguably a plan for moderators. But at the meetings, people often are clearly really down on themselves for not abstaining. It is an interesting conversation to watch, particularly with weight loss. Because I tend towards moderation mostly (with the exception of my candy addiction described elsewhere in these comments), I sometimes feel really compelled to say “give yourself a break!”, and have to respect that my way isn’t everyone’s way.

      • Anne

        I’ve tried WW, and agree with you that it’s a plan for moderators. As an abstainer, I’ve engaged in a number of pointless discussions at WW meetings about this. To me, it’s easier to not even think about brownies than to have one tiny one or to make “sorta brownies” that are low cal. Mostly, WW leaders and attendees disagree. Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

        My approach may be based partly on the fact that I’m a vegetarian. So there are a lot of foods that are “off my list” anyway. Doesn’t make much difference to add a few more.

        • gretchenrubin

          This is just my guess, but I wonder if there are a lot of abstainers who are trying to be moderators – who assume it’s easier to indulge a little bit (it sounds easier!) but in fact would find it a relief to give some things up altogether.

          My sister was always an example in my mind of a true moderator, and recently she told me, “I’ve realized I’m actually an abstainer. It’s just less work.”

          • Anne

            I’ve been told there’s a Chinese saying: “One glass of wine is better spilled.” Don’t know if it really is a Chinese saying, but whoever made it up must have been an abstainer!

    • Manda

      It is amusing how judgmental people are with the ways different people handle different things. I have (for the last few months) being trying the 80/20 approach to food – so ‘moderating’ – and it’s working for me. But its not for everyone and thats fine too. If everyone got less caught up in the ‘right way’ and just concentrated on the way that works, we would all be doing things the ‘right’ way – for us. By the way, i like the use of the word ‘moderator.’ I also like your word of ‘satisficer’ (thats totally me) and ‘maximiser’ (thats my partner). It works. It fits. And I use it all the time.

    • gretchenrubin

      That’s a good point about the word “moderation.” Any other suggestions for terms?
      Johnson uses the word “temperance,” but that’s not any better.

    • Anne

      It’s interesting how words like “obsessive-compulsive” are tossed around by people who have no idea what they mean. I have a nephew who suffers from OCD, and it’s quite different from the popular idea, at least in his case. I’ve been accused of being obsessive compulsive by people who think that keeping a clean, spare house means there’s something wrong with me.

      I’m an abstainer, although there again, I’m not exactly happy with the term. I decided quite some time ago which foods I want to buy, and I just don’t think about the others. For example, I don’t buy ice cream, so I whizz by those freezers in the market, and no more think about wanting ice cream when I’m at home than if it didn’t exist. For me, it doesn’t. I’m not “abstaining” in the sense of wanting something and not having it. It’s just not in my world at all.

      • gretchenrubin

        EXACTLY. I feel the same way. Those temptations just cease to exist to me. I have no sense of having to resist or actively abstain (which I do if I try to be moderate) and this is freeing and energizing. Abstaining takes NO self-control at all.

        I agree, the terms aren’t perfect, but I struggled mightily to come up with them. Any other suggestions?

        • Anne

          Not sure there is such a thing as a perfect term. Yours are probably about as good as any, and their imperfections can spark discussion and constructive thought.

      • JW

        Good for you. Clearly, you live alone. I could do that too, if my husband didn’t grocery shop and insist on buying junk food.

  • tmunar

    I’m both. I’m a moderator when it comes to things like shopping, but an abstainer when it comes to things like potato chips. I wonder if it’s because certain things I can see the effects of right away (like my credit card bill) which is more of a deterrent, but other things I can’t (it takes a while for heart disease/fat to take their toll.)

    • Vicious Trollop

      I, too, started thinking about this more in terms of budget than food. I do better as an abstainer with money– I find that if I decide to treat myself to a non-essential item then I tend to want to buy more. If it is something that I truly don’t need or have space to store then I just let it go and put the extra funds into my savings account. When I made more money and had a couple of credit cards it was very hard for me to use them responsibly. Now, when I’m tempted to overspend I try to remember how awful I felt when I was in debt. Very few items are worth going back there.

      • Cy

        Definitely agree with this perspective- when I start “treating myself,” I can spend hundreds of dollars before realizing it was unnecessary. So I don’t keep any credit cards- that way, I can see the money come straight out of my bank account, and it helps me to control my spending, both for nonessential food items and other shopping. Thinking about my small storage spaces and my budget helps me to abstain from buying things more than thinking about my waistline or the possibility of developing health problems down the road. Much more tangible.


    I’m an abstainer, no question about it. Thank you. This was incredibly helpful.

  • Rachel

    I have been anorexic for several years, and it was driven at least partly by abstaining from foods labeled as “unhealthy” until I was abstaining from practically everything. Now I am trying to learn how to enjoy most foods in moderation, which to me is harder and also more desirable than abstaining.

  • I don’t fit easily into either camp. One of the most effective tools I have for interrupting an escalating bad habit is to give it up for Lent. (This is so useful, I’m experimenting with declaring a second Lenten holiday in Autumn.) OTOH, this is only possible because it’s occasional – I’ll usually eat a piece or two of candy every day when I’m dieting, because without a little indulgence, it would be so much harder to maintain my discipline.

    • Anne

      There already is a second Lent in early winter–Advent. It begins the fourth Sunday before December 25 and ends on Christmas Eve.

  • shannon

    It’s good to see this revisited, because I’ve been thinking about it lately. In my resolve to eat healthier and lose weight, I’ve had the opportunity to really think about abstaining vs. moderation, and I’ve come to the odd conclusion that I am both. It just depends.
    With common pitfall treats like cake, cookies, brownies, chocolate, ice cream, pie – things that can be especially difficult because they are around at parties or people want to order them for dessert when you go out to eat – I just don’t feel all that tempted. They are good, but they just aren’t the best thing in the world to me. So I have cake and ice cream at birthday parties. If I want a cookie, I have a cookie because it will really only be that one. I even have a candy jar with a single bag of Dove chocolates in it that has been there for about a year, and I’m only just now getting close to emptying it out.
    However, I have a really tough time with candy that is both sweet and sour. SweetTarts, Gobstoppers, Sprees, Smarties – the very nature of this problem means I have to call upon brand names to describe it. I also like sweet sugary drinks like Gatorade, Kool Aid, and Icees. My greatest temptation is the part of me that has the flavor palette of a little kid. So I have to abstain from these altogether. Just one candy or treating myself with an Icee at the movie theater will cause me to have a full-on binge. Furthermore, I have to replace these treats with fruits that are candy-like in flavor (I am so grateful for green grapes, and Pink Lady and Honeycrisp apples).

    • gretchenrubin

      It seems as though many people find themselves to be a mix of both, in different situations or with different temptations.

  • I’m an abstainer…Sweets for example, if I don’t buy them, I don’t miss them. But my husband is a moderator. He gets depressed at the idea of giving up sweets (or whatever it is) forever. Fine fine line to walk. How do you navigate that–when one partner is an abstainer and the other is a moderator?

  • Rachel

    For those who can’t be moderators, does it have anything to do with the “what-the-hell” effect?

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m going to be writing about this in the future! Very interesting question. Stay tuned!

  • Lisa

    I think I am both depending on the situation. There are certain items like peanut butter that I cannot have in moderation. Not long ago my family had an intervention. They keep the peanut butter hidden from me and bring it out when they want to make a sandwich. I cannot deny them from having it but at the same time I cannot control myself with it unsupervised. I have to admit that I think I am more of an abstainer than a moderator..items I have less control over I only allow myself in a controlled envrionment …….My husband is a moderator. Most things he can take or leave…… which makes it difficult for me since he cannot understand why I cannot have these things around me……

  • yalgal

    I respectfully disagree with this analysis, which I used to believe when I was a dieter (and overweight). I can empathize: it was definitely easier to not have any sweets than to have a little, and suffer through all the agonizing self-negotiations and planning of “moderation.” But even when I went sugar free or bread free or ___ free, I would eventually relapse because I’d fool myself into thinking that I had finally gained mastery over whatever macronutrient I was avoiding.

    Over the years, I finally got sick of dieting in general, whether as a semi-successful abstainer or a failed wannabe moderator. I wasn’t getting thinner and I felt like I was spending an immoral amount of energy on the subject. So I began to read non-mainstream nutrition and diet literature and while I did not become an adherent to any particular alternative ideology, it opened my mind and I became more grounded in trusting my own body to tell me what it needs, and to not externalize nutrition to the latest fads –including government supported initiatives to limit saturated fat, sodium, and other valuable nutrients.

    As a result, I’ve finally become the kind of person I used to envy. Eating is effortless: I eat what I want, when I want. There were a few initial months of what seemed like an infinite hunger. I did not judge it, and gave myself (i.e., my body) whatever I wanted. Eventually my body began to trust that this was not a binge or a temporary reprieve, but a new way of life, and it no longer demanded a stick of butter and a loaf of bread at every meal.

    My body showed itself to be far superior to my nutrition I.Q. I feel sick when I eat Doritos but I can still knock back a bag of salt and vinegar Kettle Chips and enjoy it. I can taste MSG in Chinese food (never could before) and the after-thirst is overwhelming. I can calmly live in my home with two pints of ice cream in the freezer without being caught in a continuous looping dialogue with myself about whether I will allow myself to have some, when, and how much.

    When I stopped caring about my size, when I focussed on handing over my nutrition to my body rather than my type-A intellect, ironically, the extra weight slowly went away.

    As a result of my experience, I believe that the abstainer/moderator distinction is a stop-gap measure that is useful to a dieter mentality only. But the long-term answer to having an effortless relationship with food is to get out of that dieter mentality entirely.

    Trust your body.

    • KCLAnderson (Karen)

      I am with you!

    • Elise

      I read your comment three times because I found it so interesting. LOL I am a person who is only slightly overweight but the mere THOUGHT of a diet seems so awful to me. When I hear all the things that I am SUPPOSED to eat to lose weight and the things I am NOT supposed to eat it just seems kind of depressing. Ha ha. I do have things that I cannot eat because I get migraines and somehow that is easier because there is actually a very direct negative reaction to those foods. Hmmm, very interesting indeed.

    • meme

      I’ve lost weight and kept it off being an abstainer, it works for me! 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment. I agree with Gretchen’s analysis, but I definitely agree that our bodies know what they need if we listen. When it comes to abstainer vs. moderator, I feel like I have qualities of both and a lot of it depends on the item. For years I’ve acknowledged it’s easier if I just don’t keep certain foods in the house–I’ll eat an entire bag of chocolate chip cookies or chips or a whole pizza by myself if left to my own devices–but there are other treats like ice cream I have no problem moderating. But I also get a little panicky around other things, like bread, if I tell myself I can’t have those in the house. I needed to prove to my brain and body that abstaining wasn’t a bad thing and figure out which foods I could moderate without the exhausting mental gymnastics.

      What worked for me was doing a cleanse that eliminated allergy-prone foods (as well as gluten, caffeine, sugar, salt and alcohol) for 3 weeks and then slowly reintroduced them back to see my body’s reaction. The finite restriction period was comforting to me because I could tell myself that if at the end of the restriction I didn’t feel any different, then I could keep eating those treats (like bread) I loved. But in those 3 weeks, my body changed, my brain changed, I learned what ‘actually’ feeling hungry felt like, I started slowly losing weight, and I experienced how good it felt body and mind to be healthy in a well-rounded way. And I didn’t even want to reintroduce the restricted foods! It was that process of paying attention and experiencing my body over a period of time that had boundaries that showed me that giving up those foods wasn’t something to panic over after all. The cleanse also showed me other equally tasty foods that I COULD control myself around – like plain corn tortilla chips instead of Fritos or Lays, or oatmeal cookies instead of chocolate chip.

      The finite restriction process helped ease my mind and let me think critically about what my body needed. It showed me a food lifestyle that I could handle, with a mix of moderating foods I can control myself around and abstaining from those I can’t. I did it through an organized cleanse, but anyone could do it (with a little discipline) on their own. Just remember it takes 3-5 weeks for your body to adapt.

  • depends on the context , but mostly a balanced moderator by nature ..

  • Brenda Wilkerson

    I’m a moderator surrounded by abstainers, so when I first read this section in THP, it was incredibly freeing for me! I always thought I was wimpy or weak because I don’t like to give things up completely, go on extreme diets, etc. but now I feel validated. 🙂

  • Tara C

    Mainly a moderator, with occasional abstainer categories… I can moderate my food intake very easily, but tend to get carried away when I start shopping, so I avoid the mall altogether.

  • Stephen

    Tough question for me to answer,as it really honestly depends on what the subject is that I’d be abstaining from or moderating the doing/use of…so I guess my my answer to “are you an abstainer or moderator?” would be either “yes”,or “a hybrid”,LOL!

  • AmyK

    I always thought I was an all-or-nothing kind of gal, but when I considered this in response to your posts, I have concluded that I am more of a moderator, albeit on the stricter side. A few bites of dessert a couple of times a week satisfies me, but I don’t let myself have an entire portion at once. One thing I have trouble doing moderately, though, is eating snacks from a large bag. So now I only buy individually packaged single-serving snacks. It’s more expensive that way, but it works really well for me. It often makes me overlook the snacks entirely or stop at one serving when I truly want the snack. When I really need to reign in a habit that’s gotten out of hand (e.g., mindless Internet surfing), I do find that giving it up altogether is often more effective.

  • FirstRaesoi

    I wonder if the whole abstainer/moderator dichotomy can be applied to other areas of life beyond health and eating. FB checking, video games, gambling, alcohol…I bet there are lots of ways you can take this idea and apply it. Even relationships.

  • kaitlyn

    I think I have an easier time as an abstainer in the short term but I think learning moderation has been more productive/healthier for me in the long run.

  • Abstainer all the way! Moderation is just an excuse for me to cheat. I’d rather not have to deal with any temptations.

  • Rachel

    I agree with you. I have the same problem when it comes to sugar. For the most part I abstain. However, when I’m in a situation in which there is only a limited amount available I will indulge. For example, if I buy a block of chocolate and share it with the family I’ll only get a few squares. After that the chocolate is gone so I won’t eat anymore. I rarely have a sugar binge these days because of this. Now if I can just work out how to control my Facebook time …

  • Anne

    Perhaps this boils down to how an individual deals with limitations and prohibitions? Some seem to focus on the forbidden object, others seem to shrug and forget about it.

    Or maybe it has to do with the specific prohibition and how much of a loss it is? It’s not hard, for example, for me to forget about sweets, but I really don’t like them that much in the first place, so it’s no big deal. Giving up something I really enjoy might be a different thing altogether. If fruit was a problem, I’d have to be a moderator, and would probably cheat unless serious health issues were involved.

  • Anne

    I wonder about the converse issue: What about doing things we don’t want to do (as opposed to moderating or abstaining from things we want to do but shouldn’t)?

    Some people plunge in and get it over with. Others procrastinate. Others have other ways of dealing with unwelcome tasks–ideas here?

    Is there a connection in personal style between these two opposing methods of dealing with things? Would an abstainer be likelier to be a plunger or a procrastinator?

  • peninith1

    I am considering how this fits or collides with your recent post about doing things every day. I felt very positive about my post on what I have established as every day habits, with some effort. But then there is a whole list of ‘things I do every day’ that reveal the downside of ‘you are what you DO.’ Every day, I eat too much. Almost every day I have a couple of glasses of wine. Most days, I am more sedentary than in motion. Every day, I sure like to enjoy my carbohydrates in the form of whole grain bread, cereal for breakfast, and so forth. Every day, I continue habits that are not helping me to be the person I want to be, and that are eroding my health. I suspect that I am really an ‘abstainer’ who does NOT want to take the bit (instead of the bread!) between my teeth and get down to abstaining from the things that are not helpful. I am what I DO in some good ways, but also NOT good in other ways. Mindfulness is likely the way through this, either to moderation or abstinence. Once again, it comes down to waking up and observing what I actually do, and making the changes, small or large, and consistently doing what I want to be. That is what results in more happiness over a long period of time.

  • Cindy C.

    Is it possible to be both, depending on the situation?

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, it seems as though a lot of people consider themselves a mix.

      • Aurelia

        I am both, depending on the habit and my level of stress. For example, when my life is not stressful, I eat chocolate moderately. When I am under a lot of stress, I abstain. I think this is because addictions and unhealthy habits can manifest when stress coping mechanisms are inadequate.

    • Cindy

      It is possible to both. I like being an abstainer 6 days a week and enjoying a special treat on one day. And I have never been on a diet. It’s just way of life.

  • I combine the two methoids to maintain discipline without giving up pleasure. I think these are related to conscious and unconscious thinking. Most research shows our unconscious is in charge and we gain some control when we are conscious and aware. Meditation is the most proven method to do this and the research keeps piling on the evidence.
    I think most abstainers are also moderators who work on a few things and just show that side to the world. We are all hopelessly rules by the unconscious.

  • Jess

    I wrote about this on my blog, which describes my experience since choosing to abstiain from drinking after 30 some-odd years. When I first read this post a few months back, I found it really hard to apply to my drinking, which I felt I’d prefer to moderate. This is is pretty typical! I’ve finally come around the ‘abstainer’ argument, as I think drinking is a different type of situation. Chances are if you feel you are needing to moderate, you’re probably better just abstaining altogether.

    In case anyone can relate, you can read more at:

  • queen

    I have an addictive personality so being an abstainer is really easier for me. However, I cannot abstain from eating. I read a book by Geneen Roth that really got me to think about the way I eat. I try to be more conscious of what I’m eating and why. I’m still struggling with the weight but my only other vice these days is buying books

  • Anna

    Thank you for this! I completely identify with the abstainer category. The idea that I should eat just a little of some unhealthy food to sate that craving is completely unworkable for me.

    When I became vegan I thought it would be really difficult—especially since I made the change for moral rather than dietary reasons. But I’ve found to my surprise that, overall, it’s actually a huge relief. I no longer debate with myself every damn day whether to eat some unhealthy, processed ice-cream bar or not—just knowing that it’s completely ruled out gets rid of all the angst.

    I know it sounds kind of ridiculous, but it honestly has reduced a significant amount of minor but repeated daily stress in my life.

    • gretchenrubin

      I absolutely agree with you – that in my experience, while abstaining sounds demanding, rigid, draining, it’s actually freeing and energizing.

  • shegoat

    I used to follow some dietary kosher rules, and when they were in place, it was super easy to say no to pork and shellfish. Now that I have finally decided to abstain from all sugars, it’s surprisingly easy. Sometimes I still want the candy, but it’s a lot easier to say no. Before, when I tried to just “moderate” my intake, I went crazy. I am not sure if I will ever be able to “master” moderation, but I believe that I can abstain indefinitely, so I’ll stick with what works for me! Thanks for this article, it makes me feel less inferior that there are others who have a hard time with the moderation thing.

    • gretchenrubin

      People often tell me that I “should” learn to indulge in moderation. Why “should” I? Whatever works for the individual.

      I’m also beginning to suspect that many people who think they are moderators would actually find it easier to be abstainers; it just sounds hard and rigid, so they don’t try the strategy. For instance, my sister, who I thought was a classic moderator, recently told me she’d decided she was actually an abstainer.

  • Francine (aka DragonsLady)

    I’m a little of both. I have found, especially in my weight loss journey, that for the most part I need to be an abstainer. Example – I LOVE potato chips – especially sour-cream-and-onion potato chips. I “NEED” them everyday at lunch. But – if I only have Chicharrones in the house for me – I can eat the 1/2 ounce and not get the craving and indulge a whole lot more. I can go on for several weeks “behaving” myself and limiting my snacks and successfully losing weight. Then something happens – I go out with former co-workers for dinner one night then suddenly I’m doing lunch with another one, then I have to be away from home during the day and eating out, then it’s my husband’s birthday and of course he needs a cake and a favorite dinner which is meat and starchy carbs and in the middle of this I run out of my Chicharrones (Bakenettes) and the store doesn’t have any. If I splurge only once – not a real problem but added on to like that was (and I didn’t mention Halloween) and I’m in trouble. So I buy some Sweet Maui Onion potato chips – now I’m lost and have gained four pounds back. Today I will see if the store has my chicharrones – and maybe I’ll check the store uptown first. I really need to abstain again for a while. Especially from potato chips and other starchy carbs.

  • Dean

    I would have to be both by the definitions above. I definitely get panicky at the thought of never getting or doing many things, but I also have a lot of trouble stopping things once I’ve started. I think I swing back and forth between the two, binging and then abstaining.

  • yogini

    This is right on Gretchen!! I read the Happiness Project and when you discussed this a light bulb ran out. I can NOT eat just a little ice cream. If I have the pint at home, I will eat all of it within 24 hours. It is so much easier to just say no to ice cream- thank you 🙂 Life changing..and I am not going to have to waste energy trying to moderate myself and argue about when/where/how much ice cream to eat. If it’s off the table as an option, life is way easier!!

  • Vegangypsie

    I am abstaining from processed sugar, but allowed fruit-sweetend or agave-sweetened treats. So really I am moderating sugar, but by drawing a bright line between things I do eat and things I don’t, I stay on track. Also, the healthier sugars are not found in the most accesible junk food, like the honor system candy bar bins at my workplace. I have to plan that I want a desert and get it from whole foods in advance for a special occasion or weekend treat. I am not mindlessly face-stuffing on impulse.
    I am a vegan for ethical reasons, so reading labels and having certain foods I never eat are so practiced that this method came naturally when I wanted to cut down on sugar.

  • meme

    I am definitely an abstainer. I prefer not to have crap in my house that I shouldn’t eat because, well, I have difficulty keeping it moderate. I.e. if I bake a cake for my husband’s birthday, I could totally eat the whole thing in two days. The best I can manage is to force him to help me eat it every day until it is gone. Though, I usually have an extra small portion of cake that day in addition to dessert. Cake for breakfast? Absolutely! This is why there are no sweets or junk food in my house. 🙂

  • I’m an abstainer…recently quit drinking cold turkey and have had no issues since. Also quit drinking milk and eating sour cream cold turkey. It’s a TON easier to just not have something!

  • Janis

    Very interesting — abstainer here. I also find the back and forth “should I or shouldn’t I” decision-making process exhausting. Much easier to say no to something ONCE and be done with the whole issue than to go back and forth endlessly revisiting the same question every time the opportunity presents itself. Abstinence takes ZERO mental effort for me.

  • Kaelyn

    I’m definitely an abstainer and know how my mind/body connection works. It is much easier for me to cut things out cold turkey rather then play the mind games with myself that often come with moderation – for me. That doesn’t mean I NEVER treat myself it just isn’t a weekly thing.

  • FoodAddict

    I relate to these examples, so I’m not saying there’s no weight in it. However, I would revise your thinking concerning addictions and food. If you eat something six+ times per day, can’t moderate yourself, and can only manage to find self-control when you abstain altogether, you’re most likely addicted to that thing. It doesn’t have to be the big alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, etc to be an addiction.

    IF you are addicted to it, then yes, the moderation method is not going to work for you.

  • dawnlouise

    i am terrible at denying myself, well, anything. i have never been able to diet (except accidentally) or quit anything i like doing. but i have been on the 5:2 eating plan (aka the fastdiet) for over a month, and it is totally working for me. i am being a moderator about abstaining! two days a week i eat 500 calories, the other days i eat as i wish. of course, it is hard sometimes (3:00 pm on fasting days), but it really is so great. i am down seven pounds, which is quite nice, but i also believe that i am reducing my risk of a recurrence of breast cancer.

  • Sweet melody

    I’m absolutely an abstainer. I tried to tell myself that I only checked facebook for 15′ but when I started I can’t stop. but there’s no problem for me when I decide to stop facebook altogether. It’s much easier that way. The same goes for waking up early too. If I set a definite time and wake up at that time everyday. It’s easier than having someday for myself to oversleep.

  • Rhonda Lepkan

    I try to be a moderator but I should probably be an abstainer. That last bite of ice cream tastes just as good as the first, I could eat even more. I’m trying desperately to be a moderator because I believe balance is the key to everything but when it comes to food, no dice.

    • gretchenrubin

      For Abstainers, Abstaining is easier. At least that’s true for me and for a lot of other people. It sounds so balanced and civilized to be moderate – but for Abstainers, just doesn’t work!

  • Karen P

    Great article. After 40 years, I’m finally embracing my abstaining side and loving it. 70+ pounds lost and now maintained for 1.5 years. Now, I’ll live the next 40 years happier, healthier and the person I was meant to be. Whew! 🙂

  • raspyni

    Thanks for this. On my site, I coach people through the program. At the end, they have to decide where they want to go, who they want to be. This article really draws a line between the two camps – and I agree that it’s hard to work both sides.

    Just got an email from a woman that did the September session and has literally fallen apart. I feel so guilty for not being more of a coach afterward. I’m in search of how to help people transition back to life and found this article in my search.

    Thank you, Gretchen.

    Barry Friedman

  • Amy Brothers

    I did my own little “experiment” by abstaining from eating sweets a few years back. For 40 days I decided I would try to deny myself “treats”. I could eat fruit as part of my diet, but no desserts, no granola bars, no jam on toast after a meal – nothing that I could call a “treat”. My friend kept telling me about sugar free and low sugar desserts but I told her it wasn’t about the sugar as much as my mentality of having to have a “treat”. What I realized during that time was that for me, desserts and treats are a small but normal part of my calories for the week. I spent so much more time standing in front of the pantry eating other things I didn’t really want in order to fill up and get enough calories. If I am really craving something sweet, I just have a little something and then get on with life. It made me happier to realize that I am a moderator in this area and I don’t have to feel guilty if I eat a little something sweet.

    • gretchenrubin

      This is why it’s so helpful to know if you’re a Moderator or an Abstainer.

      Also, sidenote, be very aware every time you call something a “treat.” Once something is a “treat,” we REALLY don’t want to give it up! You can consider jam on toast a great treat, or you can consider it like ketchup on a hamburger. Over time, those different ways of thinking about jam might make a real difference.

    • Fred

      It’s like living in a country where cocaine is added to all the food. Try to avoid it and Everybody says, “Why are you depriving yourself? Have some cocaine!”

  • Stephania

    I feel smack dab in the middle of the two, if that is even possible.

    I have trouble stopping once I have started, but I AM tempted by things I have decided are off-limits. I get panicky at the thought of never having something again, but at the same time, if I indulge, I *indulge*!

    It is a very thin line to walk.

    • I’m so glad you posted this–I feel like I’m smack dab in the middle, too. This is usually the case in any personality test I take.

      Another commenter mentioned abstaining from potato chips, but moderating chocolate. I’m the same way. I can really go to town on some chips, so I choose to avoid them altogether. Yet I allowed myself to have “a few” this weekend, which ended awfully.

      But chocolate? I can’t give that up completely, so I just accept the fact that if I have just one piece, there’s a good chance I may go overboard. Usually I am pretty good about setting limits, though.

      For a more specific example, I have a friend coming in to town this weekend who is not a healthy eater, but I’m on a fairly strict diet. I can eat whatever I want, as long as the nutrition fits my allotment of macro nutrients (protein, carbs, fat), but a burger, for example, would burn through most of my carbs and fat for the day in one sitting. I’ve been debating for the last few days whether or not to allow myself to completely enjoy her company–eating wherever she chooses, not worrying about hitting my numbers, or pre-planning where/when/how often we eat out–choosing my meals ahead of time and logging them in MyFitnessPal. I know I would enjoy myself more with the first option, but I’m afraid if I loosen up for the weekend I’ll be immediately swept up by guilt as soon as she leaves.

      Does my internal debate (maybe this isn’t the best example) indicate whether I am an abstainer or a moderator? I just can’t tell!

      Help, Gretchen?

    • liina

      I’m an abstainer, but eventually (after a year of weight loss for example) I try moderation and often fail. However, I have found the diets that work best for me long term are the ones that have built in indulgences. For example once a week a meal of whatever I like. Those worked well for me, but now I cannot do that because of blood sugar problems that would wreak havock!! If you are one that needs to abstain but also can’t, perhaps a diet that allows a weekly free meal or even a daily free meal is a start!

    • Jessica Richman

      Same here! So what do we do???? Lol

  • Audry Hardy

    I like “the 80/20 rule. Be healthy 80% of the time, indulge within reason, 20% of the time.”

    • gretchenrubin

      That’s the Moderator way. Doesn’t work for Abstainers!

  • debbiedarline

    I am a moderator. I gave up sugar for a year but then became bizarrely fixated on every piece of food that I put into my mouth! I do much better if I intentionally follow my body’s internal requests through moderation. I wonder if there is an Upholder/Abstainer connection. I am a Questioner, as well as a Moderator.

  • Lorna

    Well, abstainence for me works best, its all or nothing moderation is only a tease to entice more of what I shouldn’t have.

    • Katie Grosvenor


  • Karen

    For me, it really depends on what I’m abstaining from. For certain foods, such as potato chips, it works better for me to abstain entirely. After a day or two of not eating them, I stop missing them. But if I think, oh, gee, I haven’t had chips in a long time, why don’t I try a few, I’ll end up eating the whole bag. So I abstain. That would probably work better with chocolate, too, but I don’t want to abstain entirely from chocolate, and I don’t think I have to, so I do the moderator approach with mixed success. I enjoy eating chocolate enough that I’m willing to live with the consequences of occasionally having my chocolate eating habits get out of control. I would probably change my approach if those consequences became very negative or severe, like if my chocolate habits were causing me to gain too much weight. But since they don’t, I live with it.

  • Karen

    And I’ve also experienced the judgementalness about this, even just with myself. Since I’m mixed, I can start beating myself up over the idea that if I can be moderate about one thing, why can’t I be moderate about everything? (Or vice-versa, if I can abstain from one thing, why can’t I abstain from everything?) I think a lot of people are mixed–an abstainer about alcohol but a moderator about chocolate, for example. I appreciate your even-handed approach and advice to know thyself and do what works.

  • Holly Sarratt Frye

    As an abstainer, dieting works best for me by calorie counting. one brownie or 50 celery sticks, it doesn’t matter as long as I don’t go over my allotment of calories. And as an under-buyer, I never reach that limit! But as a starter, a sprinter, and one who likes novelty, I quickly bore with the redundant chore of recording everything I eat. So the dieting, while extremely effective, rarely lasts more than a week!

    • gretchenrubin

      Calorie-counting is NOT an Abstainer strategy.

      To abstain is to give something up TOTALLY. That’s what makes it EASIER.
      Try abstaining totally and see if that works for you.

      Abstaining doesn’t work for everyone, but for some people, it’s very powerful.

      • Amanda

        I think STICKING to a preplanned calorie count, no matter what you eat, is actually a form of abstaining. Someone else might go over their calorie count every now and then, and then make up for it later…an abstainer would find it easier to always stay within the limit rather than try to decide whether today is a day to indulge.

  • I’m a fairly good moderator. When I say I’m going to drink one beer and go home (or drink juice the rest of the night), I do it. I don’t want to give up beer completely because I enjoy it so much (especially the fancy Belgian ones!). Wine I could live without!

    I allow myself to eat ice-cream, cake or a muffin every now and then, especially when offered, but I don’t have any sugary treats around my home.

    As you put it, the thought of never ever having something again (ever!) freaks me out.

  • Fred

    Which one would you rather marry?

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  • This is a great question! I am 100% better off being a true abstainer! I’ve realized this over the last year. I feel so much more in control and peaceful knowing that I have chosen not to have something (sugar, caffeine, etc.)

    • For a long time, I kept trying this strategy of moderation–and failing. Then I read a line from Samuel Johnson, who said, when someone offered him wine: “Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult.”

  • E

    What if you sometimes get panicky at the thought of never having something, but often have trouble stopping something once you’ve started!?!

    • gretchenrubin

      Try both strategies and see what works better.

      Maybe you can abstain TODAY and tell yourself, “I can always change my mind tomorrow. But for today, I’ll skip the X.” Day by day works for some people.
      Or to plan to indulge, in advance. That way you stay in control, and indulge when things are really memorable.
      Or choose indulgences that are self-limiting. A friend ate croissants only after he finished an exam. He got his croissants, but only on those occasions.

      • Reem

        Other way may be to obstine from that “thing” you know always gets you off the wagon but moderate with something else that might still give that feeling of satisfaction.

        For example: if you really like ice creams and don’t care much about cakes then stop ice creams forever and indulge in the cakes from time to time.

    • M

      That’s me!

    • yun-sama

      Unfortunately, this is so me. T_T
      I’ve been trying to life a healthy life for the sake of reaching my ideal body shape. I really abstain myself of eating breads, cookies, etc. I don’t eat them like at all.
      Enduring them for a while (about 2 weeks or a bit more) is okay for me, but the thought that I cannot eat them at all and forever is really scare me, and then I really want to eat it.
      Aaaaand when I eat them, I kind of cannot stop myself. I know that I don’t have self control, but the guilt over binge-eating those cookies is smaller than the scare I feel when I thought of that I cannot eat cookies forever.

      (Ah sorry for burning your eyes, my grammar does suck.)

  • Amanda

    I LOVE THIS! Moderation has never been useful for me and I had no idea why. But when I think about what really works for me, it’s all-or-nothing. Either I run every day, or hardly ever. Thank you so much for this post!

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so happy to hear that this struck a chord with you —

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  • Ducky7

    I identify with both at different times. Not sure how to describe it… Like, I find it easiest to go cold turkey on sugar, or dairy, or bread, but I like knowing I can indulge a little. With diet, I’m an abstainer during the week and moderator on the weekend. Seems to work pretty well for me!

  • lannabanana

    I’m an Abstainer, but only because I can’t moderate. In fact, I’ve gotten into severe trouble by being “immoderate” with my Abstaining…cutting out almost every foodstuff except lettuce and quinoa for a few months was enough to convince me that cutting things out of my life is a slippery slope for me. I’d rather be a moderator for practical reasons, not just social ones, but I can’t make it work. Knowing that this is a trait I can work with instead of trying to overcome it is a good thing. I also like juxtaposing my Abstainer tendencies with my Rebel ones…maybe the reason I can’t moderate is because everyone always tells me to? ;p

    • gretchenrubin


      If you were an Upholder, I’d wonder if you were experiencing “tightening” – this happens to me:

      Rebels do want to set their own course– often with a strong dose of “I’ll show you” – and a desire to do things differently from other people. (Like my Rebel friend who runs barefoot; he runs, but not like most people run.) So that could indeed explain that pattern…

      Some people have told me that they didn’t think Rebels could be Abstainers, but I know several Abstainer/Rebels. Those different characteristics don’t track together. And I’m an Upholder/Abstainer, but I know Upholder/Moderators.

  • secretkid

    Is it possible to be an obliger/abstainer? I’m a 80% obliger as it’s hard for me to complete stuffs for my own purpose without any external motivations. In general though, I’m definitely bad at self-control (that’s why without any external pressure I can’t do things). So it’s much easier for me to completely cut something off from my life, like deleting Facebook from my phone etc. and never be tempted by it. I’m trying to get into a habit of waking up early in the morning, and I was successful for two weeks, even on weekends, till I broke it once and getting back seems hard as hell. 🙁

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  • Charlotte

    Alas, the categories do not ring true for me. The “abstainer” fits me in that I have a lot of trouble stopping once I’ve started, but the “moderator” fits me in that I get very panicky at the thought of never eating or doing something again. It is absolutely the worst of both worlds.

    • That’s me too. And it is the worst. It’s made losing weight very hard.

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  • Mato

    I think many of us don’t understand that. It’s probably about what is easier for us when we try to change our habit or decrease a frequency of bad habit (give up something completely or just decrease it) of course, if someone is addicted to something, and don’t want to change that, he fills both of categories.

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  • Generation Happy

    I heard this podcast episode and I immediately recognized my own behavior in the “Abstainer.” I am incapable of moderating myself. This idea resonated with me so much that I wrote a blog post about it with tips to achieve any habit based on whether you are a moderator or an abstainer!
    I hope my analysis helps others use this newfound knowledge about their own behavior to achieve all their goals and create new and better habits!

  • Beck

    As an abstainer who also toes the line of moderation in the sense that I don’t want to give certain things up forever, I found the thing to work best for me is to only buy single servings. I love ice cream, so instead of buying ice cream to keep in the fridge and eat every day, I’ll wait until I’m super craving it and buy a single serving of ice cream at an ice cream place. I can stop myself from going back over and over because I’m really frugal and wouldn’t be able to justify the purchase. I buy the small single Lindt chocolate balls too instead of buying a whole chocolate bar and trying to eat only a little bit each day.

    • liina

      Great idea! I do this with diet soda-I only indulge when out socially and rarely, however this does often result in my starting up drinking them regularly again until I abstain completely.

    • Imtiaz

      You’re a moderator my friend not an abstainer.You are an abstainner when you give up on it forever.Yes forever!

  • Kayla

    Great post! Although I do better avoiding some foods altogether as they seem to “open the floodgates,” overall, I think I am a moderator. The thought of saying “absolutely no _______” sometimes makes me want that food even more! (Does that make me a rebel?) For example, giving up my square or two of dark chocolate after dinner might lead me to feel deprived and justify other indulgences. I’ve realized it’s better for me to just listen to what I really want and move on.

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  • liina

    Probably related to issues with my blood sugar, when it comes to diet at least, I’m an abstainer. One bite of something delicious and off limits is like torture. I’m happy to not eat it at all and just forget and lose the addiction. I think it is because for me food does affect me in an addict type way. I’m trying to think of whether I apply the abstinence to my entire life though.

    • gretchenrubin

      People are often a mix of Abstainer and Moderator, depending on the situation. I’m a moderator about many things, like TV watching and alchohol.

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  • Candace S.

    What if you are half-and-half?

  • I wonder if there isn’t a combination type. I can restrict myself to say, 1 cheat day per week for food, etc, but looking forward to that cheat day helps me a lot to get through the week as an abstainer.

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  • Imtiaz

    I am an abstainer I quit oil,sugar and all that junk food for the past two years.I have never being happier.I eat only boiled food.Including meat,fish,vegetables.I don’t usually eat outside because anything rich even the view of it makes me throw up.I can’t stand spicy food.I love to live on fluids.I have 10% body fat.

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  • Jonathan Vander Veen

    So awesome to have this put into words. I’m an abstainer. I recently started on a near carb-free diet. My attempts at moderation in the past inevitably failed. However, cutting out sweets and breads entirely has been a breeze, relatively speaking.

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