Abstinence Vs. Moderation: How To Make Better Food Choices

This post about abstinence vs. moderation was written for me as much as it was written for you. Many of us have to reevaluate constantly when and why to abstain or not abstain to make better food choices over time. The goal here is to provide you with some guidelines you will be able to refer back to when it’s time to reevaluate again.

To Abstain or to Moderate: That Is the Question

The choice between abstinence vs. moderation is NOT usually one that comes with a black or white answer (unless you have had an issue with addiction). That’s why we will look at various guidelines that will guide your food choices as needed.

The Case for Abstinence

Some foods are not as nutritious and don’t help you feel and look your best, you know that. For example, cakes and desserts, chips, breads, pasta, etc. However, they taste good and may give you a temporary dopamine high. They make you feel good. When something feels good, it can be really hard to moderate. In some cases, you will find it impossible.

Why Abstinence Is Better

When you abstain, you don’t have to negotiate with yourself ever! The behavior is not an option, which eliminates the internal struggle and helps dismantle some associations in your brain.

Abstinence and Addictions

Complete abstinence is helpful in cases of addiction. Your brain may be wired in a way that when you start consuming a specific food, or even any food, you can’t stop. I speak from experience because I tend to arbor some addictive behaviors myself. That’s why intermittent fasting was the only way I could lose weight. Instead of trying to moderate my food intake, I made my eating window short enough that I would naturally have a calorie deficit. I didn’t have to wonder when to eat or how much to eat. I didn’t have to try to moderate. I just would abstain completely from food.

Just be aware that when you have a tendency towards additions, abstinence from one thing may mean that you will transfer your addictive tendencies to something else (we will talk about that in the next section).

Abstinence and Rewiring Your Brain

Even if you don’t struggle with addictions, you may have created some associations in your brain that make it difficult to use moderation. For example, if you associate time to yourself with scrolling social media, but you are trying to limit screen time, you may need to abstain from social media completely for a few weeks to create new associations. If sugar is has become a comfort food that you need to feel happy, maybe you should abstain completely to reset your taste buds and discover new foods that you enjoy.

How to Abstain

How to abstain may seem obvious: just avoid the food completely. Well, yeah, that’s true. I do have some tips though. I tried to abstain from various foods many times over and failed. It doesn’t mean you will but if you do, consider intermittent fasting as an option. For me, the cravings were too powerful to conquer. It’s almost like intermittent fasting healed my body enough so that I did not have to rely solely on willpower. Now, I find I can pick foods to avoid and be successful. Here’s what I recommend when you decide to abstain from something:

  • Make sure you know why. It could be because you can’t moderate and you want to rewire your brain. It could be because you want to see what happens and if you feel different. Whatever the reason, make sure you have one that will help you stick to your goal.
  • Pick an realistic timeframe. In most cases, it will be helpful to pick abstience goals that are temporary. For example, if you decide to avoid flour and sugar, decide that you will do it for 3 weeks and reevalute after.
  • Pay attention to your body’s cues. During the process, take notes, take pictures, pay attention to how you feel, sleep, etc. Noticing changes will be a powerful motivagtor and those notes will help make the best decisions for you when you reevaluate.

When you decide to abstain from something, give yourself grace. If you fail, you can start over. If you can never seem to stick to your goal of abstaining, maybe you need to look at other options like moderation or abstaining from something else that helps you more (like I did with intermittent fasting).

The Case for Moderation

Sometimes, abstinence isn’t an option or it isn’t necessary. Your body doesn’t need you to avoid sugar completely to thrive. You don’t have to stop buying clothes forever or never spend one more minute on social media. Moreover, abstaining completely in one area may cause you to displace your addictive tendencies to other areas.

Why Moderation Is Better

Complete abstinence can lead to deprivation. If you try to avoid something completely, you build up a greater desire for it. Eventually, you give in to the desire and the deprivation with even more abandon.

Allowing yourself to gratify your desire in moderation can add to your quality of life and avoid the feeling of deprivation that leads to overcompensation.

Letting Go of the All-Or-Nothing Mentality

I am leary of health coaches who advise everyone to stay away from certain foods or practices. Our job as health coaches is to help people find what works best for them, not to tell them what to do. I can’t really think of one thing that works for everyone. I tend to steer clear from blanket statements about health. When it comes to improving your life, you need to keep an open mind. You will find that the all-or-nothing mentality rarely serves you. Many things are good in moderation and harmful in excess. Learning to find balance is how you live life.

A Word About Addictons

Obviously, no one would ever tell a former alcoholic to learn to use alcohol with moderation. It’s clear in this situation that abstinence is preferable. However, there are many other similar issues that are not as clear. What about a shopaholic? Can she never shop again? Many people struggle with multiple forms of mild addictions. By addictions, I mean behaviors that can’t seem to control because of the high they get from it. Abstaining may help temporarily, but it may also cause you to look for this high somewhere else. Be careful! For example, I used to use food to soothe myself. After gaining victory over food cravings using intermittent fasting, I found that I started drinking more wine and shopping more online. Be aware of your behaviors as a whole. Don’t just focus on one aspect of your life to the detriment of others.

How to Moderate

When abstaining is not necessary or if it isn’t working, you may decide that moderation is best.

Make Your Decisions In Advance

When you decide to moderate, the key is to make all your choices in advance. Predetermine exactly what foods or behaviors require intentional moderation. Furthermore, make sure you are clear about how much you allow yourself and under what circumstances. Then stick to these decisions to the best of your abilities.

When to Reevaluate Your Astinence Vs. Moderation Choices

The choice between abstinence vs. moderation for your food choices most likely won’t be a permanent one. One approach that works at one time will not necessarily work forever! That’s why you need to constantly reevaluate your choices and keep a curious mind.

Be Curious

Most of your decisions should not be forever decisions. Always keep a curious mind and be open to changing whatever decision you may have made if it is no longer serving you. For most of us, there is no single approach to health and longevity. There isn’t one path that guarantees the best outcome.

For example, yes, we know that avoiding sugar is more healthful for your body. However, what about the mental and psychological benefits of being able to savor a piece of homemade dessert with cherished friends and family members?

Yes, maybe complete abstinence is your best option temporarily or forever as the case may be. Or maybe you can adopt moderation down the line. There is no reason to fix what’s not broken, but burdening yourself needlessly can become an issue particularly if you notice you overcompensate in other areas of your life.

Abstinence Vs. Moderation for Your Food Choices Video

In Summary

Choosing between abstinence and moderation when it comes to making food and lifestyle choices is a fluid decision. Food is not moral or immoral (for most of us). Diets are not right or wrong. Instead, we should use food as a tool to reach our health goals. Diets and their guidelines are helpful to learn about how our body works, but we need to keep an open mind and realize they are not set in stone. An approach that works at one time may not work forever. It’s important to pay attention to the cues our bodies are sending us and avoid getting attached to one “right way” to do things.

Have fun! Life is a journey, not a destination!