Moderator vs. Abstainer: Using Your Tendency To Reach Your Goals

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Photo credit Erika Laubach

Happy New Year! 2016 has arrived! I’m going to be totally amazing this year. I’m going to make all those changes I’ve been planning. It’s going to be awesome as I just demolish challenges left and right. I’m going to get rid of all my bad habits and I’m going to make all new good habits. I’ll be better than before!

Actually, that “better than before” part gets me thinking…does the internal diatribe above sound familiar? Do you cheerlead for yourself in a similar fashion every new year, too? Okay, okay, maybe you don’t wish yourself an enthusiastic “Happy New Year” the way I do (in my mind there’s also clapping and confetti), but what about the rest? Today I wanted to write about making and breaking habits, in part through understanding your personal tendency toward moderating or abstaining, a concept that New York Times Bestselling author, Gretchen Rubin, explored in her book, Better Than Before. I recently read this book and it was a big eye-opener in how I view habit breaking or formation.

So first, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about what moderating and abstaining mean. “Moderate” basically means controlled or restrained. If you have a moderator tendency, you are capable of the “just a little” moment. Just a little coffee, just a little TV, just a little extra spending. “Abstain” means avoiding or refraining. If you have an abstainer tendency, you know that “all or nothing” is the only way to go. Absolutely no coffee, no TV, no extra spending.

In Better Than Before, Rubin describes moderators as finding “…that occasional indulgence both heightens their pleasure and strengthens their resolve…” Some moderators feel anxious or defiant about the idea of “never” and effectively use the “sometimes” method instead. On the other hand, Rubin points out that abstainers find that a “never” policy works, because “…we conserve energy and will power, because there are no decisions to make and no self-control to muster.” After a very short period, abstainers tend to find that totally refraining from something actually takes no effort.

You are probably going, “I know, for sure, which one I am!” And you’re probably right. If we are honest, most of us can easily pinpoint our tendency. However, just to throw you a curve ball, some folks are both. Some people know that in certain areas they are able to moderate, while in others they must abstain. For example, you might be able to have a few sips of coffee without craving four more venti-sized mugs before 10AM, but heading to the mall and buying just one small item is impossible and instead you come home with seven shopping bags full of “must-haves.”

If you are trying to make any changes this new year, understanding your tendency can be extremely useful in actually reaching your goal. In particular, it can be useful if you are making the leap to a new AIP lifestyle. Here are some ideas on how to use your moderator, abstainer, or both tendency to your advantage with AIP:

1) During the elimination phase-  Transition to the elimination phase of AIP isn’t easy-peasy, that’s the truth. During this phase, regardless of being a moderator or abstainer, you need to completely avoid a long list of foods, but knowing your tendency can make a big difference in how well you navigate this period. If you are a moderator, you are likely to be okay with simply making room in the kitchen for new nutrient-dense foods and not being overly tempted by the old foods that are still there for others. With the understanding that after a period of healing you’ll be able to try some of those foods again, you’ll probably be able to successfully restrain yourself.

If you are an abstainer, having the foods that are off-limits during elimination phase still in your home might mean you’ll be derailed quickly. Removing them from the house entirely will make it easier for you not to think of them until it is time to try reintroductions.

If you are both, be honest with yourself about the foods that you cannot control yourself with and make sure they are out of the house, but don’t worry too much over the ones you know you don’t struggle with craving. (I’m looking at you coffee, chocolate, and wine!)

2) During the reintroduction phase-  During reintroduction, the whole point is to try small amounts of the previously eliminated foods, one at a time, in order to discover possible sensitivities and begin personalizing your diet for maximum healing. You can see immediately how this process probably goes relatively smoothly for moderators. They love the small pleasure of eating a bit of a food, but the problems can come in if there is an obviously negative reaction. The moderator may start to feel anxious about the possibility of never getting to eat that food again and want to rebel by eating a bunch of a food that doesn’t actually agree with their system. Moderators can approach this potential problem by keeping in mind that with enough healing, a food sensitivity may improve and they can try reintroducing again.

On the other hand, reintroductions can quickly lead to total failure of the whole process for abstainers. For example, when it comes time to reintroduce chocolate, they may end up eating three bars worth before they’ve had time to gauge their reaction or trying a small amount of one food could lead to eating a whole plate full of several eliminated foods all at once, making it impossible to tell which is the culprit if a reaction pops up. Abstainers can approach this potential problem by knowing their “kryptonite.” If you know you are going to completely lose control with one bit of chocolate, consider leaving that reintroduction for much, much later or even not bringing it back in at all. (Shockingly, chocolate is not an essential nutrient.) If you are worried that as soon as you begin the reintroduction process you’ll have a hard time doing it in a prudent way, hire a coach or ask a good friend to help you stay accountable with each reintroduction.

As before, if you are both a moderator and an abstainer, leave the foods you have the most difficulty practicing restraint with for the last and instead focus on reintroductions that are less likely to send you into the “over did it” zone.

Keeping your tendency in mind while working on many different changes can be a huge breakthrough. When it comes to AIP, strategizing your approach to best match your personal tendency can be life changing. Literally, you really can be better than before!    

About Angie Alt

Angie Alt is a co-founder here at Autoimmune Wellness. She helps others take charge of their health the same way she took charge of her own after suffering with celiac disease, endometriosis, and lichen sclerosis; one nutritious step at a time. Her special focus is on mixing “data with soul” by looking at the honest heart of the autoimmune journey (which sometimes includes curse words). She is a Certified Health Coach through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, Nutritional Therapy Consultant through The Nutritional Therapy Association and author of The Alternative Autoimmune Cookbook: Eating for All Phases of the Paleo Autoimmune Protocol and The Autoimmune Wellness Handbook. You can also find her on Instagram.


  • Jenny says

    I committed to the Whole 30 and after the month went onto strict Paleo. When I commit it is 100percent! I was sure my antibody count would be normal with Ne t blood count. It had not gone down. I was shattered and didn’t know what to do! I am still on gluten free as instructed by my doctor but that doesn’t seem to have made any difference either after well over a year. My faith has been shattered and I don’t k ow whether to commit to your protocol which is like Paleo but with differences eg nuts! Why is everyone else I read about having amazing success and my body doesn’t seem to respond?
    Kind regards, Jenny

    • Angie Alt says

      Hi Jenny! Whole 30 & strict Paleo are great maintenance zones for some folks, but those of us w/ autoimmune disease may need a more specific approach to aiding healing. I’m not sure what your antibodies measures are for (i.e. what disease), but I am assuming you have an autoimmune. If that is the case, I would give AIP a chance.

  • Dian Garnett says

    I would like to know about eggs and why they are eliminated from the AIP phase I. Also what about introducing Farro in later stages in soup or Barley? Thank you.

    • Angie Alt says

      Hi Dian! If you like to understand a lot of the science behind the “why” of certain eliminations on AIP, I really encourage you to check out The Paleo Mom. Farro, when carefully prepared, is sometimes reintroduced as a very late stage AIP reintroduction. Barley is not usually reintroduced, as it is a gluten containing grain and gluten is generally a long-term no for those w/ autoimmune disease.

  • Kelly says

    I want to know if I can still drink a fifth of vodka every night if I go on this?

    • Angie Alt says

      Hi Kelly! Nope. Alcohol is not included during elimination phase of AIP & even w/ successful reintroduction, those w/ autoimmune disease (and I would argue anyone that wants to live a long, happy life) would never want to drink that quantity of alcohol. Vodka consumption on that level is likely to lead to not only dependence, but very detrimental liver damage. If dependency is already a concern for you, there are good resources within the wider Paleo community that can help you address it, as well as, healing through dietary changes. If you’d like that resources, please reach out here & we would be happy to provide referrals.

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