To be, or not to be, that is the question

By Adam Glasgow - 3/14/2018

A “friend” of mine used to love the Filet-O-Fish sandwiches at McDonald’s. The crunchy coating on the fish patty, the buttery taste of the roll, the tangy flavor of the tartar sauce…. It got him every time. He’d find himself craving that Filet-O-Fish at all times of day – passing a McDonald’s on his way to work in the morning or late at night after a long day. More often than not, he would give into that craving and pull into the winding line of cars at the McDonald’s drive through. In a moment, there it was: the perfect crispy, melt-in-your-mouth Filet-O-Fish sandwich, made even better with a side order of fries and a diet Coke (yes, a DIET Coke).

Now my “friend” knew this McDonald’s habit was not good for him – for reasons I am sure all of you reading this know well. (And if you don’t, please stop whatever you are doing and call me immediately.) He decided he would try to cut back on these Filet-O-Fish indulgences. And try he did. He set a limit on how many and how often he would have them. This plan worked for maybe a few weeks, but eventually he was eating just as many as he ever did. Probably even more.

Then one day he had a realization. It was just too darn hard to limit the number of times he could eat those fishy treats. If he had one, he wanted more. If he skipped one, he wanted more and even more. There was only one answer: ABSTENTION. In that moment he knew that if he wanted to kick the habit, he had to give up McDonald’s altogether. And so he did. Not easily, but he did.

After many years of coaching people on weight loss and healthy eating, I developed a theory. There are two types of losers (and I mean that in the very nicest sense of the word): Abstainers and Moderators.

The Abstainers must eliminate challenging foods or behaviors from their lives in order to meet their goals. It is just too difficult to eat certain foods, or eat at certain places, or certain times in moderation. Better to skip desserts or Taco Bell or nighttime eating (or whatever the particular challenge) entirely than try to limit how often you indulge. Once the substance of choice is off the menu, it is much easier to get over it, at least after the initial difficulty of giving it up. I have many patients who believe that abstention is the only way they can succeed.

The second group consists of the Moderators. Moderators are comfortable setting limits for themselves and sticking to them. A moderator can say “I will not eat desserts except for a small treat once a week,” and actually do it. Many of my patients are Moderators and find that it works quite well for them.  A bite for them is just a bite.  It doesn’t turn in to a regrettable gorging.

Are you a Moderator or an Abstainer? For some time, I have thought about these two categories as independent and exclusive. You are one or you are the other. But at a recent support group someone raised an insightful point. “I am both,” she said. “With some foods I have to abstain, but with others I can moderate.” Light dawned and the angels sang. She was right! While some people might be entirely Moderators and others pure Abstainers, there are some who could actually be both.

The trick I believe is knowing and understanding yourself. We need to be honest with what works for us and what doesn’t. That may come with some trial and error, followed by a willingness to set a plan and stick with it. If you need to abstain to meet your goals, then abstain. If you can moderate and it works for you, then that’s fine too. But most importantly, as Shakespeare said: “to thine own self be true.” And in that vein, I haven’t had a Filet-O-Fish in about 6 years.

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