Home » Blog » Trying to Eat Better? Ask Yourself This Question

Trying to Eat Better? Ask Yourself This Question

Trying to Eat Better? Ask Yourself This QuestionAre you a moderator or an abstainer?

In honor of many people’s New Year’s resolutions — “Eat more healthfully,” “Cut out sweets,” “Lose weight,” and the like — I’m re-posting this quiz, to help you determine whether you’re a moderator or an abstainer. When I figured out that I’m an “abstainer,” it helped me tremendously in terms of eating better.

Often, we know we’d have more long-term happiness if we gave up something that gives us a rush of satisfaction in the short-term. That morning doughnut, that late-night ice cream.

A piece of advice I often see is, “Be moderate. Don’t have dessert 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 try to make moderate changes, when they avoid absolutes and bright lines.

For a long time, I kept trying this strategy of moderation — and failing. Then I read a line from Samuel Johnson, about drinking wine: “Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult.” 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 “fake food” treat, Tasti D-Lite, two and even three times a day, I gave it up cold turkey. That was far easier for me to do than to eat Tasti D-Lite twice a week. If I try to be moderate, I exhaust myself debating, “Today, tomorrow?” “Does this time ‘count?’” etc. If I never do something, it requires no self-control for me; if I do something sometimes, it requires enormous self-control.

For instance, we keep a bag of cookies in our cupboard. If I ever ate one of those cookies, they’d prey on my mind constantly. I’d constantly struggle not to eat them. But because I’ve never once eaten one of those cookies, I never think about them. I don’t have to use any will-power not to reach into that bag. It might as well be a bag of flour.

When I told a moderator friend about this, she shook her head pityingly and said, “That’s just sad. Really. Life is too short not to have a cookie.”

“No,” I answered, “for me, life is too short to use up my precious mental energy on a few cookies. I’m happier if I don’t eat them.”

There’s no right way or wrong way — it’s just a matter of knowing which strategy works better for you. Once again, back to the Fifth Splendid Truth: you can build a happy life only on the foundation of your own nature. If moderators try to abstain, they feel trapped and rebellious. If abstainers try to be moderate, they spend a lot of mental energy battling their temptations.

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

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 “Can’t you let yourself have a little fun?” On the other hand, I hear fellow abstainer-types saying to 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.)

Does this ring true for you?
Do you identify as a moderator or abstainer?


The other day, I joined Pinterest, “an online pinboard to organize and share the things you love.” I’d heard so many good things about it, and am just starting to dive in myself.

Trying to Eat Better? Ask Yourself This Question

Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Rubin is the award-winning author of The Happiness Project, a #1 New York Times bestseller. You can also watch the one-minute book video. She is a regular contributor to Psych Central.

5 comments: View Comments / Leave a Comment
APA Reference
Rubin, G. (2018). Trying to Eat Better? Ask Yourself This Question. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 30 Jan 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.