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Moderation versus abstinence

Written by Sarah on

I found abstaining from alcohol worked really well for me and tried to apply the same principle to other areas. I soon realised, like all things with nutrition there isn't a one size fits all approach to this stuff.

10 years ago I stopped drinking alcohol. At the time I wasn’t sure if it would be for a few weeks, months, years or forever. I’m still not entirely sure as I can’t predict where I’ll be or how I’ll feel in another 10 years time. But for the past 10 years I have abstained from alcohol and it has had a significantly positive impact on my life.

I had tried to moderate my drinking for years and it seemed like some kind of magical skill which other people had but which always seemed out of my reach. I tried eating before I went out, bringing non-alcoholic drinks to parties with me (which I’d later end up mixing with vodka), buying more expensive drinks so I couldn’t have as many (this just led to going further into my overdraft) and even not taking my purse to work so I couldn’t go to the pub for a cheeky one after hours (this led to me owing drinks to my friends and colleagues). Nothing seemed to work…

…until I tried abstinence which really did work and felt so simple. Just don’t drink. No caveats, no weird rules about not drinking on days beginning with a T, or only drinking spirits (because I hated the taste so might drink less of them…), just NOT drinking. It worked and life was better. I’m simplifying here and obviously there were tricky times during the process of stopping but that’s for another blog. The point is I finally found a solution which worked for me.

Over the years I’ve tried to apply the same principle to my eating habits. But unfortunately it’s not that straight forward. I assumed I must have an addictive personality so the only way for me to eat something sensibly was to not eat it. I decided I’d replaced alcohol as my addictive substance of choice with sugar. “Brilliant!” I thought, “I’ll just abstain from all sugar! It worked with alcohol so surely this will work too!”

Cutting out all sugar is quite an undertaking. It’s everywhere. Including in things which are full of nutrients (like fruit and vegetables) and which I really enjoy eating. The diets I was following in order to ‘quit’ sugar were also encouraging me to eat things I didn’t usually have and which didn’t make me feel great, like lots of processed meat. It kind of felt like I was eating out of kilter with what my body needed and having such a strict diet meant that I was cutting out things which I actually wanted in my life like being able to enjoy a slice of birthday cake or a delicious dessert in a nice restaurant.

When you try and cut something out you become obsessed with it and see it everywhere, I was regularly dreaming about eating chocolate cake! It was making me miserable, why was this not the same as when I’d cut drinking out of my life?

I realised that I was using a sledge hammer to crack a nut. Yes I did need to cut down on the amount of sugar I was eating because having a high sugar diet can lead to lots of health problems, it was making me feel like my eating was out of control and I was having energy slumps and sugar hangovers which were having a negative impact on my life.

However, this didn’t mean that I needed to remove all sugar entirely from my life as I had with alcohol. What worked well with one stimulant which was actually fairly easy to remove from my life once I decided I didn’t need it wasn’t the right action for me to take with my diet. A significant amount of people in the world actually don’t drink. According to the Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health, published by the WHO in 2011, close to half of the world's adult population (45%) are lifetime abstainers. It’s actually quite a natural state to live in for those of us who choose to abstain and actually more common for women (55% of women globally abstain according to the same WHO report). This data is also pretty old so these numbers could be even higher now.

Trying to use the same method for something which is in a lot of our everyday diet (including lots of foods which have health benefits) and is something I get a lot of pleasure from and which doesn’t lead to blackouts or change my personality seems a bit stupid. This all or nothing approach wasn’t suitable for all aspects of my life just like abstinence doesn’t work for some people and moderation doesn’t work for others. I used to find it so annoying when people said to me ‘can’t you just have one glass of wine?’ when actually that was the bloody problem – no I could not, however much I would like to! Once I’d had that one glass it was like a switch went on in my head where obtaining and drinking more alcohol became inevitable and would consume all of my thoughts. Having no wine at all took away this issue.

The thought of never having an alcoholic drink again doesn’t have any emotional attachment to me, I feel totally ambivalent about it in the same way as I feel like I’m unlikely to ever take heroin or bungee jump, both things which are accepted as usual things to abstain from for most people. But never having another slice of cake after a long hill walk or enjoying some delicious fruit which I know is also full of nutrients because I feel scared of sugar makes me feel really sad.

That’s why I continue to educate myself about nutrition and to learn more about my relationship with food and what leads to unhealthy behaviours and disordered eating. Because when it comes to food I choose moderation, not abstinence and most of the time, it’s working.

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