Moderators and Abstainers

October 9, 2018 in Psychology of Food by Joyce Bunderson

I stumbled upon an article on Medium.com written by Marcelle Saulnier: How to Become an 80/20 Vegan for Optimal Nutrition. I don’t want to become an 80/20 Vegan, but I love this article for a fairly large number of reasons. (An 80-20 Vegan is one who eats strict vegan 80% of the time, but permits violations of the rules 20% of the time.) I think you may be able to learn from some points that Ms Saulnier made in her article; so I’m going to jump right in and share some of my thoughts that mesh with her advice.

My first observation, of course, is how comfortable Saulnier feels about writing about “Optimal Nutrition.” I read a bit about her and did not discover any formal education in nutrition. She’s a researcher and designer at Boompah – a technology company. I’m not really offended; long ago I decided that almost everyone feels that they are sort of a Nutrition expert – they eat every day, after all. She is sharing her own findings, what has proven difficult and possible – valid for her. I would not be complimentary, however, if her discoveries did not fit with evidence from a preponderance of valid research.

I like that she is not trying to convince anyone to eat a certain kind of diet. I really appreciate that she shared her successes AND failures in her journey. I love it that she calls it a journey; it wasn’t a one-decision change. One example of her journey included her admission to trying to exist on take-out vegetarian food and gaining weight. The reason I’m so tickled with this work is that she opens herself to show it was a process – she repeatedly went back to the drawing board. She wrote: “There are thousands of articles (showing that she’s read plenty on the subject) that will tell you what to do, but if their advice doesn’t work for you, they’re useless.” Amen to that Saulnier! You are so absolutely right on, to realize and learn that each individual needs to design their own process of learning what’s right for them. I’ve tried for years to convince people to try to look at lifestyle changes in that way – a process - making changes, assessing and making more changes. She illustrates this so very well. Saulnier has serious nutrition challenges (celiac, lactose intolerance); but anyone can use this type of thinking to get where they want to go.

It’s so key that Saulnier discovered that the “100% or nothing at all solutions,” were not working for her – the 80/20 mindset was perfect for her. I’d really have to question, if she does any of the 80/20 with her celiac problem; celiac does not lend itself to an 80/20 approach. If she truly has been diagnosed with Celiac, she shouldn’t play the 80/20 game with that; if she’s only gluten intolerant, then maybe she can get away with it without any serious, long-term, life-threatening outcomes. But, of course, that’s up to her and her medical team.

Another thing I really like about her article is that in describing the 80/20 vegan diet, she explains very precisely how being flexible fit with her individual needs. I’m a flexitarian (I eat some vegan meals; but often eat fish or chicken. I consider it as a Mediterranean-style of eating – cooking no red or processed meat; but sometimes eat red meat or processed meat if served at a family gathering and there are no other options.) In essence, the 80/20 style, sounds very comfortable to me; not just for a vegan eating style but for most any healthy eating styles. If a person wants to mostly eat vegan, but still have animal products sometime, it seems like a good idea. What I like the very best is her citing Gretchen Rubin. Rubin posits that when it comes to making habit changes, there are “abstainers” and “moderators.” Knowing this bit of information about yourself could be extremely helpful. A moderator would not feel guilty about relaxing vegan rules even 20% of the time.

I remember decades ago sharing with someone that I ate 3 or 4 chocolate chips after a meal to ‘tell my taste buds’ that I was finished eating – something like a dessert taste in my mouth. What I haven’t forgotten was that this friend took my advice and brought a jar of chocolate chips to her desk drawer on my recommendation. She ate the entire jar on day one. So the point is: if you know that complete abstinence of a certain food or category of food works best for you, you potentially empower yourself to be successful in changing eating habits. And converse to that, if you know that some of us would have a difficult time saying, “Never again, will I ever eat chocolate, for example.” The same success is available, for just understanding what type of behavioral goals would work for you. So back to Saulnier’s 80/20; obviously it can work for those that like a moderate change (it might not work for the “not ever again” people – the “abstainers”).

Saulnier, says that 80/20 is a “realistic form of moderation.” Maybe I’m putting too much into the exact numbers of 80/20; but it reeks of lots of calculation. If you don’t mind the calculations, that’s fine too. But you can make your own rules. If you’re a moderator, rather than an abstainer, you can design your moderations to completely fit your own lifestyle and desires. For example, you can choose a day a week or certain meals of the week to break out of the primary pattern. I, for example, like to give myself a pass on Friday night to enjoy a dessert. Also, I might have a dessert or maybe part of a dessert if I go to an event that has something worth the calories. Saulnier tells how she is 100% vegan when she cooks at home, but enjoys herself when going out for dinner. The point is that you can be as creative as you’d like. The overall eating really matters. An infrequent digression does not nullify the majority of the habit.

I like also that Saulnier shares how she actually makes it happen. She decided which days to shop and do meal prep, and scheduled it into her week. That’s so great! The more detail you can build into a lifestyle change the more likely you will be successful. I highly agree that it is easier to cut out the temptation from home (see my writing about environmental control.)

Remember that the 80/20 style will not work for some. The important take away from Saulnier’s article is that if you’re a moderator you may discover that it doesn’t have to be an “all or nothing” mindset. As a matter of fact, it may be exactly what works best for you – giving yourself the freedom to eat the occasional non-compliance foods offers the flexibility, to staying on track for the long term. When I counseled people, how many times have heard, “I ate ‘X’ and that was the end of my new eating behavior.” I’ve heard it many times and felt the pain of their frustration. You should never give up after just one failure, or even many. Have persistent hope and keep trying to find what works for you. Saulnier did the work; and discovered what works for her; and so can you. Begin the process to design a healthy eating style that gives you the results you seek.