Moderation is NOT the Answer

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Moderation is NOT the Answer

October 14, 2019
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Throughout our lives we are told that moderation is best in all things. For example, inevitably professionals advise balance and moderation for diet and fitness. Yet, most Americans are overweight; most Americans are unfit. Why? After all, if moderation is best in all things, it should be best for creating slim, fit populations. But we are terrible at executing things moderately, or so the data suggests.

The US government recommends broad principles for eating a healthy diet. There are no hard and fast rules, but instead, general guidelines to eat lots of fruits and vegetables, reduce consumption of processed food and sugar, and other anodyne principles.

For anyone who has ever tried that approach to slim down, quit smoking or even start an exercise program, it’s harder than it sounds. Except for the few inherently moderate folks, most of us tend to overdo things. We overeat, over-imbibe, under-exercise, and over-surf the Internet. When we try to reduce our calories, or exercise three times a week we don’t get the results we hoped for. People who reduce their smoking end up slowly climbing back to where they started. Moderate exercisers end up easing back to their old inactivity, as do those who simply reduce their fat or alcohol intake. Even relationships are hard this way. Try breaking up slowly, or “staying friends” instead of parting completely. We all know how that typically goes.

There are real data suggesting that moderation leads to failure. Dean Ornish, the physician who successfully reversed atherosclerosis through diet, exercise and stress management did so by asking his patients to make extreme lifestyle changes. He did controlled studies and got the desired results when patients followed a strict vegan diet, exercised on a schedule and meditated. His experimental group of patients had equal results in cholesterol reduction without medication to control group of participants who were on medication. But that worked only by maintaining an ascetic lifestyle of veganism and daily yoga.

There have also been meta-studies of smoking cessation. Comparisons between cold turkey and some version of reduction found that, overall, cold turkey works better than any other approach.

So, what are we to make of this for achieving our own goals? The data is in and the recommendation may not sound palatable on its face. Following strict rules produces the best results.

In a way this seems sort of intuitive. It’s easier to establish a habit of waking up and going to the gym every day, rather than trying to seesaw through the week, and change bedtime, wake time and morning habits every day.

If you are trying to cut down on smoking, how many is too many? And how long do you allow yourself to indulge in (say) five cigarettes a day before you reduce it to 4? These are judgment questions. The last thing we are likely to have is good judgment when trying something so challenging. Someone craving a Marlboro Is not the best judge of good versus bad choice in that moment. Remove the judgment, solve the problem. The answer to how many cigarettes to smoke is …zero! End of judgment call.

The same with weight loss. Eat healthy as a mantra is well-meaning, but ultimately a crucible. Each bite, snack, drink, recreational event, party and meal requires vigilant attention, tons of calculation, formulation, negotiation and judgment. That’s a lot to deal with in the normal course of a busy life. Better to have a strict rule: No fried food or red meat or alcohol or whatever. The decisions are pre-made for you. Whew.

If you ask ten famous authors about their writing habits, you will learn that most write every day, at the same time, no matter what. They are black and white, yes or no, did it or didn’t tyrants about their work.

The same is true for fit people. Most go to the gym (or running or swimming, etc.) at the same time every day. They may have a slightly different weekend schedule or change things up over the course of a year or a season. But they aren’t moderate.

The takeaway? More extreme lifestyle changes are easier for us to make than more modulated ones. We are better at black and white than grey. In your own life and enterprise how can you apply this?

Don’t expect yourself to be able to do things moderately. For all the benefits it has, you are likely to fail. Even if moderation is your eventual goal, you need to start by establishing a rigid focus and habit. So, get strict with yourself. If you smoke, declare Wednesday the day you become a non-smoker. Throw out every vestige of smoking, every ashtray, lighter, cigarette, etc. And then quit.

The same for weight loss. Maybe you imagine yourself someone who has a bite of cake and doesn’t finish it. But until that is a reality, I suggest you just not have cake for some period. Are you hoping to reduce your portions? Then only order appetizers in restaurants. Or simply create some hard and fast rules while you are trying to jump-start weight loss. You might eliminate fried foods, or red meat or cheese and dairy.

I am not suggesting you sustain extreme measures for life. Someday you may be able to hang with your ex as “just friends”. But initial changes of habits and lifestyle are hard. The degree of success you have will be proportional to how well you get the project off the ground. Days 1 through 60 are likely to be hardest. They will be less fraught if you remove any ambiguity and simply follow a hard and fast rule. Generate a few simple ones that are not so complicated that you will either forget to apply them or be tempted to Jesuitically argue your way around them. And stick to it obsessively. Tell friends so that they support you. If you have friends who start arguing for moderation or coaxing you to make exceptions, stop hanging out with them while you are habituating to the new behaviors. They will sabotage you.

Unless you have been measurably successful with moderation in the past, the data suggest it won’t work. Why fight the harder battle. Do what works. When you have mastery over whatever the goal is, you can then take a moderate perspective. In the meantime, lead a rule-based life and conquer those last 5 pounds, 20 cigarettes, the TV habit or the first novel you’ve been meaning to write. I’ll be right there with you, rooting for your success!

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