Monday, January 4, 2010

Moderation v. Avoidance

In my last post, I mentioned the ever-raging debate of whether weight loss is better accomplished by avoiding certain foods or eating everything in moderation.

Now that the holidays are over, maybe it IS time to talk about moderation!

To lose my 30 pounds, I relied on moderation in both eating and exercise. I didn't really eat differently than I had been. I just cut down on portions and upped the proportion of veggies. My sweet tooth had always been satisfied by really good dark chocolate, so I allowed myself a bite or two at the end of the day. For exercise, I started swimming laps three times a week. Nothing strenuous, just a half an hour of laps, no matter how fast (or how slowly, more accurately!) I swam.

Feeling a little self-righteous, I was certain moderation was the only approach. But then I talked with -- and observed -- other people who succeeded through avoiding certain food groups, or individual foods they considered addictive. I talked with people who happily exercised several hours a day, people who started running marathons and competing in triathlons.

My closest friend lost 75 pounds two summers ago -- in just 3 months! -- while she was living at the shore. She'd go out running in the morning, sometimes for three hours or more. She prepared her family's normal meals (high-fat, high-carb Italian!) but ate only salads. We didn't know she was doing this, so when she dropped her kids off the first day of school in the fall, our jaws all dropped to the asphalt. What a babe!

I interviewed two people who used Overeaters Anonymous and Recovery from Food Addiction, two groups that agree foods can be addictive and best avoided. While neither group insists on a particular eating plan, many members find success by avoiding whole categories of food, like sugar.

Of course, I also talked with people who used the Atkins plan to lose weight, a plan that allows almost no carbohydrates. Other plans, like Dr. Gott's No Flour, No Sugar plan, also cut out whole swathes of foods, as the name suggests. The Ornish plan almost entirely eliminates fats and Body for Life stresses high levels of protein and exercise.

But on the other side of the fence, I talked with people who succeeded with plans that stress moderation of intake and balancing of food nutrients, plans such as the Zone, South Beach and Weight Watchers. The two major food delivery plans, NutriSystem and Jenny Craig, also stress portion control and a healthy lifestyle.

So what approach should you use? Your best bet is to choose one that suits your personality. My friend who dropped her weight over the summer knows that she is an obsessive person. I've seen her in action! We took a culinary trip to Brooklyn one day, and she ate bagels, cookies, pizza and Italian ice until she was literally sick. She was a gym rat at one point, but stopped going when she realized it was consuming her life. She doesn't exercise now, but because she has remained faithful to her low-calorie intake, she hasn't gained anything back. Myself, I know I'd gain every pound back if I stopped swimming. I can't cut my eating back to the levels she has and be satisfied long term.

Long, long ago, in my first post I think, I mentioned a study showing that people can lose weight on any kind of plan. In 2004, a group of researchers placed 160 people on four different weight loss plans—the Zone, the Ornish Diet, Atkins and Weight Watchers. They asked them to stay on it for a year. Everyone who completed the study lost weight. It didn't matter which plan they followed. The factor that leads to success is sticking with a plan, no matter what it is.

So... take your pick and with it you should stick!


  1. Good post. Sticking with it is my goal this year..I will make it to the end. :)

  2. Eating high fat, moderate protein, 20 grams carbs/day lost me 40 pounds in 6 months and it was very easy. Fully satisfied and never felt
    undernourished. Only ate when I was hungry which turned out to be once or twice a day. And have kept the weight off now for a year. Only
    walking 3 miles a day for 2 times a week. Supplemented with Vit D3 and Omega 3 fish oil.

  3. Hi Nancy,
    I missed this post in all the holiday busyness. It's a topic that is very interesting to me, having tried every approach known at some time in my life! I hadn't really heard it put that way before: moderation vs avoidance, but that sums it up nicely.

    I finally found a winning combination that is working for me. I sort of took all the components that *I* liked, threw in no flour and sugar, and made progress.

    I recently read some research that said they now know why it's such a confusing subject: there are two main metabolic types. One group does excellently with the moderation approach. So they assume it is THE approach for everyone.

    The second group (of which I am one) reacts with a high sensitivity to carbohydrates. They often are diabetic or have syndrome X symptoms, blood sugar issues, or are pre-diabetic (again, me). When they try the "eat anything you want only in moderation" approach, it is tortuous, with constant hunger and physical cravings. They (me) feel like such a failure, and wonder what they are doing wrong??

    But when that second carb sensitive group switches to a no flour/sugar, or lower carb approach, suddenly they do great! The cravings diminish or disappear altogether (me), and they can now deal with their mental/emotional eating issues, without the physical issues competing or sabotaging them.

    Sorry to get so longwinded, but this is a subject dear to my heart... so many people like me are written off as failures or "non-compliant", when in fact, we should have been directed to a plan that was more suited to our metabolism. AND, I agree with you, one that suits our personality.

    And thank you for your nice comment on my blog!

  4. The National Weight Control Registry calculates that about 45 percent of those who succeed at weight loss do what you did, Loretta. They forge their own path, picking and choosing from among the elements of the well-known weight loss plans to find an individual approach that works for them. That's what makes weight loss so tricky -- it's not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Glad you're finding what works for you!