Pop quiz: you’re trying to minimize your sugar intake, but you’re craving dessert – specifically, chocolate cake. You've been jonesing after it all day - it's so insistent you can almost taste it. Which of the following sounds like the best plan for you?
(A) Do something else to get your mind off sugar and wait to eat until your next meal.
(B) Go out to your favorite cake shop and have a small slice of the very best they’ve got; as a once-in-a-while treat it’s not going to kill you. Or make yourself some truly decadent Paleo treat, and have just a little bit: if it’s really good, you’ll be fine with a taste.
(C) Grab a big bowl of frozen berries: they’re pretty sweet, and you can eat a lot of them without racking up a bunch of sugar.
All 3 answers are equally “right.” The only “wrong” answer to this quiz is if you try to force yourself into a plan that doesn’t work for you – you know that you personally won’t be satisfied with just a taste, but you try to serve yourself a disappointingly tiny portion of chocolate ganache anyway because that’s what everyone else says they like, and then you just end up either feeling deprived and unhappy or eating the whole bowl.
The answers in the quiz all represent different types of eating styles, and knowing which one is right for you can help you adapt Paleo to your particular needs and goals.
Moderators vs. Abstainers
Gretchen Ruben famously distinguished between “moderators” and “abstainers” here.
If you’re a moderator, you…
- Picked (B) in the quiz above.
- Feel completely deprived and unhappy at the thought of never having [insert your favorite food here] again.
- Think the idea of “everything in moderation” makes perfect sense, and don’t understand why some people need to be so extreme.
- Would rather ease into things slowly and make small, sustainable changes.
If you’re an abstainer, you…
- Picked (A) (or possibly (C)) in the quiz above.
- Find it easier to just avoid a food completely instead of worrying about “portion control” or serving size.
- Find that the less you eat a food, the less you crave it – once you’re over the hump, the desire doesn’t come back.
- Would rather go cold turkey and jump into things with both feet.
- Don’t tend to do well with cheat days.
Neither of these two “types” is better or worse. They’re just different.
There is absolutely no point trying to force someone else to change their eating style. Moderators tend to waste a lot of energy trying to persuade abstainers that they’re being “too extreme” and they just need to “use moderation,” but for abstainers this is actually counterproductive – it’s easier to just say no. Abstainers tend to waste a lot of energy trying to persuade moderators that they’re not committed enough, but this is also counterproductive: for a moderator, “my way or the highway” just doesn’t work.
It's pointless (and very frustrating) to try to cram someone else into a mold that doesn't fit them; all you can do is figure out which type you are and then take steps appropriately.
For Paleo specifically…
- Moderators will probably do better with something like 80/20 or 90/10, where your regular Paleo menu (80 or 90% healthy) includes the occasional non-Paleo indulgence (10 or 20% of your diet) but it never gets you seriously off-track because the lion’s share of your diet is dialed in. Moderators prefer to get started by easing in slowly, rather than plunging headfirst.
- Abstainers often find it easier to just go 100%, at least for certain foods. Indulgences tend to throw them off more seriously, and it’s just not worth the effort of getting back in the driver’s seat. Jump-start programs like the Whole30 typically work better for abstainers than for moderators.
Qualitative vs. Quantitative eaters
On top of the moderator/abstainer division, many people also seem to fall into either a “qualitative” or a “quantitative” category:
If you’re a qualitative eater, you picked (B) in the quiz above. This is you if…
- You could eat endless amounts of M&Ms, but when you get a piece of really excellent dark chocolate, you only want a little square before you’re done.
- You would rather eat something really decadent and savor it slowly than eat a larger serving of something that doesn’t quite hit the spot.
- You can keep a jar of almond butter in the pantry and eat it in reasonable servings without a lot of angst and conscious self-discipline.
- You struggle to understand people who “can’t have just one bite” or who could eat a whole bar of Lindt 99% in one sitting.
- You can feel satisfied after even a small meal, and you may even dislike that feeling of being completely full.
If you’re a quantitative eater, you picked (C) in the quiz. This is you if…
- No matter how rich the dessert, you always want a big plate – none of this “fun-sized” nonsense.
- You would rather eat a big pile of carrot sticks for a snack than a tablespoon of almond butter – the carrots fill you up better, and with the almond butter you’re just constantly struggling to keep the servings reasonable.
- You struggle with overeating nuts, dried fruit, or Paleo treats.
- You’ve developed external self-control strategies like only making desserts in single servings (so you can’t go back for seconds because there are none).
- You don’t feel “full” after a meal unless there’s a lot of volume on the plate.
Again, neither of these two types is better or worse. They’re just different.
For Paleo specifically…
- Qualitative eaters will benefit most from looking at Paleo desserts and Paleo treats. Focusing on food quality makes these recipes perfect for the “just a few bites” type of treat.
- Quantitative eaters probably want to stay away from Paleoified desserts, and develop their vegetable-cooking skills to new heights of deliciousness. Huge fresh salads, piles of roasted cauliflower or broccoli, and heaping plates of spaghetti squash or zucchini noodles are your friends.
Not Everyone is the Same!
The stereotypical “healthy foodie” is the qualitative moderator. This is the person who can cheerfully proclaim that they didn’t have to “give up” any favorite foods because they just eat smaller servings as a special treat, not every day.
Talking to this person sells diet books really well, because they can promise that "you don't have to give up your favorite foods." But not everyone is, and there’s absolutely no reason to force yourself into that mold just because someone else thinks it’s the “best” way to eat or be. You're not necessarily being "extreme" or "unreasonable" because you prefer to avoid something entirely; it may just be an approach that works better for you than the much-vaunted "moderation."
Instead of trying to eat in a way that works for someone else, think about where you fall in the spectrum, and make decisions based on that. You can modify Paleo for any eating style, so don’t be afraid to experiment and find something that really makes you happy for the long run.