Monday, April 5, 2010

Learning Moderation

Some 7 or 8 years ago, I decided to make some changes to my lifestyle for various reasons. I was tired of living in a small home which seemed to have too much stuff in it and I wanted to stop spending money on things which weren't returning enough pleasure or convenience. Frankly, I also just wanted to save more money than we had been saving. I'm not sure if this was my riding the early crest of the simplicity movement, or if it was simply an outgrowing of my materialism, but I slowly started to make some changes.

The first thing I did was start going through the possessions we had crammed into our limited storage and toss out the things which we'd bought that had been used for awhile, then set aside and forgotten. One of those things was a camcorder which we'd paid about $500 for and used perhaps 4 times. It sat in the closet, a piece of antiquated technology, unused and unwanted but kept merely because we'd spent too much on it to simply throw it away. I realized that keeping such a thing in the closet wasn't adding any value to our investment, it was just assuaging my conscience about having impulsively purchased such an expensive item for temporary use. Dealing with that camcorder was a turning point because it was the one thing that made me realize that all the things we owned weren't gaining value by being kept, but not used.

Slowly, I made a great number of changes to our life. I weeded out our possessions, we ate out or had take out food less and less and I cooked more, we stopped taking cabs when cheaper transportation was there (but less convenient), and I stopped buying new things right away because I wanted them and could afford them. Over a period of about 3 years, I made the transition from being someone who freely spent and acquired (though actually I was never a big spender or shopper) to being someone who scrutinized every purchase not only from the money spent point of view but also from the material waste and value view. I won't even spend a dollar on something if I don't need it because I don't want the clutter in my home or to use up resources unnecessarily.

This change in lifestyle wasn't like a light switch. It took some time and mental work for me to give up the "stuff" I'd bought and I had to "talk myself down" from the "I wants" when I went shopping. I'd see a cute household item and want it. I'd talk myself out of it. Sometimes I'd even pick an item up or put it in my basket, but convince myself to change my mind before checking out. The transition was slow, but complete. My mindset has changed completely and I rarely have any pangs of material desire as I once did. The materialism monkey, small as it was for me, is off my back.

This path to frugality, is very similar to the current path I'm treading to moderation with food. I sometimes want to eat things when I shouldn't or in portions that I shouldn't, and I talk myself down from them. The process hasn't been as deliberate as the one I took with material possessions, but it has been very similar psychologically. That is, the first step was the hardest (counting calories one day a week and learning delayed gratification), but the other steps fell into place more quickly and easily once I got through it. I also use a lot of talking myself down or stepping away from food in the same manner that I did for shopping.

I didn't realize how similar the mental processes were until I had a recent exchange in comments on Kaplod's blog in which she said that changing food habits has been easy for her as compared to learning moderation. I feel that I have learned moderation, but it happened rather by happenstance rather than by plan. It occurred to me that moderation is learned behavior and not natural at all, and few of us know how to teach others or ourselves to be moderate, particularly about food which has a profound biological hold on us.

A lot of people talk about how our parents can't be blamed past a certain point for our weight issues, but I think that moderation is something our parents teach us through example, portion sizes, and eating instructions. My husband has always been a moderate eater. He overindulges on occasion, but generally eats "enough" and stops. He thinks nothing of pouring a glass of milk and drinking half or two-thirds of it and tossing the rest away. I'm guessing his parents, unlike mine, never scolded him for consuming what he wished and "wasting" the rest, nor did they serve him heaping helpings or cook too much and encourage him to eat as much as possible to avoid unwanted leftovers.

I think that the focus on diets that are supposed to incidentally encourage moderation (because the food isn't tasty and people lose interest in eating) is part of the problem we have with weight in America. The focus doesn't need to be on the food, but on the psychology. Certainly, the food itself is an issue, particularly when it is designed to encourage ever increasing consumption, but if we learned to simply stop, then it wouldn't matter what sort of food it was. I can eat one potato chip and not want another. This is a skill I acquired in the past 10 months. It's not something magical. It is a learned behavior. What is more, it's something which once learned can apply to all areas of life and does not result in any sort of strict denial of pleasure. Granted, it does result in a reduction in the quantity of pleasure, but given the diminishing returns on food-based pleasure, and the negative consequences of being overweight, it would serve to improve quality of life overall.

Moderation can be taught and it can be learned, but we first have to focus on teaching it and realize that it's not an innate character attribute like "willpower", and we have to stop thinking that it's something we magically muster up when we're "ready". It's a skill to be taught and acquired. If our parents didn't teach us it, we can teach it to ourselves with some great efforts. I did, and I can't believe I did it because I never planned to do so, but I realized today that I have done it twice now; first, I did it with money and possessions, and now I have done it with food.

Connecting these two transitions makes me feel very strong right now because I realized that the way in which frugality has become effortless and free of neurotic concerns about "denial" through the years with repetition and mental training is very likely the same path that my changes in my approach to food will take. If I keep at this long enough and apply myself to it with the same diligence as I took with material goods, I may one day find that moderation with food is effortless and resisting its lures becomes simple. There is the potential for that gigantic food gorilla to one day be off my back.


justjuliebean said...

Moderation rocks! I'm not a big consumer, some financial reasons, some environmental reasons, probably mostly the way I was raised. As for food, I had to train myself here, as I am from an all or nothing family, with a completely food-neurotic mom, but it is a more comfortable way to live. I still can't eat one potato chip, and will usually eat a handful or two if I come across them at a party (I don't dare keep them at home). Most other food is just fine. I go through a pound of chocolate almonds in 3 months, am happy to eat two bites cake, often don't finish my meals, even if there's nobody there to finish them for me.

screaming fatgirl said...

I wish moderation weren't so difficult to acquire. It really isn't something which many people come by naturally in certain cultures (America in particular) and find it very hard to learn.

Like you mentioned on your blog, I do wonder sometimes about thin people who seem to blithely put away a lot of food. Do they just metabolize better, or do they adjust? Right now, it is hard to imagine a time when I can go out and have a full piece of cake for dessert or an ice cream cone. Sure, I can have a half of something, or a few bites, but eating the whole thing seems like I'd have to skip a whole meal to compensate even if I'm eating 2000 calories per day on average.