The Case for Abstinence Over Control

"Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food...things which are a mere shadow of what is to come..." Colossians 2:16-17

“Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food…
things which are a mere shadow of what is to come…”

Colossians 2:16-17

If portion-controlled diets make you feel like you’re having a food-related asthma attack (can’t….get…enough…food), but the way you eat normally makes you miserable, abstinence – not just a low-carb diet – may be a strong choice.

If you’ve ever been on Weight Watchers or other similarly-traditional diets, you’ve experienced the abject misery of controlling your portion sizes. A half cup of this; an ounce of that; six ounces of a lean, grilled something-or-other; some delectable seasoning, et voila: you’ve got a recipe for disaster. The problem with portion control isn’t the portions themselves; it’s hard to argue against a well-balanced, calorie-conservative meal if you’re trying to lose fat. The problem is how that meal plays on the mind. And I don’t care who you are or what happens to be the topic; reality takes a distant back seat to your interpretation of it.

If, like me, you are addicted to certain foods (if you’re genuinely overweight, with a BMI over 35-40 or higher, addictive tendencies may be contributing), any effort to control portions, practice moderation, and/or weigh or measure your kibbles isn’t just a lost cause, it’s a set-up for self-sabotage and certain failure. Imagine you are an archer’s bow, and that your capacity for craving is the bow string. Every time you eat a controlled portion of a triggering food, the archer’s fingers pull back on the string. Each measured, teasing bite pulls the string further and further back. The tension mounts. You struggle to stay firm. One slice of toast. One tablespoon of peanut butter. One cookie. Eventually, your forced, awkward self-control takes a backseat to The All Powerful Craving. The fingers release the string, and BAM, it snaps into action. You binge. You binge retro-actively. You binge because you were so good for so long. You binge because that’s what addicts do after a period of forced control. After the smoke clears, you and the bow are left, spent and shaking, wondering what the hell happened, and how it could possibly have happened again.

That's right, get angry.

That’s right, get angry.

Challenge an alcoholic to drink exactly six ounces of their favorite beverage, no more and no less, every day. This experiment would end badly – predictably badly – as does the portion control experiment, time and time again. You have a period of “good behavior.” Then, on no particular Tuesday, you rationalize eating one more than your daily allotment of crackers. Now that wasn’t too bad, was it? Satisfied that you can stray from your rigid plan without gaining weight, you justify your way right back to eating plates full of pasta or the nutritional wolf-in-Grandmother’s-nightie: large quantities of organic, fresh baked, farm-to-table delicacies. BAM. Two weeks later, you’ve regained all your lost weight, plus. Next thing you know, a friend finds you strung out in an alley covered in baguette crumbs, living out of a shopping cart from Whole Foods.

Enough already.

Enter abstinence, stage left.

Cue the naysayer! “Coffey, don’t be daft. We can’t abstain from eating, so your drug addict parallel is useless.”

First of all, you can healthfully abstain from eating for a short time, but that’s another post for another day. For now, I’ll say this: you absolutely can, in good conscience, abstain from the foods that trigger craving in most food addicts. Sugar, flour, pasta, rice, cereals, potatoes…even (hold your breath here, kids)…fruit. A body so far out of balance that true obesity has set in has no need for these foods. NONE. Worried about scurvy? Take a damn multivitamin.

Click HERE to see the schedule for my FREE online workshop,
‘Why We Sabotage Ourselves with Food and What We Can Do About It

The challenge is to bring an addicted, imbalanced body back to rights. How does a bright person who loves and wants the best for themself treat addiction? Abstinence. If you’re not too far gone, you may be able to re-incorporate some or all of these foods slowly and mindfully, but that’ll be after you’ve reached your body’s happy place, not before.

Let’s trust what our bodies are telling us. If we experience the phenomenon of deep craving when we eat certain foods, there’s a stronger choice we can make.

For those with addictive tendencies, for those who’ve crossed the line with certain foods, abstinence can equal freedom.


  1. Felicity says

    So true, so true, so true…

    You might be interested in Gretchen Rubin’s writings about abstainers versus moderators. You are probably an abstainer… and I think I am too, darn it.

    • says

      Thanks for that tip. I’ll look her up. Meanwhile, congratulations! I’ve learned through much trial and error that abstinence is a breeze compared to moderation. Hell, if I could eat sugar sensibly, I’d want to eat it all day long . :)

      • Felicity says

        You know, partly inspired by this post, I have indeed quit sugar. And let me tell you, the peace I am feeling is amazing. I had *no idea* how much of my brain was constantly churning over ‘I can have this, but I can’t have that, but on my birthday I can allow myself to…’

        Nope! No more. Feeling great. Fully intend to stick with it for life. Fingers crossed!

  2. Lourdes says

    I just came about your blog by accident via a friend through FB and all I can say is “FINALLY a skinny trainer that was once fat and gets my struggles!” THIS article was written just for me, I just know it! I have tried and tried to do the food portion control with great failure. Of course my self control over certain foods is zilch and everytime I fail I feel miserable worthy of a beating with a wet noodle but I always manage to eat it before it strikes my flesh. Anyways, thank you for this and her I come abstinence

  3. K says

    I stumbled across this blog via Facebook, and I would just like to say how refreshing it is, not only to read your sensible ideas, but to see them packaged in intelligible, well-constructed sentences and logically progressive series of paragraphs! As a current English PhD student, I can tell you were an English major – I sort of wish this were a requirement for the entire blogosphere, haha.

  4. Alicia says

    I’m re-reading this post and my brain is having a fit, a full-blown kicking and screaming tantrum. Really?! Quit all sugar and starches just like that?! All of them, forever?! That’s not possible!!!

    My body wants (actually, needs) to do this but my mind tells me that it’s just another step toward another failure. I suppose I need some reassurance – is it really as cut-and-dry as it sounds? Would I really be able to just stop cold-turkey? After having a healthy dinner, I never seem complete without “just a little something sweet” – will that actually stop?

    • says

      Cravings have stopped in my case, and in the case of every client I’ve had who’s followed my recommendations. If you have what I have, sugar and starch are like nicotine. The cravings build and build, but if you don’t give in to them, they eventually subside and then you feel like an effing super hero.
      Good luck coming to your own determinations.

  5. Sandra says

    I am so happy to have found your blog through an article posted on I have tried it all, all diets, ww several times, counting calories, counting portions, counting fat, counting everything. I know I am addicted to sugar, period! I do like my bread, but I don’t sit and eat a loaf at a sitting, while I can eat a quart of ice cream, or 2-4 times the “portion” of chocolate cake. I do like pasta but don’t go over the top on that. Would it be beneficial to just cut sugar, as in cake, cookies, dougnuts, etc? Does that mean cutting all fruit too? Thanks!

    • says

      I suggest distancing oneself from every type of food that inspires obsession or binges or regret. Only you know what those foods are. And if you don’t, practice some mindfulness as you eat and enjoy the experience of figuring it out :)

      • Sandra says

        Thank you! I wish I could find a personal trainer like you in my area. You are awesome and so inspiring!

  6. karen says

    I am so lost I don’t think I even know how to start abstinence……and your blog is so !! on the money. I have tried to explain to various “health experts” what it is like to do moderation and they just didn’t get it. Do I need to get rid of the sweetners too?

    • says

      Karen, sweeteners mess me up. They don’t mess everyone up, but if you’re an addict like I’m an addict, they do. It’s something you have to explore through mindfulness on your own and come to a determination about. Good luck!

  7. Ashley says

    Reading through some of your posts after enjoying what I have seen from you on MindBodyGreen. It’s really comforting to hear other people describe the trauma involved in food addiction, it sadly is not a condition readily acknowledged by the medical community. For health reasons I cut out meat months ago, and I’m in the process of trying to officially cut out dairy and sugar. I regularly get the argument that I should just try the moderation approach, but I am happy to see I’m not the only one that just doesn’t work for. I cut meat out and didn’t fall back, any suggestions on adding more foods to the ‘no’ list without feeling overwhelmed?

    • says

      Ashley, I can only tell you what I’ve done – it may or may not be right for you. I’ve eliminated wheat and other flours and sugar. At this point, I’m able to eat fruit and potatoes without getting triggered. I’m at a different point in my journey, and am a totally different person, though. Listen to your body and your brain – they’ll tell you exactly what to leave behind.

  8. Joni says

    I’ve been thinking about this post for a few hours now. It makes me feel strangely liberated. I’ve always wondered: why can I leave bottle of wine on my counter for months without thinking about it, but not sweets? Why can’t I just be normal and take or leave the damn cookies? Every time I try “just a bite” I roll over the edge, and then feel like a failure. But embracing the word “addict” feels freeing. Admitting that I can’t eat certain foods without bingeing is honest and powerful, not weak. Wow. Thank you (and your formerly fat ass). ;)

  9. Emzy says

    Thank you for posting this .. every Monday that comes is meant to be the start of a new diet or healthy eating regime … when I don’t have my carbs I get headaches and I feel dizzy,I get grumpy and thus use these as excuses to break the so called diet because my body can’t handle it. I will go the whole day eating healthy at work in front of others and as soon as I get home BAM I end up binging badly saying I will start again tomorrow… :( how can I cut these trigger foods out .? everything is a trigger for me. If I use abstinence I will end up eating only vegetables … how does one survive on just this as practically everything is made up of starch and sugar apart from meat and veg… :s ??

  10. Lu says

    [Ching, penny dropping] Think I need to be an abstainer too. Reading this blog is like holding up a mirror. Thanks for sharing…amazing.

  11. Jennifer says

    Amen, sister! I was just thinking about this today. I’m currently doing well 3 months in to a low-carb diet. Today though, I had some peanut butter which is a gateway drug for me. If I’m not careful, I’ll find myself breaking and entering down at the Brach’s factory and won’t even remember how I got there. Thanks for the wake up call! You are absolutely right. For some of us, abstaining from our triggers is the key to success.

  12. Emily says

    Abstinance totally makes sense. In your comments you say wheat and sugar is a drug sort of like nicotine. Once you abstain for a certain period cravings go away. How long were you abstaining for cravings to go away?

    • says

      Hey there, Emily! If we abstain 100%, and give ourselves a break from everything that contains that stuff that might be triggering, we’re over the physical cravings in days. Certainly no longer than a week. But that’s just the physical cravings. That doesn’t touch the habits and the mental, social, and emotional triggers, all of which need to be accepted and addressed appropriately.

  13. says

    whoa, like WHOA. i am new to your blog and just reading this post gave me chills… i hate saying i’m an addict, but hey, i’ve snorted vitamins before because it made me feel like i could get off other stuff. i know i’m effed up, but i hear so many ‘experts’ say oh, you must eat every couple of hours and have all foods and blahblahblah. i started my recovery as an abstainer, in OA, and it worked – the abstaining part – but OA was not for me. then i started allowing the forbidden foods back in my life and went rather mental. i didn’t purge, which was progress in my mind, but i continued down all the bad/sugar rabbit hole till i eventually relapsed. my body was literally filled and in pain from all the sweets. now i’m in a better place but i know what i need to do: abstain. just do it, get off the crap and feel better like i did that time a few years ago. thank you for confirming what i felt was the truth… some of us just can’t handle it, and that’s fine. thankfully i love many foods that are actually good for me.
    yes being an addict can be challenging but i don’t know different, i was raised by expert addicts, functional addicts, liars, experts in delusions and denial. but filled with love. so whatever,
    thank you!

    • Kelly Coffey says

      Danielle, I can relate to a lot of this, so much. I’m excited for both of us that we know ourselves well enough to take solid care of ourselves despite others telling us we should just do what they say and that that should work for us.
      F them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>