How Defining Moderation Can Help You Reach Your Health Goals

Moderation FinalWe’ve heard it a million times: “Eat a well-balanced diet with everything in moderation.” After all these decades of clear failure, it’s a hazy cliché still delivered by physicians, dietitians and nutritional “experts” with earnest assurance. The same goes for exercise and stress. Moderate amounts of stress are okay, moderate cardiovascular work is good, etc. We accept the concept of moderation so readily, I think, because it sounds so rational and simple. If we follow common sense, moderation suggests, we’ll be fine. But if it were that easy, most people would be healthy—and statistics on the rising rates of obesity and chronic illness tell us otherwise. So what’s the problem?

Something critical is missing in the picture. Unfortunately, the moderation mantra—as we tend to invoke it—is too often a comforting abstraction we use to delude ourselves and to justify engaging in the same sabotaging behaviors again and again. After all, moderation as a blurry standard conveniently doesn’t exactly ask us to change anything specific or question what we’ve come to accept as normal lifestyle patterns. It’s limited by our own subjective interpretation. So to that old mantra, I’d like to make an additional recommendation.

What if we could take the low-pressured positivity of this concept and reframe it within specific, personalized, meaningful bounds?

In short, what would it mean for our health goals if we truly took moderation in hand and clarified it for our own individual use?

Because the fact is, I see a genuine opportunity here. As those who have been around MDA for a while know, I’m not a stickler for minute detail. I don’t promote counting calories or weighing food. There’s no need to run daily arithmetic around Primal “points.” Likewise, your daily exercise needn’t be measured obsessively to get and stay in good physical shape. The Primal Blueprint, after all, is about principles—the basic, straightforward, physiological principles that have governed ancestral diet, movement and lifestyle for hundreds of thousands of years. When we align our lives with those principles, the beauty is we don’t need to bother much at all with the math. It makes good primal health easy.

The Problem of Perception

But the concept of moderation as most people commonly think of it suggests something totally different. Moderation is almost always put in context of “all things in moderation.” As in, anything goes as long as you don’t eat or do too much of it—except research doesn’t support the idea that this leads to actual health gains. In fact, the opposite appears to be true for weight and metabolic health.

Add to this question the complete and utter fuzziness of what constitutes “too much.” How much is too much cardio? How much is too much sugar? How much is too much stress? What about too much sleep?

The problem is, we’re not particularly good at defining moderate amounts for ourselves without the haze of self-justification getting in the mix. Case in point: a recent study published by the University of Georgia. In one part of the overall study, subjects were asked to define how many chocolate chip cookies constituted an appropriate amount (how many people “should” eat), how many constituted a “moderate” serving, and how many constituted an “indulgent” serving. The average responses were a little over two for the appropriate amount, just over three for the moderate amount, and just under six for the indulgent amount. In other words, people tend to situate “moderation” between “ought” and “indulgence.” Researchers observed the same trend when they repeated the experiment with candies.

But in the most telling of all results, participants were asked to both describe their consumption of specific unhealthy food choices (e.g. pizza, ice cream, etc.) and their definition of a moderate serving for these foods. Not at all surprisingly, the more people ate of a certain food, the more generously they defined a moderate serving for it. I don’t think it’s far-fetched to believe the same can be said for self-justifying our other lifestyle factors.

For example, just how does a cardio junkie hope to define moderation for his/her aerobic activity? How could an avid Cross-Fitter settle into a moderate HIIT routine? Can a couch potato come up with a meaningful sense of appropriate and moderate physical activity? And in terms of dietary transition, how can someone who’s used to drinking a liter of soda per day conceive of a moderate sugar intake? Someone who eats fast food every day—how does he/she find a moderate standard for SAD foods? What about the vegan adopting a “moderate” amount of meat and animal products? And that workaholic? How will that person come to a reasonable, moderate balance for work and play? Or how about the person who’s spent decades avoiding sun exposure at all costs. What’s going to feel “moderate” to him/her?

Where do all of these scenarios and their difficulties leave us with the moderation question? Is it a hopeless enterprise, or can we learn to bring more objectivity to bear? If so, how?

Moderation as a Process

For one, I think we need to embrace the idea of growing into moderation. This means accepting that it’s a process to learn to live “in the middle” when for too long we’ve lingered along the edges in one degree or another. Moderation, if we ever hope to intuit it as a broad standard in our lives, seems a whole lot easier coming from an internalized compass (if not temperament) of moderation. Perhaps the Stoics had it right.

But how does this happen? A good initial question deals with motivation.

What pulls us to the edges and keeps us in our less moderate behaviors? What’s behind our obsession with work, with chocolate, with muscle mass, with soda? What are we hiding from, substituting for, and asking of our lives? We may not have an instant answer here, but I’m guessing most if not all of us will have some inkling. Start there.

Next, get clear on how the body works as a system. The mentality as well as physiology of moderation is rooted in understanding and appreciating the holistic mechanisms at work. Take a real look at the Primal Blueprint for this very principle—one of inclusive, intersecting logic. We’re seeking to bring balance to all systems. If we’re living off cortisol and caffeine all day, it doesn’t bode well for our hormonal homeostasis. Exercising a lot but justifying eating the conventional carb intake will eventually take us toward any number of ailments, including insulin resistance.

Take a moment to apply that idea of physiological balance to your life as a vision toward self-attunement, keeping in mind where you’re off the Primal grid. The beauty of the Primal Blueprint is that it focuses on balancing a number of essential inputs. We often go through a period of transition if we’re coming out of unhealthy metabolic states that spur everything from fatigue to sleep issues; cravings to brain fog. But once we’re over the hump, we’ll be working with reliable physical feedback. The basic guidelines for making this shift are there—a blueprint for physiological balance as determined by ancestral patterns. “What Would Grok Do?” in that way becomes a resourceful question in imagining moderation.

Now it’s time for the rubber to meet the road.

Instead of languishing in vagueness, start setting a new “working” standard, understanding that moderation will be a process of experimentation and refinement.

You’ll be training yourself toward moderate eating/exercising/living week by week.

I’m not one for excessive recording, but it can be a great tool for awareness—the raw numbers that demonstrate the crucial difference between perception and practice. Use a notebook or app to record your day’s activity/diet/sleep patterns/stress perceptions—whatever you’re trying to rein in. At the end of each day, take a look. Where exactly is the 80/20 Principle falling apart in your day? How much time did you really spend lifting or performing heavy cardio today? How does it compare to the Primal Blueprint recommendations?

When Moderation Isn’t the Answer

Finally, I think it’s well worth coming back to the question of elimination. A rational adult knows better than to believe that every option under the sun needs to be at the table for life to be worth living. We maturely eschew certain things because we accept they aren’t good for us—for us as individuals.

Some people can have a brownie at the family picnic and be done at one. For other people, it just doesn’t work that way. They’re better leaving it out altogether. Learn to accept that some things resist moderation for you. They’re a set-up every time. Gluten allergies, sugar addiction, adrenal fatigue or other health propensities (e.g. aggressive cancers that run in your family) call us to ditch moderation for the sake of well-being.

In the interest of your own health and satisfaction, learn to reject the fixation on deprivation—the assumption that if we don’t have the freedom to indulge in everything at the buffet table or to run ourselves ragged because we’re obsessed with FOMO (fear of missing out), we’re being held back from life. A smart approach to moderation knows what to leave out of the picture entirely.

Ultimately, the question of appropriate and effective moderation may boil down to a lifelong commitment to reading the body’s feedback. At what points do we realize we’ve extended ourselves beyond the range of tolerable impact? The further along we are in the journey, the more attuned we’ll be to these shifts in mood, sleep, energy and performance.

Thanks for reading today, everyone. I’d love to hear how you’ve honed your way to moderation in Primal living. Have a great end to the week.

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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49 thoughts on “How Defining Moderation Can Help You Reach Your Health Goals”

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  1. Great topic, Mark. The “everything in moderation” concept clearly isn’t enough. It takes discovering what moderation is over time for that to make sense.

  2. I like the point of how the concept of moderation should be individualized. Sure, there are general concepts of moderation we can all agree on by virtue of pointing out obvious extremes. But honing in on the specifics is important for moderation to have any practical meaning in your life.

  3. Funny how most of us all assume we agree on what moderation is when we use the term. But clearly there’s no consensus. Otherwise you wouldn’t be getting questions on diet and exercise all the time, Mark. Great post.

  4. The definition of moderation is how it pertains to each of us as individuals, based on our own common sense, our desire for optimal health, and above all, what our body tells us. Moderation should apply to the good stuff as well as the bad. Too many people subscribe to the theory that if a little is good, then a lot has to be better. IMO, that kind of thinking is the exact opposite of moderation.

  5. 80/20 seems like the only definition of moderation I’ve found reasonable: start with an idealized healthy baseline and allow for the inevitable disconnects that crop up in contemporary life (the birthday parties, company picnics, travel), and don’t stress out about it. But poison in moderation? No thanks, I’ll skip it.

    1. +1.

      80/20 is great as it quantifies (or at least bounds) moderation; as you said, it eliminates the ambiguity while still leaving you lots of flexibility to adjust the details as you go through each day.

      Great post Mark!

    2. I like this. Never really thought of the 80/20 in this manner, just normally as …”Well, this craving has been strong for a few weeks now, I’ll have a (smalll!) bit of X today”….and then been good for a few months. It would probably be better to look at it in the manner you’re talking about, those random life events. Thanks

  6. I think I got it:
    You need moderation in moderating your moderation default setting to adopt a more moderation balanced approach, being careful of inserting moderation cancelling zones within the moderation window similar to implementing Tabata zones within the process.

    See, not difficult at all

  7. “Languishing in vagueness” is certainly something we like to do when it comes to health goals, since you’re never really accountable for missing the mark if a goal isn’t defined. The flip side, of course, is that you’re less likely to make any progress. The strongest, most effective motivators for progress are always going to come with a clearer definition of failure.

  8. Moderation depends on the perspective of what is being moderated. Denial is negative moderation whereas Choice is positive. For example, not allowing yourself to eat cake is more difficult than choosing to have one bite. Moderation is the act of having full control of a vice.

    1. True, but you forgot the third part of the equation.

      Not allowing yourself to eat cake is more difficult than choosing to have one bite.

      But, STOPPING at one bite is harder than not allowing yourself to eat cake in the first place.

      I know people that literally can’t stop. Refined carbs and sugar behaves as a powerful drug to them and for the people who have sugar addiction issues, they actually feel pretty damn good after indulging. They usually don’t feel crappy afterwards (except maybe emotionally for feeling like a failure for indulging).

      So how does a person, who basically has a sugar addition, and pays no physical price for indulging, eat sugar in moderation? They can’t. They have to abstain.

      1. Clay, good point. That would depend on the term of abstinence relative to level of indulgence and the ability to return to abstinence without suffering consequences. I have chosen not to eat confectionary baked goods for at least a month. Last night I chose to try a brownie and a snickerdoodle cookie at a graduation event. I was offered a second brownie but declined pointing to the unfinished specimen on my plate. I will be able to abstain, from confectionary baked goods as I choose to not keep them in my home. I always request the check when offered the desert menu. Muffin Moderation Mastered.

      2. This. ^

        It’s exactly why anyone in any kind of a 12 step program cannot do their drug/drink of choice “in moderation.” No decent AA meeting is going to tell their fellows that it’s OK to drink wine 3-4 times a week. It’s stop now, cold turkey. It’s why most ex-smokers are able to cut back rather than quit…for awhile. Within a few days, they’re back to a pack a day, 2 packs a day, etc. For anyone with any kind of addiction, moderation within that addiction simply doesn’t work.

      3. ^^Totally me.. one bite and I am finished. One bite of ice cream, pint gone… one bite of a slice of cake.. slice gone and another sure to follow. It’s a long, hard fight, one I haven’t quite won yet. 🙁

      4. I am a sugar addict. I have tried moderation and will manage it for a few days. Then one day, I’ll have a second, then a third and by that point I feel so hopeless against the cravings that I just go crazy.
        Issue is, that this cycle can go on for days and weeks at a time with me eating obscene amounts. And then I can quit for a week or so, cold turkey. I go through withdrawal, feel miserable and then feel ok a few days in.
        But there always comes a day when I convince myself that I can have a little “treat”. And for a day or two, I can manage until the inevitable fall into days of mad sugar eating.
        I feel terribly hungover the next day after stuffing myself full of sugar and yet when the craving hits midday, I’m stuffing that white devil in my face with no memory of how crappy I felt just a few hours earlier.
        Addicted to sugar? I am absolutely. But I keep trying.
        Unfortunately, I have no capacity for moderation with sugar. I’m coming to accept that.

        1. This is where the missing piece is often emotional drives that fuel the physiological addictions. A lot comes back to self-love.

          I’m just doing an EFT course linked to Human Design, it’s really eye-opening what we hide from ourselves.

          Dr Christianson also wrote thoughtfully on cheat days last week too – it’s a complex area for many.

        2. Definitely how I felt when I switched to Primal.

          When I had cravings I had to switch to something else in its place. Mostly it was gum and fruits. When those weren’t available and I had cravings, I just ate beef jerky and trail mix or nuts. About 2-3 weeks of this and I was over the hangover and past the cravings. I just continued it whenever I wanted sweet stuff….or seriously dark chocolate, like 85-90% so I was overwhelmed by it (never ate it before Primal).

          I had severe cravings from drinking Mountain Dew all the time…I could drink a whole 12 pack in a day, or anywhere between 6-8 bottles or more. Cutting back, I had to switch to something just as tasty but to my head not as “bad”, so Gatorade it was. Then lemon packets for the water, then just water. Overall, took about 2-3 months (it was Christmas time and I relapsed visiting back home).

          Happy to say now, Mountain Dew no longer tasted good after a month of not drinking it, and candy challenges are now manageable. If I crave it for a long time, I get the small pack. But now I’m realizing it’s in my head and I actually just need real food to eat, so a steak it is!

          Good luck!

  9. I have to laugh at people who claim “moderation” and then go ahead and eat wheat as part of, literally, three meals a day plus snacks. The thinking being, toast is one food, pasta another and brownies a third …
    I ask them, how is that moderate? What other single food item do you eat that often, or even once a day? Over and above the many reasons wheat may be bad for you, I think it is people’s blindness concerning moderate consumption that is the major problem.

  10. “Eating in moderation” is the one of the most common (wisdom) replies I hear by those resisting to change.

  11. ” Likewise, your daily exercise needn’t be measured obsessively to get and stay in good physical shape. ”

    I’m not sure if this qualifies, but I found that the only key for me is to track my actual exercise in a spreadsheet.

    I track the week (since I’ve only been doing it since Feb when I started getting serious about getting fit), type (treadmill, weights, etc), length of time, distance/avg speed and maybe heartrate.

    That’s the honed down list – I started with more Perceived effort was causing me more stress than it was worth, and I only record heartrate if a machine calculates it for me. If something is cardio, I track the total weekly. So the 2-3 hour canoe trip I went on? I gave it 45 mins of cardio as a guess. Pilates for an hour, but I slacked a bit, and wasn’t giving it my all? Anywhere from 20-45 minutes.

    It keeps me motivated to actually meet my goals, but doesn’t drown me in detail. Some people would think it was too much but it works for me.

    I haven’t quite gotten the ‘food in moderation’ bit down. My intake of healthier foods has increased, but I’m still a bit of a piggy with the junk food.

  12. Excellent post, Mark. As much as the saying “everything in moderation” seems to make sense, I find it hasn’t worked so well for my clients–as in, it hasn’t supported their health and weight goals.

    Put differently, by doing “everything in moderation,” they stayed stuck in unhelpful patterns, didn’t reach their goals, and so sought me out in the first place.

    And yet, like you, I take a very balanced approach to eating and lifestyle–an approach that becomes effortless and full of abundance and ease (rather than restriction and counting). Learning to define “moderation” in this way is absolutely a process. But sure does make all the difference.

  13. I love the topic. I have been working out how to address this issue myself, for my clients, class mates and fellow personal trainers. I understand what you were trying to do with this post but personally I think you muddied the waters a bit more. Instead of trying to redefine moderation, why don’t we just stop using the concept all together, especially when talking about our health and food choices. In doing so we could start fresh, allowing people to get away from their already distorted perception and ideas of what it means to achieve optimal health. That’s why I love your 80/20 principle, because being a primal human in the modern world is not easy, and to try and avoid it altogether can lead to its own set of health problems: stress, anxiety, being anti-social for fear of the food or drink, etc. Ultimately I believe people need to figure it out for themselves through experimentation (n=1). But to help them get started, let’s stop using a broken system (moderation) and start with a fresh idea and a clearer understanding of what it means to be healthy. I have way more rattling around in my head as it pertains to this topic but that’s enough for now. I’d love to hear what you think!

  14. In the interest of your own health and satisfaction, learn to reject the fixation on deprivation—the assumption that if we don’t have the freedom to indulge in everything at the buffet table or to run ourselves ragged because we’re obsessed with FOMO (fear of missing out), we’re being held back from life. A smart approach to moderation knows what to leave out of the picture entirely.

    ^^^^^^^ THIS ^^^^^^^^^^
    This is when you know you’ve reached the level of emotional maturity necessary for long term success and happiness.

    1. Very much in line with the Buddhist monk approach, learn to appreciate what you have, rather than a habit of always seeking fullfilment in things you don’t have.

    1. I’d say at a level that doesn’t negatively impact your goals, health and relationships.I think that’s the common definition of when something becomes a “problem”.

  15. I’m 52 and have been on a keto diet for the last 11 months losing 75lbs. Current weight is 180lb at 5’11”. BF is <15% down from 34%. I've increased my macros for a lifting program I'm following from P=150g F=67g but I can't get to the needed C=150g on 1800 cal/day. Can I stay in keto? I want to burn the remaining ab fat and build major definition/muscle size. I've been lifting for the last 6 months following Hiit from Drew Baye.

    1. Sounds like you’re kicking ass too me. Dropping 75 pounds of fat in 11 months is a pretty brisk clip. But you’re trying to do two things simultaneously that work against each other – building muscle while losing fat through calorie restriction. Very few people have the genetics to do both at the same time. Even professional bodybuilders tend to lose some muscle mass when they cut up for competition. Maybe just work on getting cut for now until you feel you’ve leaned out, then gradually up the calories to start building mass. Or just get really big now and get cut later. You’re making things harder on yourself doing both at the same time.

  16. I’m hard wired for extremes. I don’t know what moderation means and never really will. So I pick my choices carefully with the understanding that I will probably take it to the limit. For me, moderation means going full blast until I hit a wall, then backing off five or ten percent and staying there. So moderation is just shy of crash and burn. It works for the most part and I get a lot of goals accomplished.

    My partner is the opposite. She is moderation defined. It’s amazing to watch. She won’t do anything to excess. I have no idea how she does it or what it feels like to not go to failure.

    For me, I generally know I’m done when I can’t do anymore. Maybe not the healthiest way to go, but I’m not going to fool myself and pretend I can be any other way. I think that’s the first step really, being honest with yourself and honoring your natural tendencies and limitations. Then build a framework around that to increase your chances of achieving whatever you define as success.

    1. When the injuries pile up you embrace moderation (and a change in activities) to survive … at least from the standpoint of sports and exercise from my personal experience. 🙂

      I’ve seen compulsive / obsessive runners who are in so much pain they wince and grimace as they jog or speed walk in an obvious injured state. In my mind that’s when a few trips to the therapist might be in order.

  17. Hello Mark,

    Great article. I really enjoyed the fact that you mentioned moderation is a process. I don’t think people realize how difficult it can be to just start moderating your diet immediately. It’s tough to do. It takes time. Greatness takes time. Being the person you want to be, takes time.

    Some of the people here may think it’s a good idea to drop the term moderation, but I disagree with that. I think people need to see that moderation of certain things is really good. You just need to understand how to limit yourself in your daily routine.

    Once you are able to make certain things in your life a habit then everything else begins to fall into place without you ever really noticing the small changes you might be making.

  18. I think the problem with moderation is that most people have no idea what it is (which is pretty much what the study showed.) And I definitely believe that some people have trigger foods that they just shouldn’t eat. Sometimes when you get all of the culprits completely out, you finally get an idea of how good you can feel. And then you can make a more educated choice about what you want to indulge in. (In moderation, of course!)
    The first time I did a Whole 30, and completely cut dairy, grains and refined sugar out, I was amazed at subtle changes that I noticed. A very subtle puffiness around my eyes disappeared. I was never even aware of it, until it was gone.

  19. Thanks Mark. A few years ago Gretchen Rubin wrote an amazing piece on Moderators vs Abstainers and for the first time in my life I realised that I was an Abstainer and that moderation just didn’t work for me because I was always trying to work out what moderate actually meant. It was a huge revelation because up until that point I always felt like I was failing as I wasn’t very good at being moderate.

    As an Abstainer there is no angst, no “shall I have it now, or wait until later?” or “shall I have one, or maybe two?” etc. I just know I won’t have any. It takes the endless questions away, which for me was like a weight lifting off my shoulders. I wasn’t a failure after all. I just work better when I abstain from things.

    Then the hardest part is dealing with Moderators who, bless their little cotton socks, love to encourage Abstainers to “just have a little bit, a little bit never hurt anyone”. Well I respect those who can only have a little, but that’s just not me, thanks anyway.

    1. I love being and ‘Abstainer”, It makes life so much easier when I have no food decisions to make for sixteen hours a day and then eating eat primally along the 80/20 rule for the other eight hours.
      Moderation just does not work for me, its all or nothing.

    2. I’m exactly the same, Susie! Glad to see it put into words so well ????

    3. Gretchin also has a podcast which she expands on abstainers vs moderators. She’s coming to the conclusion moderators are abstainers who haven’t reframed their vices 😉
      For instance, her sister now identifies as an abstainer since she reframed her abstinence from french fries as “freedom from fries” rather than “denying myself fries”. From what I’ve seen, reframing really is a key point.

      I completely agree about the well meaning friends who think refusing a bite of anything that they think is enjoyable is “denying yourself”.

  20. I know I would be a lot fitter if I gave up drinking beer. Wine, spirits, no problem. I can ignore them easily. But beer? It’s just too damn good, and the calories add up so fast. Has anyone out there found a place for moderate beer intake on a Primal diet? And if so, what does “moderate” look like to you? Or should I honestly just go cold turkey because it doesn’t deserve a place at the Primal table?

    1. I totally dropped the beer when I went on the Keto diet. A beer represented a roll. For every beer I used to slam down I turned my thinking of it as a roll. I didnt want the empty cals. Now that I am in maintenance, I savior an IPA or Stout as a treat when out to dinner. Drop the light beers and work on substition.

      1. TBH, I’m worried about having a lot of time to fill, if and when I cut out the recreational drinking. 🙂

  21. A timely post – although I just consumed an entire block of 90% dark chocolate in one sitting…

  22. Staying away from sugar seems to me my inability to deal with moderation. This article sure helps me to realize that sugar treats may never to part of my life if I want control over my health. Sad.

  23. Back in the day when sugar was real sugar and not made of GMO sugar beats and High fruitcose corn syrup from GMO. you actually felt like you ate a brownie or a chocolate chip cookie, HFC are chemically made and designed to turn off the brains signal that you had enough therefore you keep eating. Its all designed for big profits. I like coffee with store bought creamer, looking at the ingredients there is actually no cream in it, I made my own. Homemade doesn’t make the coffee as tasteful or as addicting. I usually don’t eat sweets but decided that if I want cookies I make them from scratch.

    1. The science on HFC is pretty solid as it pertains to being satiated and interfering with the brains signals, but there is no such thing as GMO sugar. Sugar is just fructose and glucose stuck together. It’s only made up of three atoms (hydrogen, oxygen and carbon). Where it comes from is irrelevant to the body. There’s no “GMO” trace markers attaching to the molecules. Sugar is sugar and using organic dehydrated cane juice (about 50/50 fructose and glucose) is no better than using rice syrup (100% glucose) or agave ( nearly 100% fructose).

      It’s funny how many people I know recoil at HFC but will pour on the “healthy” low GI agave which is almost all fructose.

      The non dairly creamer is spot on. That’s stuff is awful on every level.