The Fallacy of Calorie Counting and Restricted Food Plans

03.10.2019 |

Episode #9 of the course Hack your diet: Using nutrition science to live healthier, longer, and diet-free by John Robin


Welcome to our ninth diet hack!

You’re now equipped with a powerful diet, backed by nutrition science. It’s not rigid either. In fact, it’s very flexible. You’re also equipped with the knowledge to conduct further research from this foundation, so you can hone your own winning repertoire of healthy eating habits for years to come.

You’re also equipped with a technique to withstand the worst of all: those bad eating spells.

For the last two days, I’m going to equip you further with two important things. Today, we’re going to hack our way through the fallacy of calorie counting and restricted meal plans.


Focusing on “Can’t” Is a Thinking Error That Covertly Says That You “Can”

Our subconscious brains do not process negative words the way you might expect. If I tell myself, “don’t eat junk food with TV,” the only thing my subconscious brain takes away from that is, “eat junk food with TV.” Now, the urge to eat junk food with TV is brewing in my belly.

This phenomenon has been studied in psychology [1]. It gets worse, though:

The word, “not,” or other forms of negation invoke negative thinking patterns in the brain. Remember our first day when we talked about the survival brain and pleasure centers? Invoking these negative thinking patterns puts these same deep-brain structures to work. When you tell yourself, “I can’t eat cheesecake in the evening because it’s going to cause me harm,” you’re setting off your survival brain with two big red lights:

• “can’t”

• “cause me harm”

And now that your instinctive brain is in high gear, the pleasure center kicks in with a nice big green light:

• “Eat cheesecake in the evening … mmm!”

On the other hand, the same studies that have explored negative words found that positive statements invoke higher brain centers. Here’s that neocortex again, another callback to Lesson 1!

Let’s approach cheesecake positively: “I’m going to enjoy a cheesecake as a treat once in a while. When I’m hungry in the evenings, I’ll enjoy some pineapples, and if I’m really hungry, some toast.”

That whole statement is primed with positivity but also something greater: control!

• “I’m going to” = This is what I’m going to do/want to do.

• “I’ll enjoy” = I’m going to invoke mindfulness because I know I can train my tastes.

• “If I’m really hungry” = I know sometimes I’m hungry, and that’s why I want to fill the gap, but I have healthy options.

Wow, now that’s a winner! Notice that we completely avoided banishing the cheesecake. There’s no negative associated with this “bad food.” We don’t even call it a “bad food,” in order to avoid the negative pathway in our brain.


Why This All Matters for Calorie Counting

Everything I’ve just taught you all comes together in two of the biggest dietary vices that exist:

• calorie counting

• restricted meal plans

When you track your eating or try to control it, you’re setting a negative trap for yourself. Your brain sees a limit and with that limit, a fear of failure. Fear sets off your survival brain. Foods you can’t have now call at you because your pleasure centers are remembering their tastes—all because your survival brain is in high gear.

Throw calorie counting out the window. It’s fear based and takes your attention away from the positivity of:

1. believing in your healthy diet

2. believing in yourself to know how to set good limits

3. trusting yourself that you are intelligent enough to recognize when you’re eating foods you don’t want to be eating

This also gives you freedom, yet another huge positive brain association: freedom to enjoy a snack now and then. Freedom to “fail” once in a while. Freedom to try to improve a bit more. Freedom to not always be perfect.

Obsession is also a negative thinking pattern. Calorie counting and restricted meal planning are obsessive. If you think too much about how to keep yourself eating healthy, you forget the trained pleasure of eating healthy.

If you’re putting on weight, then don’t think about your calories. Think about how much you’re eating and analyze your week/daily habits to try and make a change. Come at it positively, empowered, rather than negatively, restricted and obsessed.


Action: Start a Diet Tracking Journal

The opposite of calorie counting is simply learning to journal what you eat. You can do this in a simple lined notebook, making a chart with rows for each day and columns for the different kinds of foods you eat, e.g., grains, meats, dairy, vegetables, fruits, etc. Write down what you eat and how much, and try to reflect on your actual diet habits to learn from them.

Tomorrow, we’ll finish our course as we cover one last and extremely important topic: slippery slopes.


Recommended book

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson



[1] The Most Dangerous Word in the World


Share with friends