Counterregulatory Eating (a.k.a., the “What the hell?” effect)

what the hell

What the hell? It’s party time!

You knew it was coming, didn’t you? A lengthy descant on the negative impact of the rarely mentioned but frequently encountered counterregulatory eating behavior. It seems that your hungry brain is very creative and will come up with numerous rationales in an attempt to get you to feed it. One of the most common ones is, “What the hell?” This utterance might be preceded by someone offering you a fresh-from-the-oven triple chocolate macadamia fudge brownie. Or one alcoholic beverage (the notorious inhibitor of inhibitions) might be enough to tempt you to throw in the dietary towel with a, “What the hell?” And, well, since you’ve had one, what the hell? Might as well have another! As if on cue, your brain plays this card when someone suggests a nosh session that’s not on your food plan. “Come on,” they insist, everybody’s doing it!”

“Oh, what the hell?!” You throw up your hands in surrender. Besides, you only live once.

So what do you do when, “What the hell?” hits? Well, I’m glad you asked. I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts that planning ahead is of supreme importance. Planning what you’re going to eat and even having it prepared and ready to go make counterregulatory eating behavior less likely, for a couple of reasons. One is that, by planning and preparing, you’ve primed your brain for healthy eating. You’ve set your intention and behavior in the direction of steamed kale with creamy cashew sauce instead of crunch-n-munch. Secondly, since you already have good food available, the door is closed on other excuses like, “Well, I gotta eat something, so I might as well join the crowd for an Outback Bloomin’ Onion and dessert.”

Of course, the best laid plans can still be thwarted by, “What the hell?” if you’re not prepared to answer back to those harmful-to-your-health words.

Here are some of my favorite responses to help dissuade counterregulatory eating.

What the hell? I’ll tell you what the hell! My health, that’s what the hell! Look where spontaneous eating has gotten me. If I resist this seemingly innocuous suggestion, I’ll be really glad later.

It’s true that you only live once, I guess, but enjoying life does not mean poisoning myself with bad food. I can have fun without sacrificing my health. If happy hour doesn’t sound fun without fried food and alcohol (both very high-calorie foods), then maybe I shouldn’t go.

“What the hell?” Boy is that familiar. If I eat bad food every time my mind offers up that rationale, I’ll never be able to stick to a high-nutrient diet.

Don’t Forget
1. Plan, plan, plan! Decide ahead of time exactly what you’re going to eat, and either prepare it or make sure you know where you can get it.
2. Generate some compelling responses to “What the hell?” and rehearse them daily for a couple of weeks. If you don’t practice them, they won’t be there for you when you need them.

Happy, healthy eating!

This post was first published on


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