Bright Line Eating: Diet or Disordered Eating?

Many of you have asked me to weigh in on an approach to weight loss known as Bright Line Eating. Some people claim that this approach has helped them lose weight when all other methods failed.

The approach was developed by Susan Peirce Thompson, who has a Ph.D. in Brain and Cognitive Science and claims that her approach is grounded in cutting-edge psychology and neuroscience.  According to promotional materials, Bright Line Eating is “very structured and takes a liberating stand against moderation.”

Instead of “very structured,” I’d describe it as “extremely rigid.” And if the phrase “a liberating stand against moderation,” sounds a bit Orwellian to you, well, you’re not alone. This zero-tolerance approach could be considered “liberating” in the same way that a maximum-security prison might liberate you from a life of crime.

This article is also available as a podcast. Click to listen.

There are four so-called Bright Lines:

Bright Line #1: Foods containing any form of sugar, sweeteners, artificial sweeteners, or concentrated fruit juices are strictly forbidden. Forever.  Although it’s not mentioned specifically in this rule, elsewhere in the materials, alcohol is equated with sugar and is, therefore, apparently included in this prohibition.

Bright Line #2: Also forbidden are foods containing any type of flour, including whole wheat flour, and flour made from any other grains, seeds, or nuts. Is it your wedding day? Sorry, no cake for you. This is a bright line.

Bright Line #3: You must eat exactly three meals a day, absolutely no snacking, and no exceptions—not even to check the seasoning of something you might be cooking. Helpful tip: Put a piece of tape over your mouth while cooking to prevent accidental breaches of protocol. (No, I’m serious. This is actually recommended.)

Bright Line #4: You must weigh or measure every single thing you eat, forever. Heading to a restaurant? Pack your scale. There are no exceptions to this rule. The type and amount of food at each of your three meals is strictly dictated and adds up to about 1200 calories a day—a bit more if you are a man but otherwise, it’s one size fits all.

And that’s it: Just follow these 4 simple rules to the letter—forever—and you too can be happy, thin, and free!

I’m being facetious, obviously. (Although that is the subtitle of Dr. Thompson’s book: The Science of Living Happy, Thin and Free.)

And I want to acknowledge that one’s willingness to embrace such a draconian approach will probably depend on the degree of suffering you feel that your weight is causing you. If this approach succeeds where everything else has failed, it’s certainly your prerogative to decide that abiding by these constraints is worth it to you.

But if you are simply curious about how this approach might stack up against other options, I think it’s worth taking a closer look at the scientific rationale.

Does Science Support Bright Line Eating?

Bright Line Eating purportedly “works with the brain” in three specific ways:

1. By reducing your reliance on willpower.

Willpower, they claim, is depletable and unreliable. I agree! Relying entirely on willpower is like trying to parallel park a car without power steering. It’s possible, but it’s a lot of work. Creating solid habits and engineering your environment to reduce temptation and to make the healthy choice the easy choice are great strategies for building a healthier lifestyle.

Read More:  Why Willpower Isn’t Enough

What I don’t quite see is how these extremely rigid rules reduce your reliance on willpower. It seems to me that maintaining this degree of restriction on an ongoing basis would require quite a bit of willpower.

The authors also claim that exercising “uses up a tremendous amount of willpower and is not effective as a weight-loss tool.” If you do not exercise, you are encouraged not to start. If you already exercise, you’re encouraged to reduce the intensity of your current regimen.

I agree that the primary benefit of exercise is not weight loss. But I don’t agree that it necessarily uses up a lot of willpower, unless, perhaps, you’re forcing yourself to do exercise that you don’t enjoy. But I’d rather encourage you to explore different ways of being active than discourage you from exercising.

2. By bringing leptin “back on board.” 

According to the Bright Line Eating website, following the BLE rules will allegedly “bring leptin back on board so you finally feel satisfied.”

The role of leptin in appetite and body weight regulation is still poorly understood by the actual scientists who study it—and grossly oversimplified and wildly misrepresented in the popular press. Leptin levels are directly related to body fat stores. They drop when you lose weight or when food intake is restricted, which in turn stimulates your appetite. If you gain body fat, leptin levels go up, which decreases the desire for food. It’s the body’s way of maintaining the status quo.

But because it’s popularly known as the “satiety” hormone, people imagine that leptin turns your appetite on and off on a meal-by-meal basis. But in reality, leptin works to regulate appetite and body weight over a longer time frame, not in response to individual meals.

You might also be led to conclude that higher leptin levels would be a good thing. More leptin, less appetite. But people who suffer from obesity tend to have very high leptin levels (because they have high amounts of body fat). The problem is not that their leptin levels are too low but that the body becomes resistant to the appetite-suppressing effects of leptin.

My point is simply that the relationships between leptin, body fat, and appetite are complex and—despite what you read online—not easily manipulated by diet.

In a paper published in Current Developments in Nutrition, Thompson reports that her program’s participants (95% of whom are white women of high socioeconomic status) rate their hunger and cravings lower after following the program for 8 weeks. However, it’s unclear whether this has anything to do with leptin, or how long this effect might persist.

3. By “rewiring and healing the addictive centers of the brain.”

The entire Bright Line Eating philosophy leans hard on the concept of food addiction. The idea that people can become literally addicted to food is highly controversial. Just because the taste of something sweet activates the same area of the brain that lights up in response to cocaine, it does not follow that this creates psychological or physiological dependence. However, telling people that they are chemically addicted to food and therefore powerless to control themselves can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Read More:  Sugar and the Science of Addiction

Thompson has even invented a quiz that allegedly measures your vulnerability to food addiction.  A high score on her “Susceptibility Scale” supposedly suggests that you are unable to exercise restraint and will only be safe by “liberating” yourself from any form of moderation.

Diet or Disordered Eating?

In the end, I find it somewhat ironic that this approach was developed by a psychologist. Because to my eye, it reinforces such psychologically unhelpful—even damaging—beliefs. For example:

  • In order to be happy, you must be thin.
  • Being thin is more important than anything else, therefore whatever you have to do to achieve this is worth it.
  • You are incapable of exercising judgment and self-control.
  • You cannot be trusted.
  • Certain foods are more powerful than you are.

In my own work as a weight loss coach, we spend a lot of time dismantling many of the beliefs that Bright Line Eating seems determined to instill.

If you buy into the idea that you have some sort of defect that makes it impossible for you to control yourself, this take-no-prisoners approach might seem like your only hope. And, apparently, many people who embrace it succeed in losing weight. But as one former adherent of Bright Line Eating wrote on her blog:

“I was thin but I was far from happy and definitely not free…I [had been] 100% sold on BLE as my forever way of eating [but] I reached a point where peace was more important than pounds.”

If someone came to me for nutrition counseling and described some of the behaviors endorsed in this program (such as taking a scale to restaurants to measure your food or putting a piece of tape over your mouth to prevent yourself from eating), I would probably refer them for evaluation for an eating disorder. Thompson discloses that she herself has a history of eating disorders including bulimia and binge eating. But the solution that she advocates still has many of the hallmarks of disordered eating, such as extreme inflexibility and black-and-white thinking.

Read More:  A Dietitian’s Review of Bright Line Eating

As anyone trained in the treatment of eating disorders knows, achieving a healthy weight does not necessarily mean that you have recovered from disordered thoughts about food (or about your body).

That’s my take on Bright Line Eating. No doubt, it will rub some people the wrong way. It’s certainly not my intention to undermine anyone who feels that Bright Line Eating is making their life better. But, if you’d like to experiment with a (really) different approach, check out the Weighless Mindset Reset, a free 7-day minicourse that I developed with Brock Armstrong, in which we investigate some of those underlying beliefs.

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Nutritional comparison of beef and plant-based alternatives

In this week’s episode of the Nutrition Diva podcast, I explore how plant-based meat alternative compare with meat in terms of the nutritional and environmental aspect, along with new research on their effect on the microbiome.

Here are nutritional and ingredient details for three of the most common meatless brands, as well as two types of ground beef.

4 ounces (113 g), uncookedMeatless Farm GroundImpossible BurgerBeyond BurgerGround beef (85% lean)Ground beef (grass fed)
Calories (kcal)250240230240224
Total fat (g)1614141714.4
Sat fat (g)58576
Protein (g)19192019.422
Carb (g)119700
Fiber (g)33200
Cholesterol (mg)0006970
Sodium (mg)54037039074.676.8
Potassium (mg)210610330305327
Iron (mg)
IngredientsWater, Pea Protein, Vegetable Oils (Canola, Shea), Methylcellulose, Yeast Extract, and less than 2% of: Potassium lactate, Coconut Oil, Rice Protein, Pea Fiber, Natural Flavor, Caramelized Carrot Concentrate for color, Potato Fiber, Potato Starch, Vegetable and Fruit Extracts for color, Salt, Molasses, Dried Vegetable (Potato, Onion), Sunflower Oil, Carrot Concentrate for color, Tomato Paste, Ascorbic Acid (Antioxidant), Concentrated Lemon Juice, Black PepperWater, Soy Protein Concentrate, Coconut Oil, Sunflower Oil, Natural Flavors, 2% Or Less Of: Potato Protein, Methylcellulose, Yeast Extract, Cultured Dextrose, Food Starch Modified, Soy Leghemoglobin, Salt, Mixed Tocopherols (Antioxidant), Soy Protein Isolate, Zinc Gluconate, Thiamine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B1), Niacin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Vitamin B12. Water, pea protein*, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, rice protein, natural flavors, dried yeast, cocoa butter, methylcellulose, and less than 1% of potato starch, salt, potassium chloride, beet juice color, apple extract, pomegranate concentrate, sunflower lecithin, vinegar, lemon juice concentrate, vitamins and minerals (zinc sulfate, niacinamide [vitamin B3], pyridoxine hydrochloride [vitamin B6], cyanocobalamin [vitamin B12], calcium pantothenate).Lean ground beefLean ground beef

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How to Avoid Overeating This Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a time to gather with friends and family, be grateful for all we have,  and stuff ourselves silly. I’m not that concerned about the long term consequences of this. As I’ve said before, a single day of excess isn’t going to make you gain weight any more than a one-day juice fast is going to make you lose weight.

Nonetheless, it’s no fun to push yourself away from the table and realize – too late! – that you’ve eaten to the point of discomfort.

Here are 5 strategies that can help you enjoy this year’s feast without regrets:

This episode is also available as a podcast. Click to listen.

Thanksgiving Tip #1: Keep the Appetizers Light

The traditional Thanksgiving menu features a lot of heavy, rich dishes – lots of starches, creamy casseroles, and everything is dripping with butter and gravy. It’s not a light meal. Unfortunately, the pre-dinner snacks tend to be just as heavy and rich as the main event! All too often people sit down to dinner already half-full from the snacks they’ve been nibbling all afternoon while dinner is prepared.

Rather than filling up on calorie-dense appetizers like cheese and crackers, clam dip, nuts, and bacon-wrapped pineapple chunks, keep the pre-dinner snacks light: crisp radishes and snow peas with a yogurt based dip, kale chips, and steamed edamame, for example. Clearing away all the snacks about an hour before dinner will also help ensure that people sit down to the table with an appetite.

Thanksgiving Tip #2: Use Smaller Plates

Research shows that when we use smaller plates, we serve ourselves smaller portions, consume fewer calories, but feel just as satisfied as we do after eating more calories off of larger plates. Now consider that the average size of dinner plates has gone from 9 to 13 inches over the last 30 years and our rising rates of obesity don’t seem that surprising.

See also: Why We Overeat

Do yourself and your guests a favor by setting the table with smaller plates. Grandma’s china is probably a lot smaller than your modern dinnerware. Alternatively, the salad or sandwich plates from your oversized set might be perfect.  The same holds true for things like wine glasses and forks: They larger they are, the more we consume. Downsizing your serving ware will not only help you eat a bit less without even noticing, It’ll also make your table less crowded.

Thanksgiving Tip #3: Serve the Vegetables First

If you start by filling your plate with stuffing, mashed potatoes, and candied yams, you’re likely to be out of room by the time you get to the string beans, Brussels sprouts, and carrots. Reverse the trend by helping yourself to turkey and all the vegetables first, leaving less room on the plate for the starchy fillers.

If you’re in charge of all or part of the menu this year, try to ensure that there are at least as many vegetables as starches – and resist the temptation to smother them all in cheese, cream of mushroom soup, and/or fried onions. Some crisp and colorful vegetables, lightly steamed and topped with a bright squeeze of lemon juice or fresh herbs, provide a welcome contrast to all the other dense and heavy dishes.

Some of my favorite vegetables sides for Thanksgiving include steamed carrots lightly glazed in ginger and a bit of butter, tender-crisp green beans tossed with cilantro and garlic, and a very lightly-dressed coleslaw or pickled vegetables.

Thanksgiving Tip #4: Choose Your Starch

One of the things that makes Thanksgiving dinner so devastating is all the redundant starches.  During the rest of the year, a dinner menu might feature a protein, a starch, and a vegetable. Or, at my house, we often skip the starch altogether and have a second (or third) vegetable instead.

But the traditional Thanksgiving menu includes a bird stuffed with bread, at least one or two types of potatoes, rolls – and often several other starches as well. And research shows that we eat more when we have a greater variety than we do when our choices are more limited.

If you are cooking this year, consider reigning in the madness a bit. Stuffing and potatoes might be non-negotiable, but would anyone really miss the rolls? Is it really necessary to serve mashed potatoes, roasted potatoes, and scalloped potatoes?  Even if you have no control over the menu, you can also choose to eat only one of the many starch dishes this year instead of all of them.

Thanksgiving Tip #5: You Don’t Have to Sample Everything

When we go to a restaurant, we don’t feel that we have to order every single thing on the menu just because the chef has prepared them. We choose our favorite item, and feel no sense of loss or deprivation. But somehow when faced with a Thanksgiving buffet of 20 different dishes, we feel duty-bound to sample every single one.

By all means, marvel over the beautiful array of colors and aromas and compliment the chef(s) on the amazing spread. Then, just as you would when handed a menu full of delicious options, choose what you’d like to enjoy that evening…and enjoy the heck out of it. Likewise, when it comes to dessert, it is not necessary to have a “small” piece of all 5 desserts any more than you’d order every item on a dessert menu.

There’s a sort of madness that sets in at Thanksgiving, as if this will be the last pumpkin pie we will ever see. But Thanksgiving actually comes every year – and the menu doesn’t change all that much! Barring catastrophe, your life is likely to include many more pumpkin pies, all of which will taste very similar to the dozens of pumpkin pies you’ve had before.  When I remind myself of that, it seems to put things back into perspective, allowing me to make my decision based on how much room I actually have left in my stomach and which dessert looks particularly appealing or unusual.

Originally published at

Are decorative pumpkins and gourds edible?


Jessica writes:

“We just threw out the pumpkins we had on our porch as decoration, and it made me wonder whether we could have eaten them. I bought them at the grocery store after all! 

Can you eat/cook any type of pumpkin? (I had a mix of regular, Cinderella, and maybe Yokohama.) If you can eat them, how long after you put them on your porch will they be edible? I’ve only used canned pumpkin to date, is the process of making your own challenging?”

Continue reading “Are decorative pumpkins and gourds edible?” >

How Fitness Trackers Sabotage Weight Loss

Lots of people use diet and activity trackers to log their food intake and exercise. After all, there’s an old saying that “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.” And yet it seems to be backfiring.

I get email after email from people using these trackers who can’t understand why they’re not losing weight. They’re entering in every morsel of food and logging every activity. According to their trackers, they should be shedding two or three pounds a week. And yet the scale hasn’t budged—or they’ve actually gained weight!

This article is also available as a podcast. Click to listen

The problem with net calories

Here’s how many of these trackers work: You start every day with a certain number of calories to spend. That number is based on your height, weight, age, sex, activity level, and your goals—that is, whether you’re trying to lose, gain, or maintain your current weight.

Calories are subtracted from your balance as you log your meals into the diet tracker over the course of the day. Ideally, you don’t get to zero too early in the day. But if you do, there’s a solution. Let’s say it’s 5 pm and I’m down to my last 400 calories. But wait! I can take an evening run, log it into the app and now I’ve got 840 calories to spend on dinner! How awesome is that?

The general principle here is sound: The more you move, the more you can eat. In practice, however, these “net calorie” calculations are inaccurate and misleading—and they are suckering people into eating too many calories. Let me explain.

How logging exercise leads you astray

Although diet tracking apps can help you get an accurate picture of your calorie intake, they are much less reliable in determining how many calories you burn. Here are at three ways they tend to get it wrong.

Mistake #1: Your baseline may be too high.  In order to calculate your baseline calorie requirements, you indicate your activity level: sedentary, lightly active, moderately active, or very active. This does not refer to how much you exercise (we’ll get to that in a moment). This is just about your daily activity level. And guess what? Most people select an activity level that’s one or two categories higher than their lifestyle actually warrants. Unless you rope cattle eight hours a day, your lifestyle probably does not qualify as “very active.”

If you use a wearable fitness tracker like a Fitbit or Apple Watch or even a low-tech pedometer or step counter, you can use that to help you select the proper category for your lifestyle. Here’s an easy cheat sheet:

  • Fewer than 1,000 steps a day is Sedentary.
  • Fewer than 10,000 steps or about four miles a day is Lightly Active.
  • Ten to 23,000 steps or four to 10 miles a day is considered Active.
  • More than 23,000 steps or 10 miles a day is Highly Active.

If you walk or run for exercise, you can count those steps and/or miles toward your baseline activity level if you want, but then you can’t enter them again as exercise. They’ve already been counted.

Mistake #2: The calories burned from additional activity are often overestimated.  Most diet tracking apps give you a place to manually log physical activities and exercise, such as a spinning class or yard work or ballroom dancing. Alternatively, there are wearable devices that sense your movement and changes in your heart rate.  Either way, you may not be burning anywhere near as many calories as your app thinks. As with the readouts on the aerobic equipment at your gym, diet and fitness trackers may overestimate calories burned by anywhere from 10% to 25%.

For one thing, the more you do a given exercise, the more efficient your body becomes at performing that motion. As a result, you burn fewer calories. The first time I run an eight-minute mile, I’m probably going to burn more calories than the 100th time I run an eight-minute mile.

Not only that, but when we burn a bunch of calories exercising, our body actually adjusts by burning fewer calories the rest of the day.  A new study finds that the body of a reasonably fit person may “recover” up to 28% of the calories burned through exercise by burning fewer calories at rest.  Ironically, the more fat tissue you have, the greater this effect.  As researcher John Speakman explains,

“When your smart watch tells you that you burned 300 calories on your run it may be correct (probably isn’t). But even if it is correct, you should not be deluded into thinking you can now eat 300 calories more food.”

Mistake #3: You may be counting some of those calories  twice.  If I spend the next hour sitting at my computer writing this podcast episode, I’ll burn about 100 calories. Those non-active calories are already accounted for in my daily calorie allowance. If I spent the next hour on the stationary bike instead, I’d burn 500 calories. That’s 400 more calories than I would have burned writing this episode. But if I log my bike ride into my diet tracker, it doesn’t add 400 calories to my total allowance … it adds 500. Essentially, it counts those 100 baseline calories twice.

The more activities you enter in to your exercise diary, the more this double-dipping error compounds—especially if you’re logging a lot of low-intensity activities like housecleaning or yoga.

I recently heard from a Nutrition Diva listener who said she burned 3,000 calories a day. She was only eating 2,500. She couldn’t figure out why she was gaining weight.  Sure enough, she was using an app to track her food intake and exercise.

According to her app, her baseline calorie needs were about 1,800 calories a day. She then logged activities for almost every hour of her day: making beds, folding laundry, unloading the dishwasher, yoga class, walking the dog, grocery shopping, car-pool, weeding the garden, playing the piano, cooking dinner, folding laundry, and so on. According to her tracker, all those activities were burning an extra 1,200 calories a day—which gave her a total “net calorie” allowance of 3,000 calories a day. She figured she could eat 2,500 calories a day and still lose weight.

In reality, all of her routine activities probably only burned a couple hundred calories above and beyond her baseline. Instead of eating 500 calories less than she burned each day, she was really eating 500 calories more than she burned each day. No wonder she wasn’t losing weight!

How to avoid the net calorie trap

Activity trackers are a great way to keep track of how active you are, but they aren’t very accurate at estimating your calorie expenditure. Adding “calories burned” to your daily calorie allowance can result in unintended weight gain.  So, I’d suggest that you don’t log your exercise and other activities into your diet tracker or sync your wearable fitness tracker to your diet log. Even better, I’d encourage you to stop thinking of exercise as simply way to burn calories or earn food and focus on the many other benefits it provides instead.

See also: What if exercise burned zero calories?


  1. Careau, Halsey, et al.. Energy compensation and adiposity in humans. 2021.


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Nutrition comparison of gluten-free flours

In this week’s episode of the Nutrition Diva podcast, I reviewed the nutritional benefits of watermelon seed flour in comparison to other gluten- and grain-free flours. You can listen to the episode here and below is a chart showing the nutritional values for several of the most common types.

1/4 cupCaloriesProtein (g)Fat (g)Sat fat (g)Carb (g)Fiber (g)Calcium (mg)Potassium (mg)
Watermelon seed flour17891535017207
Almond flour16061206472210
Coconut flour12063218106600
Cassava flour13000031220106
Gluten-free baking flour130200301459
Paleo baking flour110440.513327160
White pastry flour12030.50261658
Whole wheat pastry flour11040.502337111

What’s the healthiest way to eat rice?

In this episode of the Nutrition Diva podcast, I break down the differences between all the different types of rice. Which are most nutritious? Easiest on your blood sugar?

Nutritional comparison of rice varieties

1/2 cup, cookedCalories (kcal)Protein (g)Fat (g)Carbs (g)Fiber (g)Mg (%DV)
White, long grain1052022<12.4%
White, short grain1352029<12.1%
White, converted95202111.8%
Basmati (white)902021<12.4%
Jasmine (white)1052022<12.4%
Brown, long grain12531261.59.8%
Brown, medium grain1102123210.7%
Brown, converted11521241.37.6%
Black rice11531231~
Red rice11021232~
Wild rice8530181.56.5%
Glutinous (sticky) rice852018<11%

How do pili nuts compare nutritionally?

This week’s Nutrition Diva podcast is all about the pili nut, the latest entry into the superfood derby.  Below is a chart showing how they stack up to other nuts nutritionally.

1 oz/30 g provides:Pili nutsAlmondsWalnutPeanutCashewMacadamiaCoconut
Fat22 g14 g18 g14 g12.5 g21.5 g9.5 g
Saturated10 g1 g2 g2 g2 g3 g8.5 g
Monounsat.10 g9 g2.5 g7 g7 g17 g1.4 g
Omega 3----2.5 mg-- ------
Protein3 g6 g4 g7.5 g5 g2 g1 g
Fiber1 g3.5 g2 g2.5 g1 g2 g2.5 g
Vitamin E10 mg7 mg02 mg-----
Calcium40 mg76 mg28 mg26 mg10 mg24 mg4 mg
Magnesium85 mg76 mg45 mg48 mg83 mg37 mg9 mg