He Said, She Said: Whole30®

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He Said

Earlier in my career, I worked at a medical clinic where part of my job was to put people on a 28-day “detox” program, when ordered to do so by the doctors, for reasons ranging from digestive woes to problems with fertility. For those four weeks, the patient abstained from gluten, dairy, soy, eggs, peanuts, shellfish, corn, and other foods deemed to inflame the body. At the end of the four weeks was the possibility of reintroducing the forbidden foods in systematic fashion in hopes of determining the impact of each.

If the protocol, rationale, and reasons for use sound familiar to you, that may be because they are all strikingly similar to those of the Whole30® program. “Strip them from your diet completely,” the Whole30 program’s website says of the demonized foods. “Cut out all the psychologically unhealthy, hormone-unbalancing, gut-disrupting, inflammatory food groups for a full 30 days. Let your body heal and recover from whatever effects those foods may be causing. Push the ‘reset’ button with your metabolism, systemic inflammation, and the downstream effects of the food choices you’ve been making. Learn once and for all how the foods you’ve been eating are actually affecting your day to day life, and your long term health. The most important reason to keep reading? This will change your life.”

Oh, Whole30 might change your life all right, but perhaps not in the ways that you hope. Let’s take a closer look at the program and examine three questions that address how the claims and expectations stack up against what really happens when someone embarks on such a journey.

(1) Are the excluded foods (added sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes, dairy, carrageenan, monosodium glutamate [MSG], and sulfites) really “psychologically unhealthy, hormone-unbalancing, gut-disrupting, inflammatory food groups”?

In short, no, the connection between food and our bodies is not that simple. Taking a step back in order to gain a macroscopic view of life, we see that few of us are comfortable with murkiness and uncertainty, and this overarching theme weaves its way through our relationships with food. Our yearning for crisp delineations leads to an oversimplified good/bad food dichotomy that might make us feel at ease, but really, it is nothing more than the application of scapegoating to nutrition.

Alan Levinovitz, a religion professor who has taken to writing about nutrition in recent years because of the intersectionality of spirituality and food, explains, “It’s terrifying to live in a place where the causes of diseases like Alzheimer’s, autism, or ADHD, or the causes of weight gain, are mysterious. So what we do is come up with certain causes for the things that we fear. If we’re trying to avoid things that we fear, why would we invent a world full of toxins that don’t really exist? Again, it’s about control. After all, if there are things that we’re scared of, then at least we know what to avoid. If there is a sacred diet, and if there are foods that are really taboo, yeah, it’s scary, but it’s also empowering, because we can readily identify culinary good and evil, and then we have a path that we can follow that’s salvific.”

(2) The Whole 30 website reads, “We want you to take this seriously, and see amazing results in unexpected areas.” What about that?

One of the confounding factors, and indeed one of the greatest challenges, with elimination diets is the power of suggestion inherent to unblinded experiments. If someone wants to test if dairy is responsible for whatever symptom is ailing him, he might first cut out dairy, wait for the symptom to subside, and then add back dairy systematically to see if the symptom returns. He knows whether he is pouring himself a glass of cow’s milk or a dairy-free alternative though, and this knowledge can influence the presence or absence of the symptom in question via placebo or nocebo effects.

For example, consider the patients I wrote about a few years ago who told me how much better they felt after cutting out gluten while they – unbeknownst to them – were still consuming gluten in abundance. They expected the exclusion of gluten to produce a positive result, so the mere belief that they had done it created the desired outcome.

By scapegoating the to-be-excluded foods before the program begins, Whole30 builds expectations that their removal will yield positive results. By guiding participants to consider “results in unexpected areas,” the program throws a bunch of crap against the wall, assuming some of it will stick. You may remember that scene in Ghost in which the psychic, played by Whoopi Goldberg, offers name after name until she hits on one that her client – who fails to see through the sham – recognizes and takes as proof of a metaphysical connection to the afterlife. Similarly, the likelihood is that over the course of 30 days, at least one facet of your wellbeing will improve, even if temporarily, and Whole30 is banking on you giving credit to the program when in fact another factor could very well be responsible. 

(3) What happens beginning on day 31 and beyond?

“We cannot possibly put enough emphasis on this simple fact—the next 30 days will change your life,” the Whole30 website reads. “It will change the way you think about food, it will change your tastes, it will change your habits and your cravings. It could, quite possibly, change the emotional relationship you have with food, and with your body. It has the potential to change the way you eat for the rest of your life.”

If your expectation is that after 30 days of abstinence, you will no longer have the taste for or cravings for the foods you excluded over the past month, you will probably be quite disappointed. “A review of the literature and research on food restriction indicates that inhibiting food intake has consequences that may not have been anticipated by those attempting such restriction,” wrote Janet Polivy, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto. “Starvation and self-imposed dieting appear to result in eating binges once food is available and in psychological manifestations such as preoccupation with food and eating, increased emotional responsiveness and dysphoria, and distractibility.”

In other words, you will likely be drawn to the excluded foods more than before the program began and overconsume them. The overeating further reinforces your preconceived notion that these foods are a problem. You may even begin to believe that you have a “food addiction” and eliminate the food again, not realizing that your presumed treatment is exacerbating the supposed problem.

Back in my days of implementing the 28-day detox program, such rebound eating was commonplace, and I had many repeat patients who did the detox over and over again in the earnest belief that the latest attempt would turn out differently than all of the ones that came before it. They blamed themselves when really the program was a setup for failure.

Taking a look at the Whole30 website, I see similar red flags planted to expunge the program of responsibility while erroneously placing the blame for potential failure squarely on the shoulders of participants. “Don’t you dare tell us this is hard. Beating cancer is hard. Birthing a baby is hard. Losing a parent is hard. Drinking your coffee black. Is. Not. Hard. You’ve done harder things than this, and you have no excuse not to complete the program as written,” the site reads. “Don’t even consider the possibility of a ‘slip.’ Unless you physically tripped and your face landed in a box of doughnuts, there is no ‘slip.’ You make a choice to eat something unhealthy. It is always a choice, so do not phrase it as if you had an accident.”

See through the enticing marketing and realize that diets like Whole30 are unlikely to produce long-term positive results and are more likely to pave the way for weight cycling and an unhealthy relationship with food while making you feel responsible for their failures.


She Said

While the Whole30 program has been around for a few years (It was created in 2009 by two “sports nutritionists.”), it feels like I have been hearing a lot more about it recently. And since we recently rang in the New Year, there seemed to be a surge of Whole30 talk both inside and outside my office. Many of my patients have asked me about the eating plan that emphasizes eating “whole” (i.e., minimally processed) foods while avoiding dairy, soy, sugar, alcohol, grains and legumes for 30 days and then strategically reintroducing these foods one by one to see how they affect one’s health, energy and stress levels. One patient of mine is getting married this month, and her husband-to-be and many of her family members are following the Whole30 to start “shedding for the wedding.” Go on any “healthy eating” Instagram page and you will find #Whole30 all over the place, with people posting their “clean” meals and extolling the virtues of this way of eating.

As you can guess, I am not a fan of Whole30, or any fad diet for that matter. Not only is it just another way for someone to try to manipulate their food using external rules to shrink their waistline, but it also promotes the “good food/bad food” dichotomy, which can lead to a lifetime of dieting and never having a healthy relationship with food or one’s body. For someone who is predisposed to developing an eating disorder (ED), following a plan like Whole30 could be especially dangerous because diets are often the gateway to EDs. In fact, many of my patients who struggle with EDs have tried Whole30 (or similar eating plans) and have found that it worsened their ED symptoms.

The tricky thing about the Whole30 is that on the surface it sounds good – the authors talk about the health benefits one can expect to reap by following the program and how eating unprocessed foods can improve one’s health and happiness. The plan suggests that there is a “right” and “wrong” way to eat and that if one follows their food rules, they will live a longer, healthier life. In a way, it kind of smacks of orthorexia (i.e., an obsession with eating in a “perfect” manner) to me, which is tricky, as a number of people want to eat “correctly” and view food simply as fuel for our bodies that should always be of the highest nutrient value. It’s not a bad thing to want to eat healthfully and reap the benefits, but I firmly believe that flexibility is key to developing a healthy relationship with food and one’s body. Eating Oreo cookies is not a death sentence, and eating fruits and vegetables will not necessarily lead to you avoiding dying from cancer. What matters is the overall makeup of our diets, recognizing that all foods fit and that sometimes cookies are the right choice in certain situations.

Diets are seductive – they make lots of promises about how you are going to feel, how your body will change, and how your health will improve. They tell you that by following this arbitrary set of rules, you will reach true nutrition nirvana, all of your ailments will subside, and you will become the best version of yourself. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case, and most people cannot follow such strict guidelines for more than a short while, leading them to backlash by eating all of the “forbidden” foods and feeling like a failure. The very nature of diets is temporary, and any results one experiences during the “honeymoon” phase of a diet will likely dissipate once the dieter cannot follow the plan anymore.

I discourage my patients recovering from EDs from trying a plan like Whole30. In my work with these individuals, I am trying to help them eventually learn to trust their own bodies’ wisdom, that their body will tell them what, when, and how much to eat if they listen hard enough (i.e., intuitive eating). Eating in a way that is enforced by a set of external rules, like Whole30 or any other diet plan, flies directly in the face of this intuitive eating philosophy and can derail progress for many individuals dealing with ED. My advice? Skip the Whole30 and find an intuitive eating specialist who can help you rediscover what foods work for your body and promote your health (mentally, physically, and emotionally).


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Note: This post is a tangential companion piece to another piece I wrote, which you can read here.

Before I changed careers and became a dietitian, I put my math degree to use as an operations research analyst for the U.S. Department of Transportation.  I worked on many projects, one of which was helping to manage a mathematical model of the alternative fuels industry.  When I first joined the project, I wondered why – if energy sources other than gasoline existed – did we continue to primarily use gas for our cars?  Then I learned that all of these alternatives had serious downsides.  Fuel X would reduce tailpipe emissions, but cause massive pollution output at the plant where it was produced.  Fuel Y was so unstable that a simple fender bender could trigger an explosion.  Fuel Z was so expensive that it would price out many drivers.  I still remember one of my colleagues, who had been working in the field much longer than me, saying, “These alternative fuels are alternatives for a reason.”

Alternative medicine isn’t all that different.  If its unusual tests and approaches worked as well as its practitioners say they do, these tests and treatments would not be alternative, they would be mainstream.  I support an individual’s right to pursue the kind of healthcare that feels right to him or her, and I understand that not everybody wants to stick to the mainstream route.  In fact, I am glad there are people out there who question the mainstream, push the boundaries, and try new things, as that is often how progress is made.  My concern is just that alternative practitioners need to do a better job with transparency and disclosure.  In other words, they should be disclosing that a given approach is an unproven hypothesis, if that is indeed the case, not passing it off as a well-documented conclusion.

As an example, consider the plight of one of my best friends from high school, who wrote to me recently because an alternative nutritionist told her she should go gluten-free to help her rheumatoid arthritis (RA).  My friend says she has read on many websites that gluten causes RA.  I suspect that one day we will have a good understanding of the role, if any, that gluten plays in RA development and exacerbation.  That day, however, is not today.  For someone to put it on a website or recommend it to my friend as fact is just, well, in my opinion anyway, irresponsible, unethical, and unprofessional.

Sometimes people feel so poorly and get so desperate for an answer that they will listen to anybody who gives them one, independent of whether that answer is correct.  I do not mean that as a knock against any of the patients, but rather as criticism of practitioners who capitalize on desperate people making emotional decisions when they should instead hit the brakes and help said people make informed decisions.  If, for example, the nutritionist explained to my friend that the gluten-free diet is an experimental approach to dealing with RA and my friend – fully understanding the experimental nature of the approach as well as its potential pros and cons – decides to go ahead with it, then by all means.

These practitioners should disclose that some of their approaches and tests are not terribly accurate and are not widely accepted as valid, but they often do not.  Paradoxically, offering this disclosure would probably give them more credibility, not less.  Remember in school when a student posed a question that stumped the professor?  The professor who admitted “I don’t know” earned trust and respect, while the professor who made up an answer that was clearly BS looked bad even though that is the exact outcome he hoped to avoid by inventing an answer.

Elimination Diets

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“Two separate people told me I should try going gluten and dairy free to combat my arthritis and go off my medicine.  Perhaps that could be another topic: elimination diets to combat various diseases.”

In response to my request for blog topics, a friend of mine suggested the preceding idea.  My response inspired a tangential post to which you can find a link here as well as about two-thirds of the way down.

Before we get to elimination diets, let us first consider some of the various ways in which foods might have a negative impact on us: allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities.

Food allergies involve the immune system and the reactions are rapid and often acute.  Think of somebody who accidentally eats a peanut and has to use his EpiPen to keep his throat from closing.  Doctors can test for food allergies with a high degree of accuracy.

Food intolerances do not involve the immune system.   For example, consider somebody who lacks the lactase enzyme in his system necessary to digest lactose, and as a consequence he experiences symptoms like gas, bloating, and diarrhea in response to dairy ingestion.  We call this lactose intolerance, and doctors can test for it via a hydrogen breathalyzer test.

Food sensitivities differ from both allergies and intolerances.  Symptoms associated with food sensitivities tend to set in slowly, leave slowly, and are more subtle.  The range of associated symptoms is also quite wide, including headaches, fatigue, joint pain, bloating, and nasal congestion, just to name a few.

The current tests for food sensitivities are, to put it kindly, not great.  In fact, there is no immunological society in either the U.S. or Europe that considers today’s food sensitivity tests valid.  One of the problems with these tests is that they can simply reflect exposure to a food.  In other words, if you have eaten a given food recently, it is more likely to come up positive.  Even worse, the results can actually reflect tolerance (yes, tolerance) to the food in question.

The best way to determine food sensitivities is through an elimination diet, a procedure in which somebody cuts out various foods and then reintroduces them in systematic fashion in order to see how his symptoms change in response.  Elimination diets can be slow (think weeks, not days) and tedious, and they require a tremendous amount of discipline on the patient’s part.  Another issue to consider is that the patient is unblinded.  In other words, he knows when he is or is not eating a given food and this can influence the results.  If someone or something has led him to suspect that a given food is responsible for his symptoms, then he might imagine or exaggerate a reaction due to expectation.  It’s sort of a like a reverse placebo effect.  Additionally, other confounding factors exist too.  All sorts of variables exist in our life, so the onset or dissipation of a symptom cannot automatically be attributed to a change in diet.

While elimination diets can yield useful data, the challenges and downsides associated with them understandably leave people looking for alternative approaches [At this point, I went off on a tangent, which I extracted and posted here.], which brings us back to the food sensitivity tests that I mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago.  These test results should never be taken literally, but they can be used for the basis of an elimination diet.  For example, if the results indicate that Foods X, Y, and Z are problematic, one can eliminate and then reintroduce these three foods to determine which (if any) of them are indeed problems.

Also remember that cutting out foods can have consequences and should not be done casually.  I know cutting out gluten is kind of the in thing to do these days, but going gluten-free without a good reason for doing so it not such a great idea.  Gluten-free products are often lower in fiber, iron, and some of the B vitamins.  Of course it is possible to get these nutrients elsewhere, but a gluten-free individual has to pay that much more attention to the rest of his diet in order to avoid a deficiency.  Additionally, gluten-free products tend to be more expensive than their traditional counterparts, and potential social repercussions warrant consideration as well.  Unless somebody has cause for eliminating a food and has discussed it with his doctor and dietitian first, cutting it out is probably not the best idea.

Despite all of these potential downsides, elimination diets are currently our best option for determining food sensitivities.  If you are considering eliminating a food (or foods) due to a medical condition or symptom, talk with your doctor and dietitian first.  While elimination diets have their place, they are not always the appropriate first step.  Your doctor may wish to run other tests first.  For example, celiac disease can be more difficult to diagnose if somebody has already begun to reduce his gluten intake.  So, talk with your healthcare team first.  Your dietitian can help you to design the logistics of your elimination diet.  If you are going to put in the effort to do one, might as well make sure you implement it in such a way that will maximize your chances of gathering useful data.  Lastly, if and when you do start an elimination diet, keep an open mind to all possible outcomes and do not assume that a given food is going to be either benign or problematic.