What if you could harness the power of diet to solve all of your eating and health-related problems — everything from seasonal allergies to chronic pain to emotional eating?
Sound too good to be true?
Well, if you read claims related to the Whole30 program and similar fad diets, you’d think you found the cure. In just 30 days, you could fix everything!
But there’s a catch (isn’t there always?).
The Whole30 Program is Essentially an Elimination Diet
Elimination diets are short-term eating plans that involve removing several types of foods, then slowly and systematically reintroducing them, one at a time, to identify any associated reactions.
Now, in theory, for the right population, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with elimination diets. Some elimination diets, such as the low FODMAP diet, are supported by research and are effective for the management of some specific health conditions (such as irritable bowel syndrome). More on the Whole30 research (or lack thereof) to follow.
However, let’s take a moment to discuss what I mean by the right population. That includes people who may have unresolved gastrointestinal symptoms or inflammatory conditions, who have not been responsive to other treatments. It’s NOT for anyone who has any unresolved disordered eating behaviors, is following a weight loss diet or otherwise altering food intake in an attempt to lose weight, or already has a balanced diet and consistent eating pattern.
Essentially that means that most people are not going to be the right fit for an elimination diet.
Furthermore, I have too often seen elimination diets become the catalyst for disordered eating behaviors and the development of eating disorders, which long-term, typically worsen the symptoms that an individual was trying to resolve to begin with.
If someone wants to experiment with an elimination diet, they want to do it under the guidance of a trained professional, such as a registered dietitian who has an understanding of disordered eating.
The Whole30 Program is Based on “Rules” and is Extremely Rigid and Restrictive
The result of a very rigid, rules-based approach to eating is something called the restrict-binge cycle, which is exactly what it sounds like. In an attempt to lose weight, feel better, improve health, we set very rigid, very black-and-white rules around food. We have a list of what we are allowed to eat and how much we are allowed to have.
But, after the novelty of this new eating plan wears off, the feelings of deprivation grow. We want everything we feel like we “can’t” have. As the deprivation intensifies, our ability to resist weakens. Eventually we give in. We eat — and often overeat — the food(s) we aren’t supposed to have. We feel guilty, shameful, weak. To compensate for our “bad” behavior, we vow to do better, restrict more….which again sets the stage for overeating. And so the cycle goes round and round.
Contrary to their claims, these types of eating plans do not help us heal our relationship with food, they harm it. They teach us that we can’t trust ourselves or our bodies to make our own decisions, and create an all-out power struggle between us and food. We are almost always on the losing side of that battle. That’s not because there is anything wrong with us – it’s because the human body is programmed to resist restriction and has all sorts of mechanisms in place to make it really, really hard to maintain a restrictive eating pattern for any appreciable length of time.
Moreover, we are autonomous beings. We like to be in charge of our decisions. When we feel like our autonomy is being compromised (like when we are using diet rules to dictate our food decisions), our natural response is to rebel. This is, in part, how elimination diets and all other rigid, restrictive eating plans, can ultimately pave the way for us to engage in the very eating behaviors we are trying to prevent and change.
And lastly, let’s talk about the actual nutrition (I am a dietitian after all)! Such a restrictive diet also severely limits intake of a lot of key nutrients – vitamin D and calcium, for example. The Whole30 program labels highly nutritious foods – like dairy, whole grains, and beans – as “bad” foods and demands they be eliminated. So even beyond the behavioral consequences of this program, the possibility of nutrient deficiencies is also concerning.
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The Whole30 Diet is Not Evidence-Based
My PubMed and Google Scholar searches yielded 0 results for published studies on the Whole30 – it hasn’t been tested in any controlled fashion.
Sure, the books cite a lot of studies – though they also cite popular news websites like Huffington Post and Natural News, which aren’t credible scientific authorities. All this really means is that the authors have developed a theory based on their interpretation of the published literature that fits their narrative, it does not mean their theory is in fact correct.
“Several hundred people trying it out and reporting their results” is not valid research method. Thus, these success stories do not equal scientific validation. This all leaves too much room for cherry picking the results we want to report and disregarding the feedback and results that don’t fit the storyline.
I am not saying that there aren’t people to truly believe this was successful for them (however they define “successful”). But, was that “success” sustained? Who knows – again we don’t have any studies to assess short- or long-term results.
The Whole30 Diet is All About the Food
Our relationship with food is very complex (i.e., our ability to make health-supportive food decisions is influenced by more than just knowledge). Emotions, environment, and physical state all play a role.
Our issues related to eating and weight and overall health status are multifaceted and are about much more than just the foods we choose. When we focus so much on the food, we lose sight of all those other contributing factors (e.g., stress, sleep, movement, etc.). Focusing on food distracts us from meeting other needs which ultimately interferes with our ability to effectively manage or resolve these issues.
The Whole30 program suggests that if you can conquer the food, you will conquer all of your problems. While it may help temporarily, the Whole30, or any other diet, will not resolve all that ails you. It may even add to the list.
If not the Whole30, then what?
To be clear, I absolutely believe that nutrition matters. And, there are some foods that just don’t agree with some people – I wholeheartedly agree. Food choices, and finding the food choices that work best for us, is an important part of overall health.
But, diet is just one piece of the puzzle. You won’t be able to see the big picture unless you can put all of the pieces together. That includes not just understanding what are you eating, but why are you eating? And it also includes looking at movement patterns? Stress management? Sleep habits? Access to healthcare? Social support? And on and on.
At Green Mountain at Fox Run, we are firm believers in taking a more holistic approach to promoting health. We help women create real and sustainable change in the way they eat, move, and live to maximize overall well-being.
When it comes to food, we help women get off the dieting roller coaster and establish a more balanced, health-supportive, and peaceful relationship with food – to eat in a way that tastes and feels good. We help them uncover the roots of their eating behavior and learn how to make real sustainable changes without needing strict rules or diets. Most importantly, we empower them to be their own authority on their decisions about food allowing them to find real food freedom.
What’s our secret?
- Establishing balanced, consistent, and predictable eating patterns. That means, eating foods from all food groups (i.e., no food is off limits), providing the body with consistent and adequate fuel, and eating at predictable times throughout the day.
- Developing a mindful eating practice. That is being fully present and aware during the eating process, engaging all of the senses, and noticing how different foods and meals make the body feel.
- Granting unconditional permission to eat what you want. This is key for making peace with food (and is totally counter to the Whole30 recommendations). This is how you end the power-struggle and re-build trust and confidence in yourself to be your own authority on your food decisions.
- Understanding why you eat. The fact is, we eat for more reasons than hunger alone. Uncovering the real reasons behind your eating behavior will reveal the path forward for changing it.
And let me repeat: eating is just one pillar of the Green Mountain at Fox Run program philosophy. Moving and living are two equally important components.
If the Whole30 program, or any other new diet program has caught your eye lately, I invite you to consider an alternative approach. One that considers the whole picture rather than just a piece. A program that empowers you instead of belittles you. One that believes you hold the answers to healing your relationship with food and will support you on your journey to uncovering them.
Green Mountain at Fox Run has been changing the lives of women for over 40 years – we can help change yours, too.
Are you ready to practice healthy eating in a safe, encouraging environment?
Kickstart a mindful eating practice with a visit to Green Mountain. We encourage you to experiment with food and give you a safe environment to do so. Our summer weather is unparalleled here in the Okemo Valley, where the beautiful vistas of rural Vermont enhance the safe, healing environment of our retreat center.
Contact us to learn more about our healthy lifestyle program at Green Mountain at Fox Run.