You’re probably familiar with the Whole30 program. Maybe a friend did it, maybe you did it, or maybe you saw all of the the blue “Whole30 Approved” tags in Whole Foods when the two partnered in January.
The Whole30 is a strict 30-day program—no grains, dairy, real or artificial added sugar, alcohol, legumes, baked goods, junk food, or sulfites. There are no calorie limits. By cutting out these foods for 30 days, the thinking goes, the body can recover from their "negative" impacts. After the 30 days, participants carefully reintroduce the banned foods, one by one, to identify the physical and psychological effect each one has.
“The Whole30 is not a diet,” writes Whole30 co-founder Melissa Hartwig in her New York Times bestseller Food Freedom Forever. It’s a reset, “the catalyst for a whole new lifestyle.” The program aims to change people's habits and cravings—to get them to cook more and eat less processed food. Alongside a plethora of physical improvements, the Whole30 promises to help those who feel stressed, shamed, obsessed, and out-of-control about eating to “restore a healthy emotional relationship with food.”
For those who simply hope to identify food sensitivities, the Whole30 may be an interesting way to understand how certain foods make them feel. According to Shelly Debiasse, nutrition program director at Boston University College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, there is a greater occurrence of sensitivities to grains, dairy, peanuts, and sulfites (the foods the program cuts out) in the US. These foods, however, have “no adverse medical effects” for the vast majority of people.
In terms of its physical effects, the program probably won’t hurt. “If you are creative, and you know something about nutrition science and dietetics, you can go 30 days without eating any of the [not-approved foods],” Debiasse says. Trevor Kashey, a doctor of metabolic chemistry and chief of biomedical sciences at LifeXMD, agrees that the program won’t leave you nutritionally deficient: “There is nothing whole grains and milk provide that you can’t get from fruit, vegetables, and meat,” he says.
But if you already have a poor emotional relationship with food, the Whole30 probably won’t help, and could even make things worse. The program claims to help people develop an intuitive, relaxed style of eating, and yet it consists of a set of bizarre, draconian rules. “If they’re looking for people to develop a healthy relationship with food, this is the worst thing possible,” says Linda Bacon, associate nutritionist at the University of California, Davis, and the author of Health at Every Size, a book that challenges common weight-related myths and advocates for body positivity. The Whole30's "approved"/"not-approved" categories get in the way of listening to and trusting your body’s internal cues and cravings, she says. They're especially counterproductive for those who have a poor relationship with food because they contribute to a restrict/binge cycle—when someone doesn’t allow themselves to eat certain foods and then ends up overeating them. “If you have an idea that ice cream is 'bad,' and then you allow yourself to eat it, of course you’re going to go out of control,” Bacon says. (Hartwig declined to comment when Tonic asked for a response to these criticisms.) The Whole30 claims to have a strategy to combat this thinking. As Hartwig writes in her book, “You are not a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ person based on what’s on your plate." Participants learn that there is no ‘good’ food or ‘bad’ food that should contribute to feelings of guilt and shame. But in truth, it’s hard not to feel guilty eating legumes, for example, when the Whole30 rules include them among “the most common craving-inducing, blood sugar disrupting, gut-damaging, inflammatory food groups.” (In fact, many nutritionists actually advise eating legumes, which can be beneficial for gut flora.) Gaining and maintaining control is one of the central tenets of the Whole30. Even a small slip-up during the 30 days erases your progress and mandates starting over at day one. “Habit research proves that black-and-white rules are actually easier to follow,” Hartwig writes in her book. And for a little while (30 days), those strict rules might feel really good, because control feels good.
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Control, in fact, appears to be how the Whole30 defines a healthy, intuitive relationship with food—what Whole30’ers call “Food Freedom.” Food Freedom is “feeling in control of the food you eat, instead of the food controlling you." (Hartwig's book Food Freedom Forever is entirely devoted to the subject.) "It’s a three-part process: reset your body, enjoy food freedom, and acknowledge when you are slipping; then, start over." It’s an ongoing cycle of losing and regaining control—one that extends beyond the program maxim of “only 30 days.” Over time, Hartwig writes, it gets easier.
But for people who have food-related stress or anxiety, control itself is often at the core of the problem. Control usually means sticking to one or many rules: no gluten, no sugar, only clean eating, and so on. This control is unsustainable, even if you’re not restricting calories. “When you feel restricted, you can only restrict for so long,” Kashey says. Bacon agrees: “Eventually, you’re going to cave," she says. "Your body is going to be looking for difference and satisfaction. Your body isn’t just looking for calories.” For many people, when they inevitably lose control and slip up, they feel anxiety and shame. The only solution to alleviate this emotional discomfort, according to the Whole30, is to regain control. How? By resetting with another Whole30. The possibility—and the necessity—of constantly resetting with a Whole30 reinforces any preexisting distrust of the body's hunger signals. And the program’s perpetual reset structure could—as some critics have pointed out—further replicate the dieting cycle that initially instilled this distrust. Ultimately, the Whole30 fails to address the root of many people’s food-related anxiety, and creates an environment that could potentially enable it instead. Many people have lost the ability to recognize their hunger and fullness cues and the sense of which foods make them feel good. According to Kashey, after adolescence, people lose the ability to eat intuitively. “Cultural bias stacks the cards against maintaining the capacity to eat intuitively, and once that is gone, external structure must be imposed to maintain reasonable intake,” he says. The Whole30 states that intuitive eating is possible, but only by first changing the food you eat—by imposing dietary restrictions. Others argue, however, that letting go of external rules is critical to reconnecting with these signals. Doing so takes time and practice, but it is more psychologically sustainable. The Whole30 poses particular problems for people whose poor emotional relationship with food is tied to their body image. Food guilt and shame often go hand in hand with body dissatisfaction and efforts to lose weight. Hartwig insists that the Whole30 is not a weight-loss program, because prioritizing weight loss doesn't help people heal their relationship with food or their body. (Not to mention that weight loss is unsustainable for 97 percent of dieters.) The Whole30 doesn’t include counting or cutting calories, and participants are even banned from stepping on the scale during the 30 days. The program also provides a checklist of “Non-Scale Victories” to help participants identify the wide variety of benefits they experience, which range from “your kids say you’re more fun” to “you're no longer a slave to sugar/carbs.” But when it comes to weight loss, the Whole30 seems to want it both ways. It markets itself as a program that supposedly frees participants from the negative psychological effects of other weight-loss diets: “[The Whole30] is focused on health, not weight loss,” Hartwig writes. The ban on scales claims to offer “a welcome, well-deserved respite from any obsession with body weight.” At the same time, the Whole30 promotes weight-loss goals and expectations: “If you could only achieve that one thing—lasting food freedom, wouldn't your other goals (improved health, better self-confidence, and, yes, a trimmer waistline) be that much easier to achieve?” Although participants aren’t supposed to weigh themselves during the 30 days, they are encouraged to do so before and after to track weight loss. Weight loss is mentioned throughout the Whole30 website, including in the program guidelines and in six out of the first ten testimonials that were displayed on the site at the time of publication. The Non-Scale Victories checklist also includes suggestive benefits: flatter stomach, leaner appearance, clothes fitting better, and wedding ring fitting better.
A lot of people probably will lose weight doing a Whole30, especially if they go into it with a restrictive mindset. But just suggesting that people could lose weight isn't exactly the problem. It's the surreptitious encouragement of weight loss goals as people are trying to fix their emotional relationship with food. The Whole30 identifies psychological health around food as a serious concern. But instead of dealing with the core issues, it catches people in another never-ending cycle. It has successfully built its appeal on being the anti-diet, but fundamentally, it seems to be no different from the rest.
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