I’m on a semi-starvation diet, why am I so hungry?

Today, I have another reader question shared by Mealtime Hostage.


I’ve cut my portions to 1/2 of what I would usually eat (or) I’m trying to stay at 1200 calories a day but I’m soooo hungry!

Of course you’re hungry! You’re eating less than you need, and your body is poking you, trying to get you to eat more.

1200 calories a day is not enough food for most grown-up people.* Unless you’re simply a small, not-very-hungry person (ballpark: 4′ 10″ and 100 lbs.), you’re very likely not eating enough to support your needs.

When it comes to energy and appetite, your body attempts to match your energy intake to your energy expenditure. That means, if you use a lot of energy one day, running around more than usual, you will be hungrier afterward, as your body attempts to make up the deficit. I’ve even experienced “catch up” hunger several days removed from the event.

But the biggest chunk of your energy expenditure comes not from activity, but from existing and continuing to exist, and that depends a lot on how big you are. Bigger people tend to expend more energy just being alive, and therefore, they’re going to need to eat more in order to match their intake to their expenditure. Your body is remarkably accurate at doing this, and research shows a very narrow margin of error in matching intake to expenditure over very long periods of time, for most people. This results in a mostly-stable weight for years at a time.

It’s true that many people’s weights will slowly drift upward over years and decades, but from a survival perspective, your body sees that as less risky than if it were to drift downward. Some people experience dramatic weight instability, gaining and losing lots of weight, sometimes unintentionally, in relatively short periods of time. If there’s no underlying medical issue (like an illness, or a thyroid problem, or a medication interaction), it may be that their eating and/or activity has been chaotic enough to disrupt the body’s usual balancing act.

But, back to your question: if you’re purposely eating fewer calories than you expend, you will feel hungry and your body will attempt to get you to eat more. Sometimes using very sneaky means…like “Ooops a box of cookies!” or “I accidentally the whole pizza.” Your resting energy expenditure might also tank, as your body tries to conserve energy. You’ll be sleepier, less active, and less able to warm yourself up in the cold. And when the weight loss inevitably slows, or you begin regaining weight, you will blame yourself and your lack of willpower, instead of the true culprit: an energy deficit and your body’s clever survival mechanisms.

If long-term research on diet has taught us anything, it’s that most people’s bodies do not like being in negative energy balance — the state required to lose weight — for very long.

People can and do suppress their hunger by focusing intently on their diet, but as soon as their attention wavers — say, they get sick, or they get really busy at work, or some family comes to visit — it is almost inevitable that they will go back to eating more. Often, more than they would have if they hadn’t been restricting. And if their attention never wavers, there’s a chance they’ve triggered an underlying eating disorder.

Ignoring one’s hunger signals requires enormous effort, and I’m not convinced that for people who do it successfully, it’s always a good thing. In the case of an eating disorder, it’s definitely not.

If you’re on a calorie restriction diet, you have two options: you can continue restricting and just put up with the hunger (and the binges and weight regain that will almost certainly follow), or you can decide that your body’s hunger signals are not wrong, are not aberrations, and are, in fact, worth listening to and respecting. You can decide that you have the right to eat what you need, not go hungry, and to weigh what your body prefers…and that you can still improve your health and body image, if you want to, even if your weight never changes.

This does not mean that you must follow every single impulse toward food, because every single impulse toward food is also not respecting your hunger. Most of us are surrounded by hundreds of food cues every day, in the form of advertising, and it makes us think of food even when we’re not otherwise hungry. But you can commit to learning what hunger truly feels like, and then deciding, when it calls, that you will answer it by feeding yourself matter-of-factly and well.

Responding to your hunger appropriately will give you the best chance for long-term weight stability. If you were previously eating more than your body wanted or needed, responding to your hunger might even help you settle at a slightly lower weight. Bonus: it will also provide you with the energy you need to support exercising, running around with your kids, doing hard physical labour, or whatever your life requires. Physical activity will, in turn, further contribute to a stable weight, as well as more energy (and, hopefully, fun) in the moment, and better long-term health.

In my opinion, that’s a much better deal than giving yourself less than you need.

*But there are always exceptions and outliers, and some people naturally eat very little. Energy needs are also very different for hospitalized people, or people with medical conditions that affect their resting energy expenditure.


Plenty of calories to go around in comments.

Posted in Diets, eating, Humane Nutrition | Comments closed

Part 3: Offering yourself new foods.

This is the third part of my very long-winded response to a reader question forwarded to me from Mealtime Hostage.


It didn’t really hit me until I wrote the second post in this series a few days ago, but there’s a huge part of my work that I never blog about: I work with a lot of adult picky eaters who just want to learn to eat more foods. These are people who never learned, as kids, how to eat more than a scant handful of things, and it makes their lives difficult enough that they seek me out.

I love working with picky eaters. I can’t tell you how beautiful it is to watch someone try a food they’ve never tried before, perhaps with some trepidation, but determined to stop feeling afraid. And whether they turn out to like it or not, forever after, that food no longer holds power over them. It just becomes food, not something suspicious and terrifying…even if they never eat it again.

When you’re learning to like new foods, it’s important to observe the Division of Responsibility within yourself. That sounds weird, doesn’t it? But when you consider that, for children, good-enough parenting leads to children who grow into adults with good-enough emotional regulation, interpersonal skills, and self-image, it also makes sense that good-enough feeding by parents will lead to an adult who is good enough at eating.

But because we live in a frankly eating disordered culture, most of our parents probably breached the Division of Responsibility in Feeding at some point. This is not unusual, and most of the time, it isn’t done with malicious intent. (Where there is malice, there is usually abuse happening in other domains as well.) Maybe it was just an occasional lapse, a mild lack of structure and permission, or maybe it was a full-blown assault of constant pressure, restriction, or total neglect. Either way, as an adult, if it affected you enough that you now struggle with food, you’re the one who has to pick up the pieces.

In a sense, you have to provide for yourself what you didn’t get as a child: structured, predictable mealtimes, in a pleasant setting, where a variety of foods — some familiar, some challenging — is at your disposal to pick and choose from. And where no one pressures you (or cajoles…or suggests…or makes innocent commentary…or holds you to a one-bite rule) about what you decide to eat.

If you can provide this to yourself consistently, over time your repertoire will grow.

Eat What You’re Already Eating

To establish a foundation, once you’ve removed external pressure from your eating, you also need to remove some internal pressure. You do this by giving yourself unconditional, unalloyed permission to eat the foods you already know and like. If that means you eat chicken nuggets every day for the next year, well, okay. The important thing is that you’re getting yourself fed, and you’re the one making the decisions. This will preserve your physical survival and your bodily autonomy, both critical tasks.

If you like vending machine snacks, it’s okay to eat them. If you like cereal and toast, it’s okay to eat them. Humans are remarkable omnivores, which means that, yes, while wide variety is preferable for health, people can also live on wildly different, limited diets, and do just fine for long periods of time. Eating only cereal or chicken nuggets or toast or snacks for a while is not the end of the world.

Give yourself permission to eat only the foods that you feel safe with, for now. If you have a truly and extremely limited palate and you’re concerned about nutrient deficiencies, consider taking a supplement (whether it’s a multivitamin or something like Ensure) to cover your bases. Let yourself relax. You’ve got the rest of your life to learn to eat new foods, and you deserve to start from a secure foundation where you feel comfortable.

All of us begin life eating only one thing: breastmilk or formula. From there, we gradually add in more foods, step by step. No one has to do it all at once OR ELSE. As long as you’re eating something, eating is not a dire, life-or-death proposition. You can eat what you’re already eating, and do it with full permission.

Offer Yourself New Foods

To me, offering is the core of learning to eat new foods. Offering means just that. It doesn’t meaning pressing, or pushing, or wheedling. It also doesn’t stop at merely asking yourself whether you theoretically, maybe, might possibly want to try something today (the answer will always be no.) Offering doesn’t stop at just taking a quick glance in the fridge. Offering means putting food on the table, in front of yourself, and then letting it sit there whether you eat it or not.

What’s the point of this, you ask? Exposure. Over time, neutral exposures to things that previously made you feel anxious will take the anxiety away and build new, more positive associations with those things. If you can eat a meal of foods you already know and like, while happily and calmly sitting in the presence of a food you’re not sure about — even if you never touch it or taste it — you will become more relaxed around that food. Eventually you might become curious about it, or exasperated with its presence, and in a fit of pique you might even touch a bit of it to your tongue.

Once you’ve done that, whether you like it or hate it, it is a known quantity. Now you begin to know how to navigate it.

To put offering into practice, you can focus on one new food at a time. Make a list of foods that might be useful to know how to eat, and rank them in order from least-intimidating to most-intimidating. Start on the least-intimidating part of the scale: buy the food, bring it home, and while you’re eating a meal of foods you already like, try putting it on the table in its simplest or least-intimidating form (ask someone else to prepare it for you if that helps, but I often find that doing the prep yourself, even if it’s something as simple as rinsing and cutting a raw vegetable, takes some of the fear and mystery out of it.)

Don’t put it on the plate you’re eating from unless you feel really confident about it. Put it in its own bowl or on a plate, and sit with it while you eat your other food, and notice how it makes you feel. If you get curious about it, approach it, but remember that approach does not necessarily mean “eat.”

You can approach a food without eating it in the following ways:

  1. Simply glance at it while it sits there.
  2. Pick up the plate and look at it more closely.
  3. Poke it with your finger, or move it around with your fork, or cut it in half to see what’s inside.
  4. Sniff the air over the plate.
  5. Put another food or a sauce or salt on it, and look at it or smell it again.
  6. Put a little of it on your eating plate and let it sit there.
  7. Touch your finger to it, and then taste your finger.
  8. Touch a tiny part of the food to your tongue.
  9. Put it in your mouth and take it out again.
  10. Put it in your mouth and chew it a little, then spit it out (napkins are handy for this.)

The only thing I would suggest is not to play with your food. None of the above things are playing, they are exploring or examining. When I say “play,” I mean use the food for some other intended purpose — making it into a tabletop football, or dancing it around like a puppet, or making it talk, etc. You’re trying to develop an association that this is food, meaning it is something to eat, not a toy or a supply for arts and crafts. Once you have a firmly established food association with it, play all you want, but for now, limit yourself to exposure and exploration. Eventually you’ll get bored and actually want to eat it, just to see what all the fuss is about.

You will have to waste some food in this process. I know, no one wants to hear this, but if you want to make an omelet you have to break some eggs. Children tend to be prodigious food-wasters, and for now, you will probably be one too. Take heart, though: the better you get at feeding yourself, the less food waste there will be. In the long run, you will get so good at feeding yourself that you’ll probably waste less food than if you never learned to eat more foods. So give yourself permission to waste food if you need to, for now. (And provide yourself with napkins, for polite spitting-out as needed.)

You Don’t Have to Like It

Offering also means learning to tolerate the presence of food, and maybe learning to manage to deal with that food, whether you ultimately like it or not. In fact, when it comes to expanding your food repertoire, “liking” is almost irrelevant. You cannot make yourself like a food. Liking is a nice side-effect that sometimes happens when you try a new thing, but it comes in its own time, usually with repeated exposures, and sometimes not at all. And that’s okay. It really doesn’t matter much whether you like certain foods, so don’t put that burden on yourself.

You don’t have to like anything. But what is useful is knowing how to navigate a food, how to deal with it if it shows up at a dinner party, or how to eat it if you’re lost in the woods and it’s the only thing around. It’s also useful to learn, through actual experience rather than vague anxiety, which foods are not worth having in your mouth at any cost.

Trying to convince yourself to like a food is coercive and it undermines your autonomy. Sometimes people have very good reasons for disliking a food. For example, I do not like the taste of raw tomatoes — they taste vaguely of poison to me — and, as it also happens, I once had an allergic reaction to a raw tomato. So I don’t have to like them, and I have a good reason not to. On the other hand, I can tolerate eating them if needed, and if I were stuck on a mountaintop with an inexplicable supply of raw tomatoes, I would not starve to death.

That’s what it means to learn how to navigate a food.


More offers and explorations in comments.

Posted in eating, Humane Nutrition, Picky Eating | Comments closed

Part 2: How can I eat healthy foods if I’m a picky eater?

Yesterday, I covered the weight-related and healthy-eating related parts of a reader question from Mealtime Hostage. Today I’m going to address the possible picky eating aspects.


If you have trouble eating healthy food because you’re a picky eater who experiences significant anxiety when trying new things, or eating things outside your comfort zone, and because you have a very small repertoire of accepted foods, the way to expand that repertoire is to take it one step at a time.


First, identify the reasons why you want to learn to like more foods. Now that we’ve dispensed with weight loss as the primary reason, come up with some other reasons. And remember, there’s no “should” here either. How you eat is your business. Whether you have a tiny repertoire, or a huge gourmand repertoire has nothing to say about how good a person you are. And while variety is preferable for nutrition, some people go their whole lives eating very limited diets and do just fine.

So, ask yourself: what would be easier for you if your repertoire of accepted foods were expanded? How would your life be better? Could you dine out more easily with friends? Actually have fun at business dinners instead of worrying about what the restaurant serves? Would family meals be easier (or possible?) Could you travel to another country without worrying that there literally won’t be a single thing you know how to eat? Could you just eat a wide variety of foods and enjoy the physical sensation that comes from being well-fed, and feel good about taking care of yourself?

You need to think of your own personal reasons why it would be worth doing this. Think of something rewarding.

Once you’ve got a good reason, maybe write it down somewhere, or find a photo that represents that thing, and save it. Look at it periodically to remind yourself of what good things are ahead.

Removing Pressure

The next step to learning to eat more kinds of food is to remove any pressure that’s put on your eating. By this I mean, pressure coming from other people. If someone else has a problem with your eating and lets you know about it on a regular basis, it can interfere with your progress.

With eating, I always return to Satter’s Division of Reponsibility. This is usually applied to parents and children, but it can also be applied to adults. No one has the right to tell you what to eat. No one has the right to even comment on your eating, really. Your eating is no one’s business but your own. You are the person who has to put food in your mouth and then deal with it being there, and then deal with whatever effects it has on you once eaten, so therefore you alone are in charge of what goes in and what doesn’t.

If you have a friend or family member who is commenting on your eating in a way that violates the Division of Responsibility (i.e. they are trying to decide for you what, when, or where you eat, how much, or whether), there is a good way to respond: use the DEAR MAN technique.

This is a technique from DBT, and it is a way of requesting something from someone without turning it into a fight. Here’s how it goes:

D – Describe the facts of the situation. Leave any emotions out of it right now. “You just made a comment about my eating, and repeatedly asked me to try something I don’t like.”

E – Express how you feel. “I think you mean well, but when you do this, I feel pressured, resentful, and hurt, and I’m less likely to want to try that thing now or in the future.”

A – Ask for what you want them to do instead. “When we eat together, I would like you to not make ANY comments about my eating at all. We can talk about other things instead.”

R – Reward them, either by thanking them now, or telling them what rewards are in store for them if they fulfill your request: “This will make our meals together a lot more pleasant for both of us, and we’ll get to spend more time together as a result.”

This is the part where you let them talk. Just listen, even if what they are saying is nonsense. In the meantime:

M – Stay mindful of what you want. Don’t waver from your request, which is completely reasonable. If they are defensive or putting up a fuss, simply repeat your request in a neutral tone, using the broken record technique: “When we eat together, I would like you to not make any comments about my eating.” Ignore any personal attacks. These are just attempts to distract you from your purpose, which is to get them to stop making comments about your eating.

A – Appear confident. Don’t apologize; do keep your head up, make eye contact, and try to keep an even tone of voice. You are asking for a very reasonable thing, and you are standing up for yourself without being aggressive. You are doing the right thing.

N – Negotiate. Be willing to offer the other person something they would like in exchange for their agreement…as long as it’s not something that involves you promising to try any specific food. “In exchange, I won’t pester you to come with me to polka class every week.” Or, “I won’t make comments about your eating habits either.”

Setting Boundaries

Once you’ve made a request, you can also set a boundary by choosing what you will do if someone makes a comment about your eating or pressures you to eat. Choose something that is an action, something you will follow through on, and that you can do without losing your temper. You can inform the person of your boundary ahead of time if you like. Just say what you will do, matter-of-factly.

Possible boundaries to try:

  • If someone makes a comment about my eating, I will excuse myself, take my plate to the other room and eat until I feel done.
  • If someone pressures me to try something, or to finish something I don’t want, I will excuse myself, take my plate to the other room, and avoid eating with that person for a week.
  • If someone makes a comment about my eating, or pressures me to eat, I will make the sad trombone noise.

Then, if the person crosses your boundary, as simply and as automatically as possible, do the behaviour.

If you are absolutely surrounded by pressure, and the people putting on that pressure will not, do not respond to your requests or your boundaries, there is a radical solution to take the pressure off: eat alone for a while. Make a space for yourself in some private room, and decide to give yourself a week or a month to take all your meals alone. Or visit a friend who likes to cook and doesn’t pressure you. Or make plans to go out to eat alone, or with supportive people.

Once you’ve figured out WHY you want to expand your eating repertoire, and created some space for yourself to work on it, then you can begin taking baby steps toward exploring new foods. Which I will talk about next.


Tales of picky eating in comments.

Posted in eating, Humane Nutrition, Picky Eating | Comments closed

How can I lose weight if I can’t eat healthy foods?

I recently received a set of reader questions from Skye at Mealtime Hostage, and I figured I would take a crack at answering them. Here’s the first one:

I’m overweight because my diet is so unhealthy (mostly carbs, no meat, no fruit or veg … *ps…There might be juice, or a blueberry muffin-ish type thing). I want to lose weight but how can I shed the weight if I can’t eat healthy foods?

Hi there – I think this question is conflating two different things: healthy eating and weight loss. Tragically,* it is not a guarantee that if you eat a healthy diet, weight loss will follow. This may happen for some people (if adding in fruits and veggies displaces more calorically-dense foods) but on a strictly technical level, the weight loss is not a result of eating “healthier” food. People can lose (and have lost) weight on diets composed primarily of Twinkies, sheerly through calorie restriction. I’m not recommending it, but that’s how weight loss happens: you take in fewer calories, from any type of food, than you expend.

While this is true at the most reductive level, I must also point out that the economic model of body weight (that’s what I’m calling it from now on) omits certain complicating factors: like the possibility that, as one eats less, one’s resting energy expenditure (the number of calories you burn just existing) may take a hit as the body attempts to avert starvation through conserving energy. In animals, this means their body temperature goes down, they shiver less in response to cold, and they become very lethargic in their daily activities.

It also completely skirts the question of whether this kind of calorie deficit is sustainable for the long term. According to research in humans, it’s mostly not. And lastly, it ignores the possibility that some people are just naturally larger than other people, and that there is a considerable component of heritability to this weight diversity. That’s not to say people cannot be at a weight that is unhealthy for them, or at a higher weight due to overeating (they can), but it is to say that not every “overweight” person is in this situation. I don’t know what is true for you personally, but this deserves to be acknowledged in general.

Given all this very discouraging information, what’s a person to do? In my opinion: focus on eating well (and moving well) for its own sake. Understand what “eating well” truly means: eating a varied, nourishing, satisfying, and pleasurable diet. Eating well means eating all of the macronutrients (carb, protein, and fat), and plenty of the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) that come along for the ride when you plan balanced, tasty meals.

Take it back to basics: the four food groups. (In case you don’t remember 4th grade, they are: vegetables/fruit, grains, dairy/alternatives, and legumes/nuts/meat/alternatives.) It sounds like this particular questioner is missing out on at least two food groups: legumes/nuts/meat/alternatives and vegetables/fruit. Here’s the place to start: keep eating what you’re eating now, but add on what is missing. If you want, you can try shooting for three food groups at each meal, and two at a snack. Look at your meals and ask yourself, What’s missing? Then ask: what’s the easiest, tastiest way to add it on?

Can you toss in an apple? A handful of baby carrots? Some strawberries? Order a side salad? Get chicken on that salad? Put some tuna in your mac and cheese? Have eggs with your toast? A slice of cheese? Peanut butter?

In response to these changes, your weight will do what it will. You may lose some weight, if you have been eating past your own fullness. In my experience, it is more difficult to feel truly satisfied, and to clearly hear fullness signals, if you are eating only one or two types of food, not feeling well-nourished, and skipping out on foods that contribute to fullness (like protein, and the fibre in vegetables and fruit.) When you return to eating the full complement of food groups, you might find that your weight stabilizes, if you were previously gaining, or you might lose a modest amount, and then stabilize. It’s not a guarantee, but it is a possibility. This is a slow process, and can take 6-12 months of eating well, so don’t hinge your behaviour on weight outcomes.

What should you hinge it on? A lot of people feel lost when they put their weight focus on the back-burner (or kick it off the stove altogether.) And now we come back to what I said earlier: for its own sake. Eating well, regardless of what your weight does, gives you so much. For me, personally, the following things happened when I learned to eat well:

  • stopped having heartburn and other GI upsets
  • stopped thinking about food 24/7
  • stopped feeling out of control with food
  • stopped feeling guilty about eating foods I enjoyed
  • had more consistent energy through the day
  • stopped experiencing overhunger that left me shaky and desperate, and overfullness that made me miserable
  • enjoyed my meals more, since, in addition to tasting good, they really hit the spot
  • tried and learned to like a whole bunch of new foods, including different vegetables
  • felt happy for taking good care of myself with food

So, then, to get to what I suspect is actually the heart of this question: how do you learn to eat well? One little step at a time. Eat what you’re eating now, and add on what is missing. Make the time to have consistent meals if you’re not already, and see how it works for you. And remind yourself that none of this is an obligation. None of this is a “should.” None of this determines anything about your character. All eating well can do for you is make you feel better physically. It cannot make you a better or worse person. If you do this, do this because you want to take care of yourself, because you want to feel good, and because you believe you are worth the effort.

You are.

Take care of yourself first, worry about your weight second (or don’t. It’s up to you.)

*Not actually tragic.


Fun and games in comments.

Posted in Dear Fat Nutritionist, eating, Humane Nutrition | Comments closed

The Whole30: When in doubt, cut it out.

One of the most notable things about the Whole30 program introduction is the implication, without specifying causes or mechanisms, that enormous swaths of your diet are causing various health problems.

This implication is posed as a series of questions:

“Are your energy levels inconsistent or non-existent? Do you have aches and pains that can’t be explained by over-use or injury? Are you having a hard time losing weight no matter how hard you try? Do you have some sort of condition (like skin issues, digestive ailments, seasonal allergies or fertility issues) that medication hasn’t helped?”

The writers propose that “certain food groups” could be causing these problems, and provide a two-sentence explanation that these are “psychologically unhealthy, hormone-unbalancing, gut-disrupting, inflammatory food groups” that require you to “reset” your metabolism because they cause “systemic inflammation” and “downstream effects.” Instead of explaining how or why, they propose an experiment: cut all of the suspected groups out of your diet for 30 days, and see if you feel better.

This is called an “elimination diet.” If you’ve been vaguely conscious of diet culture for the last decade, you’ll be aware that the concept of the elimination diet has become something of a sacrament. An elimination diet is one where you eliminate a huge number of foods, and even food groups, in an attempt to get to a point where you are no longer having food-related symptoms (usually GI symptoms), and then slowly add foods back in, one by one, in order to tease out which foods initiate the symptoms again. The goal is to, eventually, add in everything you can, except the (hopefully few) foods that actually cause you problems.

In clinical dietetics, the elimination diet is used sparingly, because though it can be a powerful tool in narrowing down problematic foods for someone experiencing IBS symptoms, those symptoms must be severe enough to justify putting a person at increased nutritional risk by significantly curtailing the variety of their diet for weeks at a time. It is also a very difficult process for people to follow, and the people most motivated to stick to an elimination diet usually have the most severe or distressing symptoms.

Vague symptoms like fatigue, aches and pains, and failure to lose weight might not make the cut. These, and other conditions unresponsive to medication, may or may not have any relation to diet. In cases where they do, it would be important for a person to see their doctor and possibly get a referral to a dietitian (especially if the issue is celiac disease, for which an elimination diet could actually interfere with getting a diagnosis.) Most importantly, an elimination diet used in this context is meant to be temporary, and the person is encouraged to add back in as many previously-eliminated foods as they can tolerate. This minimizes their nutritional risk by increasing variety.

This Whole30’s version of the elimination diet is somewhat different. Yes, it is a program meant to last only for 30 days, but there don’t seem to be any clear encouragements to add back in as many foods as possible after the elimination period. In the clinical setting, when a person is undergoing an elimination diet, the dietitian makes it clear that the foods cut out of the diet are not universally bad or toxic; rather, the person has a condition that creates an intolerance (sometimes temporary) to those foods. The Whole30 specifically labels those foods as globally bad and unhealthy. And with the Whole30, the message I’m getting, particularly from people who’ve done the program, is that their goal is to eat in a way as similar to the Whole30 as possible…indefinitely.

Thankfully, this is probably not sustainable for most people. I say “thankfully” because the rules of the Whole30 literally require you to stop eating slightly more than half of the food groups in the diet – grains, dairy, and a good swath of proteins (legumes.) Even if you replace the missing food group servings with servings from the remaining groups (fruits and vegetables, meat/fish/eggs/poultry/nuts and seeds), the overall variety of the diet is severely curtailed (definitely not a good thing), and likely your overall intake is reduced as well (which could be a good thing, but also might not be.)

Given the nutritional concerns, why might someone choose to do a diet like this? Well, possibly because some people experience exceptional health concerns that really do respond best to this program. I’m not denying that those people exist. What I doubt is that every person, or even most persons, embarking on this program fit that description.

What other reasons might there be, then? Symbolism? Ritual? Values? Anxiety?

I suspect that elimination diets, when they are not (entirely) about allergies and intolerances, are actually about purity, about a way of expressing cultural identity, and possibly even political values. These are not bad reasons — the only problem is when these reasons are covered up with misrepresented science.

I suspect that elimination diets are a symbolic way of saying, “There is too much in the world, there is too much in our culture, and I feel overwhelmed with food marketing and grocery store options and consumer culture and the difficult politics of industrialization and the rapid development of technology that has the potential to cause harm, and I’m opting out at least for a while. We have gotten too far away from what I think is the right way to handle and produce food, the best way to be genuinely human, and I am going to do something about it, for myself, as one person. For 30 days, I’m just going to be a human. And if I can do it longer than that, I will try.”

If that’s what it’s about, at least partly, the question then becomes: does it work?


Rampant speculation in comments.

Posted in Diet Pop Culture | Comments closed