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.

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