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.






109 responses to “The Whole30: When in doubt, cut it out.”

  1. Shannon Cate Avatar
    Shannon Cate

    hmmm… Just reading that last paragraph, it occurs to me that it reminds me a little of pre-Reformation lenten fasting ubiquitous throughout Christian Europe.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Really? Tell me more?

      1. inge Avatar

        From Germany:

        Between fat Tuesday and Easter, no meat, no eggs, no milk. Fish was OK; which led to e.g. beaver classified as fish (because of its scaly tail), so that people could eat it.

        No meat on any Friday: Friday lunch is fish. It still it. Most institutional catering will offer a fish dish on Friday, even if the also offer meat, and vegetarian, whatever, even if they secular and based in a protestant area.

        Also, fasting between St Martin’s day (Nov 11th) and Christmas, but I am not aware of the rules for that one.

        One ate nourishing and fatty foods before fasting periods, so that one would make it through.

        People still give up stuff for lent. Most common are sweets and alcohol, but “getting into arguments on the internet” has become a strong presence. The motivation is rarely religious, though. And no-one is fasting during advent, to my knowledge.

        1. naath Avatar

          I know at least one Christian who keeps advent as a fasting season. It makes pre-Christmas Christmas events (like offices often have) a bit of a minefield; and does make one wonder why the chocolate advent calendar was invented.

          I tend to the view that some level of abstention-from-luxury is good for me, in that it makes me appreciate the luxury more when I stop abstaining from it, and also reminds me that some people don’t have it. I expect some of the things I might give up are physically bad for me (at least in excess) but that’s not the reason I do it.

          1. megaforte84 Avatar

            My guess on the calendar is that children are often an excluded class from fasting or under lesser restrictions, so ‘You can only have this one piece of candy today’ would still be fairly restricting without expecting adult levels of self-control from a small child, especially if that small child is eating the same meals as the adults otherwise.

            Also, there’s a history of finding loopholes in Catholic fasting practices – the ‘fish isn’t really meat’ classification being the best-known – and I’m wondering if the original chocolate used was designed to not violate fasting rules in place at the time. Chocolate itself certainly wasn’t present in Europe for most or all of the time period when the Catholic fasting rules were being developed.

            I know I’ve read that the Friday-fish thing was intended as a humility-development exercise and turned into the most opulent meal of the week for the nobility as cooks figured out how to make it very interesting without having the other ingredients break the rule, so Advent chocolates following a similar development pattern wouldn’t shock me.

  2. Shannon Cate Avatar
    Shannon Cate

    Just that before the Reformation, everybody ate fish for 40 days during Lent, which represents (symbolically) Jesus fasting in the desert for forty days before he was crucified. The life of Jesus and the early origins of the Church are repeated symbolically every year in the church seasons. In Lent, these days you hear about “giving things up.” Sometimes, maybe that’s chocolate or coffee or whatever. But in the middle ages, everyone completely abstained from meat for forty days a year. And often other things as well. And often put their bodies through various regimes of suffering like wearing a “hair shirt” (basically, scratchy underwear) or self-flagellation, etc.
    The cultural ideas of too-muchness or distance from humanness you muse about in the final paragraph above make me think about this annual purge of the “worldly” and attempt to realign with the spiritual through denial of the body.

    1. Marika Avatar

      Um, it’s not just in the Middle Ages. Members of the Eastern Orthodox church still keep many fasts. Lent is 40 days where you are fasting from meat, fish, eggs, dairy, or large quantities of oil. Shellfish and honey are allowed. There are a couple other fasting periods throughout the year, and on Wednesdays and Fridays, excepting certain feast days. However, the fasts are always followed by a period of feasting. It gives the year a nice rhythm. Unfortunately difficult for those of us who are diabetic, hypoglycemic, pregnant/breastfeeding or otherwise challenged…you can be offered an exemption on medical grounds by discussing it with your priest.
      A slew of articles on why we fast.
      I am enjoying these articles and their questions on the different aspect of the Whole30 plan quite a lot. Thank you!

      1. Mich Avatar

        I love learning about other cultures, so thanks for the info!

  3. Genevieve Avatar

    The third gastroenterologist I saw about my chronic daily (debilitating) bloating told me I had “classic functional dyspepsia” and the paleo diet plus intermittent fasting would do the trick. I have always been supremely skeptical of the entire premise of the paleo diet. However, two of my closest friends embarked upon Whole30 right around the time I met with this specialist and could not stop talking, Facebooking, and Instagramming about how much their lives had changed, and encouraged me to try it to remedy my health issue. Since Whole30 is basically paleo but stricter, I tried it. I made it five days before developing an anal fissure.

    Kids, don’t do Whole30 or paleo or any strict diet like this without doctor/dietitian supervision, especially if you have severe digestive issues. The paleo envangelists will claim it will solve your digestive problems but it could easily make them worse.

    As far as my friends go, one came from a background of chronic dieting and fearing food. I felt just like her once upon a time when I began eating a vegan diet shortly after half a lifetime of diet food, and the switch from Lean Cuisines and low-fat cookies to pasta smothered in marinara and coffee (soy) ice cream was revelatory. It’s permission to eat, albeit within the confines of specific food groups. I suspect this is part of what feels so good at first for some people, although I don’t know how many Whole30ers are reformed dieters. That’s just my two cents.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Oh my god, I’m so sorry! And yes, the permission combined with certain restrictions seems to be a major attraction of this and most other diets.

      1. Genevieve Avatar

        Thanks. No matter how many things I try to address my bloating, no many how many “failures” I experience, I still harbor hope every time that “this one thing” could be different. Not only did Whole30 NOT help, it made things worse. The letdown is profound.

        1. Kate Avatar

          Hey Genevieve, I know you have tried lots of stuff, but have you tried low FODMAPS for your digestive issues? I ask because I had major issues with seemingly random attacks of IBS and was in pain etc. I tried a whole bunch of stuff, and nothing helped. But I have a friend in Australia (where low FODMAPs was developed at Monash University in Melbourne) who’s husband was on it. I thought it was unlikely to work. But gave it a bash. It’s a 6-8 week elimination with challenges of different FODMAPs groups to work out your tolerance levels. It is based on peer reviewed scientific research (a big plus for me, I have a PhD in biology and love a bit of science) and has literally changed my life for the better. I can wear the same pants all day and have them fit, no ridiculous bloating.
          I personally am always wary of someone who recommends a diet to me to help with something (I have arthritis too and the amount of unsolicited advice I get is amazing). But low FODMAPs being research based and actually having worked for me is amazing. I’ve been eating differently for 2 years now. I’ve managed to reintroduce a bunch of things. I react most strongly to fructans, especially when they are in onions. But garlic and I are friends again, in small quantities. And small amounts of wheat are also okay. Oh and excess fructose (in relation to glucose) does a number on me, so no honey.
          Read a bit and see what you think. I won’t be personally offended if you decide you are sick of trying things and not having them work. It is worth pointing out that Monash claims that 75% of people with IBS are helped by the diet. I’m so fortunate to be one of the 75%.

  4. Amy Avatar

    I think the cultural elements are very key here. Folks who want to look at the scientific studies the Whole30 creators used can find them in the back of their first book, It Starts With Food. But most of us who got into it, got into it because it just sounded like a good idea at the time – and that has to mean that it’s culturally based. For instance, I started into Whole30 because a friend of mine said she had tried it and it helped her with mental focus. I thought that sounded pretty good so I gave it a shot. We were both busy moms working full time and juggling too many things, and mental focus in the midst of this was certainly a desirable thing in our subculture, so to speak.

    As to the difficulty of transitioning out of the 30 days, this can be a problem – I’ve certainly experienced going from Whole30 to All The Sugar In The World – and the see-sawing certainly did me no favors! (It was fun though…) It’s possible to do a controlled reintroduction and determine how you want to eat going forward, and many Whole30ers do that. It takes additional discipline though.

    As Genevieve points out, the restrictions of the plan can actually lead some folks to eat significantly more food than they did on other plans/diets. This is to say that while on the Whole30, you get to eat a lot of food. You don’t get to eat any dairy, for instance, but you can eat a lot of everything that’s allowed. Dinner served up in a mixing bowl? Absolutely. It won’t have cheese on it, but there’s a lot of it.

    Anal fissures are not a good thing! Genevieve, hope your situation has improved. All good thoughts going your way.

  5. Fiona Avatar

    Some interesting thoughts here, Michelle. It puts me in mind of food as class indicator. I know you Americans don’t really go in for class, but bear with me on this – I’m from the UK, a place where we are all quite aware of class, although many of us deny it.

    In Wisconsin today (or yesterday) the local politicians passed a law limiting what can be bought with food stamps. I doubt very much that the list includes anything on the whole30 list, other than vegetables. Those with low incomes probably wouldn’t be that interested in whole30 anyway, what with living hand to mouth from day to day. Which says what? My feeling is that all of these paleo/blood group/fasting whatever diets are only available to the middle classes. They’re the only ones who can afford them, either financially or in terms of time and faff. (Is “faff” a word you’re familiar with?)

    The middle classes have always eaten differently to those lower down the social ladder. Someone further up mentioned the lenten fast as excluding meat and only eating fish. But think about it. In the days when the lenten fast was observed by all, most hunting animals and fishing places were owned by the Crown with severe punishments for anyone who took from those places. The working poor were pretty much constantly on the lenten fast, apart from the odd rabbit they might catch or chicken they might raise. The poor didn’t need a fast to bring them to a more spiritual outlook – they were pretty much praying constantly for *any* food to keep body and soul together. They’d have been grateful of a bit of fish to add to the pot. The more affluent, however, found fish very boring and the historical indicators are that a great deal of effort went into making it more interesting and palatable.

    These days, those lower down the ladder tend to go for fast, processed and pre packaged food on the basis that it’s a) cheaper and b) quicker. When you’re holding down two jobs just to pay the rent, who has time or energy to cook?

    Whole30 and it’s relatives require focus, time, imagination and effort, as well as money, to put together. For those who go there, their approach to food and nourishment is primarily an attitude of class.

    1. Mab Avatar

      Yes exactly !

      The class situation isn’t quite the same in France, as we all live in the great illusion that’s we’re all equal no matter what (but as we use to say, “some of us are more equal than others..”).

      But here too, all the “trendy” things (green juices, raw, vegan, paleo, and so on) is available mostly to the higher classes. But sometimes, the middle class will get their hands on it, and make it more popular, and thus making it more available to everyone : that’s what happened with organic food ! Up to five years ago, finding organic products at the supermarket was hard and pricey : now, there’s shelves after shelves of them, and quite affordable too ! (and we’re starting to havethe same with gluten free foods)

      So somehow, it could be some sort of virtuous circle in the end.

      1. Fiona Avatar

        Interesting you should say that, Mab – in the UK, the supermarkets are stocking fewer and fewer organic products. The “Free From” range – gluten free, peanut free etc – is taking up more and more shelf space, however.

        By contrast, Whole Foods has opened several stores here … and there are organic whole food supermarkets springing up online.

        It’s like we want to make life more expensive and difficult …

        1. Mab Avatar

          Organic supermarkets are slowly springing too, and as far as I’ve seen, prices can widely change from one to another. We also have a “historical” chain of organic shop, called “Biocoop”, and they are quite on the militant side : all organic (of course), and more importantly, with a big focus on local products.

          We also have a system called “AMAP” (for Association pour le Maintient d’une Agriculture Paysanne). Long story short, this system helps local farmers to sell their products directly to the local consummer, either at their own place or via an association. The idea is to reduce the number of intermediary, and thus, to lower the price. When you subscribe, you’ll receive each week (or two weeks) a “basket” with the products from one or multiples local farmers (can be fruits, veggies, cheese, eggs, meat…). The concept is quite recent in France (from the 90ies), and is so successful most AMAPs have very long waiting lists to subscribe…

          I think in France we have this idea that everyone should benefit from that kind of stuff, so even if you can’t buy ALL your groceries at the organic supermaket, you can buy one thing there, another one at the Biocoop, another one at the traditionnal supermarket, etc… (at least, that’s what we do in my family). I’m so sorry the situation isn’t the same in the UK :(

          1. Mich Avatar

            Very interesting about class divisions. I suppose in Canada it would be rich vs. poor, as we have no lords or barons.

            There is a thing that has been growing in Calgary, as part of the Community Kitchens, called a Good Food Box. It comes in 3 sizes (20lbs for $20, 30lbs for $25, and 40lbs for $30) and contains fruit and vegetables from farmers or wholesalers. I’ve been using them for a few months now, as they come with 4 staples (potatoes, carrots, onions, lettuce) and a variety of others. Lately we’ve been getting a cabbage in it, or cauliflower, sometimes garlic, in March there was a lemon, plus apples and oranges, and others to make up the balance.

            It’s a good program, but I discovered it’s not available in summer. They have kids’ camps to cover a lunch for kids, but nothing for people.

            I’ve also been volunteering for the Food Bank here, handing out pre-made hampers at a location. They contain mostly canned goods (some tuna or chicken, whatever was donated), cereal, plus milk and eggs. The last 2 weeks there were a few meats to give out, and one week there was cheese. It’s kinda disheartening when the people come in though, some think there is one waiting and they have no food at all and are quite desperate. One guy had no fridge, only a microwave, so he couldn’t take any meat, only the cans, but he was able to make some use of the milk and cheese, but no eggs. He lived at an agency, and said that if he set things outside his door, they would be stolen in 5 mins.

          2. Fiona Avatar

            Well, just to clarify – we do have organic box schemes here in the UK, which sounds like what you’re describing, Mab: seasonal organic produce for a fixed price delivered to the door.

            I used to get one of those until moving to a place in the UK more famous for its deep fried mars bars than any interest in fruit and veg …

    2. Shannon Cate Avatar
      Shannon Cate

      Yes, definitely, re: Lent and “fasting” on fish being a class thing.

  6. Mab Avatar

    I think you git a really good point with that last paragraph. It reminds me of Rousseau, who had that idealized vision of “nature” (pure, good, simple, in a “back at the Garden of Eden days”), in opposition to “culture” (man made, evil, corrupting, and basically responsible for everything).

    Also, as a french person, that paleo and whole30 thing sounds a bit…well, weird. Of course, we do have people following those diets (and also the gluten-free one), but overall, I don’t thing it will ever be a huge thing here. I think it has something to do with the way we french/latin people consider food : a good thing (preferably homemade), to spend a good time, and who’ll also nourish your spirit. Traceability is super important to us, and we are really keen on local products, and those with a strong regional identity.

    And lastly, what disturbs me a lot with that “whole30” diet is that (north american ?) way to consider food as a simple fuel : where’s the pleasure ? Where’s the conviviality ?

    Same for the way to treat your body : what good can get out of breaking it like that ? Do does people actually lives inside their body ?

    I’m happy for the people with serious food allergies who actually got better thanks to this diet, but overall, I’m kinda worried about what this trend says about the society it lives in….

    1. Fiona Avatar

      Food as punishment – so true, Mab.

    2. Amy Lou Avatar
      Amy Lou

      I think there are enclaves in the paleo world where food is celebrated and enjoyed in the way you’re describing – that is where I am at. Food is tradition and in that sense, it brings people together across generations and grounds us in a shared identity that is incredibly meaningful. I think what you’re describing is a food culture that – for the most part – we have completely lost here in the US. In response, the pendulum swings way over to the other side – where rules and conformity define much of the experience. But shifting a culture does take some extreme thinking in some ways and the hope is that we will perhaps settle closer to what you’re talking about – taking pleasure in eating real food that comes from the earth (preferably earth somewhat close to where you live!), enjoying it in community, and yes definitely having it nourish your spirit (love that!).

      Example – This weekend I took a group of paleo-following people out to meet a farmer who raises grass-fed cattle. We walked the pastures, literally met the cows, learned a ton, and enjoyed a delicious, locally-sourced, family-style meal together. Yes, it was dairy/gluten/legume-free (which some are strict about) but that was hardly the focus amidst so much abundance and friendship. My hope is that experiences like this become much more common in our culture!

      1. Karen Avatar

        I quite agree that this celebration of local food, farmers who respect the land and like-minded folk meeting for a celebratory, seasonal and delicious meal is a part of food culture we have, to our detriment, lost. But why can’t such a meal include artisan bread, or a delicious home-baked local fruit tart for pudding? The paleo movement has done a lot for the environmental and ethical or sustainable food movement as well as highlighting animal husbandry etc but I don’t see why this means demonising entire food groups.

        1. Mab Avatar

          Yeah, I’m uncomfortable with that whole demonizing thing too (unless you have real medical condition, of course). But well, if some people want to eat like that and are happy doing so :)

          But I’m quite surprized to hear from both you and Amy Lou that the US food culture has become so poor :( I mean, of course in Europe we hear about the american junk food and it’s dangers, but somehow, when you watch tv documentaries about the US, or when you go on Pinterest, we’re all drooling on the food ! Was it a lie all the time ?

          1. Karen Avatar

            I’m actually in the UK, but I would say food culture isn’t brilliant here either despite the crazy number of cookbooks, cooking shows etc. Paleo/low carb etc is just getting super popular here, we’re a bit behind the U.S. but less secure in our cultural food identity than other Europeans so ripe for diet trends from across the pond :-(

    3. Mich Avatar

      This is kind of in reply to all 3 of you (and anyone else who wants a look), but I was looking at Michelle’s facebook recently to see what she wrote there (being a latecomer, I have loads to catch up on). In 2013 she posted this: which basically explains the origin of the 3-meals-a-day (spoiler: it’s an American creation). Very interesting the different paths that North America took from Europe, also much later industrialization.

  7. Twistie Avatar

    So many excellent points, already! Fiona nails part of it with the class issues. We don’t admit to having classes in the US, but trust me, they’re just as entrenched here as they are in the UK. The only difference is that we don’t have actual titles. But everyone knows the legacy Ivy League student and the kid on an academic scholarship to Princeton from West Pig Knuckle Arkansas are not going to be invited to the same parties, let alone have the same opportunities knock after graduation.

    Shannon, the Lenten fast occurred to me, too. As more and more Americans move away from organized religion but retain their Puritan heritage and roots (I was raised by a recovering Catholic and a cultural Presbyterian), people look for ways to feel virtuous around things that they consider problematic… and there are few things fraught with as much emotional/moral baggage in America as food.

    BTW, at one time in my life I worked as a dishwasher at a Russian Orthodox church (they served meals after services on sundays), and I looked forward all year to Lent. They served the most amazing piroszhki during Lent! I was absolutely in lust with the cabbage and hard boiled egg one. Delish!

    Mab I’m enthralled with your spotting the Rousseau ‘back to the garden’ and ‘nature good/man-made bad’ dichotomy. I’d been trying to put my finger on that for months with the whole paleo movement. Thank you for putting it into words for me. It kept bugging me and I knew I recognized it, but I couldn’t quite place where it was from.

    And yes, here in America we tend to work very hard to make pleasurable things as sordid and unsavory as we can. Food, sex, laughter… if it makes us too happy, we tend to distrust it.

    1. Mich Avatar

      Interesting. I’ve not read Rousseau, so didn’t make the connection that way. I was reading about early Christians (100-500AD) and monasticism is greatly tied into eating less, as it was well known from ancient times that food deprivation caused hallucinations, and decreased sex-drive. For nuns though, it became more about the only thing they could control in their lives, since if they left the safety of their convents, they could be kidnapped, raped, murdered, sold into slavery by robbers and thugs, which made their lives pretty uncertain.

      1. Mich Avatar

        I forgot to tell what the book was: “The Body and Society” by Peter Brown (20th anniversary updated edition). Also “Holy Feast, Holy Fast” is a good book about how late medieval women (1200-1500) addressed food through religion. There is a chapter on extreme fasting and whether it counts as anorexia at that time.

  8. Servetus Avatar

    Elimination as purity ritual = think of kashrut.

  9. Shannon Cate Avatar
    Shannon Cate

    The body/spirit dichotomy is also misogynist as all heck. The devaluing/loathing/disgust with women within Christian history is in very large part based on the idea that women are more embodied–thus more earthy–thus less spiritual than men. Which gets us to the point that they start labeling clothing in sizes that go down to ZERO. (The first time I saw that, I thought, “oh, we’re supposed to disappear now.”) I know most dieting women in the western world are not thinking in these terms, but it strikes me as very much a survival of anorexic nuns and men who swore off even looking at women throughout that European Christian history. Women in particular are worse because they have *more* body than men, what with the bleeding and the babies and the leaky boobs and all…

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I just want to note that Shannon officially left the 10,000th comment on this site. Congratulations.

      There are no prizes.

      1. Chris Avatar

        Go Shannon! Does that make this 10,003?

        But I too, was horrified when they started with the size zero. Not to mention – was it Fantastic Four? A bunch of people with cool superhero powers. The woman’s power was to be invisible. To literally disappear and not be noticed. What the hell?

        1. Michelle Avatar

          This is 10,007.

          And, MISOGYNY.

          1. Shannon Cate Avatar
            Shannon Cate


  10. Chris Avatar

    I remember one time when I did have energy issues, aches and injuries that would not heal, seasonal allergies, and a few other subtle symptoms like those they describe – they all got better when I started eating more food. I really was not eating enough. The variety was a bit low, the fat content was far too low, and when I started eating unlimited quantities of butter, cream, milk, and cheese, my allergies went away. Imaging my surprise – I had been told that dairy would worsen my allergies. But I think it was the low-fat-malabsorption-of-nutrients thing that was my problem.

    It seems to me all the symptoms they list can also be caused by dieting/restriction.

  11. Oscar Avatar

    I just spent several months this winter doing a self-directed elimination diet for some digestive issues. I looked to various recommendations online for how to do it, and I always thought it was really telling that everyone had all sorts of lists for what the supposed “allergens” were, and really detailed instructions about the “cleansing” part of the diet, but almost no one that I had any good instructions for the reintroduction part. It was almost like you were just supposed to forget that you were going to add foods back in and just carry on with the rest of your life eating rice and sweet potatoes.

    The few that did offer some guidance on the test/take away/for god’s sake write it all down procedure would couch it in vague enough terms that you’d immediately run into questions and issues. Like, is there a better order for adding foods back in? How long do you test before moving on to the next thing? Is there benefit to taking the food away when you’re not sure of a reaction, or is it better to leave it in? How do you pick amounts of the new food to test? Which foods are representative of an entire group and which need to be tested one at a time? For example, it took me a solid two weeks to add back in nightshades because it felt like piss poor experimentation to add in the entire nightshade group at once. That turned out to be an excellent idea because the root of my problem was peppers and only peppers.

    Anyway, tldr, the lack of advice for how to finish an elimination test makes me wonder if the goal isn’t just to culturally purify oneself temporarily, but to exist in this sort of ultimate food purity forever.

    1. Colleen Avatar

      You are the ONLY person I’ve ever heard of that has the same allergy as my wife! Sorry, not immediately relevant to the subject at hand, but it’s very exciting to know at least one other person in the world is allergic to peppers!

      1. Mich Avatar

        That’s kinda weird, about the peppers. I didn’t know about it. I found I have a problem with olive oil. So I stick to butter and coconut oil.

    2. glg Avatar

      This sounds like me! I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to do a DIY elimination diet (pretty sure I’m lactose intolerant and possibly have an issue with beef) and the reintroduction parts are fuzzy to the point of ridiculousness. The one place I saw with any advice said to reintroduce something and then wait 2-3 days before reintroducing the next thing, which is doable, but no mention of order, etc. Any advice?

      1. entchen Avatar

        If you’re lactose intolerant, you can start with lactose free products/old cheese (has almost no lactose) and see how you cope with that. Most people can eat them just fine, my limit right now is 2 table spoons of lactose free milk :/ But my nutristionist told me, that even with lactose intolerance it gets better again when your bowels are better (over a period of months or weeks, not days).
        Afaik, as long as you don’t have any noticeable symptoms, it’s okay to try the next thing (in really small quantities) or add a little to the one you could eat.

        If you can eat lactosefree products without problems, look up a list of lactose content (can be found quite easily) and try small quantities of products with only little lactose. And so on and so forth, until you have found your limit. Which you can then re-test every few weeks or months if it may have gotten a little better or not.

        I also heard that if you try different products, you should only eat the same product again after 3 days so you will be able to determine which one you couldn’t eat. E.g. day 1: lactose free mild, day 2: cottage cheese, day 3: beef, day 4: lactose free milk – something like that.

        1. Mich Avatar

          I am lactose intolerant and it’s taken almost a decade to get better (where I’m not in the bathroom for hrs on end). There are many more products now, than 10 yrs ago, when there were none. If you live in Canada, Loblaw’s/Superstore has lactose free products: sour cream, margarine (no sense to me as butter has no sugar), 2 cheese (marble and old cheddar). Other brands like Dairyland, Beatrice, iögo, yoplait have lf yoghurts. If you live in Calgary or Woodstock, Springbank cheese has loads of lf cheeses: Some are not listed there, but all the goat and sheep are lactose free. The Lappi cheese is a top-seller, and in 2014 they had trouble getting it in because of the import laws (it was coming from Finland, but now it’s USA and the laws couldn’t determine how to include that in import quotas). But the owner of the store I go to said that this year the cheese import laws are going to improve so that there are no shortages after Oct.

          1. glg Avatar

            Thanks for the suggestions! I think my issues are comparatively mild, but they’re getting to the point where I’d rather cut dairy out than ignore it anymore, which really says it all I think.

            I’m in NYC, so I should be able to get at least some of these or use them as a starting point for finding equivalent products. Cheese is my main concern — I don’t like milk, I can live without yogurt if necessary, I was gifted an ice cream maker a few years ago so I can experiment with vegan ice cream, and I know I’ve seen (hella expensive) goat butter around & I’ve used coconut oil as a substitute in baking. So it’s really cheese, which is, all told, a major part of my diet. Plus cheese is just delicious, I’m loathe to give it up.

          2. Mich Avatar

            Since you are in the USA, you should be able to find some of the Lappi. It is like mozzerella, very mild, kinda soft, melts well, so it’s good on pizza and in sauces.

            I too have seen the goat butter, but only in certain stores (eg. organic). Since I do well on the cow butter, I see no need for me to switch. I do wonder if it tastes tangy though.

            Also, perhaps there are various brands in the US of yoghurt and milk, I haven’t really checked. If I were to travel there, or move there, I would check thoroughly before I go, so I am well prepared. I think Dairyland and Beatrice are Canadian brands. Safeway used to have lf milk, but it always expired too soon (like 1 day later). How am I supposed to drink 2L of milk in 1 day?

            So you might want to check the Lucerne brand (Safeway) to see if they have the milk. It only came in 2% here, but I haven’t seen it in over 5 yrs, I guess it didn’t sell well.

            My side-effects of dairy were quite severe, and I was always making sure there was a toilet around, or just not eating all day while I was out (since I didn’t know what did it). Plus I had 3 hr travel time each day to and from the uni. And that was on bus and train.

          3. Mich Avatar

            Hi again. Just last week I was at Superstore, and found a new store brand yoghurt. It’s the plain-jane, ordinary yoghurt, no probiotics or any of that jazz, and comes in 2% only. Really runny, so you could use it in pancakes as the milk subst. If you mix it with the sour cream it thickens a bit and goes good as chip dip.

    3. entchen Avatar

      Oh god YES, tell me about it. I worked with a nutritionist for my elimination diet and even she stayed quite vague about how to do it (she emphasized however how important it was that I added again and ate as diverse as possible at any given moment).

  12. Elizabeth Avatar

    The “when in doubt cut it out” makes it that restriction rather than participation is the norm, the standard of health, ugh. I have had a lot of experience with paleo, low carb, and food allergy elimination diets. Whole 30 is so in line with the food allergy diets in its promises and its demands for purity etc. I have had my asthma clear up not on any of these, but during an awful yearlong phase of very low calorie dieting–the doctors think it was probably the adrenaline from fight-flight that gets triggered during starvation. (A severe asthma attack/anaphylaxis in the emergency room is usually treated by an adrenaline shot) So I’ve always wondered if the short term high people get from things like Whole 30 or juice fasts, where there is fairly extreme restriction, might be similar. Like the “carb flu” that sets in after a few days seems a lot like being tired and needing food, until your body kicks up some energy out of sheer panic.

    Also: I used to underestimate the effect of the stress of having to stick so carefully to these pure food allergy/autoimmune/paleo diets. It is a massive stressor to be hungry and to have to go through all this thinking about how to get your special food–all the steps involved–and not just eat the food the other humans are eating, or then, as you quickly learn, to devote the priority chunk of your free time to getting and preparing and planning and strategizing and having to-go containers for this food–do all the loop-de-loops ahead of time. Also, the stress radiates out because then you’re always hungry again sooner than seems fair, plus such a huge percent of the budget goes to food there is more strategizing how to get by/ do without in other areas. There was certainly no vacation budget–it all went to special ingredients.

    The treatment that worked finally for all these autoimmune food allergy problems was a neuroplasticity-based program called DNRS which emphasizes *not restricting/avoiding foods or chemicals or whatever. All food sensitivities are gone except gluten, the energy level stuff is mostly better too. The trick was “when in doubt, distract/relax and enjoy yourself instead.” Now I eat normally, without restriction, with whole, nutrient-dense food as a kind of a base.

    So for me the stress-response of years of restriction absolutely created the symptoms, as Chris indicates above. Ending the symptoms in a long term way required ending the restriction, not maintaining a long term and ever-increasing restriction.

    1. inge Avatar

      It is a massive stressor to be hungry and to have to go through all this thinking about how to get your special food

      And so the middle class re-creates the food insecurity of their ancestors, as if afraid of the sinfulness of having enough.

      1. Fiona Avatar

        I’m not so sure about that, Inge – before WW2 things were pretty clear: poor people were thin, rich people were fat. Food insecurity belonged to the poor.

        Since, well, I suppose, the introduction of TV dinners in the 50s and particularly fast food in the 70s, things have turned around. Poor people are fat, rich people are thin. It’s not food insecurity the middle classes are recreating, so much as a clear dividing line between classes.

        1. Servetus Avatar

          consider, however, the arguments made about privileged classes by Carolyn Bynum, Holy Feast, Holy Fast, in which case some variant of this has been going on since the High Middle Ages.

          1. Fiona Avatar

            Absolutely – but as I pointed out further up, the kind of “fasting” the rich went in for was a whole lot different to that of the poor …

          2. Servetus Avatar

            Yes, but one of Bynum’s points is that it tries to re-create food insecurity in a population that is (relatively) not food insecure.

          3. Fiona Avatar

            Sorry, Servetus – can’t reply to your last comment directly, so doing this.

            I think that, as Michelle points out, the idea that there was some kind of rationale behind fasting other than the then current spiritual one is probably not the case. Biblical fasts involved living in whatever wilderness happened to be handy, eating whatever berries, roots and insects were available – a far cry from the Medieval version. Contemporary popes were temporally powerful but vulnerable to self interest as well as armed persuasion. Thus, or so I surmise, the fasting imposed by the Church on the rich tended towards self indulgence, with a smattering of perceived virtue, rather than anything even approaching actual suffering.

            That was a time of purchased indulgences, so basically, anyone who bent or even broke the rules, if they had the money, could buy themselves out of any punishment.

            I think perhaps Bynam’s argument is along the lines of an attempt to justify by science or reason something that had neither, but was simply symbolic of beliefs of the time.

          4. Servetus Avatar

            Let me know when you’ve read the book, because that is not her argument :)

          5. Fiona Avatar

            Lol! Nice put down.

            However, perhaps you could put her argument more clearly, if you really wish to discuss it …

        2. BarlowGirl Avatar

          “before WW2 things were pretty clear: poor people were thin, rich people were fat. Food insecurity belonged to the poor.”

          Nah, there have always been poor, fat people!

        3. inge Avatar

          Fiona, having grown up solidly middle-class, but constantly forced to diet, to the degree of developing an eating disorder, I recognized my own “if it’s in your stomach, no one can take it from you, so eat while you can” eating habits in a runt-of-the-litter kitten from a shelter.

          So I am not quite sure (and that’s why my reply took forever) what you mean to say about our diet culture not re-creating scarcity patterns narrated by our grandparents and lived by the generations before them, like some ancient family curse. (Except, yes, I presume that the vast majority of the ancestors of today’s middle class were not very rich, and so not mostly shielded from food insecurity.)

          Kitten has gotten better, by the way, and so did I.

          1. Fiona Avatar

            Hi Inge – yes, part of the reason this is such a great blog is that it makes one think … and then come back a few days later to reply :)

            Whereas you are looking at it from a personal perspective, my comment was from a historical perspective. If you look at art though to the industrial revolution and the invention of photography, there are clear delineations between the rich and the poor – not just clothes and food, but also body shape, colour, occupation and facial expression. These are markers of class, although subtle in some cases.

            The only time when body shape/fashion class markers pretty much disappeared was as a result of rationing during WW2 – with some exceptions, obviously. There was a thriving black market in food, fabric and various other things.

            Just a point of interest: WW2 was the first war in UK history where there were no deaths from starvation. Food insecurity hit everyone more or less equally, although it’s important not to have too romantic a view of it. There were those who cheated.

            Interesting contrast in our respective upbringing: I’m from an “eat it all up like a good girl” background as a result of the effects of rationing on my parents, although my mother was always on some kind of diet, whereas it looks like you were from a “don’t eat too much or there’ll be nothing left” background. Although I remember “don’t take the last one” but that was more about fruit and biscuits (cookies?) – treats, kind of thing. Even now I have difficulty finishing the last of a packet or the last bit of fruit. And the extension of that is tiny amounts of leftovers stored in the fridge until it turns into a science experiment. Food insecurity? Possibly, and, as you say, nothing to do with one’s own personal experience of it, except within the family.

            My point, after this long post, was that class markers in the way of body shape switch or change over time as the culture develops. And it’s often sexist as well – think about how women were constrained with boned underwear until the 20s and 30s … and how that has now developed into a cultural aspiration towards size zero. Basically that involves a starvation diet. Don’t get me started about that – it has nothing to do with food insecurity and everything to do with controlling the feminine through cultural pressure …

    2. entchen Avatar

      Stress also makes the body release histamine which in turn makes you feel bad and can lead to stomach problems (but also allergies, she* said unscientifically). Absolutely makes sense that stress should be avoided.

  13. Vera Avatar

    I don’t have anything to add at the moment–just wanted to say I’m loving this series, and am so glad to see your writing popping up in my inbox once again! :)

  14. elizabeth Avatar

    Great insights here. I worked my whole career in a natural food co-op, so was frequently in subjected to relentless waves of certainty about one diet or another. I was part of the 79s natural food movement, which meant whole foods, minimally processed and, if possible, organic and home cooked. I prefer organic because I understand what it means and that it has serious implications for the environment – but I don’t fetishize it and buy it where and when it is affordable.

    That’s my story and I’m sticking to it – it works for my budget, body and tastebuds. At my age I know exactly how I like my food and I’m in fine health.

    However, if I’d tried dietary regimens for my fatigue and weight gain, I’d have delayed necessary treatment for thyroid disease. If I’d tried diets for my mysterious pains, I would not have gotten the Vitamin D supplementation that was needed.

    I’m alarmed by the lists of wholesome foods that are on the forbidden lists of the dietary quackosphere. (I’ve successfully used alternative medicine in conjunction with mainstream – my statement is not a blanket condemnation by any means.)

    What I find scary on the web now, esp. FB, is that so many people who have no actual health problems are diagnosing themselves or each other, and worse, people who have serious conditions are asking for advice from anonymous sources on the web instead of getting authoritative information. Most of it seems to start with “cut out all gluten and dairy” and then goes on to a long list of wholesome foods.

    Any theory, medical or “alternative,” that blames foods humans have eaten for thousands of years for modern conditions should be looked upon with great skepticism. The bad advice about natural dietary fats comes to mind. IMO.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Wonderful points, especially about delaying treatment and casual diagnosis. I’ve said this in another thread, but I suspect that some diet faddishness in US culture comes from lack of publicly-funded health care, because people are (were) often left to fend for themselves entirely, so of course they would look for a sort of “home remedy” in the form of diet. It’s not the only driver, but I think it’s an important one.

      1. Alice Avatar

        The US approach to health insurance leading to weird outcomes is dead-on in my case. When I had good health insurance, I went to an allergist for my eczema. My allergy panel came back with a bunch of highly reactive results (mostly food-related, though with some trees, cats and ragweed mixed in for good measure).

        The awesome doc worked with me to figure out a way to deal with things without attempting to live my life in a bubble, and my symptoms improved. In a nutshell, his advice was to identify the allergens that caused the worst symptoms and focus on reducing those, only adding in new restrictions as needed. I minimized soy and corn, and used the A/C more often during pollen season, and life got better.

        6 years later, when the eczema was coming back with a good helping of fatigue, I had crappy insurance and also knew how tough it was to get health insurance as an individual (pre-Obamacare, you’d get turned down a lot if you had more than minor health issues in your file). So I decided to do the elimination diet thing as a way to recalibrate what allergens might be giving me grief, and only go to a physician if that didn’t work.

        The ED allowed me to resolve the symptoms, but I’m one of the folks who self-treated myself out of getting an official Celiac diagnosis. It was a reasonable approach to make at the time, given the vagaries of insurance, but now that the landscape is different, I’ve pushed many people away from my example.

        1. Michelle Avatar

          That’s really interesting, Alice, thank you. Perfect example of how in certain situations, it can make a lot of sense and even end up being helpful to engage in dietary self-experimentation, but also how there are social pressures (like difficult access to healthcare) that contribute to those decisions, and some possible drawbacks as well.

    2. Isidore Avatar

      I’ve tried elimination diets SO MANY times for my random, severe digestive issues that appear and disappear out of nowhere. (Like, taking a sip of water prompts excruciating cramps, or throwing up food I ate yesterday.) Many times the elimination dieting was based on the advice of doctors in the US. I already had kept a food diary and had the impression that there was no relation between my symptoms and what I was eating, but everyone told me it had to be what I was eating. Eight years later I’m finally discovering that the symptoms are brought on by hormone swings from an endocrine tumor. I should have trusted my gut (pun intended).

      1. Genevieve Avatar

        Would you be willing to talk to me about this? I drink a glass of water sometimes and get the same debilitating bloating I get after eating a large meal. I have no idea if my issues are hormone-related but they started shortly after I had my IUD removed after I suspected it was causing my hair to fall out. I’m so NOT convinced it’s food that’s giving me symptoms but I’m told over and over that it is. It’s really hard for me to find any sources online to help me sort this out, because the five doctors plus three specialists I’ve seen so far have NOT been helpful.

  15. inge Avatar

    As a ritual, I’m pretty sure it does work. Giving an action sympbolical meaning will change our perception of the action, and of the part of our lives that the action is linked to. This seems to be how our minds work.

    On a less “mystical” note, there is too much of nearly everything in the world to try it all out. I could eat chocolate all day and I would never get around to trying all the new flavours before they are gone again, and that is only one very minor food group. So there needs to be some kind of heuristic to apply to one’s choices. But knowing that one is making up the rules as one goes along might not give sufficient confidence in one’s decisions. So getting one’s heuristics from an external authority is probably good for one’s peace of mind.

    That said, I have a very, very low opinion on quack elemination diets. A friend of mine who is suffering migraines from hell and insufficiently treated ADHS and depressive episodes got an elemination diet which did not allow her anything she was usually eating or drinking except coffee and booze. All her usual food had to be substitute by the weirdest (and most overpriced) stuff you can imagine. Being stubborn and desperate, she clung to it for the better part of a year, until she was hardly able to get out of bed anymore. Lost 20 kilos and gained 20 years. Fortunately her mother finally intervened.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I believe on an individual level, one could argue that it “works” at least psychologically. However on a societal level, on the level of actually making substantive changes to the systems one takes issue with, it’s probably counterproductive. I see it as a neoliberal distraction from addressing large systemic problems with organized action. (But then I’m a lefty Canadian, of course I would think that.)

      1. elizabeth Avatar

        Right you are! All these people who are in a social situation that would allow them to advocate for societal changes to help the poor are busy focusing on their next meal, trying to make it fit a set of rules. It is weird, because the poor focus on whether they’ll get any food at all, and the wealthy focus on getting “the right” foods.

        I agree with the comments about social class, above. One thing I loved about the cooperative model was that it exists to provide easy access to everyone, regardless of financial situation or social class.

        Also, Michelle, are you aware that some of the early epidemiological studies that “demonstrated” the superior benefits of low-fat/low-animal-product diets were done DURING LENT in Eastern Orthodox countries? All that stuff about the Greek Islands and – was it Crete or another? – were done during the Lenten Fast! It didn’t occur to them that they might be studying a diet that was the exception, not the rule. Even scientists are subject to mistakes and to bias. I’m going to guess that the people tracking dietary patterns were not aware of the religious aspect of the local food culture.

        So much harm has come from studies that were not randomized, not repeated, and not double-blind, not long enough and not done with a large enough sample. The media reports each new study as “the latest news” instead of as just one more piece of a big puzzle. Scientists can never achieve the gold standard of dietary studies that would be needed to figure out the “perfect” diet (if such a thing exists) because it would have to be done over a lifetime, people would have to be assigned to groups and (almost) never eat off plan, and then the whole thing would have to be repeated to be sure they hadn’t got it wrong. Even then, what about variations across genetic and cultural lines? Not something that can be achieved until Dr. Crusher and the Federation computer system can process that kind of information.

        The interesting thing is that humans, as omnivores, have shown a remarkable ability to adapt to the diets available in every corner of the globe. That should be reassuring but we tend to ignore it. I personally believe that eating a wide variety of whole foods is key. Again, my story and I’m sticking to it. But I will also acknowledge that I come from a long line of people who live a long time with very few major illnesses until extreme old age, if they get any major illnesses at all.

        1. Mich Avatar

          Yay! Star Trek!

          Thanks for bringing to our attention the Lent issue again, this time it was unknown to the researchers. I have found that in other religious and cultural contexts doctors and scientists are extremely ignorant, and haven’t got a clue about it. They are taught prejudices in school (which are religiously based!) and then merely apply those every day, never once questioning them.

      2. inge Avatar

        Michelle, yes, counterproductive not only in the “no systemic injustice going on here; hey, look over there, new diet!” sense, but also in the “keep people busy, weak and exhausted”, by having them think about food all the while but not getting enough energy (emotional and physical) from it too effect change.

        Virgina Woolf wrote about it, so did Naomi Wolf, and a few years ago I stumbled on an essay by a woman who found that her attempts to make the world a better place by eating vegan had made her unable to make the world a better place by organising and fighting, because she had no energy for it.

        All those approached the topic from a feminist perspective, probably because selling the working class the idea that starving themselves (instead of having it done for them) could better their lot does not seem to have been a robust idea, historically. This would have to be studied from a modern perspective.

        1. Michelle Avatar

          I would love to read that essay!

          1. inge Avatar


            The original was taken down (maybe accessible via wayback), I think this site might have the full text:
            The political/feminist considerations are in Part 3.

            Here’s an interview with the author:

            Looking at the reception on the internet, the esssay was just another morsel for the vegan-omnivore battlebeast to gnaw on, all mudslinging and told-you-so. But the “too weak for activism” fit into a continuity, independent of the food fad of the day.

      3. moseyonby Avatar


        I keep reading and re-reading people’s posts above this comment of yours which includes “it ‘works’ at least psychologically” and “it’s probably counterproductive” and “I see it as a neoliberal distraction.” Could you please clarify just WHAT this “IT” is? I LOVE what you are saying–at least as much as I’m perceiving of it–and I’m only hoping I’m understanding it fully!!!

        My suspicion is that “it” refers to changing personal dietary habits in symbolic solidarity for some cause, as a kind of ethical gesture (like veganism, or eating foods from close to home, or any form of consumption that is called fair trade).

        I also partly suspect that my suspicion is actually WRONG because we are in the Whole 30 thread, and not the science vs. morals argument thread. Enter my confusion–apologies if I’m just being dense and this is really quite obvious to most people!

        I’m interested in clarifying your intriguing(though antecedent-ly confusing) comment because of recent concerns about my personal eating choices on an ETHICAL level, and wondering for myself whether changing my purchasing habits really is something to do instead of, in distraction of, other more direct forms of activism.

  16. nsv Avatar

    Michelle, I think that in addition to lack of access to care, there may also be a wholesale dissatisfaction with care that people in the US are experiencing. We know about the systemic problems with our health (non-)system. We also know that for most physicians, the treatment model is: determine symptoms, diagnose, prescribe. That works very well for acute conditions, but for those of us struggling with chronic problems that resist diagnosis, it’s not as helpful. The allure of having some agency in our own care is very strong. Since self-medicating is frowned upon (and illegal!), medicating with food is the obvious next step.
    This also plays into a notion – class-conscious and related to the national character, as you and others have observed here – that “taking care of yourself” is a laudatory, and translates more or less into “taking responsibility for yourself,” the political shorthand for a society that doesn’t care for its own.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I think that’s true too.

    2. Jackie Avatar

      YES!! Well said….thank you!

    3. Mich Avatar

      I totally agree.

  17. standgale Avatar

    Part of the attraction with using diet to fix health issues is that diet is something you can control yourself.

    I have been to the doctor many times about depression, anxiety, nerve pain (RSI?) in my hands-wrists-shoulders (that required me to give up all my hobbies and I thought I would have to quit my job), head/neck/jaw/shoulder aches, what I guess is basically IBS, nausea, severe period pains, a sudden development of fatigue, and probably other things, and they do a bunch of blood tests and so on and pronounce me completely healthy. I kind of desperately hope I can cure myself through diet because there aren’t really any other options. (I “cured” the period pains by asking for the pill by the way – they didn’t even suggest that.)

    People often say to go to your doctor, check with your doctor, its important to get things checked properly, etc, but after faithfully seeing a dozen doctors at 4 different practices over my life, I have finally given up on them. I imagine there are not a few people in the same position.

    This probably reads as quite bitter or something – I assure you it is! lol. No but really, I’m about to cry. :( But anyway, that’s really my point, that it can be a big emotional issue and people don’t know what else to do, and then someone recommends Whole 30…

    Good posts Michelle, good discussion internet people.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Unfortunately I think a lot of people are in this position, and it’s very frustrating and sad.

    2. elizabeth Avatar

      Boy, standgate, I can relate. My thyroid problem went undiagnosed and then treated but not with the proper dose, until I saw a specialist. The internist who was my doc back then didn’t know enough about autoimmune thyroiditis to treat it properly. I burst into tears when the endocrinologist read the blood test results and wondered aloud why on earth I was put on such a minimal dose of medication. Finally – someone got it right after I described my symptoms for years. Kudos to the Ob/Gyn who immediately offered a referral to the endo when I started the recitation again. They can make you feel like a bore and a head case when they don’t know what to do for you. Somehow it is your fault.

      There is also not enough attention paid to the stresses of life and their impact on symptoms. Glad my current doc, a DO instead of an MD, is aware of those factors. When I started having chest pains, the week my husband was in car accident that left him with a fractured sternum and chest full of contusions, she didn’t run me though a thousand heart tests. She held my head in her hands reassuringly, smiled, and let me know that it would pass. There was nothing about the exam to make her worry about my heart. Guess what – she was right. The pains settled down as he healed. So glad I was not put through a battery of expensive tests for nothing.

  18. Morgan Avatar

    (This is related to something sandgale said.)

    Basically, programs like this take advantage of us when we have something problematic going on which we and/or our medical providers haven’t figured out yet. That situation is incredibly anxiety-producing, and programs like this offer some illusions of control over things we don’t yet have any control over, or have only variable control over (or may never have control over, though we don’t like to think about this) — even when they don’t work, even when the only reason they work is placebo effect, even if just by chance they’ve hit on a food we should avoid.

  19. Beth Avatar

    This is such an interesting discussion!

    I was recently considering doing something like the “Whole30” or “clean eating” or .. something for a while. I have quizzed a few friends who have done it and tell me they feel magical and so on and so forth while they are doing it. But also, based on my own knowledge of nutrition, and also just the idea of competent idea, I feel like I should be 100% opposed to doing it myself. But I feel like you hit the nail on the head with why I would even consider it:

    “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. ”

    I have ADHD, and suffer greatly from “decision fatigue,” and I found that when I went vegetarian (I am not any more, but was strict vegetarian for 2 years), one of the side benefits was completely eliminating portions of restaurant menus. At some restaurants, there were only two-three things I could eat. On very rare occasions I felt limited, but most of the time, I was relieved to not have so much to choose from. As a human garbage disposal, I often find that literally everything is appealing on a menu!

    Even now, I eat SOME meat, but only grass-fed/pasture-raised; and since it’s so hard to find sustainable chicken, I never eat chicken. Having that sort of restriction still limits what I can eat. I do wonder if part of the reason that people find these sorts of diets appealing is how many fewer options they have. I remember reading in “Mindless Eating” that the average person makes 221 food decisions about food every day! By preparing meals and your food in advance for something like Whole30, and eliminating swaths of aisles at the grocery store, you have seriously decreased this number. It seems to me like just THAT would lead to some clearer thinking.

    I have always wondered why I was even attracted to Whole30, despite the fact that I don’t necessarily “believe” in eliminating all sorts of food from my diet, but I think you have hit the nail on the head that it has to do with being overwhelmed with options. I remember going to an Indian restaurant with what seemed over 100 menu options, and I remember how it made me just shut down with decision fatigue. THIS is why something like Whole30 or Paleo or even vegetarianism/veganism is so appealing to me. Eliminating swaths of types of food from my diet would result in so many fewer decisions.

    1. Karen Avatar

      I think the decision fatigue is common to many people. It is simply overwhelming sometimes to have so much choice and I find myself paralysed by which is the best or ‘right’ choice quite often but I have learned (as someone who has suffered from eating disorders) that this paralysis is a result of the choice creating panic and ED anxiety in me. Not to suggest that everyone who feels this way suffers from anxiety over eating but the overwhelming nature of our food environment certainly makes restrictive eating programmes very attractive to those who suffer anxiety, OCD or other issues.

  20. Shalla Avatar

    I feel like this is one of those “how things are supposed to be done” vs “how they end up being done” situation. Because there is a re-introduction phase on the Whole30, if you’re doing it by the book. I don’t remember the order of items but it’s something like, Day 31, eat dairy at every meal, Days 32 & 33 go back to Whole30 rules & see how you react. Do the same thing – add a thing & eat at every meal, go back to strict Whole30 for two days, keep track of reaction. Dairy, gluten containing grains, non gluten containing grains, and beans (I think) are the suggested items to re-intro like this.

    Things I, personally, have figured out about myself and food via the Whole30:

    Dairy makes my depression worse, like whoa. Who knows why, but decent qualities of dairy one day mean bad depression day the next day. Also, bloating.

    Sugar messes with my hunger queues. Like, a lot. Like the thing that says “you’re good, you’re full, stop eating now” goes away entirely. An example is making pizza at home – if I use pizza sauce that has sugar in it, I eat literally twice as much as I do using pizza sauce that doesn’t have sugar in it. I’ve started reading ingredient lists more closely & not using things with sugar in them for savory food.

    Sugar messing with hunger queues directly ties into the third thing – my personal “food with no breaks” (everyone’s is different, something that I think gets lost in a lot of the shuffle with Whole30). Baked goods that are desserts. A lot of people in the HAES space will using eating an entire box of cookies as an example of things people think fat people do that most fat people don’t actually do – I am the person that actually does that. I don’t get sick but every single time I buy a box of cookies, I eat the whole thing. Every time. So I’ve stopped buying whole boxes most of the time. Occasional single servings. Or dairy free ice cream which I can totally eat in small doses and not finish the pint in a day.

    TL;DR If you’re doing the Whole30 correctly, you re-intro food in stages to see how you react.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Thanks for that info – I haven’t read that far into the program yet. I have just heard several people remark that they try, or plan to try, eating as closely to the original elimination diet as possible, indefinitely. It’ll be interesting to analyze what language is used in the re-intro part of the program. Today I was looking at the “Glossary” and specifically “Sex With Pants On” and there is a lot going on, both in the lines and between the lines.

      1. Shalla Avatar

        A lot of people feel so good on the diet, they want to make it happen incidentally, which even the people who created the plan think is a bad idea. It’s really not sustainable long term.

        Oooooh, “Sex with your pants on” food. It’s an interesting concept in some areas – the concept that the fake so called “paleo” version of a food isn’t going to be as good as the original, so why are you even trying? I think has some merit. Especially if you’re talking about fake cheeses which aren’t worth it basically ever. It’s not cheese, it doesn’t actually taste like cheese, it’s frequently pretty gross.

        I like the point that some foods really aren’t worth the effort to recreate, it’s better to focus on the whole foods you are allowed on the diet and see what fun things can be done with those. Which is a lot of really yummy things.

        But pumpkin or banana pancakes? Which are literally cinnamon, eggs, fruit? Kinda silly. Eat’em all you want (provided you’re not dousing them in syrup, which is VERY much against the plan).

        Anyway, I’ve done Whole30 three times and am kind of an obsessive person when it comes to knowing all the rules of a thing I’m trying to do (even if it’s to know how to break them best). I’ll probably chime in a lot over this series. Your take on it is very interesting and coming from a less questionable place than most reviews/overviews of the program do.

  21. ruth Avatar

    I hope Genevieve is feeling better. As a mom, I have heard many (likely apocryphal) stories about family life on the whole30 and how it is helpful for anything from ADHD to hormonal eating in teen girls, whatever that is (I am a woman, I know what that is, but obviously it manifests differently for different people and it often seems to me that women who talk about their daughters’ hormonal stress eating sound creepy in my not-clinical opinion). I also wonder if the whole30 lifestyle has given these successful families the opportunity to spend time with each other, to show each other affection through feeding each other, and to lessen the distractions of other things, and if that plays a role in how they were able to become healthier. or “healthier.”

    Anyway, I relate to a lot of the broad topics shared here (and as a practicing religious person, I see plenty of people who are enacting the sort of thing Bynum discussed in the book above about St. Catherine of Siena). I also think your theory about the too-muchness of the world has a ton of merit.

    At the same time, I see a flip side of these changes: if the parent in charge–in every case I have seen, the mother–is suddenly indulging herself by doing research, shopping, and cooking most of the time, *and* she is getting thinner, it becomes a socially-sanctioned way to be as self-absorbed as she wants to be. There does seem to be a lot of self-satisfied and braggy language around the whole30 in general, and it’s not the kind of talk that we would consider socially acceptable in polite society.

    I also think there is something very interesting about how, if you are on the whole30 you can eat as much of anything you want, as long as it doesn’t contain the forbidden macronutrients; where else would it be normal to eat a serving bowl of meat and greens, or ask for thirds of the bacon? I think in a way this flouting of the social conventions when it comes to food is a thrill for people who have often been denied food before. I definitely see this through a prism of people who have been dieters or describe the reason why they go on teh diet as “diet failure” or “failure to lose weight.”

    I also want to thank you all for this discussion, which I find fascinating.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Great comment and really interesting points, thank you.

      1. Michelle K Avatar
        Michelle K

        Such an interesting discussion, Michelle. I am glad you chose this as your research topic and thanks for sharing it here. The comments have opened up another area of inquiry for me!

  22. glg Avatar

    Hmmm, this is timely for me … I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a kind of DIY elimination diet (not whole30 or any other pre-fab diet; I’ve been going through various elimination diet lists and figuring out my own version), because it’s become increasingly clear over the last year that dairy gives me stomach aches (cheese D: so sad) and over the last few months I’ve been getting cramps/diarrhea up after eating a growing number of foods (beef and possibly citrus, beans, pork, and pickles). Nothing super debilitating, but definitely annoying and painful.

    I’m waiting to see if I can get onto my company’s health insurance before I go to a doctor, so I figured an DIY elimination diet might be the quickest way to feel better. I already cook/meal plan regularly, so cutting out certain foods for three/four weeks and then figuring out how to reintroduce everything slowly over another month or so seemed doable with some prep/lead-in time, especially since there are things on most elimination diet lists that I don’t eat regularly that I could add in (fish! lamb! weird grains I’ve never heard of before! expensive fruits I don’t usually shell out money for! etc!).

    But you make it sound much scarier. Hmmm, BUT at the same time, there are many ways that I trust myself to figure out what I should be eating more than some rando doctor, especially since any doctor/specialist I see about this is going to be one I’m meeting for the first time. I’m not anti-medical establishment, but I have a dose of skepticism about it. And if the elimination diet is making me feel worse than I do now (which I doubt) then I can just stop it and/or I’ll know that the issues I’m having probably aren’t based on specific allergies/intolerances, which really seems like where a doctor would be most useful anyways.

    Hmmmm, still thinking this through. Advice welcome!

    1. entchen Avatar

      The second part of your list sounds like histamine is the problem. IT COULD TOTALLY NOT BE. That’s just what I have experience with. If you have any way to do that, I’d recommend talking to a nutritionist about your elimination diet because if you have to cut out (high) histamine food and dairy, that’s a lot (says me coming from a elimination diet for histamine, dairy and fructose).

      What could help, even without going the whole mile: Keeping your food really fresh, especially animal products (i.e. freezer all the time). If possibly, avoid food in glasses/cans for the diet (see pickles) = very high histamine. Also have a look at a list with high-histamine food and maybe only cut out the worst for the diet (e.g. most alcohol).

      Definitely eat as much different food as is still possible.

      Good news is, from what I’ve heard: Histamine may only be a problem until your body has recovered from the stresses dairy put it through. (Not that dairy is always bad – but if you’re lactose intolerant.)

      That makes me think: Make sure, that the problem is not only *old* cheese. Because if you can drink milk fine, histamine could be the sole problem, not dairy.

      1. glg Avatar

        Oh, fascinating! Thank you so much! This actually sounds much more likely than anything else I’ve read — the randomness of the foods that have given me issues (with the exception of dairy) has left me scratching my head. I’m pretty sure that my dairy issues are separate — I don’t drink milk (don’t like it), but yogurt, soft cheeses, and ice cream have all given me stomach aches. I do think my dairy issues are comparatively mild — I haven’t had the horror stories many people have — but at this point it’s just my love of cheese and butter that has me hiding my head in the sand.

        Given what you’ve said here, I think I’m going to try cutting out dairy and trying for foods that are low in histamines. It’s also allergy season here, so that could be a component as well. If this doesn’t help then I’ll try a more extensive elimination diet.

        1. entchen Avatar

          The good news, I guess, is that people usually experience their allergies decreasing, if not going away, with a low histamine diet. So at least there is a silver lining if you have to go all the way. I mean, after some weeks, I’m getting used to having few food options, but every few days, you get frustrated ^^

          But in the end you feel better and it’s worth it (I keep telling myself *sigh*)

  23. elizabeth Avatar

    Just want to say that the comments here are, hands down, the most thought AND respectful (a rare combo on the web) that I’ve seen anywhere on food-related blogs. Thanks for setting the tone, Michelle.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I KNOW RIGHT?? My readers are amazing.

  24. olympia Avatar

    Well, I’m late to this conversation, but I wanted to say I appreciate how you make clear that elimination diets are not without risk, and that they are not, in fact, to be embarked upon frivolously. This is a truth that appears to have been out of reach of my former health care provider, much to my detriment.

    I’ll be more specific. Nine months ago, I made a series of visits to my provider, complaining of a few different things. There was the chronic reflux and gut pain, but also hay fever like symptoms, aches and pains, and fatigue. My provider concentrated on the GI symptoms, telling me to take Prilosec but also to eat “no spicy foods no coffee no mint” and so on and so forth. All the usual suspects. And I tried, but didn’t do so hot with those restrictions- besides, my symptoms seemed to stay the same no matter what I ate, so what the hell, right? Well, by my third visit, my provider had had enough with me.

    “You have to think HOLISTICALLY,” she told me. Maybe I should take in NO caffeine, maybe my problem was milk, or wheat. My problem was clearly linked to diet, and there was nothing she could do, I simply had to figure out what was bothering me. It was so disheartening! I left her office feeling pretty depressed- chastising myself for not having the willpower to stick to my restrictions, but also not sure how, exactly, I was supposed to go about zeroing in on what food was causing my symptoms. She’d given me no elimination diet to follow. Essentially, she’d just thrown my problems solely back at me, absolving herself of any responsibility in the matter.

    So I gave the elimination diet another go. I found explicit instructions for it online, and lasted all of about 36 hours. I ordered a celiac test for myself. I tried the elimination diet again. And again. What was holding me back, I figure, was being suspicious that my problems were indeed all about food. I mean, how could my provider possibly have ruled out everything else conclusively? The social isolation and deprivation while restricting was palpable, and I didn’t want to do it for no reason. Another part of me, though, cursed myself for not having the willpower to stick to the restrictions, and made me reluctant to go back to my provider until I had stuck to them for a period of time. She had, after all, thrown it all in my lap.

    I probably still wouldn’t have gone back to her, were it not for a friend, hearing of my symptoms, suggesting I get my auto-immune levels checked. Figuring it was worth a shot, I returned to my provider and requested the test. She was defensive, but ordered the test (after leaving the room to go google stuff for a while). And what do you know, the test was positive, although what exactly ails me still hasn’t been defined.

    I feel a bunch of different ways about this. I’m still trying, for instance, to eliminate different things from my diet, as there are indeed some believable theories linking auto-immune disease and diet. But I’m also aghast -and frankly still furious- over how my provider thought all she needed to do was throw vague diet advice at me and her job was done. It felt like such a blow off, and also like a crutch she had come to lean on. I’m wondering if anyone else has run into this sort of thing? In my case, it’s like my provider thought she had free reign to prescribe restrictions, like she failed to see any downfalls to them whatsoever. She failed to take into account quality of life- a rather enormous failure. Not to mention that my condition may not, in part or total, have anything to do with diet whatsoever.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I’m sorry that happened to you, and I hope you find answers. Thank you for sharing this.

      In my opinion, clinicians without specific training in nutrition shouldn’t be giving out therapeutic diets. A therapeutic diet (which almost always entails restrictions) is *like a drug.* Restricting certain foods has side effects. It carries risk. It can put incredible pressure on people. It should not be entered into lightly, and should not be prescribed by anyone without the proper training. Even as a diet tech, with a degree in nutrition and lots of clinical experience in hospitals, I never prescribed a therapeutic diet to anyone until I was a dietetic intern being supervised by a dietitian.

      I did some elimination diets as a supervised intern in my outpatient rotation, usually with people having severe symptoms who were unable to find answers elsewhere. They are not easy, they are not casual, they are risky and difficult and dangerous.

      We have a disordered culture around food. The rise of popular elimination dieting is one symptom.

      1. olympia Avatar

        Thanks, I have really been struggling! I think part of the problem is that we (in the U.S. at least, I can’t speak so much to other cultures), put a really low value on certain kinds of happiness. We should give up foods we love with abandon, because hey, it’s just food, you know. What kind of hedonistic creature needs to have the pleasure of eating what they want THAT much? (Just look at the way pregnant women are treated, advised to give up things that carry low or in some cases, next to no risk.) I appreciate you appreciating just how difficult it is, and that there are risks to restrictions- they can’t just be tossed out wantonly.

        1. Michelle Avatar

          Great point, and I agree.

      2. Michelle K Avatar
        Michelle K

        SO TRUE!

  25. Anneke Avatar

    So this is a thing that I realized as I’m reading about the Whole30 and contrasting it with the rules for something that, in the United States, is called the Child and Adult Care Food Plan. Essentially, it provides reimbursement up to a certain amount for meals and snacks served at day care centers, summer camps, afterschool programs, senior citizen centers, etc. – but the meals and snacks must fit a prescribed pattern. Reimbursable meals ALWAYS include “fluid milk” (which must be lowfat or skim) and significant amounts of bread/cereal/grains. The actual requirements are here:

    I’m sure this is not mere coincidence, that this food plan cuts entirely out the two largest mainstays of what “poor kids receiving food through programs” are fed.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Interesting observation!

    2. Mich Avatar

      Those “guidelines” seem seriously messed up. I looked at the infant and adult ones, and they expect solid food for babies at 4 months. I thought it was inadvisable before 6 months? No free food for you!

      Also those adult guidelines are a joke too: for the snack, 1 meat/alt. serving is 1/2 an egg?? Do you cook it and cut in half?

      And all meals except supper must contain 1 cup of milk. Makes no sense to me.

  26. Jessica Avatar

    This reminds me of this article I’d just recently read.

    If you read his “example” diet, where he shows how the “diet gurus” suck people in, he is using examples exactly like what this “program” does. Generalizations, speculation presented in a way that feels (to many people) factual. It’s very slick and sly.

    1. elizabeth Avatar

      Oh yes! In my three decades working at a successful, consumer-owned natural/organic grocery co-op, I came to the same conclusion. Diet is occupying the space of religion for an increasing number of people. People demonstrated remarkable levels of intense devotion to dietary dogma. Then when they found a new diet, they’d switch and be just as devoted to the new one. From vegan to Weston-Price or paleo was not an infrequent switch. Vegans would go to TCM practitioners and be told they’d destroyed their health and had to start eating meat ASAP, and would do so. When they did, former comrades in arms who had not switched would take to trashing them as if they were heretics. Fascinating sociology and psychology here.

      1. Jessica Avatar

        I’m an atheist, and I swear I got more push back when I said I no longer dieted or believed in dieting, than I did/do when I say I don’t believe in god! It feels WAY more controversial to tell people about my positions on Health At Every Size or Intuitive Eating than to say, I’m an atheist.

        Which is kind of crazy.

        1. elizabeth Avatar

          The old rules about polite conversation dictated against discussing politics or religion. Apparently we must now add “diet” to that list.