Whole 30: Elimination Diet or Nutritional Penance?

In last week’s podcast, I wrote about the Whole30 Challenge, and what I see as the pros and cons of this popular program.  (If you missed that one, you might want to read it now.) As soon as the episode went live, the emails and comments started flooding in. Many of you wrote with your own experiences with the Whole30-both positive and negative.whole30a

But several of you also felt that I had failed to address a key aspect of the Whole30 approach.

Henry wrote: “You missed the part of the Whole30 that comes right after the 30 days, which is the systematic re-introduction of the restricted foods into your diet. I did a Whole30 last year and during the reintroduction phase I realized that nightshades were causing a lot of problems for me that I had previously been attributing to other things (gluten, not getting enough sleep, etc.).

"I agree that the diet isn't sustainable, and I wouldn't really ever want to do one again, but I found that the elimination of so many food groups for a period, followed by reintroducing them one at a time was incredibly illuminating and has definitely changed the foods I eat on a regular basis.”

Sarah, who did the Whole30 with several family members, wrote with a similar experience. “It really bothers me," she wrote, “that the most important part of the program–mindful re-introduction–gets ignored. If you go out for pizza and beer on day 31, then you've gotten nothing out of it except a short-term restriction diet. However, reintroducing wheat, dairy, and alcohol one at a time while actually paying attention to how your body is reacting to it? That's the point.

"If we'd gone out for pizza and beer on day 31, we wouldn't know that all three of us apparently have non-celiac wheat sensitivity. We wouldn't know that my mother has a previously undiagnosed cow's milk allergy. And we wouldn't know that any form of alcohol triggers middle of the night insomnia for me."

Is Whole30 a Good Way to Identify Food Sensitivities?

Henry and Sarah make a valid point. Completely eliminating certain foods for a period of time and then introducing them one by one is a well-established method for identifying food sensitivities. It is, in fact, thought to be far more reliable than those food sensitivity blood tests that are marketed to consumers. 

See also: Is Food Intolerance Testing for Real?

An elimination diet usually focuses on the foods that are most likely to cause adverse reactions. Wheat and other gluten-containing grains and dairy are the most common food sensitivities–and these are among the foods excluded on the Whole30. Other likely culprits that are often excluded on an elimination diet, such as eggs and nuts, are not excluded on the Whole30. So if you have a sensitivity to those, it probably woudn’t be identified.

On the other hand, Whole30 does exclude foods, such as non-gluten-containing grains and natural sweeteners, which aren’t usually excluded on elimination diets, because sensitivities to these foods are not common. 

It’s also not necessary to eliminate foods for 30 days in order to assess sensitivity; 21 days is considered adequate.

I think the Whole30 program is actually attempting to do several things at once: to identify (some) food sensitivities but also to disrupt and evaluate emotional and behavioral responses to food. (which I did talk about last week).

But, as is often the case, a tool that’s designed to do all sorts of different jobs is sometimes less effective or just harder to use than a tool that’s designed to do just one thing.

If you do the Whole30 the way Henry and Sarah did it, and carefully follow the protocol for reintroducing some of the foods that you eliminated one by one, you might very well identify food sensitivities that you didn’t know about. Many people posting on the Whole30 forums, however, report that after going through the entire process, none of the foods caused symptoms upon reintroduction. Perhaps these sorts of sensitivities aren’t as common as people believe.

Why Else do People do the Whole30?

If the goal were really just to identify the foods that cause you problems and remove them from your life, you really wouldn’t have to do this exercise more than once. And yet, people seem to cycle on and off the Whole30. I think that's because–for better or worse–a lot of people use the Whole30 as compensation for periods of excess

For example, Liza wrote; “Seems like it can be a useful thing to do after the holidays, when you have eaten everything and anything, We’ve all had our good intentions go off the rails. I don’t see a problem doing this for a short period of time once or twice a year as way of getting back control.”

Yes, I think many of us know how it is to feel that we’ve over-indulged and need to get back on track. However, you don’t have to go to the other extreme of a highly restricted diet in order to do that. All you really have to do is stop over-indulging. The thing that makes me nervous about people using Whole30 or a similar type of program as a correction for "bad behavior" is that it can so easily set up a sort of binge and purge mentality. 

Let’s say you do the Whole30 as a sort of penance for a period of over-indulgence.  The next time you find yourself tempted to overindulge, you might also be tempted to strike a bargain with yourself:  “I know I shouldn't but after this trip/holiday/weekend, I’ll do a Whole30 to make up for it.” Having made this resolution, you might even be less restrained than you otherwise would be.

We all have good days and bad days (or weeks), but I think it’s healthier, both mentally and physically, to try to keep the ups and downs from being so extreme. Because being “really good” doesn’t always entirely undo the damage from being “really bad.” There’s a lot to be said for trying to hold the line at "not so bad," which then gives us the freedom to be content with being “pretty good.” 

Keep in Touch

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