On Sunday night I watched a mini Instagram storm blow up after a post by the shame and guilt researcher and vulnerability advocate, Brene Brown. If you haven’t heard of her – worth a Google – see the link to her page here.
But what was the storm?
She seemingly endorsed the Whole30 Paleo-style protocol.
She posted a simple photo of a pan with noodled spaghetti squash alongside a bottle of coconut aminos, ingredients you’ll recognise if you’re at all familiar with Whole30.
For those uninitiated, the Whole30 protocol is basically a dietary approach which includes only whole foods (i.e. nothing processed or out of a packet) and avoids sugar, dairy, all grains (yes, including all sources of gluten but also rice, oats etc.), beans, soy, alcohol, caffeine and artificial sugars … for 30 days.
Alternatively called a Paleo Reset, a 30-day Reset, this is an eating style (note my careful choice of words to avoid ‘diet’) which essentially shuns anything known to be nutrient-poor (i.e. high in calories, low in micronutrients), inflammatory, potentially antagonistic to permeable GI tracts, insulinogenic etc. etc. Claims are both that it is based on an ancestral health model returning to ‘real food’ and that it has the ability to ‘reset’ your dietary intake and relationship with food. Some health claims associated with these paleo-style protocols include improved digestion, the resolution of skin complaints, sleep issues, brain fog etc.
Nothing out of the ordinary so far. It basically advocates a healthy diet, but takes this to an extreme by removing some common food allergens and substances we can become dependent on. The aim is to remove the dependencies and realign your taste buds and appetite.
So how did Brene Brown create a storm?
Well, she came up hard against the feminist, anti-diet culture response.
Yes, that’s a ‘thing’, if you weren’t aware.
To be anti-diet-culture is to be both against the arbitrarily defined societal standards of a ‘normal physique’ (which is usually relegated as an unattainable level of artificial standard) and against the notion of using willpower and voluntary controls of nutritional intake and energy expenditure in the vain hope of meeting such ideals. Science would suggest that voluntarily control over weight set points is illusory and that there are far more complex mechanisms at play which regulate body mass, weight distribution and metabolic response to certain nutrients. The anti-diet-culture proponents argue that ‘dieting’, as it is conventionally done – with caloric deficits – creates serious metabolic shifts which make weight loss unsustainable. They also argue, perhaps most compellingly, that nobody’s worth, character or even wellbeing should be assessed on their body shape, size or weight.
They are correct in the contention that health and weight are not as closely correlated as we might think, and the standards of beauty to which women (and not to be sexist but it’s mostly women) are held is unhelpful, irrelevant, sometimes dangerous – and anything but healthy for all. They attest to the fact that diet-culture causes females (mostly females, though, increasingly, men too) to be body-obsessed, neurotic about food and their physiques and in constant, repetitive restrict/relax cycles around food intake and exercise.
So why on earth would anti-diet-culture advocates judge Brene Brown’s Instagram snap?
Well, it seems that in saying she was doing Whole30 and loving it, Brene Brown inadvertently stepped into the space of ‘endorsing’ a diet. Yes, she did @ mention the @Whole30 page and one of its founders, Melissa Hartwig. And she gushed about how good it had been for her.
I must stress here that at no point did she mention the words ‘diet’, ‘weight’ or ‘control’.
But into the Insta-sphere stepped a whole host of “yay, Brene”.
Swiftly followed by mild indignation and subtle outrage that someone, who purports to promote strength in vulnerability and how to move through the overpowering emotions of guilt and shame, was suddenly promoting the suppression of feminine rights through the use of dieting to regulate her body.
Apparently, she should not use her platform to endorse diet-culture because the notion of dieting is antithetical to her empowerment work (wtf?!). Nor should she recommend restrictive diets and/or suggest a way of eating which may potentially ‘trigger’ those with eating disorders.
Eek. A minefield over a spaghetti-noodle stir fry.
And, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Brene Brown’s body hers to do what she wants with?
This whole debacle is unfortunately perilously close to the line I walk all the time. As someone who uses nutritional elimination diets in my practice AND deals with clients for whom restriction has led to disordered eating, I am forever treading the fine divide between healthful dietary practices and harmful ones.
So was Brene Brown wrong? Well, a lot depends on how you view Whole30, how you view dieting, how you view restrictions in nutrition and where you judge that very narrow boundary to be between control and freedom when it comes to food.
Question 1: Is Whole30 A Diet?
Ah, the endless attempt to define the word ‘diet’. Yes, diet simply means the food you eat. However, it is a word that has been co-opted by society to mean a ‘controlled’ way of eating: i.e. eating with some form of purpose or goal and manipulating the foodstuffs you consume to match your objective.
Diet has become synonymous not just with what you’re eating but with your attempts to alter your body by altering your food intake – usually for restrictive purposes, but could also mean e.g bodybuilding or athleticism, where weight gain or body recomposition could be the goal.
Whole30, by its very nature, neatly falls into the category of food manipulation for an intended purpose, and it restricts certain foods and food groups in order to achieve this.
However, the Whole30 program is cautious to stress that it promotes “non-scale victories”. What these are may be unique to each individual, and will largely depend on the conditions they entered the protocol with, but ultimately Whole30 is about overall health outcomes, not weight objectives.
The anti-diet-culture tribe are absolutely correct that weight is a poor indicator of overall health outcomes. In study after study weight seems to be less important than factors such as exercise participation (even just walking), smoking and drinking and other lifestyle components such as sleep. Body mass is always found to be less important than behaviour.
So far, then, whilst the Whole30 could be called a ‘diet’, it is one entirely in tune with ‘anti-diet-culture’ in that it promotes health outcomes (regardless of size) and is not pejorative regarding weight.
So does this argument merely boil down to interpreting the word ‘diet’ in different ways?
Rather than dismiss this whole debate out of hand on this basis, it would be pertinent to dig a little deeper.
Question 2: Is Whole30 Restrictive?
I spend a lot of time perusing the anti-diet-culture media and sense that within it there are countless people for whom their bodies have been a source of torment for a long time. The rejection of the dieting model is part-logical, based in the science of how ineffective dieting can be in the long term, but it is also part-emotional, based in the reality that whole lives have been consumed with obsessions of regulating food intake in order to control the body. Mostly, to make it smaller.
Reading deeper then, the anti-diet message isn’t just about the celebration of all body shapes and sizes (rejecting societal thin-beauty standards). Nor is it about promoting a ‘health at every size’ mantra (stating that health and weight are not correlated).
Instead, the anti-diet-culture message is more about a central, core, human value.
It is about Freedom.
Women, and I’m really sorry but it is mostly women when we discuss anti-diet or diet-culture, come in all shapes and sizes. And yet there is no doubt that in modern media streams there is a familiar ‘norm’ – a slender, toned, clear-skinned, perfectly proportioned woman. The implication is always that small is better, minimising the space that women occupy and, essentially, repressing their identities behind the facade of their form.
More than this, our bodies have become a testament to how “well behaved” we are with food, exercise and self-care. Inside all of these subtle societal cues, restriction of food becomes the route to being perceived as ‘good’, ‘worthy’, ‘attractive’ and having ‘self-respect’ (and this last one’s the nasty one – the implication that if you truly loved yourself you’d be thinner/more toned etc. etc.).
Urgh, the psychological mind-f**k of this is overwhelming. But it is this feeling that the anti-diet culture movement is really espousing: that we, as women, have spent years (sometimes decades, sometimes lifetimes) attempting to ‘live up’ to an ideal (not just of body weight but of self-respect and demonstrating wholesomeness and healthiness through our body shapes) by controlling and manipulating our food intake in order to “optimise” our bodies.
Throwing off the oppression of restrictive regimes which tell women how to behave in order to be perfect human specimens in the eyes of entirely arbitrary beauty standards (or, put simply, men) is the energy behind the anti-diet-culture movement.
Under these ideas, the Whole30 is a quick and easy casualty. It is ultimately incredibly restrictive. Not only does it promote an ideology which rates food on a scale of good and bad, but it also implies that if you truly loved yourself you’d give yourself the gift of ‘health’. Somewhat more pernicious than a beauty or weight goal, this diet plays into our insecurities that we’re not treating our bodies well enough to be accepted by society. And, whilst it may not sell itself as such, Whole30 is a low-carb diet with rules around every substance that has an overt and dramatic chemical effect on the body (caffeine, alcohol, sugar).
Nutrition for Health
Whole30 would just be one casualty, however. In the drive for nutritional freedom, all restriction protocols would fall by the wayside. And that would render any Functional practitioner, Nutritionist, Registered Dietician and/or holistic health practitioner obsolete as it rejects all nutritional manipulations as a viable method of instigating physical change.
Which is nonsense.
No matter what part of the diet divides you fall down on, it is clear that changing what you eat changes your body. Debates may arise when you argue how it changes it, what really instigates the change, what changes are desirable or not, and what forces are impacting on your desires to make those changes. But dietary shifts alter our physiology. And sometimes, regardless of what the anti-diet-culture advocates may espouse, change is absolutely necessary.
And here we wade into the murky waters around what is nutrition for health versus what is nutritional control.
As someone who routinely recommends dietary alterations as a form of therapeutic intervention, I am aware of how closely I walk the edges of this debate and how careful I must be with any ‘prescriptions’ or ‘protocols’.
As a clinician who works deeply on psychological and emotional relationships to food/the body/the world around us, I am profoundly aware of how directly our emotions and perceptions of food alter our body’s ability to tolerate, digest and assimilate the nutrients in those foods.
And, as a patient myself, I am acutely aware of how gossamer-thin the divide is between health goals and prescriptive, fear-based control.
This grey area between health and harm is where i spend most of my time in practice. Cautiously, I do recommend dietary strategies as a route forward to resolve often chronic issues, but:
I am always mindful to stress that any restrictive diet should be viewed just like a medication: as a temporary intervention which allows us to clear the muddy waters and establish what is truly at odds within each client’s physiology.
Nutritional interventions are therapeutic and medicinal. They undoubtedly change the way the body metabolises, behaves, feels and responds.
They are also powerful motivators in that they provide the impression that you’re doing something, they empower you subtly to feel in control after a period where your body has felt troubled or in pain.
But they are, to my mind, marketed relentlessly as ‘healthy’ when there are deep dark sides to restrictive diets, elimination protocols and so-called ‘detox’ regimens.
Restrictive Dieting: A Way of Life, Or A Therapeutic Intervention?
I deal with people all the time for whom their bodies have become a confusing battleground of symptoms, reactivity and pain. In my industry, nutritional protocols are often sold as the primary solution to all manner of ills.
Perhaps surprisingly, given my work, I am on the fence about whether this is true. And I’m not just talking about the fact that more changes are required around nutritional prescriptions, that goes without saying. And yet, sometimes I find myself questioning whether, with some, a nutritional elimination protocol is really what is required at all.
Absolutely I have seen nutritional interventions literally save lives.
But I have also seen nutritional interventions rob people of their lives for years, if not longer.
What is the real effect of handing someone a control over their nutritional intake with the promise of symptom resolution?
What really ‘works’ with dietary interventions: the food you include, the foods you avoid or the psychological and emotional power inherent in following the prescription?
Or all of these things?
And when you hand someone a dietary prescription as a means to ‘cure’ themselves, or have ‘non-scale’ benefits and real health outcomes, you are also often handing them a lifeline to which they will desperately cling and throw all of their efforts.
Unfortunately, that very lifeline demonises some foods. It renders whole subgroups of the food world not just ‘off-limits’ but positively ‘damaging’.
By promoting dietary restriction and elimination as a cure for chronic illnesses this perpetuates the battleground between an individual and food, and an individual and their body In anyone with chronic illness this is a bad strategy for healing because it perpetuates the state of ‘fight-or-flight’ stress response and the deep psychological and emotional sense of threat within one’s own physiology. This has implications for immune function, digestive function, hormonal function and neurological function.
And so it is that I see, time and time again, that a ‘way of eating’ embarked upon for ‘health goals’ results in a conflicted and distorted perception of the nutritional landscape and a skewed idea of how controlled one needs to be in order to stay well. This becomes stressful, self-defeating and toxic, in and of itself. It also becomes unsustainable.
Long term, extreme elimination is a swift route to multiple reactivities, nutritional intolerances, digestive disturbances and immune dysregulation. Further restrictions are employed because the symptoms become ‘obvious’, and disordered eating and obsessive preoccupation with nutrition, diet and food manipulation can easily result.
The key to all of this is that nutritional intolerances and reactions are not solely immune-based phenomena, nor are they isolated to the physical.
Instead, a host of influencers directly alters our ability to tolerate foodstuffs – from ideology, traumas, mindset, belief systems, emotional blockages and more.
Food is never just food. Food is what it is PLUS what we associate with it. If you are told that certain foods are ‘toxic’, ‘damaging’ or ‘inflammatory’ and must be avoided, this knowledge is enough to create a fear. Fear alone is powerful enough to stimulate and manifest an immune reaction.
Food As Medicine: With Accompanying Side-Effect Warnings…
So when I say that food is medicine, I don’t mean (as many do) that it has the potential to heal all ills.
I mean that it has the power to transform biology as directly and overtly as pharmaceuticals. Just because it’s natural does not mean that it is always healthy.
Therapeutically, therefore, dietary protocols like Whole30 have enormous merits. They can clear the signal from the noise, reset the palate and transform someone’s idea of diet through removing microwave meals and nutritionally poor packaged food, filled with sugars and artificial substances, from their diet.
And yet, in my practice, the 30 is the important part. Whilst that might not strictly mean 30 days, it certainly indicates that this is not a lifelong restrictiveness. Even in those most immune challenged, down to five foods and still reactive, Whole30 should never be the permanent prescription.
Elimination is not a solution – it is the tool by which we can find the real answers – and then the permanent solutions.
Avoidance is never the answer. But it does help us clear the often overwhelming confusion of symptoms. In that way, Whole30 and other elimination protocols are fantastic tools.
So the issue that I would have with Whole30 is not the protocol itself (or who promotes it, endorses it or follows it), it is how the protocol is being used.
Here is where the truth lies between the anti-diet-culture argument and the diet industries.
Realistically speaking the nutritional interventions are NEVER the problem. The deep, underlying motivation behind their use always is.
Judging Others’ Choices
All of which brings me back to Brene Brown and her Instagram tit-for-tat on whether she should post about her food choices.
Brene herself challenged some of those who responded to her negatively by stating that Whole30 had helped her get a handle on sugar dependencies and caffeine addictions. Oblique references to ‘sort out my food issues’ and ‘I don’t do moderation’ suggest that Brene had a relationship with food which was dominated by the chemical rollercoasters that Whole30 is designed to obviate. She insisted that she had researched and established that Whole30 was “not a diet”. We know this isn’t quite true, but we can tell what she means – it means she wasn’t doing it to lose weight or because she felt disempowered in her body as a female and wanted to gain control by attaining a thin ideal.
Can any of us judge Brene Brown’s choices?
Absolutely not. No, no, no and no again. No-one should ever, ever presume to judge someone else’s relationship with food or their reasons for embarking upon nutritional changes and dietary protocols. Dietary protocols are tools for many physiological and lifestyle issues. Use the right tool, at the right time, for the right concerns and they are perfect.
Do dietary restrictions often work? Yes. Do they always work? No. Are they often perfectly benign and healthful? Yes. Are they always? No. Is any of this anything to do with Brene Brown and her social media platform? Not in the slightest.
The tools that we choose and our reasons for choosing them, whoever promotes them, are our responsibility – and as clinicians and practitioners our role is to carefully tread the line between recommending restrictions and encouraging the expansion of relationships with food. It is up to us as patients, and us as practitioners, to recognise when a tool we have chosen begins to become a weapon which is causing more harm – physiologically, psychologically or emotionally. Brene Brown and her coconut aminos should have absolutely nothing to do with it.