Whole30-approved foods in the background with a white transparent box overtop. Black font reads: How Whole30 is an Intro to Orthorexia

Whole30: An Intro to Orthorexia

Whole30 and Orthorexia have a lot in common. Yet diet culture seems to celebrate Whole30 as a necessary elimination diet to “reset” before eating more healthfully afterwards. Is it really a reset though? Or is Whole30 simply an introduction to Orthorexia? Keep reading (or listen to the podcast episode) to learn where the lines of Whole30 and Orthorexia blur. And why the negative impact to your relationship with food often lasts a lot longer than 30 days.

What is Orthorexia?

In 1997, Dr. Steven Bratman first introduced Orthorexia Nervosa in his book, “Health Food Junkies”. The book points out how eating disorders shouldn’t be limited to the quantity of food one eats (like Anorexia and Bulimia). Rather, the spectrum should also include obsessively limiting the types of food one allows themselves to eat.

Orthorexia is taking knowledge about nutrition and turning it into absolute, black-and-white rules. It’s when someone refuses to eat certain foods because they either contain self-determined, off-limit ingredients. Are outside an allowed food group, or don’t have “enough” nutrients. Restrictions can also be created around how foods are prepared (e.g. raw versus steamed), how they’re processed and/or the way they’re grown (organic versus conventional.) Emotional signs of Orthorexia include feeling guilty, impure, or defiled after eating a non-approved food. Essentially, if you have Orthorexia, you take the judgement of diet culture well beyond the fear of weight gain. You believe your health will be compromised if you eat the wrong thing. Eating “clean” is the only way to be, and stay, healthy.

Whole30 takes this concept and puts it into a pressure cooker for 30 days. They claim to be an elimination diet. But they eliminate so many foods, participants of Whole30 are introduced to what it’s like to be Orthorexic. While some may see Whole30 as a “test drive” of behaviors they’ll never do again (because it’s so miserable.) Others will continue with Orthorexic or disordered eating behaviors. Continuing to change, and ultimately hurt, their relationship with food.

Elimination Diets versus Whole30

Elimination diets have been around since the 1920s and have helped many uncover food sensitivities and/or allergies. A medical professional assists in the process and typically only 1-2 types of food are removed at a time to more easily identify the potential culprit for symptoms. Bloodwork likely occurs before and after the short-term trial, particularly if a potential autoimmune disease is also a concern.

On the contrary, Whole30 is a New York Times Best Selling book and a blog that eliminates over 8 types of food for 30 days. They have since monetized with brand partnerships, recipe books, media appearances, and a certification program for coaches. But their coaches are NOT the same as your physician or Registered Dietitian walking you through a personalized elimination diet based on your unique health history.

Additionally, Whole30 recommends taking a “before” photo on Day 1 and an “after” photo on Day 31. Appearance goals are never, ever the intention behind traditional elimination diets. It’s about how you feel and figuring out what food(s) may be causing uncomfortable symptoms in your body.

Whole30 is part of diet culture. Period.

Whole30 and Orthorexia

In 1997 when Dr. Bratman introduced the concept of Orthorexia, the Whole30 diet was not in existence yet. In fact, it wouldn’t exist for 12 more years. While today I want to demonstrate how Whole30 is an introduction to Orthorexia, please know there are many other diets/lifestyles that can trigger similar effects as well. It’s one of the reasons I am so passionately anti-diet and believe we should all practice intuitive eating.

When Whole30 came out in 2009, it started as a blog post. The co-founder, Melissa Hartwig, shared an extreme elimination diet that “worked for her” and her then husband. This is where so many diets innocently begin. And why they are so dangerous. Someone does a self-trial and deems what they did “life-changing.” Then prescribes it to the rest of the world for profit. They will find others who support the idea, and it takes off. Without consideration for science, other people’s health history, genetics, socioeconomics, mental health, current relationship with food, long-term side effects, etc. From an ethical standpoint, it’s privileged and self-serving. But from a business standpoint, it’s brilliant.

Whole30 = Arbitrary Rules

When you participate in Whole30, you are to entirely avoid all grains, dairy, sugar, carrageenan, MSG, sulfites, alcohol, and legumes (including beans, peanuts, soy, some peas, and cranberries.) They even tell you you’re not allowed to take the few ingredients you’re left with and creatively turn them into a “treat.” And if you dare to break any rule, you are to head all the way back to Day 1 because you failed. Doesn’t matter if you were on Day 29. The funny thing is even their approved recipes are arbitrary. Making sautéed potato wedges dipped in their version of ketchup or mayonnaise is okay. Nay, encouraged in their recipe books. But blending a frozen banana into a thick cream is game-over because it’s too close to ice cream. (I so wish I were joking about any of this.)

Their rules truly are unfounded though. There are plenty of amazing nutrients to be found in grains, dairy and legumes. What instead happens is a misunderstanding of what nutrition is. And what it’s not.

What Happens on Day 31?

30 days of any restriction inevitably leads to food cravings and binging. This is scientifically proven. So when you heavily restrict entire food groups to the extent of Whole30, the binge can be even more intense than with the average diet program. And as soon as you eat a non-approved food, you may mourn the “cleansing” effect and feel immense guilt, impurity and anxiety.

Paleo Lifestyle Basically is Whole30

For many clients in my private practice, Whole30 was the beginning of a very difficult relationship with food. It causes you to perceive food entirely differently. And it creates problems that didn’t exist before. A large part of that too, is Whole30 recommends the Paleo lifestyle immediately following. This means you continue to avoid grains, sugar, most dairy (sometimes cheese and butter can make a comeback), legumes (sometimes), alcohol, MSG, carrageenan, sulfites and all processed foods. (So basically the same thing!) They push for organic, grass fed, farm-stand food only.

These diet/lifestyle guidelines follow closely to Orthorexia as well because the guilt around food type becomes excessive.

Creating Food Intolerances?

Additionally, our bodies only produce digestive enzymes for the food we eat. And if we voluntarily go through extended periods of time without certain foods, our bodies no longer produce that enzyme. So if we introduce that food again, we’ll struggle to digest it. This will support the narrative that you “can’t” eat certain foods. And it’s also how we can create food sensitivities that didn’t exist before. More research is still needed in this area but it’s suggested that if we continued to reintroduce that food, eventually we will begin producing that enzyme again and our digestion will normalize. Important to note: this is for self-inflicted diet rules ONLY. Not proven intolerances, autoimmune protocols or food allergies.

Orthorexia Assessment Quiz

Dr. Steven Bratman has granted permission to share his quiz for self-assessment. Answering “yes” to any of the following questions means you may have—or are developing—Orthorexia:

  1. I spend so much of my life thinking about, choosing and preparing healthy food that it interferes with other dimensions of my life, such as love, creativity, family, friendship, work and school.
  2. When I eat any food I regard to be unhealthy, I feel anxious, guilty, impure, unclean, and/or defiled; even to be near such foods disturbs me, and I feel judgmental of others who eat such foods.
  3. My personal sense of peace, happiness, joy, safety, and self-esteem is excessively dependent on the purity and righteousness of what I eat.
  4. Sometimes I would like to relax my self-imposed “good food” rules for a special occasion, such as a wedding or a meal with family and friends, but I find that I cannot. (Note: if you have a medical condition in which it is unsafe for you to make ANY exception to your diet, then this item does not apply).
  5. Over time, I have steadily eliminated more foods and expanded my list of food rules in an attempt to maintain or enhance health benefits; sometimes, I may take an existing food theory and add to it with beliefs of my own.
  6. Following my theory of healthy eating has caused me to lose more weight than most people would say is good for me or has caused other signs of malnutrition such as hair loss, loss of menstruation, or skin problems.

My Personal Experience with Whole30 and Orthorexia

My eating disorder began long before I did Whole30. However, my tendencies were towards under-eating and low calorie. I wasn’t really caught up in the types of food. When I did Whole30, I hated it for the majority of the time. I realized pretty quickly their rules were arbitrary and were not scientifically supported. But I still pushed on through the full 30 days despite not feeling much improvement. On the contrary, my GI tract was a mess. I got a rash all over my abdomen. I was having dizzy spells from not eating enough carbs. And I was foggy and sluggish.

After Whole30, although I immediately added grains back in, I now felt guilt eating them. And I began not only obsessing over the other types of food I would allow myself to eat. But now I was heavily against ALL perceived toxins. Including skin care, deodorant, cleaning products, candles, diapers, etc. This was not some “woke” version of me supporting the environment though. This was a fearful version of me afraid of cancer, disease, hormonal issues, and weight gain. I truly believed food and toxic-free life was the solvent for everything.

Ultimately, landing myself answering “yes” to every single question on the Orthorexia Assessment Quiz.

My story is not rare. In fact, sadly, it’s pretty common. This is why I feel so strongly that Whole30 is an introduction to Orthorexia.

Thankfully I was able to get the help I needed to heal my relationship with food, fitness and body image. If you are struggling in these areas, please know there is hope for your healing too.

Meridith Oram is an anti-diet nutritionist at Love Yourself Towards Healthy where she helps chronic dieters heal their relationship with food, fitness and body image by ditching diet culture and finding freedom in their God-given intuition. Focusing on behavioral change and Intuitive Eating, Meridith helps her clients unlearn diet culture, stop negative self-talk and set wellness goals---not appearance goals. Follow Meridith at @loveyourself2healthy on all social channels.

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