Before I go any further, let me make one thing perfectly clear: this article is about a diet. Yes, I went on that diet and followed it to the letter. No, you’re not going to find out whether I lost weight. This is partly because I don’t know, since I don’t believe a numerical representation of my relationship to gravity tells me much of interest. But it’s also because when it comes to the fantastically popular Whole30 diet and the corresponding array of products and services created by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig, there are much more interesting things to talk about.
To start with, its creators conceive of it not as a diet, but almost as an anti-diet: they of course use the phrase “lifestyle change.” Very au courant of them, in an era in which confidence in the capabilities of weight-loss dieting, fanatic fitness regimes, and even bariatric surgery have, reasonably enough, been undermined by decades of general experience. We have all been there, done that. Even if we haven’t, we still know. We’ve watched others, especially public figures, swell and shrink all our lives to the accompaniment of constant judgmental commentary. Our skepticism is justified and we know it.
But so, we believe, is our hope. Even Oprah, sitting pretty atop her genius bougie apotheosis Mount Olympus, at a height from which she could at any moment reasonably declare transcendent public fuckruptcy about ever going on another destined-to-fail diet and burn her Spanx in a blaze of glory on the White House lawn — you know the Obamas would let her — instead turns, as an investor as well as public face, to Weight Watchers. Many, many people, as the Hartwigs well know, are willing to believe that even if diets don’t work, “lifestyle changes” still can.
For what it’s worth, the Whole30 certainly does feel like a lifestyle change, at least for the 30 days you do it. Like like most diets, it is fundamentally a set of restrictive guidelines for eating and drinking. Unlike the typical weight-loss regime, the Whole30 does not concern itself with calories. The quantity of food you eat is of little moment and you’re encouraged to eat as much as you require in order to not feel hungry, although rather paradoxically, the Hartwigs also stipulate portion size guidelines. What matters about what you eat and drink, in the context of the Whole30, is exactly that: what you eat and drink.
This, as it transpires, tidily takes care of the calories problem: there’s not much left on the menu after the Hartwigs get done with it. Whilst Whole30-ing, one eats none of the foods the Hartwigs have deemed the big baddies of the Standard American Diet, redolently termed “SAD.” This a move that neatly recapitulates a huge swath of American nutritional science, and an even bigger swath of the history of American dietary beliefs, prejudices, gender stereotypes, paranoias, and nutritional magical thinking.
During the Whole30 one consumes no grain, no wheat, corn, rice, barley, spelt, oats, etc. This means no flour, bread, or tortilla chips, no popcorn at the movies, and ix-nay on the ancakes-pay, with which breakfast food the Hartwigs appear to have an odd fixation. Why not? Well, according to the Hartwigs, grains are nutritionally poor stuff. This argument was first heard in the early twentieth century when, around the time that vitamins were discovered, it was also discovered that milling removed many nutrients from grains. Though milled grain products were subsequently enriched, antimodernist skeptics and critics deemed enrichment inadequate and artificial. As prominent early health foodist and health-food entrepreneur Royal Lee put it in 1942, when what we now think of as the “whole foods” movement was in its infancy, “No food is safe unless it is fresh enough to have retained most of its perishable vitamins … [and] it has incurred no processing that would remove or impair its vitamin and mineral content.”1
Not that grains would offer sufficient nutrition even if still on the stalk, for the Hartwigs. The Hartwigs, as a food-historical reader of the New York Times bestseller The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom will quickly notice, also follow in the footsteps of the 1950s-1960s Adelle Davis food counterculture that preached a gospel of nutritional density (albeit without any acknowledgment, as all citations are apparently squirrelled away in another book entirely). “Nutritional density” is best explained as the notion that foods that possess an unusually high ratio of vitamins and minerals to calories are inherently superior, and grains’ ratio of vitamins and minerals to calories is not that high. Grains are additionally suspected of being part of the “lifestyle disease” problem, progenitors of bugbears like fatness and metabolic mayhem. So out they go.
On a similarly somewhat ridiculous, somewhat “sciency,” rationale, the Whole30 also omits legumes. As with the nutrients contained in most other things humans eat, the nutrients in legumes are not 100% available to human digestion. The Hartwigs ascribe this to legumes having “anti-nutrients.” Chemically speaking this means the naturally-occurring compounds in foods, like phytic acid or oxalate, that compromise digestive absorption of specific nutrients, like calcium. Were you to eat nothing but spinach for quite a while, for instance, the oxalate in spinach might eventually affect your calcium levels enough to be harmful.2
What is interesting about this is the insistence that certain foods are hopelessly flawed and should not be eaten because of their native internal chemistry. It hearkens back to food combining and the “complementary proteins” concept that characterized a great deal of health-foodist vegetarianism in the Frances Moore Lappé Diet for a Small Planet 1970s. Lappé initially believed that because some plant-based foods, such as beans, possessed an incomplete set of amino acids, vegetarians needed to meticulously combine foods in order to get them all. This is not actually the case. Self-protectively, the body doesn’t care. There is survival value in the fact that the body carries out its metabolic business just fine so long as the needed components show up over the span of a few days or weeks. (This is why you’d have to eat spinach exclusively for a long time before the oxalates did you harm.) Lappé herself later retracted her theory but the die was cast; some medical textbooks still parrot her claims.3
The Whole30 also eschews dairy. The reasoning for this is not terribly transparent, because the Hartwigs invoke a veritable Whitman’s Sampler of nutty, chewy, medical-paranoia-coated rationales for it. The Hartwigs subscribe to the currently fashionable notion that the immune system’s inflammatory response, including at subclinical and even unnoticed levels, is responsible for an astonishing array of ills. Their lists of conditions in which food-related inflammatory response allegedly plays a role includes not just ailments like migraine, asthma, and hives, for which foods are known possible components, but also conditions like Lyme disease, multiple sclerosis, and type 1 diabetes, where food plays no known role.
For milk and its byproducts the Hartwigs claim not only the relatively mundane allegations of exacerbated mucus production (another well-aged association) but also alleged links between dairy consumption and cancer. They also invoke the current hot-button topic “immune factors and hormones” in dairy products, rousing worries about recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) use and other concerns about the intersections (and collusions?) of Big Agriculture and Big Pharma.
The Whole30 also demands abstinence from all sweeteners (including noncaloric ones) and from alcohol. But these are, by comparison, small potatoes — which are, incidentally, one of the few starchy foods not prohibited in the Whole30. The refusal of grains, beans, and dairy is important, not just dietetically but also symbolically. In fact, I would argue that the ban on these three classes of foods is also part and parcel of the Whole30’s unusually broad appeal.
Remove dairy, grains, and legumes from the picture, add an obsessive belief in nutrient density, and what’s left to eat? Animal protein, non-legume vegetables, fruits, and nuts. Sufficient calories, fat and protein to function thus come primarily from animal proteins: meat, poultry, fish, and eggs.4
Most of the globe, for much of human history, has been dependent upon grains and legumes for survival calories. Much of humanity has additionally capitalized on the renewable resource that is milk protein and fat.5 Any dietary regimen that eschews cheap plentiful foods is automatically and inevitably elitist, systematically snubbing the habitual recourses of the poor. Living as I currently do on a grad student stipend, I can attest that grocery-shopping for the Whole30 was almost punitively expensive by comparison to my usual legume-heavy, mostly-vegetarian diet.
The Whole30 is an elimination diet that eliminates virtually everything except status. It was created by and for an affluent people with long and storied cultural links between meat-eating, prosperity, masculinity, and civilization. As early as 1869 we find an article in The Saturday Evening Post speaking of the backwardness and gentle, unwarlike, inscrutable primitiveness of “The Non-Beef-Eating Nations” of Asia.6 Red meat and red-blooded American machismo go hand in hand in our cultural imaginary, in part because of our historical connection to our British beefeater grandparents, in part because of the role that ranching and the frontier play in American history and identity. The recent cultural obsession with bacon is just one of the most recent manifestations of our desire to be part of the good old American he-man meat-eater’s club.7 The Whole30 is another, and is undoubtedly one of the reasons why it, and the so-called “Paleo” diet movement to which it is kin, have such unusually high uptake among male-identified people.8 Carnivore elitism and meaty machismo are older than the nation, and they are what is responsible for a brand new bridging of the dieting gender gap.9
The other way in which the Whole30 brings old legacies of dietary wishful thinking up to date is in a convenient multi-faceted holism. There is no rational basis on which one can claim an egg as more “whole” than an unmilled, unhulled wheat berry, or a braised chickpea as more “whole” than a braised lamb shank. “Whole” is, of course, a dogwhistle for “pure.” But the Whole30’s purity criteria are selective and arbitrary. There have always been plenty of food faddists advocating “whole” foods with similar vehemence, from macrobiotics (which has a history of its own dating to the 18th century) to veganism to raw foodists. Most, these days, claim just as much science and pseudoscience to back up their claims as the Whole30. A huge range of foods may be “whole” in the eyes of their partisans.
It cannot be denied that the Whole30 diet as written is inevitably lower in sugars and carbohydrates than standard American fare. It stands an excellent chance of lowering blood glucose averages for the duration of the time one eats as the Whole30 directs, which may improve diabetes symptoms and other related conditions. It removes exposure to many common food allergens. Because of its strictness and the draconian limitations on diet, it inevitably forces practitioners to rethink what and how they eat, which may disrupt compulsive eating during the 30 days of the diet. I will say for the record that the short hiatus from my old-school Deep Lez popcorn-with-nutritional-yeast comfort food habit made me appreciate it all the more. Being barred from ritual wine and bread on Shabbat, on the other hand, just made me a seriously cranky Jew.
To look into The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom is to be bludgeoned repeatedly with the presumption that the reader is always already suffering from their food and their relationship to it. The reader is presumed to be physically unwell, a compulsive eater, to have excessive cravings, to be overindulgent, to use food in “inappropriate” ways, for instance for comfort. The Hartwigs presume that anyone not following a diet that resembles the Whole30 is in some way diseased or disordered. The disorder may be such, the Hartwigs claim, that one does not even realize one is in a disordered state. Only the clarifying powers of the extremely limited elimination diet that is the Whole30 can tell you for sure.
When the havoc is so threatening yet nonspecific, the Whole30 is easily positioned as a transformer extraordinaire for a vast universe of woes, imaginary or demonstrable. In addition to the aforementioned laundry list of physical ailments the Hartwigs claim the Whole30 will help with, there is a two-page list of “non-scale victories” ranging from healthier gums to faster reaction times to higher energy levels to “your kids say you’re more fun” to help ensure that the reader knows how many problems they might have. Nothing is left out. The holistic help claims of the Whole30 cover everything from acne to ennui. And then there is this, from the opening of the book’s introduction: “But the Whole30 is not a diet. It’s not a quick fix. It’s not even a weight-loss program. The Whole30 is designed to change your life. It’s a monumental transformation in how you think about food, your body, your life, and what you want out of the time you have left on this earth. It’s so much bigger than just food. It’s a paradigm shift the likes of which you may only experience a few times in your whole life.”10 You can almost hear the Hartwigs high-fiving each other, shouting “Can I get an amen?”
I’m afraid not, my friends. That sound you hear is not an “amen,” it is the pinging of my bullshit meter. The holism is simultaneously negative (all the supposedly bad things one eliminates or improves) and positive (all the improvements and “paradigm shifts”). It is sciency-specific, yet vague as to how nutritional change is supposed to actually alter so much so deeply. Crucially, if at first you do not succeed in obtaining the wonders promised, the failure is — of course — on you. Either you didn’t do it right, because 30 days wasn’t long enough, or because even with the restrictions of the Whole30 as written, “you still have foods in your diet that aren’t healthy for you.”11 Holistic, yes. It’s definitely that. It’s also a libertarian fantasia of individual responsibility and effort trumping logic and rendering larger-scale accountabilities moot.
But here, too, it has precedents, a distinguished line of American orthorexia peddlers. Sylvester Graham’s early nineteenth-century vegetarianism and eponymous crackers would cure whatever ailed you, from masturbatory urges to your eternal soul. Home economics pioneer and turn of the century MIT professor Ellen Swallow Richards blamed a perceived white population decline, decried as “race suicide,” on women’s “habit of nibbling sweets” as they read novels. Women who virtuously switched from bonbons and books to broccoli and babymaking might save the Anglo-Saxon race.12 Adelle Davis’ mid-twentieth-century books, including the bestselling Let’s Eat Right To Keep Fit (1954) held that virtually every physical and social ill, including crime, alcoholism, and divorce, could be addressed through diet. If the problems didn’t vanish, it was not because the dietary advice was wrong but because individuals weren’t trying hard enough.
As diets go, the Whole30 is not dangerous for an otherwise healthy person, though by the end you might never want to see another egg or chicken breast. Like many other dietetic regimes, it is probably somewhat health-promoting for a percentage of the people who try it. But in the end it is mostly very old wine with a new label on the bottle. The Hartwigs write in Internet-casual, humorously deprecating tough-love bursts — their most often quoted line is “It is not hard. Don’t you dare tell us this is hard. Quitting heroin is hard. Beating cancer is hard. Drinking your coffee black. Is. Not. Hard.” It’s dieting tailored for a millennial generation that perceives itself, in that quintessentially American way, as hip, bootstrapping, and just a pep talk and a day’s work away from their big break.
In the end, the underlying narrative of the Whole30 is the story Americans want to tell ourselves, about diet and about most everything. If there’s a problem, why, we can reinvent ourselves. We can remodel our lives, rework the ways we eat and feel and think. If there’s just enough good old American independence, enough hard work and gumption to suss out the lies we are being told by the myriad forces that undermine our democratic virtue, then we cannot help but to be transformed. Perhaps, if we are very virtuous indeed, we might even be saved.
- Royal Lee and Jerome S. Stolzoff, The Special Nutritional Qualities of Natural Foods, Report No. 4 (Milwaukee: Lee Foundation for Nutritional Research, 1942), 37-39, quoted in Michael Ackerman, “Science and the Shadow of Ideology in the American Health Foods Movement, 1930s-1960s” in Robert D. Johnston, ed. The Politics of Healing: Histories of Alternative Medicine in Twentieth-Century North America (New York: Routledge, 2004), 59. Return to text.
- Note that spinach, however, remains on the Whole30. So do many, many other foods that contain similar compounds, like broccoli, nuts, berries, coffee, and tea. Return to text.
- See for instance Jeff Novick’s 2012 takedown of some recent appearances of the complementary protein myth in the mainstream medical lit in his The Simply Sane Blog: A Common-Sense Approach to Healthful Living. Return to text.
- Latterly the Hartwigs have devised vegetarian and vegan versions of the Whole30, which highlights the relativity and in some cases the arbitrariness of their food inclusion criteria. Return to text.
- Indeed, milk is still touted across the USA, if not necessarily by the Hartwigs, as superlatively nutritious food, a fact whose history is chronicled to fascinating ends by E. Melanie DuPuis of Pace University in her Nature’s Perfect Food: How Milk Became America’s Drink (New York: NYU Press, 2002). Return to text.
- Anonymous, “The Non-Beef-Eating Nations,” The Saturday Evening Post, November 13, 1869, 8. Quoted in E. Melanie DuPuis, Dangerous Digestion: The Politics of American Dietary Advice, California Studies in Food and Culture 58 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 88. Return to text.
- It would be possible to draw a family tree of American fad diets — the low-fat, the low-carb, the high-protein. The Whole30 is in some ways a dietetic descendant of the high-protein branch, and thus of diets such as the Atkins or Scarsdale diets. Return to text.
- The scholarly literature on this is still forming, but trade publications feature numerous discussions of this aspect of high-protein, low-carbohydrate dieting. See e.g. James Fell, “The Paleo Diet’s Bad Reputation: Is the Paleo Diet too Masculine for its Own Good?” Askmen.com. Return to text.
- See e.g. Adrian Furnha, Nicola Badmin, and Ian Sneade, “Body Image Dissatisfaction: Gender Differences in Eating Attitudes, Self Esteem, and Reasons for Exercise” The Journal of Psychology vol. 136 no. 6 (2002), 581-596. Return to text.
- Melissa Hartwig and Dallas Hartwig, The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), vii. Return to text.
- Ibid., 130-131. Return to text.
- See the discussion of Richards’ work in Laura Lovett, Conceiving the Future: Pronatalism, Reproduction, and the Family in the United States, 1890-1938 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 78. Return to text.