To begin, I do not believe that this dietary approach is necessary for everyone. We are all different in how are bodies respond to foods, and many people will find this sort of dietary restriction, no matter how time-limited, completely useless. I don’t believe in detoxes and I truly believe that all foods can fit in a healthy diet.
For me, the benefits of a drastic dietary shift were unimaginable. For many years I struggled with a bizarre constellation of conditions that I never considered related. My story is anecdotal; this is not scientific evidence that proves grains and dairy are poison. So please do not take it as such. Below is my story, and these events triggered me to change my eating habits and examine the research that supports the connection between digestive dysfunction, trigger foods, and the many conditions of ill-health that can result from that dysfunction.
In elementary school, I would wake up with strange rashes on my face. In high school, my skin was super-sensitive and the rashes would still pop up on my face and arms. I would eat and, within minutes, be doubled over with stomach pains. College was the same— strange itching, burning rashes around my eyes. Doctors couldn’t diagnose the problem, but were happy to send me off with samples of medicated creams to “take the edge off.”
After college, I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala, where bouts of depression and painful rashes around my eyes and mouth were routine experiences. I went to see yet another dermatologist who told me those original cream samples were no longer effective and to recover, I’d have to stop using them. It turns out that those creams were steroid-based and stopping them after years of constant use meant going through a steroidal withdrawal skin reaction. It was awful. This time, the diagnosis was a sun allergy. The high-powered suncreen burned my irritated skin so badly I couldn’t even use it. On top of this, I was constantly battling colds, congestion, sinus pain, headaches, and weight gain.
Graduate school was a hazy time. The depression was worse and the brain fog set in. I was still suffering from skin rashes, but now I couldn’t sleep at night and I was drowsy all day. I had no energy and always felt drained. I was gaining weight and experiencing stomach issues like bloating, pain, constipation, and diarrhea. (Good times, for sure!) Working out didn’t seem to produce any results and I was struggling to maintain my weight. Years of this went on, and I just thought that this was how I was meant to live. It was stressful and exhausting. I went to some amazing internists, rheumatologists, nurse practitioners, allergists, ENTs, and dermatologists. I came away with diagnoses of atopic dermatitis, eczema, seasonal allergies, allergies to mold, dust, and grass, yet none of the treatments worked. One not-so-amazing doctor even told me that “women would pay good money” to have puffy lips like mine- never mind the painful rash and dry flaking skin. I have tried every allergy medication, prescription and over-the-counter, on the market with no success.
Meanwhile, the rashes spread, my sinuses were always congested, and my digestion was pitiful. I never thought that any of these symptoms were related. I was uncomfortable with my body and tired in my soul; I was a mess.
One day, in my late 20’s, an intense and insatiable craving for something sweet triggered me to do some research. I was in shock! People just like me, were experiencing a similar list of seemingly unrelated health issues with no relief to be found through the traditional medical system. Some people were finding relief through dramatic dietary changes, though. As a health and nutrition professional, I was skeptical. It was a long shot, but I had nothing left to lose; I had tried everything.
With that in mind, I committed to following a strict dietary protocol that ended up changing my life. I reduced my intake of refined sugars, alcohol, most dairy, grains, legumes, and starchy vegetables. I filled my plate and my belly with lean meats, non-starchy vegetables, nuts, and some fruits. The subsequent five days were rough. Everything got worse; I was exhausted and desperate for a sandwich with fries and a soda! A week into this new dietary world the improvements were striking! I felt healthier and happier than I had in a decade! I had energy, focus, a calm stomach, clear sinuses, and soft, glowing skin. I was losing weight, sleeping like a baby and waking energized. The midday drowsiness was gone. I was shocked to feel so good because it highlighted just how terrible I had been feeling for years. What I had resigned myself to believing my “my normal” was anything but normal. I was able to commit to regular exercise in the form of running and yoga, and I began a consistent mindfulness practice. I have healthier thoughts, more confidence, more time to do the things that make me happy, an understanding of how to make better choices, and a body that I love. That was the beginning of cultivating my own healthy!
WHAT IS WHOLE 30?
Whole 30 is a 30-day challenge dedicated to testing your body’s reaction to ingredients that may be hurting you more than helping you. The program focuses on incorporating lean protein, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. The protocol eliminates legumes, dairy products, alcohol, all grains (not just gluten-containing grains), artificial sweeteners, chemical additives, and added sugar.
UMMMMM, WHY WOULD THEY DO THIS?
There is research to suggest that, for some people, grains, legumes, dairy, alcohol, added chemicals, and/or excessive sugar may be exacerbating an imbalance in the digestive tract that leads to the destruction of the intestinal wall, called intestinal permeability. This damage to the intestinal lining allows undigested proteins and toxins into the body that are meant to be eliminated. Those proteins and toxins may cause an immune reaction throughout various parts of the body that cause inflammatory responses including skin issues like acne and rashes; digestive issues like bloating, cramping, diarrhea and constipation; seasonal allergy symptoms like congestion; mental health issues like anxiety and depressive symptoms; and physical issues like fatigue and joint pain. The idea is to give the digestive system a break from the ingredients that may prevent the healing of the intestinal lining. Some people find that they have reactions to foods that they never knew about. This type of elimination diet can help you learn if your symptoms are related to your diet. What you do with that information is up to you 😉
SHOULD I TRY WHOLE 30?
There are dietitians and health professionals out there who feel that cutting out those healthy food groups is too restrictive, sends the wrong message about food, limits vital nutrients in the diet, and can distort people’s relationships with food, and I completely understand their position. I DO NOT encourage my patients to try something like this unless they present to me with a certain constellation of conditions, like those listed above. In my professional opinion, a 30-day challenge that excludes possibly offending ingredients is not likely to harm your nutritional status, and there is so much to gain if you are experiencing a few or all of those awful symptoms. My experience is my own, but I found so much freedom and relief from learning that my symptoms were connected to my digestive health and the foods I was putting in my body. I felt empowered and encouraged for the first time in many years, and if I can help others find that as well, it is my duty as a health professional to do so..
NOTE: People with disordered eating should not undertake a restrictive dietary approach. Also. people with diabetes and other health conditions should not try this approach if it contradicts your doctor’s recommendations or medications without first consulting with your doctor..
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER 30 DAYS?
Everyone is different. If you notice significant improvement in your symptoms, you may have healed your digestive tract or discovered that the culprit is one or more of the ingredients you eliminated. The protocol includes a reintroduction process to see if you can pinpoint the offending ingredients. Over the years, I found that I am sensitive to grains, alcohol, dairy, AND excess sugar. UGH! I am an #allfoodsfit dietitian, so this is a tough reality for me. My symptoms have NEVER returned to their previous soul-sucking levels (THANKFULLY) since my initial 8-week dietary endeavor. I did resume eating the offending foods, but in limited quantities with a much healthier balance and a new perspective of what healthy eating is to me. I do find though, that every year or so, my symptoms start to creep back again. My skin gets itchy and uncooperative. My allergies become unbearable. My digestive tract gets wonky (that’s the technical term, by the way). So every 12-18 months, I reset my system through this kind of elimination diet with the aim of healing my digestive tract and re-challenging my cooking and eating habits. This type of program (and there are many other versions of this out there), requires you to become mindful of your food choices, deliberate in your meal planning and preparation, and creative in your approach to food and cooking. Those are great benefits and behaviors that should be part of any healthy lifestyle!
I like a challenge! Especially a challenge that makes me feel better. If you have some or all of the symptoms above, the Whole 30 is a great way to challenge your eating habits, test your reactions to foods, and heal your body.
I always recommend the supervision of a qualified medical professional. Tell your doctor before you try something like this. Feel free to contact me if you have questions or want help trying this type of program. You can also follow me on Instagram @AndreaGtheRD if you want to track my progress and get fun meal ideas!
Have you tried any dietary approaches (Paleo, Whole30, AIP, GAP, FODMAP, etc.) like this to improve your health? I’d love to hear your stories!