Whole30 and Other Diets Use Cognitive Distortions and Might Lead to Disordered Thoughts About Food
If you follow Whole30 or CarbNite, you're not going to like this blog. I'm going to share the cognitive distortions that Whole30 and other diets use. I get that people who adopt those foods or cook the recipes eat better, but it's because they're eating more fruits and vegetables. That's always a good thing, but eliminating other healthful foods? Not such a great idea physically or mentally.
Carb Nite Solutions and Whole 30 cut your list of foods you are allowed to eat to very limited. They distort the facts into sounding like a legitimate approach to health...but are they?
Lose belly fat! Change your life! Detox your body!
We've all come across these attention-grabbing headlines. But what do diets like Whole 30 that make these claims actually do to our thoughts?
Even though consuming fewer calories than the body needs to function promotes weight loss(1), many diet creators advocate for a specific regime and usually ignores this fact. Instead, diet gurus argue a certain macronutrient or food group needs to be eliminated or drastically reduced.
Carb Nite Solution: What its followers should expect
The Carb Nite Solution(2) , is an ultra-low carb diet developed by John Keifer, a physicist, “designed specifically for ongoing fat loss” by manipulating hormones into burning fat. Its followers can expect to eat no more than 30 grams of useable carbohydrates for the first nine days. (This is 1/2 cup dry oats and about 1 cup of broccoli for the day). On the night (or “nite”) of the tenth day, the follower is expected to eat as many grams of high-glycemic carbohydrates as possible.
For the next six months, the followers can continue this carb-cycle but have a carb-nite every fifth night but then are expected to go back to eating a balanced diet. There are a few rules, one of them is never skip carb night. Kiefer explains why.
Chronically dieting decreases leptin and thyroid hormones.
This decrease leads the body’s satiety and capacity to burn calories to also diminish (3). This is a common “problem” for dieters but Keifer's Carb Nite provides the "solution". After 6-8 hours of feasting on “mashed potatoes, pasta, custard, cookies, apricots, angel food, eggnog, éclairs, bagels and bread”, fat burning hormones increase and stay elevated for the next four days(2).
The diet is meant to be a tool for fat loss and not a lifestyle, so the followers can expect to finish the diet in six months and by that time the body will be used to burning fat as fuel. Meal plans for “low calorie” and “high calorie” eaters are provided.
There is also a food list and recipes offered in the book(2) which includes spam, sausage, heavy cream, and a very scant amount of nutrient rich vegetables. Cucumbers are in but sweet potatoes, green beens, and lots of fruits are out.
Whole 30 Program: What its followers should expect
The Whole 30 diet (4) lasts 30 days and its followers commit to the rules of eliminating what the authors Dallas and Melissa Hartwig consider to be harmful foods: sugar of any kind, alcohol, grains, legumes, dairy, carrageenan, MSG, sulfites, repurposed baked goods (e.g Paleo Pop-Tarts).
Followers are also forbidden to step on the scale to focus on the ‘benefits’ beyond weight and body composition.
Ironically, despite its claims of not being a weight loss diet, the testimonials are inundated with comments about weight loss successes(4). Even its name is misleading as there are a lot of holes in this program. It eliminates two entire food groups and an entire family of vegetables, so really there is nothing ‘whole’ about the Whole 30 diet.
Distorted Thinking to Justify Carb Nite & Whole 30
Cognitive distortion describes the phenomenon of convincing us that something is true when it’s actually not (5). Often, cognitive distortion aids in rationalizing a behavior and can reinforce negative thoughts or emotions (5). There are four types of cognitive distortions: filtering, over generalizing, polarized thinking, and jumping to conclusions (5).
Carb Nite Solutions relies on filteringand over generalizing. By magnifying details over another and/or forming a conclusion based on non-specific information, followers engage in cognitive distortion.
It’s true that hormones play role in appetite, satiety, and fuel metabolism(1). Also true are the responses of leptin and thyroid hormone during caloric restriction, which is what dieting achieves (1). However, there are many more complexities to the responses of hormones during and in between mealtimes. Leptin is high during times of satiety but there are also instances where leptin is high in individuals with obesity (6).
Likewise, thyroid hormone can be altered by more than dietary intake. Major infleuncers of weight like genetics and environment are ‘filtered out’ in the Carb Nite Solution.
The testimonials of the Carb Nite Solutions show images of people with six-pack abs. These messages over generalize what the end result will be and lead followers to believe that 1) this diet will lead to 6-pack abs and 2) that six pack abs are healthy which is not necessarily true, especially if body fat levels are so low that other organs, like the reproductive system, are malfunctioning(7).
Carb Nite Solutions markets to working-class dieters. Business owners, police officers, health professionals provided testimonials. These professionals might not have time to engage in other weight-management behaviors like preparing healthy meals, or speaking with a Registered Dietitian, so a “simple” diet like this is desirable. This is also a budget-friendly program, retailing at $27 for the e-book2.
Polarized Thinking or "Good Food Bad Food" Mentality
The Whole 30 Program is based on polarized thinkingand much of the rationale of this diet is by jumping to conclusionsfrom research. Essentially foods are either “good” or “bad” which is a polarizing thought. It also takes a kernel of evidence and denotes all forms of grains, dairy, and legumes as unhealthy. These are inaccurate claims, for the most part.
There is some research showing a connection between certain foods and intestinal distress in susceptible individuals(8), but the Whole30 website has no citations (4) where readers can review the information that the creators used to condemn dairy, legumes, and grains. They also generalize these dietary restrictions to everyone, forcing participants to eat only meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, some fruits, and ghee (4).
I've seen great meal plans made out of those foods, I myself make dinners that are "Whole30" approved, but again it's the nutrients that the foods contain that make it healthy. I would be missing out on other nutrients if I only cooked Whole30 compliant meals. Overdoing foods can also have negative side effects.
Although a casual relationship was not demonstrated, a study found that people eating 5 ounces a day or more of meat were about a third more likely to develop colon cancer than those who ate the least red meat (9). What protects us from colon cancer? Fiber from whole grains(10).
Celebrity Endorsements, But Should We Trust Celebrities With Our Health?
Endorsements by health professionals are used on the website (4), which leads followers to jump to conclusions that this must be a healthy eating pattern. This is ironic because there are a host of other professionals who argue the opposite is true. They too have their followers...
Both diets are flawed and can lead to serious adverse effects on a person’s mental health, physical health, and the environment.
Carb Nite Solutions is eerily similar to binging and purging behavior, which is part of the diagnostic criteria of bulimia nervosa (11). It also characterizes foods as good and bad (e.g. on certain days carbs are good, other days they are bad), which is diagnostic of anorexia nervosa, similar to the Whole 30 Program.
Interestingly enough, Whole 30 claims it could “change the emotional relationship you have with food, and with your body.”(4).
Unfortunately, it could…in a very unhealthy way by creating a false, negative connotation with foods that have a myriad of health benefits(11). The adverse affects may not be as prevalent due to the short term nature of these diets, however it is likely that lifelong followers may develop nutrient deficiencies, or other adverse health effects from consuming too much sodium or saturated fat.
"Whole 30 claims it could “change the emotional relationship you have with food, and with your body.”(4). Unfortunately, it could…in a very unhealthy way by creating a false, negative connotation with foods that have a myriad of health benefits."
Both of these diets are very meat-heavy. Consuming this amount of meat has negatively impacted our environment (12) so advocating for a meat-heavy diet may not be the best diet for the planet.
As much as their followers would like to think otherwise, these diets are a step backwards in promoting healthful eating. With the exception that Whole 30 promotes fruits and vegetables and limiting processed food (4), this is not unique to them. Nutrition is a science and it is practiced by dietitians who are trained to read and interpret the science.
Knowledge-seekers often are too impressionable to trendy diets and suddenly, cognitive distortions become realities. People are often learning the wrong interpretation of the science from others who haven't reviewed the research. People may become convinced of the wrong information and have to "unlearn" what they learned in order to understand human nutrition.
Again, if you do follow those diets this is not an article to create any shame. I am happy for people who eat healthier, I just wish the creators didn't have such a manipulative way of getting people to eat healthfully.
1. Wing RR, Phelan S. Long-term weight loss maintenance. Am J Clin Nutr 2005;82 (1 Suppl):222S–225S. RV. 2. Carb Nite Solutions. www.carbnitesolutions.com. Accessed October 3, 2016. 3. Thackray AE, Deighton K, King JA, Stensel DJ Exercise, appetite and weight control: Are there differences between men and women? Nutrients. 2016 Sep 21;8(9). 4. Whole 30 Program. www.whole30.com Accessed October 3 2016. 5. Burns, David D. (1989). The Feeling Good Handbook: Using the New Mood Therapy in Everyday Life. New York: W. Morrow. 6. Myers MG, Leibel RL, Seeley RJ, Schwartz MW. Obesity and leptin resistance: Distinguishing cause from effect. Trends in endocrinology and metabolism: TEM. 2010;21(11):643-651. doi:10.1016/j.tem.2010.08.002. 7. Stickler L, Hoogenboom BJ, Smith L. THE FEMALE ATHLETE TRIAD‐WHAT EVERY PHYSICAL THERAPIST SHOULD KNOW. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2015;10(4):563-571. 8. Iacovou M, Tan V, Muir JG, Gibson PR. The low FODMAP Diet and its application in east and southeast Asia. J of Neurogastroentero and motility. 2015;21(4):459-470. 9. Alexander DD, Weed DL, Miller PE, Mohamed MA. Red meat and colorectal cancer: A quantitative update on the state of the epidemiologic science. J the Amer Col of Nutr. 2015;34(6):521-543. doi:10.1080/07315724.2014.992553. 10. Zeng H, Lazarova DL, Bordonaro M. Mechanisms linking dietary fiber, gut microbiota and colon cancer prevention. World J Gastrointest Oncol. 2014;6(2):41-51. 11.Thomas JJ, Vartanian LR, Brownell KD. The relationship between eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS) and officially recognized eating disorders: Meta-analysis and implications for DSM. Psychological bulletin. 2009;135(3):407-433. doi:10.1037/a0015326. 12. McMichael, A. J., Powles, J. W., Butler, C. D., & Uauy, R. (2007). Food, livestock production, energy, climate change, and health. The lancet,370 (9594), 1253-1263.