Meet Alex Caspero
Alex Caspero is a Registered Dietitian, New York Times Bestselling Plant-Based Chef and mom of two. She aims to cut through the nutrition noise by providing real-life, nourishing tips for body and mind. Learn more about Alex.
I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, but never got around to actually penning my thoughts to
paper blog. Then, this afternoon, after an Instagram rabbit-hole chase, I came across a post where someone shared that they were starting Whole 30 to help improve their relationship with food.
Wait, what? A diet program with rules and restrictions to improve your relationship with food? Seems like a giant oxymoron to me. But, a sentiment that I’ve heard time and time again from friends, clients and colleagues.
Inherently, I’ve got nothing against Whole30 (Ok, maybe I do. Here’s my analysis of it for Food Network’s blog) as a singular diet plan. I can applaud the idea that it’s helped many people cut down their sugar intake, increase vegetable intake and plan/cook more meals.
But, you don’t need a diet to do that. You especially don’t need a diet to help you improve your relationship with food. In fact, that’s likely the very opposite approach to a sustainable, healthy food relationship.
I opened with Whole30 because shockingly enough, the creator also has a book called Food Freedom Forever. (Again, my mouth is ajar in the hypocrisy.) You can’t have it both ways; you can’t improve your relationship with food and be boxed in by rules. Of course, it’s not just Whole30 that claims this. Fill in the blank with just about any traditional diet program.
A confined set of rules of what you are allowed and not allowed to eat will not help you have a healthy relationship with food. It will likely do the opposite.
When we set up parameters and food rules, they work until they don’t. We feel good about following the rules, until we can’t anymore. Then, we go off the plan, “cheat”, and usually feel fairly guilty, beat ourselves up for not being better, then go back on the plan tomorrow. And rinse and repeat.
I’ve talked about this diet cycle before, and it’s hard for most of us not to get on this train once we commit to a specific diet. It’s why I’ve got a big problem with Whole30 (or any other diet) claiming that trying it will improve your relationship with food. Clean-eating and detoxing cannot belong in the same sentence as healthy relationship with food.
Whole30, if you aren’t familiar with it, restricts against most processed foods, sugar, dairy, legumes and alcohol. I understand the premise that most of us eat too many processed foods and sugar, and I’m OK if we want to reduce those levels because they don’t make us feel that great. That’s intuitive eating at it’s most basic level; identifying which foods make you feel awesome (and those that don’t), then using that information to make your meal choices.
It doesn’t mean that if cake makes you feel less than steller that you can never have cake again. It just gives you the permission to eat it (or not eat it) if you want to. It’s choice that varies from day to day, hour to hour, based on your needs and wants. It’s not a hard and fast rule that you can’t not eat the cake, but instead an empowering decision that you get to make, if you want to make it, when you want to make it. That sounds more like freedom, doesn’t it?
Adding in more food rules cannot make you feel freedom from food. Only the exact opposite can. When we drop all labels (good, bad, unhealthy), when we tell ourselves that we can eat whatever we want, do we actually feel freedom from restriction. It’s only then can we begin the process of healing our relationship with food.
It’s the first, and often scariest, part of intuitive eating. Most of my clients think that they will never be able to stop eating previously off-limit foods like donuts, cookies, milkshakes and pizza. And, perhaps for a small amount of time, you’ll go there. Allowing yourself to taste all of the foods that were previously off-limits on other diets.
But, then the magic starts to happen. You start assessing hunger and fullness levels, you un-learn previous habits and rules, you start to notice how different foods make you feel, which becomes a more powerful motivator than calories, fat grams or allowable items.
Sure, you may have a slice of cake every now and then because it sounds amazing, but intuitive eaters allow themselves the permission to have as much as they need. So, instead of a giant piece of cake in secret/hiding because you are cheating on your diet, you allow yourself a bite or two, maybe a slice, depending on how much you need to fulfill the craving. You don’t need to overindulge because the cake will still be there tomorrow. Knowing that the food is always there can change everything.
As I was googling the name of Whole30’s books, I came across this article from Greatist. I think it’s supposed to reinforce the idea that Whole30 can improve your relationship with food, but instead, it proves my point.
Take this quote from the founder: Most diets are spent white-knuckling your way through deprivation, restriction, hunger, tuning out your body’s signals, and obsessing over tracking and weighing your food,” Hartwig says.
Sure, Whole30 doesn’t have any calorie restrictions, which is awesome, but let’s not pretend that not allowing beans and farro isn’t restriction in it’s own right. Cutting out whole food groups is the definition of restriction, especially when done in such an arbitrary way.
Also from the same article. ‘Hartwig, Whole30’s brainchild, emphasizes the importance of sticking to this plan with zero slip-ups, so you give your body the complete break (from not-so-healthy food) it deserves. If life happens and a glass of wine or a piece of bread gets in the way, Hartwig recommends starting over.’
What? Didn’t she just say how terrible traditional diets were because they tune our your body’s signals? What if it’s your birthday and you want to celebrate with a glass of wine? What if you are craving bread? Having the punishment to slipping up be starting all over again seems fairly diet-y and rule-based to me.
Lastly, these words of why Whole30 works, at least in Hartwigs mind. “The struggle is a normal, necessary part of the process. Changing your food is hard. Changing your habits is even harder. Changing your relationship with food is the hardest part of all. The process requires struggle—it’s how you know you’re growing.”
She’s right. Most growth happens when we struggle. That’s true for just about every aspect of life; from careers, to relationships, to self-improvement. It’s the messiness that gives way to growth. But, that’s not true with how you nourish yourself. Deciding what to eat shouldn’t be a struggle. Telling someone that they need to struggle with following a plan to finally feel good about eating sounds pretty backwards.
And, changing your relationship with food is the hardest part of all. I agree whole-heartedly with that statement; it’s what I’ve dedicated most of my services to: helping others find peace with food. It doesn’t happen with restriction, it doesn’t happen with deprivation and it certainly doesn’t happen with guilt.
Changing your relationship with food happens when you start loving your body, listen to nourishment cues and dive deep into your emotional connection with food.
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