We don't often discuss the mental impact of restrictive diets such as Whole30 (no "inflammatory" foods), keto (low carb, high fat) or paleo (foods supposedly eaten during the Palaeolithic era). People like to tout the weight loss and mood-boosting effects of these diets, but experts say they can push some of us toward disordered eating.
Illustration by Sam Woolley/GMG
I tried Whole30 this January, and at first I kind of enjoyed it. I tend to get overwhelmed by options and confused about what's the latest "right" thing to eat for breakfast, so it was nice to have guidelines. It gave me an excuse to make smoothies and try some new dinner recipes, too.
A few days in, though, I started noticing some disconcerting thoughts. I was reading the labels on everything and starting to think of anything that had any kind of processed sugar - cane sugar, brown rice syrup, anything - as "bad". I also noticed that some of Whole 30's carceral language was starting to stick in my head. Foods are labelled as "compliant" or "non-compliant", for example. Knowing several people who have struggled with eating disorders, I wondered if diets such as this, that say you can't even eat beans or quinoa, might be a gateway to disordered eating for some people. The consensus among the experts I spoke to is that they are.
"All weight-loss diets work against learning to eat 'normally' according to appetite cues, which is also called intuitive eating," said Karen Koenig, a Florida-based social worker who counsels people with eating disorders. "The more we restrict eating - by food type, weighing food, or by counting calories or fat grams - the more we ignore and override our body's signals for hunger, satisfaction and fullness."
While some people do benefit from restrictive diets because of their choice-limiting nature, as I did at the beginning, many have a hard time not taking it to the extreme. Most people are taking part in these diets as part of some kind of goal, whether it's to lose weight, clear up their skin, or just feel better. If (and more likely when) it doesn't work, it's normal for anyone to get frustrated. But for people who are already prone to anxiety and obsessive thinking (*raises hand*) or those who have "addictive personalities", a detox or diet can actually lead to something much more dangerous.
Diets' Rules Can Resemble Eating Disorder Risk Factors
Koenig says dieting is often associated with the development of bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder, because it can confuse the body into thinking it's starving and lead to inappropriate hunger signals. But the behaviours exhibited by otherwise healthy people on these diets can mimic eating disorder symptoms as well. While I was doing Whole30 I was obsessively avoiding entire food groups in order to be "compliant", including grains and legumes, which I've since learned can actually be really important for some people's digestion. It took me some time to feel OK eating these things again after I quit the diet.
"All-or-nothing thinking is the trait that is most likely to put someone at risk for developing an eating disorder after a detox or diet," said Koenig. "This is also true of people who are impulsive, impatient, have little frustration tolerance or ability to delay gratification."
Dietitians say a short-term restrictive diet could still mess with your body and mind, even if you aren't doing them to shed kilos. For example, people who do Whole30 to combat inflammation they believe is caused by too much sugar intake often eat a lot of protein in an effort to avoid carbs. But a burger with no bun only goes so far if you don't balance your meals in some other way.
"Some people do not understand how to create a balanced meal when following these strict diet guidelines," said Haley Hughes, a registered dietician in Colorado. "A patient told me she had an avocado and bacon for dinner because that was on the Whole30 list. Unfortunately, that meal was mainly fat, lacking a lean protein source, fibre and many other nutrients."
Proceed With Caution
The bottom line seems to be a familiar one: Widespread media coverage and cultural acceptance of diets such as Whole30, keto and paleo (the latter two of which are actually sometimes prescribed by doctors) may be leading susceptible people closer to eating disorders. I thankfully noticed my negative thinking early and put the kibosh on it, but experts worry not everyone can do the same.
Dieting, it turns out, signals the body's primal drive to avoid starvation, which leads to binge eating and increased hunger signals.
If you're already dealing with behavioural struggles, this effect can be even worse. "People who are impulsive, impatient, have little frustration tolerance or ability to delay gratification are especially at risk," said Koenig.
Most people who do Whole30, the Clean Program, paleo, keto or any number of restrictive diets for a short period of time will probably come out the other end with no ill effects. But if you're already prone to anxiety, over-thinking, compulsivity or addiction, it might be safer to consult a doctor or nutritionist first.