A few years ago, Melissa’s sister Kelly attended a nutrition lecture at a local gym. There, she learned how to apply the Zone diet principles, and how to portion her food into the Zone’s “40/30/30” standard. She immediately began weighing, measuring, and tracking, and saw improvements in her energy level, training performance, and physical appearance. She loved the Zone, and what it was doing for her fitness.
A month later, we received this email from Kelly:
“This Zone thing is getting out of hand, and I am really am frustrated with myself for not being able to keep it in check. Bread, oatmeal and crackers terrify me. I’m afraid to put any kind of cheat in my mouth, much less anything with sugar. I agonize over everything I can’t measure (like when I go out for dinner). And I’m constantly checking myself out in the mirror – for what? It’s taking over every thought; every meal and snack. Journaling my food intake has become an obsession, not a healthy tracking tool. Help.”
Kelly has always been a very healthy eater, with a strong self-image. She has never been one to crash diet, fixate on food or obsess about appearance. Yet after spending just a few weeks perfectly working the Zone diet principles, Kelly found herself trapped in an unhealthy cycle—with what some might refer to as “disordered behavior” related to food. The Zone was no longer a healthy initiative, but a set of self-imposed rules that somehow became associated with serious (if vague) consequences if not followed perfectly.
Her experience mirrors that of many Whole9 readers, with our Whole30 program.
For those with a history of disordered eating, food addictions or other dependencies, the Whole30 may prove more stressful than helpful. Something that starts off as healthy and balanced slides into dangerous territory, where diet defines you, food is the enemy and self-worth comes straight out of your refrigerator. How does this happen, why does it happen, and what can others stuck in this pattern to do break out of it?
From More Healthy to Less Healthy
Many readers of this site have at one time or another had body image issues, disordered eating behaviors or flirtations with harmful eating habits. Often, these habits are born out of an inherently healthy desire to feel and look better—to become more fit, or leaner, or more muscular. Some people just go about approaching this healthy quest in an unhealthy way, and unfortunately, ingrained, unhealthy behaviors can rise again when someone with a history of disordered eating or other addictions takes on a super-strict program like the Whole30.
For many of you, whether you have a history with “real” eating disorders or simply have had issues with food, diet is a sensitive subject. Old habits are hard to forget, and some of those habits may play a role in your Whole30 experience. You wonder if you shouldn’t be eating quite that much fat, allow yourself to binge because they are all “approved” foods, or obsess over cross-contamination, off-label ingredients or accidental “cheats” that would throw you off your program. And all of a sudden, your healthy eating program is making you decidedly less healthy.
Is it Time For an Eating Intervention?
When someone with a disordered or addicted background takes on a strict new eating plan, the practice may feel familiar and comfortable. The “rules” of the program may be easy to follow, because they aren’t that far off from the self-imposed restrictions or rules of your past behaviors. But in this instance, you assure yourself, these rules are followed in the name of health. You get to apply the same stringent, disordered behaviors to your new, shiny Whole30 program — because this time, you tell yourself it’s good for you.
But some of you have a long history of unhealthy eating habits lingering in your brains, and it may be hard to shove them aside when you first start your new dietary plan. So while your focus may be laser-sharp at first— eating exactly as you should be, in a healthy manner — it’s easy to allow those past behaviors to creep into your daily diet-related tasks. Your brain may start to twist the attention to detail and the strict rules. You may find your brain trying to push these new habits into those old, sick (yet comfortable) behaviors. And your Whole30 may begin to make you feel the way you used to feel, back when food was the enemy.
Quiz: Has your Whole30 gone bad?
- Does the idea of accidentally eating an off-plan food or “cheating” literally keep you up at night?
- Do you feel you have to measure, track and analyze every bite of food (and does being unable to do so make you anxious)?
- Are you hyper-selective with respect to food quantity or food choices simply in an effort to be “more strict”? (Carrots are too sugary, fruit and nuts are off limits)?
- Have you deliberately changed the program (by eliminating calories, fat grams, carbs or food choices) to the degree that it is no longer optimally healthy?
- Do you feel compelled to make alterations to the program for any reason other than health?
If you answered “yes” to more than one of these questions, your Whole30 might be moving you in the direction of “less healthy,” both mentally and physically. (They key concept here is “compulsion.” We all pay attention to labels, plan ahead when we travel and select foods carefully when on the program… but a healthy program does not become obsessive, nor does it detract from your health, at any point.)
So how do you stop the madness that has become an unhealthy Whole30, while still working towards improved health, wellness and fitness? The idea of backing off what you are calling the Whole30 (and what we might call “two steps away from an eating disorder”) might be terrifying.. but it’s time to break the cycle.
Your Whole30 5-Step Plan
So, if you find yourself stuck in a Whole30 gone bad, what can you do to come back towards good health? Here are our best suggestions.
Step 1: Abandon the program immediately.
Right now, just stop. Not necessarily forever—but for a month, minimum, until you get yourself in check. It’s not quitting, it’s not failure – it’s the healthiest thing you can do for your body and your mind at this point in time. When the Whole30 is hurting more than it’s helping, it’s time to abort.
Step 2: Keep your diet clean.
Chances are, you’ve been at the Whole30 for long enough that you know what kind and how much food you should be eating to feel your best, and now is not the time to start making bad food choices. That will only wreak more mental havoc – you’ll feel terrible, you’ll think you look terrible, your health will suffer, and you’ll end up blaming the Whole30 instead of the pizza and ice cream. Follow our general Nutrition in 60 Seconds recommendations for your daily meals, but don’t obsess about it.
Step 3: Get out of the mirror and off the scale.
Impose a moratorium on weighing yourself for at least a month, and don’t allow yourself to stand in front of the mirror, turning, pinching and analyzing. Just let it go. Of course, you were spending an awful lot of time in front of the mirror, scrutinizing your physical appearance—so what should you do with all that extra time?
Step 4: Focus on sleep, stress management and exercise
Take good care of yourself by sleeping lots, practicing stress management techniques, and consider talking so someone (a friend, family member or professional) about your issues with food. Begin (or get back to, or continue) a regular exercise routine. Walk, bike, swim, take a yoga or pilates class, weightlift, Zumba, run around on the playground or participate in your favorite high-intensity activity… but don’t allow exercise to become punishment. (You know what we’re talking about – don’t switch from one unhealthy healthy pursuit to another.)
Step 5: Repeat the cycle as you improve.
If you’re moving your body, sleeping well, de-stressing and eating healthy, you’ll feel good about how well you are taking care of yourself. And that will make you want to continue taking care of yourself. It’s a positive feedback loop that just starts with taking one step forward. And for you, that first step is admitting that your Whole30 just isn’t healthy any more – and then having the strength to quit. At some point, you may feel better prepared to take the program on – and we encourage you to do so. But only if you can follow the “rules” without letting it take over your life, and your sanity.
Do What’s Right For You
The Whole30 program can be a valuable tool in your health and fitness arsenal, but it’s not for everyone. If you find yourself in an unhealthy Whole30, cut yourself some slack. You may be trying to retrain your brain to forget about years of unhealthy behaviors in favor of new, healthy habits. It’s going to take time, and dedication, and maybe more than a few false starts before you start permanently heading in the right direction. In the end, the only thing that matters is that you are moving towards improved health and fitness—both physically and mentally.
Later this week, we’ll hear from one Whole30 participant who discovered her Whole30 was unhealthy halfway through her program – and did something about it. Stay tuned for Camilla N’s story, Thursday on the 9 Blog. As always, we encourage you to share your thoughts and experiences to comments.