Welcome to Dear Melissa, where I answer your questions about transitioning into or completing a Whole30, successfully sticking to your new Food Freedom habits, and figuring out how to make this lifestyle work in the real world. Today, we’re talking about a very serious subject: whether the Whole30 is right for those recovering or suffering from an eating disorder.
I was bulimic, anorexic, and “other ED” for over 2 decades. I recovered for over 2 years, then many challenges came about late last year and I relapsed back into morphed eating, plus binging and purging at times. I’m eager to get back into a healthy way of eating and healthy state of mind. When I first recovered I was Paleo, although I hated to label myself. I felt amazing, but with peer pressure I caved in and started back with the sweets. I’m sure that’s what led to my relapse many months later. So, is it safe for me to do a Whole 30? -Danielle G., Houston, TX
We take this question very seriously. In my opinion, eating disorders are so much harder to overcome than a drug or alcohol addiction. We (addicts) can just stop using drugs entirely—in fact, that’s our prescription. Just don’t use. Ever. Not even once. Not at all. But everyone eats. I can’t imagine how much harder it would have been to moderate my drug intake, versus exorcising it from my life altogether.
I admire your dedication in pursuing a healthy relationship with food, and do believe that eating real, nutrient-dense, unprocessed foods is the healthiest way to nourish your body and break unhealthy cravings and habits. Some people with eating disorders (active or in recovery) have found amazing food freedom with the Whole30. The fact that we don’t count or restrict calories, encourage you to eat healthy foods to satiety, and take the scale and body measurements out of the equation may prove to be the paradigm shift that you need to get back to a healthier relationship with food.
Here are a few testimonials:
“I have had trouble in the past with an eating disorder, and any diet scares me. I don’t want to become obsessed with the way I am eating like I was before. I had less trouble with the Whole30 than I have had before. I didn’t focus on food every second of the day; I didn’t start to hate myself more as pounds dropped away. For the first time, I was able to remain rational about my body while following a food plan. That really might be the biggest benefit I have gotten from the Whole30.” Kelly E., Marietta, GA
“I’ve been on several ends of the disordered eating scale, and I tell you that for the first time, I do not want to eat between meals, and I am already barely thinking about food. If you don’t know what that’s like, it’s hard to explain it, but the relief is unimaginable. This is not Weight Watchers. This is living.” -ScoutFinch, on the Whole9 website
“I was addicted to sugar. I was even seeing a counselor for compulsive overeating. The Whole30 broke my sugar addiction and changed my life!” Sara A., Holmen, WI
“I was fat for most of my life. I used to binge eat, and lost a lot of weight by discontinuing that behavior, but I always felt like I was on the edge of a precipice, and could fall back anytime. Doing the Whole30 makes me feel in control in a way that being obsessive never did.” Jane C., Washington, DC
“I have gained a sense of peace when it comes to food. I no longer label foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ I have lost the guilt and stress I sometimes felt about food. I have a much healthier relationship with it. It has been the final piece in my recovery puzzle. I used to be a strict calorie counter, and I don’t feel the need to do that anymore. I gauge my eating on how my body feels, and what I need to give it to fuel my activities and nourish it. I had ignored my body’s signals for many years. Through the Whole 30 I re-learned how to listen to my body, paying attention to giving it what it needs to thrive.” Andrea, Dallas, TX
However, there are probably just as many people who have found the rigidity, rules, and structure of the Whole30 program too reminiscent of their disorders. For these people, the Whole30 “as prescribed” is actually a trigger for disordered eating behavior, hurting their progress more than it helps. The restrictions may carry over to calorie or macronutrient restriction in anorectics, or may trigger a binge in those with a history of compulsively overeating. (In fact, we profiled a woman on our website who discovered the Whole30 to be a trigger for her old, unhealthy behaviors.)
So what’s the right answer for you? As with most things, it depends, and context matters.
Our Official Position, from Dr. Emily Deans
We asked Dr. Emily Deans, a psychiatrist and clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School, to help us answer this question:
“A program like the Whole30 can have mixed results in people with an eating disorder. On one hand, there are many positives: focusing on food for nourishment rather than for reward or punishment. No calorie counting, no scales, no semi-starvation daily blood sugar roller coaster.
Many of my eating disordered patients will eat very restricted diets of low-fat and low-carb processed foods so there is strict control over portion size and calories. By switching over to whole foods and healthy carbohydrates and fats, you can be liberated from the yoke of calories and fat grams and experience a much more diverse range of nutritious foods. I’ve spoken to people who switched to a no processed foods-style diet and found their eating disorders to go into remission, because they lost the cravings and love/hate relationship with their bodies and what they put in it.
On the other hand, a Whole30 is another kind of restriction (of certain foods rather than calories), and for some people, it can lead to intense cravings to binge and reactivate some dormant eating disordered behavior.
A way of eating that keeps you healthy, provides all the nutrition you need, and overall helps you think less about food and body image is likely the healthiest diet for you, but it’s very important to know yourself before you embark on one of these programs. If you have a history of a serious eating disorder, I wouldn’t do major dietary change without knowing you have a trusted counselor in your corner.”
So how do you know whether the Whole30 is right for you? First, ask your eating disorder counselor—and if you don’t have one, please seek one out right away. It is imperative that you and your counselor have a plan before you embark upon a program like the Whole30—what you’ll do if you start feeling triggered, how you might modify the plan to obtain most of the benefits while staying mentally healthy, and what you should do next if you have to drop the program altogether. Please don’t try to go this alone, it’s just too risky.
In addition, while we insist the Whole30 must be completed exactly as written to obtain the full benefit, we didn’t write the program with eating disorders in mind. That language was written to discourage people from thinking they can have a bite of this here and a glass of that there and it really won’t make a difference. However, in your context, if you and your counselor need to adjust the rules, duration, or structure of the program to make it work for you, by all means do so. A portion of our healthy eating program is better than none, especially if you’re able to sustain it and make progress by making it less rigid.
Finally, we’ve written a series of articles for those with a history of eating disorders on the blog. Please review them here, in the hopes that our perspective on a variety of specifics related to the Whole30 and eating disorders will help you and your counselor make the decision that is right for you. If that includes the Whole30, please write back to let me know your experience.
I wish you the best in health,
Got a question for Melissa? Submit it using this handy form.
Remember, we aren’t answering questions about the Whole30 rules via this column (use the forum!), nor are we able to offer you specific advice about your medical issue, health condition, or body composition.
Melissa Hartwig is a Certified Sports Nutritionist and the author of the New York Times bestselling books It Starts With Food and The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom; and the upcoming Food Freedom Forever. She has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Details, Outside, SELF, and Shape as the co-founder of the Whole30 program. Melissa lives in Salt Lake City, UT.
Photo credit: Marie Carmel Photography
Dr. Emily Deans is a board certified adult psychiatrist practicing in Massachusetts. She graduated from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in 2000 and from the Harvard Longwood Psychiatry Residency in 2004 and was a Chief Resident at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. She is currently a Clinical Instructor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical school and is a featured expert on Psychology Today. You can find her blog at Evolutionary Psychiatry.