Five Post staffers plan to try five diets in January to see how they work. From left: Food and Dining Editor Joe Yonan, Local Living Editor Kendra Nichols, food critic Tom Sietsema, Deputy Food Editor Bonnie S. Benwick and sportswriter Adam Kilgore. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
Those who know me might think it out of character that I am contributing to WaPo Food’s 5 Diets project, because I believe “diet” is a four-letter word — one that connotes an unsustainable, sometimes self-abusive, short-term fix. But as a registered dietitian who spent years in private practice, I have learned that many people have no structure or strategy at all in their day-to-day eating. They desperately need some kind of plan, an effective set of brakes, and it is often at this January juncture that they grasp for one.
My hope is that the perspective I lend here can help the brave participants, and you, to transcend the diet mentality and land on a way of eating, a lifestyle, that is ultimately sustainable and satisfying beyond this month-long challenge.
The idea that any one plan — or, if you insist, diet — is THE WAY is more a reality of marketing than of biology. Humans can thrive on a wide variety of foodways — a big plus from an evolutionary point of view. All of the plans these Washington Post staffers have chosen have the potential to help them reach their goals in a healthful way. But there are plenty of potential pitfalls for them to navigate in these next 30 days, and more to do to make it all matter in the long run.
The Whole30 is the epitome of the tough-love, boot camp approach to habit change. It involves an ultra-strict 30-day elimination diet with a lineup of “nos” — no sweeteners (real or artificial), no alcohol, no grains, no dairy, no beans, no baked goods, no “treats” — followed by a reintroduction process in which you gradually add the forbidden foods back into your life, paying close attention to how they make you feel, with the ultimate goal of establishing a sustainably moderate way of eating. The plan is whole-foods based, with many inspiring and delicious-looking recipes. (There is a new accompanying cookbook.) Although snacking is discouraged, at mealtimes you can eat as much as you want, and you are encouraged to “toss that scale” in favor of other indicators of progress, such as how you feel and how your clothes fit. If you slip even one tiny bit during the 30-day elimination phase, you have to start back at Day One.
Local Living editor Kendra Nichols says her ultimate goal is “making moderation the new normal,” but notes that “I need to do something drastic to get there.” A self-described “rule person” who has made it through the first phase of the Whole30 before without much difficulty, she sees it as a reset from unhealthful habits like snacking on vending machine candy and eating the same “boring” foods all the time.
It’s safe to say that on this plan she will be cooking more, trying a wider variety of healthful foods and recalibrating her snacking habits. But from my vantage point, the real challenge for her is not the first 30 days with its precise rules. It is making it through the reintroduction phase to everyday moderation, where the boundaries are less cut and dried. For Kendra to achieve her ultimate goal, she will need to learn to live in the gray, not just the black and white.
An important note: Although this plan may be right for many people, its extremely strict approach may be dangerous for those with a history of eating disorders or disordered eating.
The simple gist of this plan, which is based on the teachings of Buddha — who was apparently quite thin, unlike those big-bellied statues — is to limit the window of time in which you eat or drink, starting at first at 12 hours a day, then gradually reducing that window to nine hours a day. So, for example, if you ate breakfast at 9 a.m., you would have dinner wrapped up by 6 p.m. There are no hard-and-fast rules about what to eat but rather a goal of attaining a Buddha-like “middle way,” eating mindfully, focusing on foods that provide the greatest sense of fullness, and cutting down on added sugars and highly processed foods. The plan allows one “cheat day” a week.
I believe Food and Dining Editor Joe Yonan, a vegetarian, will find many aspects of this flexible, mindful approach enlightening, and it will serve to get him out of his unhealthful late-night snacking regimen. The 12-hour window, with a cheat day built in, should be sustainable for him over the long term, But given his schedule, the nine-hour window doesn’t seem like a realistic goal. If he starts with his usual 8 a.m. breakfast to fuel up for a 9 a.m. workout, he would have to have his day of eating wrapped up by 5 p.m. on the nine-hour plan. That would mean dinner at the office most evenings, and forgoing relaxing meals out with friends.
That kind of change might be technically achievable, but at the expense of his social life and relationships — which are also important to overall health. Alternately, he could exercise on an empty stomach (which the book says “is perfectly natural”), but he and I both suspect that would compromise his workouts. It will be interesting to see where he ultimately lands on this.