Whole30: Could this Diet be a Good Thing for Teens

Whole30 was something I’d never heard of until I was schmoozing with a girlfriend about my intention to pursue bariatric surgery (surgery to lose weight). I’d gained a ton of weight, due to age and the necessity of taking steroids for an autoimmune conditions. The numbers on the scale were inching toward 200.

I hated the way I looked. I hated myself. I cringed when I caught a glimpse of myself. I hid photos where people tagged me on Facebook. Now that I was going off prednisone, I knew I had to do something drastic to get that poundage off me.

So I was telling my friend about this and she told me three stories about bariatric surgery.

Three Stories

In the first story, her niece had surgery, looked gorgeous, but gained all the weight back as she stretched her stomach out.

In the second story, her nephew had surgery but didn’t lose all that much.

In the third story, her brother had the surgery and lost weight but was sick all the time now. He can only eat a teaspoon of yogurt a few times a day.

“ARGH.” I thought. That was not at all what I wanted to hear.

My friend and I were on our way to meet a group for dinner and a movie. One of that group was my friend’s daughter. We needed a place where it would be possible for her daughter to stick to her diet. What diet was that?

It’s called Whole30.

My friend explained the basics of the diet. You cut out sugars, alcohol, grains, legumes, dairy, and any food preservative you can’t pronounce for 30 days. During this time, you eat meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats and oils, including clarified butter or ghee.

Not only was the daughter doing Whole30, she was doing it with a younger niece, a girl in her early teens.

I loved that idea. Like a buddy system, and a way to make the young girl feel cherished and mature, too.

I watched my friend’s daughter order her food, questioning the waiter carefully to make sure there would be nothing more than olive oil, lemon juice, and salt and pepper on her salad. She ate a plate of eggs and salad, and got a glass of fresh squeezed OJ with nothing added.dieting teenager

“Hmmm,” I thought. “I can do that.”

I went home that evening and googled Whole30. Up until now, diets had seemed so daunting, but this seemed doable, because it was only for 30 days. I figured anyone can do anything for 30 days, right?

I thought maybe doing Whole30 would help me ease into better eating habits and maybe a different, stricter diet. I wanted to try. I wanted to feel like SOMETHING was working, in terms of my food.

Whole30 isn’t a weight loss diet. It’s a reset of your eating habits. Lots of people do lose weight on this diet, because the principles are sound as a way of eating. Many people, in fact, stay on Whole30 as a way of life, or at least do Whole30 twice a year or so to get back to the basics of eating healthy.

Whole30 is kind of arbitrary regarding what is and isn’t allowed. Potatoes, for instance, were permitted beginning in 2014—though if you want French fries or potato chips, you have to make ’em yourself from scratch. I think the point of Whole30 to get back to real food and to stick to something doable. It certainly was for me.

I was thrilled that I could have potatoes and that pretty much decided me. I knew I could hack this diet. I’m a big-time potato lover. I was having a baked potato with olive oil and salt every night and it hit the spot.

Ready For More

But a week in, I knew I could do more. I started looking into various diets and landed on keto. At the same time, I began reading up on the Autoimmune Paleo Protocol (AIP), adopting as many principles as possible from the protocol and eliminating a group of foods called FODMAPs, as well. I was seeing diet as a way of possibly healing myself, and if not, at least as a way of not making things worse!

I began following all these diets, but also stuck to Whole30, because I’d made a commitment and felt it important to keep it.

My friend’s daughter and her niece both lost weight and were very pleased with themselves. That journey led my friend’s daughter to become paleo. I too, began losing weight. I finished Whole30 and continued on with my keto/AIP diets and the weight began coming off like water.

I was reading a great deal during this time and made important discoveries about the way we eat: the recommendations to eat lots of grains is wrong. Fat isn’t fattening: carbs are fattening.

Heart disease and obesity only became a thing when we started eating lots of carbohydrates as a society.

Whole30 As Achievable Goal

Would Whole30 be a way to help get teenagers to take an interest in healthy eating? Would it incentivize them as it did me, to find a diet that works and stick to it? Perhaps most important of all, would it bolster a teen’s fragile self-confidence by offering a short-term achievable goal?

At that point, I wished my own daughters were still teenagers so I could test the theory. But I had seen my friend’s daughter and her niece stick to Whole30 and succeed. I knew they felt very good about their accomplishment, as did I with my own!

Teenage daughters tend to be obsessed with their weight. At home, I mostly have boys around. They are a little tired of hearing my diet talk, though they do like some of the food I make. A lot. Especially my steak salad.

I spoke to Heather Aanes, a single mother of two, living with multiple sclerosis, who wants a healthier lifestyle for her and her daughters, ages 16 and 13. The girls recently began following the Whole30 plan. “As a single parent, I feel like I am giving the girls awesome life skills and I love that they are eating their fruits and vegetables,” said Aanes. “We are preparing meals together. Grocery shopping has been a scavenger hunt, and fun, asking strangers where items are, and finding the foods we would not normally eat.

“All around, it’s been a great experience.”

I looked on the web to see what else I could find out about teens and Whole30. I found this thread of Whole30 compliant moms talking about how they deal with their teens while on the diet. A mom in Southern California, Dukunbayi, wrote: “My almost 17 yo daughter loves veggies and is very interested in health and good food choices and, while not officially doing a W30 with me, is very supportive and following closely behind.”

The thread was not exclusively about teenage daughters. jCrush wrote about her experience with her teenage sons and Whole30:

“I have two teenage boys ages 13 and 15.  They both have acne and horrible eating habits.  We are on our 16th day of W30 as a family.  I finally realized that I am in control of what I buy and prepare and if they are hungry, they will eat!  Previous to starting this, my 13 year old’s diet consisted of a granola bar for breakfast, PB&J, cheez -its and fruit for lunch, and if I didn’t cook dinner (which due to the boys being involved in sports and band was fairly often) he would eat fish sticks or pizza for dinner.  Now he has been eating what I serve with very little complaining and he actually requests brussell sprouts for dinner (and loves brussell sprout chips for snack).  I do get up and make breakfast and pack lunches every morning,which has taken some getting used to, but I feel that the changes in eating habits we are creating makes it worth it!  I have gotten my fair share of ‘Why can’t there be more variety of snacks’ or ‘Why can’t we eat_____’. But overall I feel that they really are eating things that they would have never tried before and they have even thanked me for caring about them enough to put forth the effort.  They keep asking me what happens after the W30 as far as our eating goes.  I just tell them that we will no longer have processed food in the house, but they will not be banned from fast food forever.  They have done an amazing job and I am so proud of them!!!”boy cutting veggies with mom

Next I ventured over to the Whole30 website, where I found the story of Katie, a 16-year-old girl who decided to do the Whole30 challenge. I highly recommend reading Katie’s whole story, but here’s an excerpt:

“There were many temptations thrown my way, from school lunches, family parties, and holiday activities I had to show my self-control and not give in to the many unhealthy foods that were brought my way. When I wanted to cheat or quit the program, I had to fight. There were many nights where I wanted the bag of chips in the pantry or make a batch of cookies, but I knew I couldn’t. When I was attending a place where I knew they didn’t have the food I could eat I always had snacks on hand. (Having a snack has saved me many times.) Family parties and holiday activities really put my self-control to the test, but after those hard days, I felt like I won something. I was so proud of myself. The hard nights are the reasons I have the results that I do.”

Katie’s experience proves what I suspected: that doing Whole30 can give a teen a marvelous feeling of accomplishment and that it’s a doable goal of short-term duration.

How is Katie doing today? She’s on round six of Whole30 and has lost 45 pounds. It has, in her own words, helped her come out of her “shell and become a better person.” Katie writes:

“I feel like I am a whole new person. In school, I work harder and focus better. I fall asleep faster and sleep all through the night. I can get through the day without wanting to take a nap. I am overall a more confident and outgoing person. Just one simple month made me change for the better. Because of the Whole30 I like where I am with my weight and I learned to love myself.”

Another teenager, KaLynn, also 16, does Whole30 with her family whenever the group conscious tells them their slipping in their food habits and need a reboot. Talking about how it is to socialize while being on a diet, KaLynn says, “When I go to my friends’ houses, they know I have to at the very least eat gluten-free. I tell them ahead of time about my intolerance and how it affects me, so that gets their thoughts automatically turned toward more healthy choices . . . At first, I thought I was just being a big problem, so I would avoid talking about food and would usually end up not eating much, if anything at all. Then I realized cooking real food recipes together was actually a great way to bond! My friends talk about how they appreciate having me around because it sort of forces them to make better choices and learn to cook. It can be fun!”

Not everyone thinks Whole30 is such a great idea for teens. Time covered Whole30 for teens in 2016. One expert cited, Dr. Alessio Fasano, said the diet wasn’t long enough to serve as an elimination diet. “In a clinical setting, we put patients on these sorts of restrictive diets for three months, because the immune system needs three months to shut off. Thirty days isn’t enough time to turn off systemic inflammation.”

Dr. Gerard Mullin, director of Johns Hopkins’s Celiac Disease Clinic, meanwhile calls Whole30 a “plan for the walking well,” and finally, Dr. David Katz, founding director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center says “There is no emphasis here on acquiring a full set of skills for healthy living. So it’s not even possible to know if the diet that results from this will be healthful.”

Katz feels that the Whole30 plan is pretty much the “standard ‘go on a diet’ salesmanship.”

As for me, Katie, and KaLynn, Whole30 was a gateway to finding the right way to eat: it taught us to take the time to prepare wholesome food, that our bodies were worth it. It was also a way to have a success early on—a success to build on.

It’s certainly something to consider.

Time to Chill Out About Candy!

This piece is a rebuttal to Should You Let Your Children Have Candy

I’ve been a dietitian long enough to have lived through the low-fat craze, and now, much to my dismay, the era of sugar-phobia. Thanks to fear-mongering headlines that overstate what science actually knows, myriads of parents are freaking out over sugar—the key ingredient of lollipops, cotton candy, and pie that kids have been eating for decades. Now it’s suddenly toxic, poisonous, and the cause of every major disease.

Look, I’m a mom and I care about my kids’ health. I’m also a dietitian—with a professional interest in what and how people eat. I believe in balanced diets and vegetables. I fully understand that eating only cupcakes for lunch every day leaves a lot to be desired nutritionally speaking. I also recognize that kids, given an option, would easily choose a bowl of Skittles over scrambled eggs and toast. But there’s a big leap from “consider the volume of sweets your kids get and strive for balance” to “OMG if you give your kids brown sugar on their oatmeal they’re one-step-away from addiction!” madness that’s happening lately in the media.

I was quoted in an article HERE at the Kars4Kids educational blog for parents recently and, while I stand by my quote, I felt that the tone of the article was unnecessarily negative, inciting fear and guilt in parents instead of hope and direction. Parents are under such pressure to get their child’s eating just right. With social media, moms are constantly feeling one-upped by the moms whose kids eat roasted kale chips like they were fries. Or the kids who gobble down spaghetti squash with more gusto than they have for macaroni. It’s easy for moms to either brush off warnings entirely or let worry take over.

While it is true that health organizations recommend some tight limits for sugar consumption by kids, we have to not miss the forest for the trees. We need to look at the candy issue, and all nutrition issues, in light of a child’s developing relationship with food. Based on my professional and personal experience, I will venture out and say that a child’s relationship to food is more important than what they eat at any given meal or snack.

The original author has graciously given me permission to write a rebuttal, so I wanted to address some of the claims in the article. And no, I am not connected (financially or otherwise) to the “sugar industry,” any food manufacturer or candy company.

What is sugar?

All carbohydrates (bread, rice, pasta, fruit, etc.) break down into sugar via digestion. Yes a sweet potato or quinoa also contains fiber and other nutrients and doesn’t get absorbed at lightning speed the way candy does. But it ultimately turns into the same glucose—give or take.

And this glucose is the body’s preferred energy source. It’s the premium, unleaded gasoline for every muscle and organ in your body. When someone has severely low blood sugar (typically only in diabetes), it affects their brain enough that you could easily mistake them for drunk.

Does this mean we should just skip food and feed our kids straight syrup or candy to keep them adequately fueled? Of course not. There are other nutrients little bodies get from food and in general, eating whole foods provides the most benefit because they contain fiber, vitamins, minerals and other essentials.

Any one nutrient pulled out of a food isn’t going to be as effective in doing its job (usually, there’s always exceptions) as it is when it is eaten as part of a balanced diet. That’s the really neat synergistic effect of eating food instead of just a supplement or combo of individual nutrients. The point is, regardless of what an ideal diet may look like, sugar, is not an unnatural substance or poison or something that somehow confuses our body.

Sugar is only as addictive as oxygen is addictive

Sugar has been likened to cocaine because it happens to light up the pleasure centers of the brain similarly. On the surface, this seems like powerful evidence that it is drug-like and dangerous. However, you know what else lights up our brain? Hugs, laughter, sex—even cuddling cute puppies. But you don’t hear anyone arguing that we should stop watching comedy or quit giving hugs for fear we’ll want to snuggle and laugh 24/7.

There are key differences between dangerous recreational drugs and a natural substance present in many foods. Cocaine is 100% unnecessary for human life and happiness. Nobody who has grown up without cocaine has suffered for the lack.

Sugar, on the other hand, is a ubiquitous part of food and food is necessary for our human life. So in this sense, it makes sense that it is inherently rewarding and pleasurable. If it were not so, we’d not try too hard to do all that hard work of obtaining, preparing and eating several times a day. I also have yet to hear of a sugar lover holding anyone at gunpoint for an ounce of syrup.

The research on food (or sugar) addiction does not match the strength of beliefs in this area. For one, most food addiction research has been done on animals—not people. It’s great to study mice to expand our understanding about how something might function, but it doesn’t mean we can translate the results to humans.

For us humans, eating is a complex biopsychosocial process that is never as simple as “this food is addicting and this food is not.” Finally, few, if any, of the food addiction research, has controlled for history of dieting or patterns of restriction. And it is well known that restricting foods often leads to disinhibited eating of those foods later complicating the very idea of “addiction.”

Kids Have a Natural—Not Pathological—Preference for Sweets

A child’s first food, breast milk, is sweet (so is formula). Nobody has to teach a child to like sweet flavors, it is hard-wired from birth. And until their bones are done growing, it seems most kids will have stronger, more intense sugar preferences than most adults. This seems to suggest a biological drive to get enough calories for growth.

Now take a child with his natural propensity to enjoy and want sweets and add a very health conscious parent who has been scared by the sugar phobia of today and you invariably end up with a child who feels highly deprived. If he’s typical, he’ll overeat sweets every chance he gets, because he might not see them at home for a loooong time.

Candy becomes a very alluring food because it’s so forbidden. Mom sees her child overeats sweets when he gets a chance, reinforcing her belief that he can’t be trusted, so she tightens the reigns some more and thus the vicious cycle continues. Oh, the stories I can tell from friends and acquaintances about how their parents’ sugar restriction led them to become preoccupied with sweets both as kids and adults. Kids whose parents enforce strict cookie limits at events who go off and stuff their mouths with extra cookies when Mom isn’t looking.

Sugar and Teeth—more than meets the eye.

To add to candy’s bad reputation, it’s always implicated in dental caries. But the reality is that any food that sticks to teeth, gets stuck between teeth, or is constantly bathing teeth is an open invitation for cavity-causing bacteria to grow. Whether that’s sticky candy or goldfish crackers or dinner rolls or juice.

What is not talked about enough is the pattern of eating. Anytime kids graze—on anything—those little kid teeth are being bathed in food and more likely to develop cavities. The simple solution to this is 1) Don’t allow kids to GRAZE on anything—keep to regular meal and snack times and 2) Brush teeth every day.

Nibbling on crackers and sipping on juice every 30 minutes is a different beast and a whole lot more damaging to teeth than having a few gummy bears with dinner when a child is eating anyway. Most kids, allowed to graze, could very well nibble themselves into dental disaster. But once again it is not the candy, it is the lack of structure with food.

Feeding Candy and Sweets Responsibly

Nobody is saying to give your kids free access to sweets. But be realistic in how you manage this alluring food and lean on structure—not vilification of candy.

Consider the advice of renowned dietitian and feeding expert Ellyn Satter when it comes to feeding kids:

  • Parents need to observe a Division of Responsibility (DOR) for feeding regarding the what, when, and where logistics.
  • Parents should concern themselves with choosing a variety of good-tasting food, serving meals (and snacks) at routine times, and make sure kids are seated in a distraction-free eating area (and eat with them when we can).

This behind-the-scenes structure is the bulk of the work we need to do as moms and dads. But, once we’ve set the food on the table, we can relax and trust our kids to take care of the jobs of deciding whether to eat and how much to eat from what we’ve provided. Satter’s advice on foods we generally consider “forbidden” is to include them in meals or snacks—times kids are eating anyway.

This is how we manage sweets in our household. Here’s a practical example: At mealtime, if we happen to have cookies for dessert, each person gets a cookie on or next to their plate at the very start of the meal. GASP!

No, my kids don’t have to earn dessert via 3 bites of vegetables. Doing so would put the cookie on a pedestal while lowering broccoli to “grunt work.” That’s totally not the lesson I want my kids to learn at the table. One small piece of research also showed that kids are willing to eat past fullness to get dessert when it is served at the end of a meal—another reason to level the playing field.

You might have lots of questions about this unconventional method of serving sweets. I will answer a key objection: Isn’t controlling the portion another way to restrict?

Kids can easily just eat several cookies and ignore the rest of the meal. Since that’s not the reason you baked cookies and slaved over the salad and casserole (and good nutrition is still on your mind), it’s okay to limit dessert to one portion with a meal the vast majority of the time. But to make up for this tight control, you will need to rely on some snack time freedom.

Call it Good

Now and then, serve a more-or-less unlimited portion of sweets, toss a glass of milk on the table and call it good. Seriously. The opportunity for your kids to find their own limit with a big plate of cookies, their Easter or Halloween haul, or ice cream on a hot day will be an invaluable lesson!

It will help them feel a sense of autonomy, self-trust, and lower that intense feeling of “I never get enough” that can lead to binge eating, hoarding, and sneaking of favorite foods. You’ll probably be pleasantly surprised to see them leave half-eaten pieces behind once they feel secure in the hope this won’t be their last chance to enjoy a satisfying portion of sweets. And when you serve this ad lib portion at a normal snack time, it won’t interfere with dinner.

Whether my child begs for candy, crackers, french fries or apples, I lean on our house routine. If it’s not time to eat, I’ll say something like “Sounds like you’re hungry, snack time is coming very soon. We will eat then.”

It doesn’t take long for kids to understand the program. No need for a lengthy nutrition explanation. No need to convince or persuade our kids about what they should or should not crave or enjoy eating. No need to scare kids about chemicals—because everything is a chemical. Including sugar-free, dye-free, preservative-free dihydrogen monoxide (H2O or…water).

Teaching Kids about Food & Eating

I really love the tone and care with which the quoted parenting expert spoke about talking to kids. Where I disagree is that when it comes to food, kids need our leadership more than nutrition lessons. Young kids eat based on what tastes good to them and what they suspect might taste good to them. They eat without hang-ups. They eat with reckless abandon and stop-on-a-dime fullness regulation—unless and until we start trying to interfere. Children are also not likely to apply nutrition facts and admonitions to their own eating. Not without bypassing the important development of their food acceptance.

Food acceptance is a skill that starts in infancy, seems to vanish in toddlerhood, and then starts to progress again slowly. For some kids this is a very slow process and requires parents to lead with a routine of meals and snacks, eating together regularly, and maintaining a positive attitude toward all food and eating. Focusing on “oughts” and “shoulds” and “good foods” vs. “bad foods” really interferes with a child’s ability to feel good about eating and trusting themselves around all foods—a necessary skill that is a building block toward a healthy eating life.

Young kids are also very concrete thinkers while nutrition concepts are abstract. They aren’t going to be able to apply the idea of “moderation” or “candy is bad but only when you eat too much.” They can parrot back ideas, but they aren’t going to internalize the meaning and its application. Once again we need to fall back on the DOR to center ourselves and remind ourselves, as parents, that all foods can fit and our kids are trustworthy even with candy when it is served in an organized way.

And frankly, the idea that kids who like candy won’t like other foods like fruit is false. Anecdotally speaking, my kids are perfectly in love with both candy and fruit. And I know countless other kids who are the same. Love for one does not eliminate love for the other. I for one, like chocolate and kale, ice cream and asparagus, Italian soda and salmon—and my mom was more permissive with sweets than I am.

Final Thoughts

Should you let your children have candy?  Yes!

Just keep all foods, sweets, and drinks to structured eating times. You don’t have to offer candy daily, but don’t treat it like contraband. By incorporating it in a neutral, normal way you will teach your kids to develop a sustainable relationship with it. Not one of feast or famine. Because, yes, as the original article stated, candy is out there. It’s everywhere. Being able to manage it in a healthy and relaxed way will serve them far more than lessons about the dangers of sugar.