Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Whole Life Challenge review

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You know what I’m sick of? Engineers and people with zero nutrition education making claims that you can “biohack” your life, undermining dietitians, and giving one-size-fits all nutrition advice. This rant seems appropriate coming on the heels of my post about the carnivore diet.

Earlier this summer my brother asked for my thoughts about this “Whole Life Challenge” that a bunch of people in his office were doing. He was a little sceptical about the nutrition advice they were providing and wanted to know my thoughts as a registered dietitian.

My first question was, “who is behind this challenge?” Well, we’ve got the founders: Andy who has a background in sales and engineering (quelle surprise) who then opened a crossfit gym and Michael who was a coach and manager at a crossfit gym, and has a degree in philosophy and culinary arts. Well, at least he’s got a little knowledge of food in there but as most know, culinary arts and dietetics are woefully disconnected professions with chefs learning little to nothing about nutrition. The remainder of the team is comprised of the CEO, social media, web development, content manager, corporate relations, a couple of customer service reps, chief technology officer, and public relations. There is absolutely no one working for this enterprise that has any background in nutrition or health. Sigh. 

At a glance, the “challenge” doesn’t look so bad. The idea is to work on seven daily habits over the course of six weeks. You get points for completing each of the daily habits and you’re supposed to play with a team (the more people playing the more money they make this will help “foster success”). The habits are as follows: nutrition, exercise, mobilize, sleep, hydrate, well-being, and reflect. Many of these are areas that most of us could stand to improve on. Of course, I’d like to reiterate that the people who created this challenge have zero education pertaining to any of these topics. Cost is $39 US per player.

Unfortunately, you have to pay to play so I can’t access all of the materials available to players, including the nutrition plans. Fortunately, I have the inside scoop ;) and was able to view the nutrition material. They’ve created three levels with the highest being the “performance level”. This level is for those who, “already have good eating habits that you just want to fine tune, have athletic or performance-related goals, or have a pressing health or inflammation condition that you’d like to address”. The level below that is the “lifestyle level” which is, “A good choice if you are looking for a long-term lifestyle nutrition program. This is a great start to a sustainable practice of living a healthy lifestyle”. The easiest level is “kick start” which is supposedly, “a great place to start if you’re new to the health and fitness game and need to make the most important tweaks to get yourself started in the right direction”.

At each level of the plan you’re given a list of foods that are “compliant” and “non-compliant”. The higher the level, the fewer the foods that are compliant. How did they determine which foods are “compliant” and which are “non-compliant”? Excellent question. I have no idea other than the statement they make at the top of the charts: “When you see (*) next to a food, it indicates the food is compliant but should be eaten in moderation, as there are potentially negative effects from overconsumption”. I assume that this means that they believe there are negative effects from consumption of “non-compliant” foods. What these negative effects are is anyone’s guess. Maybe weight gain? Inflammation? Enjoyment of life? The non-compliant foods for the “performance level” are: deli or processed meats, soy, corn, white potatoes, soybeans, taro, yucca, beans and other legumes, dried fruit with added sugar, peanuts, peanut butter, hydrogenated oil, industrial vegetable and seed oils, every grain and grain product, alcohol, soda (diet or regular), juice, all dairy (except butter), the only snack foods allowed are baked sweet potato fries or chips and baked vegetable chips. Yum yum. To be fair, they do say that this diet would be difficult to maintain long-term and “maybe not even necessary”. Yeah, no shit.

Just for fun, and your reading pleasure, my brother endeavoured to follow this diet for a few days. My brother is a prolific runner, he’s in his third year of a running streak and he’s fast. He eats a balanced and varied diet and enjoys the occasional beer; a candidate for the “performance level” if there ever was one. Unfortunately, he came down with a cold at the same time so his report was: “my lack of energy could have been the diet or being sick”. N of 1, inconclusive.

That being said, while this diet might work for some, it’s probably not the best diet for most endurance athletes. It can be very difficult to obtain sufficient nutrients and calories and attain peak performance on such a limited diet. Also, beans and legumes and whole grains are full of good nutrients as well as being affordable. Any non-medical diet that tells you to eliminate all of these foods is unlikely to be sustainable or healthy in the long-run, particularly for those who engage in long runs (sorry, not sorry).

Six weeks isn’t all that long and when people are working in a group challenge there’s more incentive to stick to a plan than there would be on their own. There’s also minimal risk of nutrient deficiencies being a serious concern over such a short time frame. However, because this challenge is framed as a short-term undertaking and the diet plans aren’t easily sustained, I worry that this will encourage weight cycling in participants (which may actually be more harmful than maintaining a higher weight long-term) and discourage long-term adoption of healthy behaviours. If you’re only adopting these “habits” for six weeks to win a challenge and it’s a major change from your usual lifestyle I can imagine that at the completion most people celebrate finishing by ditching all the “habits”. It would be interesting to see research on participants of a challenge like this.

This plan is also very prescriptive. Apparently I should be drinking 37 ounces of water a day. There is no mention of drinking to thirst here or adjusting intake based on physical activity, temperature, or other fluid intake. You are not learning to listen to your body on a plan like this. There is no allowance for individual differences or personal preferences. Compliant foods equate to “good” and non-compliant equate to “bad”. This reinforces the false moralistic attitude that many people have about food. It also fails to consider that we eat for many different reasons and that taking pleasure in food and enjoying food socially are important aspects of eating. Framing healthy eating as being complicated and unpleasant only serves to make people adopt an all-or-nothing mindset toward a (perceived) healthy diet. Winning at this challenge may only set you up for failure when it’s over.


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Why science is failing

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After my fellow dietitian Abby Langer wrote this article for Self, which I personally felt was quite considered and rather generous to the carnivore movement, I noticed a commonality among many of the people spewing abuse and vitriol (does an all-meat diet make you exceptionally angry?) toward her, and RDs in general. Any guesses? It was that many of them were engineers. I’m not sure what’s up with that. However, I can tell you that they are far more confident in their belief in the magic of the carnivore diet than I am in probably anything.

Then I was listening to StartUp podcast and something clicked. This season they’re following what’s called a “church plant” which is people trying to start new churches. On the last episode they were talking to a researcher who said that membership in all Christian churches in North America is declining, except for at evangelical churches. The reason for that? The certainty the evangelical church provides. Unlike other churches where there may be grey areas, things left up to interpretation, the evangelical church has definitive answers. And people like certainty. In religion and in nutrition.

You’ve probably heard the comparison of certain dietary beliefs to religious beliefs before. It’s nothing new. People attach their sense of self to a religious or dietary belief. They’re vegan, paleo, vegetarian, carnivore, catholic, or muslim. In the realm of diets, dietitians are agnostic. In the realm of medicine, Western doctors are agnostic. A great deal of the time, science is agnostic. We constantly question our beliefs and change them as new evidence comes to light. When someone asks is corn good for me we inwardly cringe because there are so many ways to answer that question and they all start with “it depends”. The carnivores are the evangelicals of the dietary world. They have all the answers with the utmost certainty. And how can someone who’s desperate to find a diet that will cure what ails them not be enticed by that confidence when faced with dietitians and doctors who are saying “let’s try this first and if that doesn’t work then we’ll try this” and on and on. We don’t offer a one-size-fits-all approach. We offer tailoring to help individuals find the way of eating that fits them best.

If you want certainty without evidence then you can find all the advice you want, and then some, from carnivorous engineers on twitter. If you’d rather have uncertainty and a little variety in your diet then find yourself a dietitian.