On Testimonials and Diet Books

Recently, a woman (let’s call her “Jane”) commented to me after reading some of my Whole30 critiques that:

“How can you fact check the testimonies people have from this diet!? Are you really disregarding a whole food diet??”

Her implication seemed to be that the anecdotes of hundreds of people who had found success on this diet plan were all that mattered. Science and reason be damned! I replied back that:

“Every diet book has testimonials from people describing how said diet changed their lives and improved their health. This does not mean that those diet books are based on [or promote] good science. The problem with the Whole30 is that [in my opinion] they do not seem to care if the information they provide their fans is accurate or not.”

To my knowledge, no efforts have been made to try and correct any of the dietary misinformation that is prevalent in their book, It Starts With Food (ISWF), or the Whole30 website.

But that got me thinking about the testimonials in the book. At the beginning of every chapter in ISWF, you are inspired by stories from people who have experienced miraculous health improvements on this diet. On their website, the Whole30 has this to say:

“…many people have reported the “magical” elimination of a variety of symptoms, diseases and conditions – in just 30 days.

diabetes · high cholesterol · high blood pressure · obesity · acne · eczema · psoriasis · hives asthma · allergies · sinus infections · migraines · acid reflux · celiac disease · Crohn’s · IBS · bipolar disorder · depression · seasonal affective disorder · eating disorders · ADHD endometriosis · PCOS · infertility · arthritis · Lyme disease · hypothyroidism · fibromyalgia”

That’s quite a list. Naturally, all the testimonials presented would be positive (that’s just good marketing). But if Jane would like to use these testimonies as the basis for why the Whole30 is a good diet plan, she should take into account the totality of the anecdotes. When looking at a question scientifically, it’s important to look at all the available evidence. Not everything is all rainbows and sunshine as we see from the 10 comments below that were posted in the Whole30 Forums:

1 - Two Weeks in, Rashes are MUCH WORSE!

"I am a little over 2 weeks into my Whole30, which I started in the hopes of finally clearing up a rash on my ankle. A few days into it, the rash appeared on my elbows (where I had it about 5 years ago but went away with a Rx cream). By a week into, the rash appeared on my other leg as well, and now two weeks in, I have growing patches on both legs and arms and my scalp itches like crazy."

2 - Weight gain, no change in size

"I have been on Paleo for 5 weeks and whole30 for a month now.
Finally, I got on the scale....
The first week I lost 2.5 lbs. then I stopped weighing myself. After whole 30, I gained it all back +1.5 lbs."

3 - At what point do you decide it's not working?

"I'm on day 24 and have battled with exhaustion and bad sleep the past few weeks just like before w30. My diet hasn't radically changed apart from no dairy or alcohol and this is the first time I've eaten consistently clean for so long. I've had lots of help on the forum and I am pretty sure my food balance is right. Is it really worth another 6 days? I can do it; I'm not craving anything but it seems a bit pointless. I’m not sure it’s good for me thinking about food all the time."

4 - Failure - Six months on Whole30

"As soon as I started my Whole30, my belly started retaining water like crazy. It got so huge it looked like I was pregnant…My belly was so big, I had difficulty breathing. I tried experimenting with the sources of protein I was eating…I tried not to get discouraged, and so I continued my Whole30 for six months. But the problem persisted. Also, I gained like 15 pounds. Which is really depressing because I'm already very overweight."

5 - Excess gas & Farting on Whole30

"I've nearly completed the Whole30 with a few minor slip-ups for which I don't feel regret. Starting around Day 20 I've noticed a huge spike in frequency and smell of farts. They happen as frequent as once every 5-30 minutes, depending on how lately I've eaten…This is getting to be a pretty huge problem. My parents are angry at me, I'm embarrassed at my work cubicle, my car smells rancid, and I'm uncomfortable whenever my girlfriend's around."

6 - Constipation/bloating

"I've been Paleo/Whole9 for about 4 weeks, and my gut has slowed down like nobody's business! I was eating fish, eggs, grains, legumes before this (I was dairy-free), but no chicken, beef, etc... until I started paleo. I'm sure this could be a big factor with constipation, but I thought I'd have a flatter stomach without all the sugar and lectins. I take probiotics and fish oil daily."

7 - Day 15 - Only feeling more tired!

"So I'm now on Day 15 of my first Whole30 and am still waiting for that big energy lift to come. Fatigue was my main reason for starting the Whole30, but I'm more tired than ever. It's not long after dinner that I'm ready to crash. I've put in the time to get 8-9 hours of sleep each night, but I have been turning and tossing a lot more than usual as well. So is it normal to feel this tired this late in the game?"

8 - High Cholesterol!!!

"I had blood work done two weeks ago and found out that I have high cholesterol! I was shocked because I have eaten healthy my whole life, lots of lean meats and vegetables, small amounts of oatmeal and rice, but all whole foods, and I have been sticking to the whole30 guidelines for the most part for the last 4 months. This was the first time I've ever had my cholesterol tested, but now I'm worried that all of the fatty meats, eggs, and clarified butter I've been enjoying are negatively affecting my health…I am really worried because my level is so high that the doctor mentioned medication, but I'm only 20!"

9 - We can't sleep

"Hubby and I are on Day 26. We have been 100% compliant with the program from Day 1…But we are both exhausted. Not only from all the cooking (does anyone else feel they're chained to their kitchen?!?!?) but because we can't sleep.

It started in the first week and it's been about three weeks now. We go to bed, toss and turn for a long time before being able to sleep, then wake up in the middle of the night - 2, 3, 4 am. Sometimes we manage to go back to sleep after a long time and wake up again before or around 6 am. Other times one of us, or both, can't go back to sleep at all.

I'm getting very grumpy and struggling to perform at work…I haven't eaten absolutely anything that is not on the shopping list and have stuck to the meal template - a portion of meat wit loads of veggies and some good fat, three times a day. I drink lots of water. Once a day I have a portion of berries. I haven't been overeating nor undereating. I have kept my usual level of exercise - not a lot, but I take stairs, walk to places instead of driving and so on. I have no idea what's going on."

10 - Just keep gaining weight...

"I finished my first Whole30 a few weeks ago. I try to avoid scales, but I compete in martial arts, so I know what my weight was in June because I had a weigh-in for a competition. Because I am typically smack in the middle of my weight class, I didn't do anything out of the ordinary to prepare to weigh in. I simply didn't need to. Today, I went to the doctor and I have gained 12 pounds since then…I have always had a flat stomach gain in my hips/thighs. I now have a little spare tire…I was healthy before I started, I was just looking to lose those last few pounds and in a way where I was healthy while doing it and could maintain energy while working out. And that weight gain changes my weight class, so I really have to do something about it. I want to cry. I guess I should try to start with smaller portions? I'm not sure what else to do. I'm wondering if I fall into the "it doesn't work for everyone" category."

Now, I do not think that anecdotes are worthless nor do I think that the Whole30 has never been able to help people improve their eating habits. Anecdotes may have some relevance when dealing one-on-one with a patient in a clinical setting or as a means to help generate a hypothesis to be tested in future clinical trials. The Whole30 may be able to improve people’s health but it does so by grossly misinforming the public about the foods they eat and about their personal health. There are countless evidence-based resources out there that can instill the same positive eating behaviors encouraged in the Whole30 and do so without pushing pseudoscience onto their clients and customers.

With any diet book, you will get compliments and complaints. The point here is to please, please don’t buy something based solely on the testimonials alone. Caveat emptor.