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The Science Behind Whole 30

April 10, 2018

The Whole 30 program has a lot of rules, or at least a long list of eliminations without valid explanation. Upon closer look, there is actually a pattern and real science behind what once seemed an arbitrary list of foods. Whether or not this was intentional is unknown, but the pattern is a less marketable (communication-friendly) program, referred to as FODMAP.

FODMAP is an acronym for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, And Polyols.

This essentially means: fermentable carbohydrates.

Oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols are scientific terminology for carbohydrate molecules which differentiate based on their molecular structure. Due to the structure of these carbohydrate molecules, digestion can be a complicated, unpleasant process for some individuals (1 in 7 people are affected by Irritable Bowel Syndrome).

To explain, when food molecules are not broken down and absorbed in the small intestine, they pass through to the large intestine. In the large intestine, bacteria use these molecules for energy (to survive) via fermentation, producing gas and acids as a result. Acids draw water into the bowel which in combination with gas, causes expansion of the intestines (leading to bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhea... all the attractive things).



Note: Oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols are not demonized, "bad-for-you" foods. Instead, they are molecular constituents of foods, of which may be problematic to some, and not-problematic to others.


With that said, Whole 30 and FODMAP programs may be an ideal step in the right direction for those looking for a solution to frequent and unpredictable stomach upset, bloating, "fluffiness," constipation, diarrhea, and every other unattractive, bowel-related symptom we would all rather not talk about. Further, if you're not dying in the bathroom every day, please keep your opinions to yourself when your friend goes Whole 30 or FODMAP (because some people need it, whereas some blessed people don't).


The Whole 30 program eliminates the following food items:
- Added sugar, real or artificial
- Alcohol
- Grains
- Legumes
- Dairy
- Carrageenan, MSG, or sulfites
- Baked goods, junk foods, or treats with “approved” ingredients



In “FODMAP language,” these items can be explained in this way:
 

Table 1. Food items identified (left column) are those eliminated in the Whole 30 program. The middle column addresses if this food item/group is generally a low or high FODMAP item*. The right column provides examples by way of food, relevant FODMAP structure, or current association status with FODMAP.

*Low FODMAP foods are recommended during the "elimination" stage of the FODMAP program and in some cases (coincidentally), the Whole 30 program. In other words, low FODMAP foods are tolerable whereas high FODMAP foods are intolerable by those affected by IBS. FODMAP provides a fundamental understanding to why some foods are "triggers" and others are not.

 

 

Low FODMAP, High FODMAP
 

The criteria for determining low and high FODMAP foods takes into account (1) the presence of, and (2) the concentration of FODMAP food molecules. In this way, FODMAP provides a fundamental understanding to why some foods are "triggers" and others are not (by spotting patterns between which FODMAP molecules are present, and in what amounts).

For example, cow’s milk has a higher lactose (a disaccharide) content than goat’s milk. For this reason, some who cannot consume cow’s milk, can enjoy goat’s milk without digestive upset. While both contain lactose, it is higher in cow’s milk than it is in goat’s milk.

The science of FODMAP does not provide the clear-cut, straightforward answers we want at this time. Though it may not have been intentional, FODMAP does provide some scientific credibility for understanding why certain items are eliminated in at least the Whole 30 program (Paleo shares some similarities in elimination). With 1 in 7 people affected by Irritable Bowl Syndrome (IBS), the success of Whole 30 and Paleo dieting makes sense (Monash University).


Whole 30 & FODMAP Commonalities

The take-away for FODMAP and Whole 30 is a program that aims to benefit overall lifestyle without becoming a “forever” solution. Both programs state they are not a diet for life, and walk through a plan with stages – elimination stage, reintroduce stage, adapted stage. Both can be referred to as a diet, but do not necessarily lead to weight loss. Instead, it’s overall health – and that has a lot to do with if and how well you can digest the food you intake.

This may all sound unnecessary, and is rightfully criticized by critics who look at the potential of food-based nutrition one is missing out on. However, for those who are struggling with regular digestive upset – feel like they can’t eat anything, or in other words, are severely limited in "safe" food choices, FODMAP and Whole 30 are a possible means to a solution – an experimental one, with low risk. The biggest obstacle either program poses is inconvenience.

As a former critic of Whole 30 and Paleo diets, I have to admit that I am really impressed by  their ability to create a consumer-friendly approach to a complicated, wordy science. Whole 30 took a highly complicated area of science (that is still in active-research mode) and made it viral. For an in-depth explanation to the eliminated foods and how they work in the body, FODMAP is the science-based resource.


Whole 30 & FODMAP Differences

With more in-depth understanding, FODMAP can further identify “trigger foods” Whole 30 does not address, such as garlic and onions (both high FODMAP foods). It's important to note, Whole 30 advises plenty of vegetables, though not all vegetables are low FODMAP. As previously mentioned, garlic and onions are high FODMAP foods, and would not be compatible with Whole 30's advisement for herbs, spices, and seasonings.

Again, FODMAP and Whole 30 are temporary elimination methods to target culprits using your body's responses upon reintroduction. Not all Whole 30 foods are FODMAP friendly, meaning that if you're still trying to figure out your "trigger foods," FODMAP can be a guide of scientific reason, or, in the case IBS is your reality and Whole 30 didn't cut it, FODMAP may be the next step.

To learn more about FODMAP