Whole30 is EVERYWHERE. Wherever I go, whether it be work, a wedding, the grocery store, there is always somebody talking about it. While I’ve never done a Whole30 myself, I thought I’d take some time to investigate the ins and outs of this diet. Is it worth it? Will it help you lose weight? Let’s find out!
What is the Whole30?
This so-called miracle diet was designed in 2009 by Melissa and Dallas Hartwig – a husband and wife duo. They’re both Certified Sports Nutritionists. The tagline of the diet is “let us change your life,” with a promise to boost energy levels, ease chronic pain, help with weight loss, as well as improve skin issues, digestive ailments, seasonal allergies, and the like. ALL you have to do is eliminate the following foods from your diet for 30 days:
- Added sugar (real or artificial)
- Grains (wheat, rye, barley, sorghum, oats, corn, rice, millet, bulgur, sprouted grains, and all gluten-free pseudo-cereals like quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat)
- Legumes (beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils, peanuts, peanut butter, all forms of soy including soy sauce, miso, tempeh, tofu, edamame)
- Dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt, kefir, sour cream, ice cream – includes cow, goat and sheep’s milk products)
- Carrageenan, MSG or sulfites (food additives)
- Baked goods, junk foods or treats with “approved” ingredients
In place of these foods, the Whole30 founders instruct that you consume only “real foods” for the 30 day duration. According to them, this includes meat, vegetables, fruit, seeds, nuts and oils.
How does it work?
After 30 days of following the diet, you slowly reintroduce food groups that were off-limits for the last month to see if they cause or exacerbate any symptoms or negative effects. The website states to use the “Reintroduction Protocol” that is laid out in another one of their books.
For example, your first day off of the diet, you might reintroduce legumes, let’s say black beans. You would eat some black beans, and then return to the Whole30 diet for a few days. Using this strategy is typical of elimination diets, as it helps you pinpoint which foods maybe causing unwanted symptoms.
If you tolerate the food group you reintroduce, you can move on to the next food group. On the other hand, if a food group causes problems, it’s up to you as to whether or not you want it to be a part of your diet.
The Whole30 has some other “rules” that are to be followed in addition to the restricted foods. These include a few different things such as no smoking (duh) and no weighing yourself (win). Additionally, calorie-counting is not encouraged. This is because the diet is ultimately about more than just weight loss. Instead, it’s about tuning-in to your body with an end-goal of improving your health struggles.
Pros of Whole 30
I appreciate that Whole30 is not focused on weight loss like many other diets are. It’s about time that there’s a diet available that does not require obsessive weighing or counting calories/points/grams and the like. Most diets that require weighing, measuring and keeping track of everything are stressful and discouraging for most people, not to mention that they set their followers up for yo-yo dieting and body image issues.
I also approve of the fact that it teaches you how to tune-in to your body, and figure out how it reacts to certain foods. It can help you determine if you’re intolerant to individual foods or food groups. If you really pay attention, Whole30 can help you pinpoint whether or not the foods you eat are impacting your skin, digestion, mood, energy levels and weight.
Another aspect of Whole30 that I’m on board with is its focus on eating whole foods. Let’s be honest, the Standard American Diet (SAD) is extremely high in processed junk foods, refined carbs and nutrient-poor foods overall. Most people need more nutrient-dense foods in their diets, such as fruits, veggies, minimally processed meats, and the like which the Whole30 is a proponent of. This is not typical of many mainstream diets that often promote meal replacement shakes or frozen TV dinners that are completely unsatisfying, lack nutrients and are definitely not foods I would recommend anyone to eat. However, I do recommend for people to eat as many whole, nutrient-dense foods as possible, as part of their lifestyle and not just a “quick-fix.”
Lastly, I like that the founders emphasize that Whole30 is not “forever.” It’s meant to be followed for the short-term, which is a plus because of all of its restrictions.
Whole30 and Weight Loss
There is not any conclusive, scientific evidence that Whole30 will result in weight loss. However, it’s a given that you might lose weight if you cut out several food groups (due to automatic reduced calorie intake). Also, if your usual diet is high in refined carbs, sugar and unhealthy fats, suddenly cutting all of those out and replacing with whole foods will most likely promote weight loss. So, it’s not the Whole30 itself that causes the miracle weight loss, it’s the overall change in calorie intake and types of foods you are eating.
The Whole30 diet is just that…a diet, with “rules” and restrictions. I don’t care what anyone says, no matter how “anti-diet” Whole30 proponents claim to be, any regimen that requires a strict elimination of multiple food groups is a diet in my book.
Because of this, anyone with a history of eating disorders, or who struggles with disordered eating patterns, should take caution with Whole30. Such restriction and negative connotation of certain foods can lead to the downward spiral of an unhealthy relationship with food.
Additionally, if you’re prone to yo-yo dieting, hopping from diet to diet hoping for a quick weight loss fix, the Whole30 probably isn’t for you. It’s not meant to be that type of diet, and chronic yo-yoing is another set-up for a poor food relationship (and lots of health problems).
I’m also not a fan of the negative, “tough-love” language that’s used on their website to con Whole30ers into succeeding. For example, this statement is one of the program pointers: “Don’t even consider the possibility of a ‘slip.’ Unless you physically tripped and your face landed in a pizza, there is no ‘slip.’ You make a choice to eat something unhealthy. It is always a choice, so do not phrase it as if you had an accident.” That’s a little harsh.
I’ve noticed that Whole30 often leads people to put a “bad” label on foods, even if the food can be perfectly healthy. I would never consider yogurt, or quinoa, or beans to be “bad.” Sure, maybe some can’t tolerate them, but food is just food. Not good, not bad, it’s FOOD. It should not have morality associated with it.
For you social butterflies out there, Whole30 can also make socializing incredibly difficult. I’m well-aware that there are restaurants with Whole30-friendly options, and you can do what you can to get them to accommodate your restrictions. It’s probably stressful and obnoxious, but it can be done, you’ll just have to do some planning ahead (bring your own food to parties, pack your lunches, double-check menus ahead of time, etc).
Another thing, believe it or not, food isn’t the end-all-be-all when it comes to your health. Sure, if you were eating bunch of junk before and you suddenly start eating whole, nutrient-dense foods, you’re probably going to feel a TON better…you may even feel like you’re on top of the world! But the truth is, for many health ailments, you need more than 30 days to pinpoint the root cause. It may not even be food that’s causing it, but rather a multitude of other factors, such as stress, sleep habits, genetics, your environment, and the list goes on.
What’s more, and I know this never holds anyone back from trying a diet, but it lacks scientific research. There is no evidence that following the Whole30 will absolutely improve whatever ailments you are trying to fix. The “evidence” is purely anecdotal, so keep that in mind. Just because it worked for your Aunt Suzie doesn’t meant it will work for you.
And lastly, if you’re planning on sticking to Whole30 for 30 days and then heading straight back to a diet full of fast food, pizza, PopTarts, whatever…then DON’T DO IT. Really, don’t. Add back in the quinoa and the beans and the lentils and the dairy, but don’t do a Whole30 if you plan to torture yourself for a month just to go back to the way you were eating before.
Should I Try the Whole 30?
I can’t tell you whether or not you should try a diet: that’s completely up to you.
Food and nutrition is completely individualized. This means that what works for one person may not work for another. If Whole30 works in your lifestyle, then I’m super happy for you! That’s great!
However, you need to have your mindset AND your relationship with food in a good place before trying a regimen like this. You have to be doing it for the right reasons, instead of in an effort to change your body. The founders are very clear about the fact that you may not lose weight on Whole30. Once again, it is meant to teach you how to be intuitive. If your mindset is restrictive and you’re prone to “food fears” (i.e. becoming ‘afraid’ to eat certain foods with the fear of gaining weight, etc) then I would not recommend Whole 30.
I’m all about eating patterns that are focused on whole foods, with lots of plants, and if this is what you need to transition to that type of lifestyle, then AWESOME.
Also, if you really are suspecting that food is playing a role in any of your health issues, Whole30 might be worth experimenting with to figure out if you’re reacting poorly to something. Just remember that some bodies need more than 30 days to adjust to a change. I know it can seem like forever, but think about how long you may have been eating a food that was causing a reaction. It can take just as long for your body to bounce back. Additionally, it’s important to note that you may need more than an elimination diet to figure out what’s causing a health ailment. In many cases, it’s important to seek guidance and support from a registered dietitian who can assess your food intake and make personalized nutrition recommendations.
One of my goals as a dietitian is to stray people away from the “dieting” mindset. Unfortunately, many people go into Whole30 with a diet intention, in which case I do not recommend it.
There are some good things about Whole30, and there are some drawbacks. I like that it has more of a “lifestyle” focus than many other diets. It can also be an OK starting place if you’re looking to improve your eating habits and try more healthy foods (just keep in mind that many of the ‘off-limits’ foods ARE healthy).
And if you really are struggling with a health problem that even the Whole30 can’t fix, reach out to a professional who can run tests and help you get to the bottom of what’s going on.