It’s hard to go anywhere these days without hearing about the Whole30 diet. You probably know at least one person who has tried it ― or has considered trying it ― as a New Year’s resolution or dietary “reset.”
The craze for the eating plan began in 2009 when creator Melissa Hartwig began blogging about a 30-day experiment in which she eliminated items like sugar, dairy and even legumes from her diet. The idea is that you remove certain foods from your diet for a month, then add them back in and see how you react.
She then turned her experiment into a program that claims to eliminate cravings, reduce allergies, aid in digestion, help you shed weight and give you energy.
“In a nutshell, the Whole30 allows you to eat vegetables, potatoes, fruits in moderation, unprocessed meats, seafood, eggs, nuts (but not peanuts since they are legumes), seeds, some oils such as olive and coconut, ghee, and unsweetened coffee with non-dairy creamer such as almond milk,” explained Aimee Aristotelous, a certified nutritionist and author of “Almost Keto.”
Foods you cannot have while undergoing the program include dairy, grains, alcohol, legumes (one of its most confusing rules), added sugars of any kind, processed meats, and additives such as carrageenan, MSG and sulfites, Aristotelous added.
So is Whole30 as magical as people say, or is it total, unsustainable B.S.? We spoke to experts about what happens to your body and mind during the eating plan so you can decide if it’s truly worth it.
Your body will respond positively to a lack of processed foods.
“One pro of the program is that it consists of all whole and unprocessed foods,” said Staci Gulbin, a licensed dietitian in Denver. The program is full of foods that contain lots of nutrients and can contribute to good health.
Krista Scott-Dixon, a certified counselor and curriculum designer for Precision Nutrition, said eating foods on the Whole30 plan can help you increase your intake of fiber and water, along with protein and healthy fats.
Whole30 doesn’t “detox,” but it does boost normal functions.
Gulbin noted that a controlled detox “is not a thing.” Your body knows how to detoxify itself on its own and does so on a daily basis, so beware of trendy diets that promise detoxification.
That said, foods included in the Whole30 plan can help your body optimally go through its normal functions. For example, the fiber-rich food on Whole30, along with the added water you’re getting, “can help move things through our gastrointestinal tract and bind to some substances that we don’t want hanging around, helping to excrete them,” Gulbin said.
Whole30 doesn’t rely on calorie counting.
Calorie counting can negatively affect your mental health, and many experts are moving away from the belief that you should track every single calorie you put into your body. (Amen.)
Whole30 doesn’t rely on calorie counting or measuring your food. You’re also encouraged not to take body measurements since the plan focuses on feeling better and not dropping pounds.
Whole30 can help you learn which foods affect your digestion.
The program has you eliminate and then reintroduce foods like dairy and sugar, which could help you figure out if they cause digestion problems.
“Whole 30 may help those with food sensitivities identify those foods that trigger symptoms,” Gulbin said.
Just make sure to reintroduce foods back into your diet slowly. “As with any reintroduction phase, add one new food every three days to allow the body time to develop any symptoms that may arise,” Gulbin said.
But really, if you suspect you have any intolerances or sensitivities, it’s worth talking to your doctor. Someone who knows your full health history can help you more accurately determine what’s going on and advise you on an elimination diet.
You may experience some weight loss on Whole30.
Again, this isn’t the goal of the program, but it’s often a reason people do it. Experts say weight loss could be a byproduct of eating the foods outlined in Whole30.
“Going on a strict diet for weight loss is not recommended based on the evidence that diets are not sustainable and that most people gain the weight back.”
“It’s very likely you’ll lose some weight over this 30-day period from fluid loss since you’ll be following a lower-sodium diet that is free from processed foods as well as potential digestive symptom trigger foods,” Gulbin said.
Reducing your sugar intake as the program calls for can also affect your weight, Aristotelous added.
“The average person consumes 77 grams of sugar per day ― that’s around 18 teaspoons. So if you go from the standard American diet to the Whole30 protocol, which is extremely low in sugar, then yes, odds are you will lose weight,” she said.
But that weight loss is often unsustainable.
That said, the chances of maintaining your lower weight will be difficult once you finish the Whole30 program. That can spell trouble for your physical and mental health.
“Going on a strict diet for weight loss is not recommended based on the evidence that diets are not sustainable and that most people gain the weight back,” said Emily Van Eck, a registered dietitian nutritionist with Intuit Nutrition & Wellness.
She added that weight cycling and dieting can be harmful to the body, your metabolism and your psyche.
It’s not an easy diet to follow.
Whole30 is tough to stick to if you don’t cook most of your own meals. It can also be expensive.
“It takes a full kitchen purge of inflammatory foods and a full restock of Whole30-approved ones so that you have endless options at home when preparing your meals,” said Stefani Kavner, a certified personal trainer and health coach in Huntington, New York.
She said that eating out on a Whole30 plan is definitely doable, but takes a lot of effort finding restaurants that are willing to modify their preparations to accommodate your diet. This might make attending parties, happy hours or dinners with friends difficult during the duration of the program.
Kavner said that you may experience issues like bloating or even mood changes when you first start Whole30. You may also get cravings for foods you’ve eliminated, like sugar, if you’ve been used to eating them for so long.
It can be tough to get sufficient nutrients on Whole30.
Getting adequate protein, iron and fiber is essential in any eating plan. And since legumes, fortified cereals, and breads are prohibited on Whole30, getting sufficient nutrients can be tricky, Aristotelous said.
Aristotelous stressed the importance of consuming three to four servings of vegetables and one or two servings of fruit per day to get enough fiber, antioxidants and iron. She also cautioned against eating too much red meat ― which is allowed on the diet ― to get protein and iron.
Jim Frith, a nutrition specialist and founder of TopFitPros, said eliminating some foods that are not harmful to you personally may also do some damage. For example, “if you stay away from dairy too long, you may develop a lactose intolerance,” he said.
“Any diet that restricts grains and beans entirely for a month is not sustainable, is likely very expensive, and likely isn’t pleasurable. And food is meant to be enjoyed.”
Bottom line: Experts aren’t sold on Whole30.
Whole30 is strict and at times difficult to follow; the program isn’t meant to be long-term. It can also create or exacerbate an unhealthy relationship with food (especially if you have a history of an eating disorder), Scott-Dixon said.
“It’s a problem inherent to any dietary paradigm where people are encouraged to focus on food choices without also supporting sustainable, sane behaviors in their daily life,” she said, adding that dietary programs with an “eat this, not that” mentality can be problematic.
For this very reason, Van Eck also doesn’t recommend trying Whole30.
“Changing your diet in small and sustainable ways that [don’t] cut out any food groups or demonize any foods can absolutely be done,” she said. “But any diet that restricts grains and beans entirely for a month is not sustainable, is likely very expensive, and likely isn’t pleasurable. And food is meant to be enjoyed.”
If you’re absolutely going to do it, make it as balanced as possible, Van Eck said.
“If I were to advise someone on this diet, I would suggest eating as varied a diet within the limits as possible,” she said. “Do not just eat chicken and greens ― try different fish, different root vegetables and fruits weekly. Get lots of leafy greens, berries, mushrooms and cruciferous vegetables like Brussels sprouts and cauliflower. Add nuts and seeds, avocados and nice olive oil. Make curries and stews with pasture-raised chicken and sustainably caught fish.”