Have you heard of the Whole30? This program has participants consume a diet of only minimally processed foods for 30 days. The idea is to create a nutritional reset and help to reduce cravings for sweets and other snack foods.
You’re probably thinking that sounds pretty great and those nutrition experts must be in love with this program. However, the Whole30 ranked as one of the worst diets in the 2019 U.S. News & World Report overall diet rankings.
How can a diet that focuses on healthier food choices rank so poorly? We’re going to dig into the pros and cons of the Whole30 in today’s article. By the time you’re finished reading, you’ll have answers to all of the following questions:
- What is the history behind the Whole30?
- What foods can you eat on the Whole30?
- What foods are off-limits on this plan?
- Who is the Whole30 not appropriate for?
- Can you use the Whole30 for weight loss?
- What are some advantages to this way of eating?
- What are some disadvantages of the Whole30?
Are you ready to get the whole story behind the Whole30? This program may not be as bad as the rankings imply, but you’ll never know the truth unless you keep reading!
Two friends + a short-term “health restart” = the Whole30
The co-founder of the Whole30, Melissa Urban, claims that the program started as a challenge she took on with a friend. Urban and her friend decided to take a full 30 days off of processed foods, sugar, and alcohol. This short-term reset became known as the Whole30.
The purpose of the Whole30 is to help curb unhealthy food cravings and stop bad habits cold turkey. There are many amusing anecdotes on the Whole30 website. People are claiming that they have improved a variety of conditions with this program.
A strong science backing for these claims is not there; a search of “Whole30” on PubMed turns up zero articles. However, nutrition experts have studied similar diets (such as Paleo). In truth, I would not expect miraculous results from any dietary change that lasts only 30 days.
That doesn’t mean that you won’t derive any benefits from the Whole30. Processed foods, alcohol, and sugar are not beneficial dietary components. Eliminating them for a time may help a person to refocus their diet on more nutrient-rich foods.
You can enjoy many health-promoting foods on the Whole30
The Whole30 website has lots of information on this way of eating, including the program rules. The mainstays in this plan are whole foods. They include:
- Meat (including poultry), seafood, eggs
- Fruits, including fruit juice
- Vegetables including certain non-starchy legumes (green beans, snow peas, sugar snap peas)
- “Natural fats”
- Vinegar (except malt vinegar)
- Coconut aminos
- Herbs, spices, seasoning (includes salt)
The site recommends sticking with the foods that either have no ingredients list or have a recognizable list of ingredients. As mentioned above, the aim is to fill your plate with unprocessed or minimally processed foods.
“Natural fats” may be defined in different ways by different people. By the Whole30 definition, natural fats include:
- Coconut oil
- Chicken fat
- Duck fat
- Olive oil
- Sesame oil
You can find additional items that fall under the “natural fats” category on the Whole30 omnivore shopping list. They recommend saving and straining your animal fats to reuse in cooking. This helps to prevent food waste and enables you to save on your grocery bill.
You’ll have to kick many foods and ingredients to the curb for 30 days
The Whole30 has more restrictions than the Paleo diet, but unlike Paleo, participants only follow the Whole30 for 30 days. Some of the excluded items should be limited in all healthy foods.
What follows is the list of foods that you’ll need to give up for 30 days to adhere to this plan successfully. This list is from the Whole30 website:
- All added sugars and non-nutritive sweeteners
- All alcohol and tobacco (cooking wine is also restricted)
- Grains, pseudo-grains, and grain components (such as starches)
- Legumes (includes peanuts and all forms of soy; certain non-starchy vegetables are permitted)
- All kinds of dairy products (except ghee and clarified butter)
- MSG, sulfites, carrageenan
- “Junk foods” and baked goods (even ones made with Whole30-friendly ingredients)
Keep in mind that added sugars include natural sugars such as maple syrup, date syrup, agave nectar, and honey. Similarly, the restriction on non-nutritive sweeteners includes items made with stevia.
The restriction on grains in the Whole30 applies to all grains, including whole grains. Pseudo-grains include items such as amaranth and quinoa — items like starches, bran, and germ count as grains.
Also, items made to mimic grain-based foods using Whole30 ingredients are not allowed. An example of this would be a muffin made with coconut flour. Some other examples include:
- Pancakes, crepes, waffles
- Commercially prepared chips in any form
- Bread, biscuits, tortillas
- Cakes, brownies, cookies, ice cream
- Pizza crusts and pasta made with Whole30-friendly flours
- Breakfast cereal and granola
- Other foods “that you already know make you feel out of control.”
Outside of the dietary restrictions, body measurements are allowed on the Whole30. This includes using a scale, body fat analyzer, or a tape measure. Participants are allowed to take before and after photos only.
Removing the scale from the picture allows participants the chance to focus on non-scale victories (NSV). Did you break a personal record in running or physical activity of your choosing? The Whole30 is the perfect time to celebrate those wins in your life.
The Whole30 is not the best method for everyone to achieve health
Like any plan that eliminates many foods, or entire food groups, the Whole30 is not appropriate for every person. Individuals with a history of eating disorders and those on a prescribed medical nutrition therapy are not good candidates for Whole30.
If you are pregnant, consult with your physician or a dietitian before making changes to your prenatal nutrition plan. Whole30 offers a Healthy Mama, Happy Baby program that was co-created by a registered dietitian. This program permits some modifications to the original Whole30 program to better meet prenatal nutrition needs.
Anyone considering this program while pregnant should ensure that they are consuming adequate calcium and folate/folic acid. These can become nutrients of concern when you do not consume dairy and fortified grains.
The Whole30 is not appropriate for vegans since the major sources of plant-based protein are eliminated (grains and legumes). However, a modified vegan reset program has been created for ethical vegans who would like to try Whole30. Ethical vegetarians may want to follow the vegan reset as well since the Whole30 vegetarian shopping list includes seafood as the main protein.
The Whole30 dinner recipes are an excellent choice for the whole family. If you have children, cover their dairy and whole grains in other meals, side dishes, and snacks. That way, you will not need to cook separately for the different members of your family.
You could experience a fat loss with the Whole30, but there are no guarantees
It states on the Whole30 website that this way of eating is not a weight loss program. They say that you do not need to weigh or measure food or restrict calories with Whole30. It is possible to overeat the healthy foods on this plan if you do not pay attention to portion control.
The only thing the creator of this plan wants you to focus on is 100% compliance with this way of eating. Even one bite or spoonful of a forbidden foods means that the participant must start over with day one of this plan. This severity may benefit someone by pushing them towards healthier eating, while for others, it could backfire.
Filling your diet with satiating whole foods while eliminating added sugars and refined grains may support weight loss. For some people, removing the “trigger foods” that they tend to overeat is helpful. Sometimes these foods can be reintroduced after a period, while other times a person may continue to leave them out.
On the other hand, some individuals do not fare as well with eliminating these foods, and they end up feeling deprived. The feelings of deprivation will have them fighting an uphill battle with willpower. Sometimes the battle ends with the person binging on the restricted food, sabotaging any weight loss goals that they had.
If you have a weight loss goal, make sure to check in with yourself about whether Whole30 sounds like a good fit. How will you feel about completely giving up the foods and ingredients that you are required to eliminate?
Will these restrictions make you feel deprived, or do you think it will be a positive change? Do you have a holiday or other celebration coming up, making the restrictions challenging to follow? How will you maintain the weight you lose, since the program only lasts for 30 days?
If weight loss is your primary goal, there are many ways that you can modify your nutrition and fitness to succeed. I’d recommend considering all of your options. Coming up with a longer-term weight management plan than Whole30 might be a better way to ensure your success.
You might make positive changes with the Whole30 that last long-term
There are quite a few benefits of a program like Whole30, with its focus on minimally processed foods. For one, Whole30 participants need to read the labels of the foods they buy, to help ensure compliance with the program. This may increase awareness of the nutritional value of food purchases, leading to higher dietary quality.
Added sugars, baked goods, alcohol, and refined grains are not necessary components of a healthy eating plan. A person may choose to continue to eat less of these foods after discontinuing the Whole30. This is another factor that may lead to a longer-term improvement in diet quality.
Additionally, a person who is following such a strict plan will have to develop strategies to deal with food pushers. They’ll learn to handle social occasions without the alcohol and the less healthy food options. They may expand their palate to enjoy a broader range of nutrient-rich foods if they try new foods with Whole30.
If this diet is used as a short-term elimination diet, as intended, it may help you to identify food sensitivities. Consider slowly reintroducing foods at the end of the program. This may help you to determine whether a particular food is connected to your symptoms.
If you do pinpoint a specific food that appears to give you troubles, let your physician or dietitian know. Going through a formal allergy or intolerance testing protocol can help prevent you from unnecessarily giving up nutrient-rich foods.
Yes, the Whole30 has some downsides, but this RD has solutions
The Whole30 eliminates certain nutrient-rich foods that can help to promote health, specifically dairy and whole grains. You can quickly obtain the B vitamins in grains with a variety of meat and vegetables. The calcium in dairy may be more challenging to replace, mainly if the person is not using fortified foods.
Additionally, the Whole30 could put you above the limits on the saturated fat intake that dieticians recommend in the Dietary Guidelines. However, you can stay under the limits depending on which Whole30-friendly fats you choose to use.
This diet ranks poorly by U.S. News & World Reports because there is no scientific justification for eliminating grains and dairy in healthy people. The other main issue is the claims made on the website linking the diet to the amelioration of health conditions.
If you are feeling confused at this point about the Whole30, I have a suggestion for you. This tip is for people in good general health who are looking at the Whole30 as a way to improve the diet. Try a modified Whole30 where you keep the nutrient-rich foods such as dairy, legumes, and whole grains.
Instead, ditch the added sugar, refined grains, and alcohol. That way, you are getting the best of the Whole30 without the negatives. Happy eating!
Final thoughts on Whole30 Diet
If you are interested in learning more about the Whole30, consider making a trip to your local library. Urban has a book titled “The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom” that may interest you. The book goes more in-depth on the rules of the program and gives recipes and tips to stock your kitchen.
Don’t forget that you also have resources here at Healthy Cauldron to help you meet your goals. Click on over to our recipe pages to get meal ideas that are chock-full of nutrient-rich whole foods. We’ve got your back no matter what path you choose to travel on in your health journey!
Summer is a registered dietitian located in Avon, Connecticut where she specializes in weight management, special diets, general nutrition, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). She is the developer and content creator behind the Summer Yule Nutrition website, where she shares evidence-based information on hot topics in food and nutrition.