Some diets are just plain crazy (the cookie diet, anyone?) while others sound downright unappetizing (looking at you, cabbage soup diet). Fortunately, there are more promising ways to reset your body while still eating (normal) whole foods. Although it sets some rigorous rules, the Whole30 diet is much more than just a trendy way to shed pounds – it may be just what your body needs to feel really good.
What is the Whole30 Diet?
Developed in 2009 by functional medicine practitioner Dallas Hartwig and Melissa Hartwig, a certified sports nutritionist, Whole30 is an elimination diet (and best-selling book) that removes common food allergens for 30 days, including all forms of dairy, grains, sugar, legumes, and alcohol.
As opposed to a diet, Whole30 is considered “a short-term nutritional reset, designed to help you put an end to unhealthy cravings and habits, restore a healthy metabolism, heal your digestive tract, and balance your immune system” according to Whole30’s website.
By getting rid of “all the psychologically unhealthy, hormone-unbalancing, gut-disrupting, inflammatory food groups for a full 30 days,” the founders of Whole30 claim that this plan will “change your life” while eliminating diseases and conditions such as diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, infertility, migraines, and depression, among others.
Yes, those are strong statements from the creators of Whole30, and no, this program is not for the faint of heart or noncommittal types. However, for those who may be absolutely fed up with low or fluctuating energy levels, weight gain, skin conditions, and digestive issues, removing common food allergens and resetting your body with Whole30 may be a good choice. Of course, you should always talk with your doctor before embarking on a new diet or nutrition plan, especially if you are pregnant or nursing, take prescription medication, or if you have any underlying health condition.
Whole30 Diet Food List
Whole30 is an elimination diet, but that doesn’t mean you can’t eat (really well) for 30 days. With proper meal preparation, lots of grocery lists, and planning your schedule for the next, well, 30 days, following a Whole30 diet is more feasible then it sounds. First of all, here’s what is allowed and off limits with Whole30:
What You Can Eat:
- Healthy fats: oils, nuts, seeds, and avocado
- Black coffee (thank goodness)
- Whole30 approved snacks and foods: Primal Kitchen mayonnaise, EPIC bars, Sea Snax, Tessemae’s salad dressing, Vital Proteins collagen peptides, Frank’s red hot sauce, Thai Kitchen coconut milk, Bonafide Provisions bone broth, Nutpods nut milk, New Barn almond milk, and Sophia’s Survival jerky.
What You Can't Eat on The Whole30 Diet:
- Added sugars of any kind, real or artificial: maple syrup, honey, agave, coconut sugar, Splenda, Stevia, etc.
- Grains: all grains including wheat, rye, barley, quinoa, oats, corn, rice, millet, sorghum, and even gluten-free ancient grains like sorghum, teff, and amaranth.
- Legumes: including all beans, lentils, peanuts, and all forms of soy – miso, tempeh, tofu, soy sauce, edamame, and processed foods with soy products, such as soy lecithin.
- Dairy: zero cow, goat, or sheep milk products allowed including cheese, milk, yogurt, kefir, ice cream, and sour cream.
- Processed ingredients: No to carrageenan, MSG, and sulfites (you don’t want to consume these, anyway).
- Re-created Whole30 treats: According to Whole30’s founders, “Do not try to re-create baked goods, junk foods, or treats with ‘approved’ ingredients.” Doing so, Hartwig notes, “is totally missing the point, and will tank your results faster than you can say ‘Paleo Pop-Tarts.’ Remember, these are the same foods that got you into health-trouble in the first place—and a pancake is still a pancake, regardless of the ingredients.”
What Nutritionists Think About Whole30
U.S. News ranked the Whole30 diet as the 38th best diet out of 38. The ranking was conducted by a panel of experts in diet, nutrition, obesity, and food psychology – yikes. Why the low score? For one, the panel notes Whole30 lacks independent research, boasts nonsensical nutrition and health claims, and contain extremely restrictive principles.
Although few experts would renounce a diet that promotes eating whole foods and cutting out added sugar, the Whole30 diet may prove too extreme. U.S. News considers, “By kissing dairy, grains and legumes goodbye, you’re at risk of missing out on a lot of nutrients, such as calcium and vitamin D, if you don’t plan appropriately.” Major food groups like legumes and grains provide heart-healthy fiber and fermented dairy products like kefir and yogurt, may support gut health, too. Filling in their nutritional gaps requires a lot more planning and cooking.
Even more, Whole30 is restrictive and does not allow for cheating. If a slip up occurs (a bite of ice cream, a rogue chickpea in your salad, for instance) the dieter is supposed to revert back to day one and start over. But, as the founders note in a passage in their book, “It is not hard. Don’t you dare tell us this is hard. Quitting heroin is hard. Beating cancer is hard. Drinking your coffee black. Is. Not. Hard. You won’t get any coddling, and you won’t get any sympathy for your 'struggles.'"
Nutritionist Keri Glassman doesn’t agree with this tough-love attitude. "I like people to be strict for four to seven days to give them a jump-start and reset the behaviors," Glassman says. "But 30 days is a long time and can be very restrictive, especially if you have to start over."
Abbey Sharp, registered dietician and food blogger concurs, “The Whole 30 diet is ultimately a form of diet, which means it’s pretty restrictive, even if it is just a month.”
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Restrictive dieting does not create a sustained healthy relationship with food, says Sharp.
“For a program that claims to help patch up botched relationships with food, categorizing foods as good and bad is not a great place to start. We know that this is often just asking for eating disorders like orthorexia,” she notes.
What about weight loss? Joan Salge Blake, a registered dietitian and clinical associate professor at Boston University says, “Whenever you start eliminating food groups, you’re going to be cutting calories – and that is really what this all comes down to,” she says. This unfortunately means that once the 30-day diet ends, the pounds will sneak back on.
Does Whole30 Work?
It’s not all bad news for Whole30, however. Many, many individuals have found success and health through the Whole30 diet.
Gina Eykemans of The Kitchn notes, “Overall, my results were really positive. I felt lighter, happier, and had some extra energy to burn,” after completing the 30 day program.
Health coach and personal trainer, Liz Barnet is also pleased with the structuring and results of Whole30.
"The Whole30 is restrictive because you're cutting out a lot of foods, but I try to focus on what you can have," she notes. "You think of new ways to cook certain foods that you're unfamiliar with." Barnet attributes a new love for cooking Brussels sprouts a variety of different ways, thanks to the principles of Whole30.
Others have shared success stories on Whole30’s website. Lauren, who has completed five Whole30 programs, considers this diet to have ridded her of several health issues. “Before starting my first Whole30, I suffered from chronic back pain, endometriosis, acne, irregular periods, migraines, minor depression, insomnia, ADD, and chronic stomach issues” she writes.
“After my first 30 days, my back pain was less severe, my skin was considerably clearer, I didn’t have a single migraine, I was happier and had less mood swings, I was sleeping soundly through the night and my stomach wasn’t bothering me at all” says Lauren.
Although there is no research on Whole30 specifically, similar diets such as Paleo (which also removes grains, legumes, dairy, sugar, and soy) do have peer-reviewed studies that show their health benefits.
A 2009 article published in Nature found that nine sedentary obese adults significantly improved their markers of diabetic risk, including blood pressure, glucose, and lipid profiles, on ten days of a Paleo-like diet. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine, found that overweight or obese women following a Paleo-like diet for five weeks decreased their risk of heart disease and reduced fat stored in the liver.
Should You Try Whole30?
The Whole30 diet has its pros and cons, but it’s up to the individual to decide if the plan is right for their lifestyle.
Consider that Whole30 requires extra time to grocery shop (good thing there's a Whole30 shopping list!), meal prep, finding Whole30 approved recipes, and cooking time. Plus, eating out at restaurants and spending time with friends and family may become slightly trickier over the 30-day period when meals are involved.
Of course, learning to read ingredient labels, avoiding processed ingredients, and focusing on whole foods is a wonderful way to harness health, and a Whole30 reset may be just an excellent way to do so. It's only 30 days, after all.
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