Understanding the Whole30 Diet
Chances are you may have heard or read about the Whole30 diet, more as a quick-fix trend than a serious lifestyle change. But that’s not what its co-founders intended it to be. Tired of feeling sluggish and unsatisfied with her diet, co-founder Melissa Urban and her then-husband Dallas Hartwig, set out to try the Paleo diet for 30 days, a diet that focuses on food items that our caveman ancestors may have eaten. The results? They ended up loving it so much, that they created the Whole30 Program with the Paleo diet as a foundation.
But what is the Whole30 diet, how does it work, is it effective long-term, and most of all, is it safe?
What It Is
Whole30 is designed to change your life in 30 days — but it’s not a diet, a detox, or a weight loss program, according to the website. The team at Whole30 rather you think of it as a short-term reset of your body and mind, created to help you curb your cravings and bad habits, boost your metabolism, heal your digestive tract, and calm your immune system. The diet works on what’s called “elimination,” where you eliminate anything that is a known inflammatory, craving-inducing, hormone-unbalancing, or gut-disturbing for 30 days and see if you notice any difference in your sleep, energy levels, mood, digestion, cravings, focus, anxiety, self-confidence, pain or fatigue.
After the 30 days are up, you can then carefully reintroduce a few of the eliminated foods back into your diet at a time, focusing on ones you’re truly missing, and once again paying attention to any changes in your health, habits or mindset. If you do, you’ll know those foods are triggering negative responses in your diet and that you should continue to eliminate them in your diet. After a while, the premise is you’ll get a good understand of what works for you and what doesn’t, helping create the world’s most unique diet — because it’s specific to you and only you.
“You’ll know when, how often, and in what amount you can include the problematic-but-still-worth-it foods in your diet in a way that feels balanced and sustainable, but still keeps you looking and feeling as awesome as you now know you can look and feel,” says Co-Founder Melissa Urban.
The Whole30 website claims that more than 95% of participants lose weight and improve their body composition without counting or restricting calories. But it goes beyond the weight loss for many. Participants also claim to note consistently high energy levels, better sleep, improved mobility, less pain, improved focus and mental clarity, less bloating, clearer skin, and a happier disposition.
There are potential psychological benefits of the Whole30 program as well. Through the program, participants report effectively changing long-standing, unhealthy habits related to food, developing a healthier body image, and a dramatic reduction or elimination of cravings, particularly for sugar and carbohydrates.
How Does It Work
While it may seem simple enough, and 30 days may not seem that long, once you pour over the “rules” laid out for you, you might be thinking twice.
During your initial 30 days, you cannot consume the following items, according to the website:
- Do not consume added sugar, real or artificial. This includes (but is not limited to) maple syrup, honey, agave nectar, coconut sugar, date syrup, monk fruit extract, stevia, Splenda, Equal, Nutrasweet, and xylitol. If there is added sugar in the ingredient list, it’s out.
- Do not consume alcohol, in any form, not even for cooking. (And ideally, no tobacco products of any sort, either.)
- Do not eat grains. This includes (but is not limited to) wheat, rye, barley, oats, corn, rice, millet, bulgur, sorghum, sprouted grains, and all gluten-free pseudo-cereals like quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat. This also includes all the ways we add wheat, corn, and rice into our foods in the form of bran, germ, starch, and so on. Again, read your labels.
- Do not eat most forms of legumes. This includes beans (black, red, pinto, navy, garbanzo/chickpeas, white, kidney, lima, fava, cannellini, lentils, adzuki, mung, cranberry, and black-eyes peas); peanuts (including peanut butter or peanut oil); and all forms of soy (soy sauce, miso, tofu, tempeh, edamame, soy protein, soy milk, or soy lecithin).
- Do not eat dairy. This includes cow, goat, or sheep’s milk products like milk, cream, cheese, kefir, yogurt, sour cream, ice cream, or frozen yogurt.
- Do not consume carrageenan, MSG, or sulfites. If these ingredients appear in any form on the label, it’s out.
- Do not consume baked goods, junk foods, or treats with “approved” ingredients.* Recreating or buying sweets and treats (even if the ingredients are technically compatible) is missing the point of the Whole30, and won’t lead to habit change.
*Some specific foods that fall under this rule include: pancakes, crepes, waffles, bread, tortillas, biscuits, muffins, cupcakes, cookies, brownies, alternative flour pizza crust or pastas, granola, cereal, or ice cream. No commercially-prepared chips (potato, tortilla, plantain, etc.) or French fries either. While this list of off-limit foods applies to everyone (even those who “don’t have a problem” with pancakes), you may decide to exclude additional foods that you already know make you feel out of control, like RXBARs or almond butter.
After taking a look at that list, you may be wondering to yourself, “well, what can I eat?” The founders suggest you focus on eating real, whole foods such as meat, seafood, and eggs; vegetables and fruit; natural fats; and herbs, spices, and seasonings. You should prioritize foods with a simple or recognizable list of ingredients, or no ingredients at all because they’re whole and unprocessed.
There are also exceptions to the rules listed above. According to the website, the following items are permitted, even if they somewhat contradict a few of the rules:
- Ghee or clarified butter. These are the only source of dairy allowed during your Whole30. Plain old butter is NOT allowed, as you may be sensitive to the milk proteins found in non-clarified butter.
- Fruit juice. Some products or recipes will include fruit juice as a stand-alone ingredient or natural sweetener, which is fine for the purposes of the Whole30.
- Certain legumes. Green beans and most peas (including sugar snap peas, snow peas, green peas, yellow peas, and split peas) are allowed.
- Vinegar and botanical extracts. Most vinegar (including white, red wine, balsamic, apple cider, and rice) and alcohol-based botanical extracts (like vanilla, lemon, or lavender) are allowed during your Whole30 program.
- Coconut aminos. All brands of coconut aminos (a brewed and naturally fermented soy sauce substitute) are acceptable, even if you see the words “coconut nectar” or “coconut syrup” in their ingredient list.
- Salt. Did you know that all iodized table salt contains sugar? Sugar (often in the form of dextrose) is chemically essential to keep the potassium iodide from oxidizing and being lost. Because all restaurants and pre-packaged foods contain salt, salt is an exception to our “no added sugar” rule.
While those lists can be daunting and still have you scratching your head wondering what you can possibly eat, Whole30 and various other websites and resources offer recipes and entire meal plans in some cases to help guide you on your journey, like this meal plan by Registered Dietitian Victoria Seaver. One scroll past a few of the recipe photos and you may not think the diet is so bad after all.
Is It Effective Long-Term?
All of this leads us up to the question of effectiveness, followed by longevity. As we stated earlier, the plan is designed to be a lifestyle change, so essentially it needs to be attainable for a very long period of time — the rest of your life. Ideally, that means it will not only be effective (i.e. provide results) but it will be easy enough for you to continue to follow while leading a regular life. Because we all know that we don’t live life in a vacuum or test lab, there will be real-life scenarios that could challenge your diet, and the diet has to be lenient or flexible enough for you to adapt.
That being said, the Whole30 diet may not be suited for those who are not highly organized, and highly committed. While the founders state on their website that “you’ve done harder things than this, and you have no excuse not to complete the program as written,” the Whole30 diet can be a challenging one to follow without careful planning, a strong support system and steadfast dedication. A work lunch, flight delay, last-minute dinner plans, or date night can throw you off and send you back to the start, which can be defeating, especially if you’re close to the 30 days.
Likewise, studies have found that those who follow highly restrictive diets do shed weight in the beginning, but due to the extreme nature of the diet and a high failure rate, many followers tend to gain the weight back, and then some. It’s another reason why U.S. News and World Report gave it a 2.9 out of 5 for long-term weight loss.
Is It Safe?
The most important question is how safe it is. As with many elimination or highly strict diets, there is some amount of risk associated with the diet.
For instance, if you take a high-protein, low-carb approach to the diet, your body can enter a ketotic state, similar to what the Keto diet tries to achieve. When you don’t consume enough carbs to burn for energy, your body breaks down fat to use instead, which releases ketones. But when your body has to break down too much fat, ketone levels can get too high and your kidneys can malfunction.
If you’re just looking for a structured way to clean up your diet and cut out processed foods, the extreme nature of Whole30 could take a toll. But, if you respond to structure and are an otherwise healthy person, go for it. If you’re doing the Whole30 diet for a medical reason, it’s best to talk to your health care provider first.
The Whole30 diet can be appealing for those attracted to the thought of not having to count carbs or calories, or for those who feel they need a lifechanging experience to help them achieve their goals, but ultimately the highly restrictive nature of the diet and its difficulty in following for a long period of time make this diet a recommendation-not from dietitians and nutritionists.