As if Whole30 weren’t popular enough already, the recent release of The Whole30 Cookbook has turned the diet into more of an internet-wide craze. Still, for as buzzy as Whole30 is, it’s pretty misunderstood.
We talked with top registered dietitians, as well as one of the Whole30 creators, to decode what’s on (and off!) the menu—and how to tell if the plan is right for you.
What’s the Whole30 Diet All About?
Whole30 originated in 2009 after co-founder Melissa Hartwig, a certified sports nutritionist, cut out all sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes, dairy, and food additives from her diet for 30 days—and found herself feeling better than ever—the Whole30 is an elimination diet intended to help people establish a diet rooted in whole foods and identify food sensitivities that may contribute to health related issues.
As in Hartwig’s own experiment, Whole30 dieters are instructed to remove all added sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes, dairy, as well as carrageenan, MSG, and sulfites from their diets for 30 days straight. No exceptions.
Then, once they successfully make it through the 30 days sans slip-ups (one bite of a prohibited food and you start over at day one!), Whole30-ers can slowly reintroduce each food group back into their diet, one food group at a time, generally over the course of 10 days, Hartwig explains. The thought is that you would reintroduce, say grains, on day 31, and then dairy on day 35. Any sudden stomach issues on days 31 through 35 would point to a sensitivity to grains. That might be your cue that you could alleviate future stomach woes by avoiding grains long-term.
Before You Try To Whole30 All Your Health Issues Away…
While many Whole30 dieters and proponents claim that the approach has helped them to have more energy, feel better, and surmount a myriad of health concerns, proceed with care.
“Self-diagnosing food intolerances and allergies—or anything else, really—can easily be inaccurate, if not dangerous,” explains Wesley Delbridge, R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “If you suspect that you have a medical issue in relation to food, it’s best to talk to your doctor or dietitian for evaluation. Every person is different, and diagnosis isn’t generally as simple as, ‘I feel better today.’” A diagnosis of Celiac disease (a disorder in which gluten damages the small intestines), for example, hinges on the examination of a biopsy taken from the patient’s small intestine.
The creators of Whole30 hear these concerns loud and clear. According to Hartwig, the program is not meant to be a substitute for a medically-supervised elimination diet, and those interested in trying it should always speak with their healthcare practitioner before overhauling their diets.
Axing Foods—And Nutrients?
Self-diagnosing aside, most concerns over the Whole30 revolve around the elimination of foods that are healthy, should someone not have an actual food allergy or intolerance, explains Kelly Pritchett, Ph.D., R.D., C.S.S.D., assistant Professor in Nutrition and Exercise Science at Central Washington University.
“The diet eliminates a lot of foods that are packed with benefits, like beans and dairy,” she says. She notes that whenever you remove an entire food group from your diet, you risk nutritional deficiency. (For instance, if you nix dairy for a month, you need to make sure you are getting vitamin D and calcium elsewhere.)
To help pack in as much vitamin D into Whole30 as possible, Hartwig recommends incorporating fatty cold-water fish like salmon, sardines, and mackerel into your meal rotation. Some of the best Whole30-approved sources of calcium include Chinese cabbage and leafy greens, like spinach.
That’s not to say that the foods you can eat on Whole30 can’t make up a healthful diet. A balanced menu on the program incorporates meats, seafood, eggs, loads of vegetables, some fruit, and unsaturated fats from oils, nuts, and seeds. These are all great foods that can be part of a healthy, well-rounded eating plan, Pritchett says. Major points.
Will You Lose Weight?
Contrary to popular opinion, the Whole30 is not a weight-loss plan, Hartwig explains. Still, that doesn’t mean that people don’t lose weight on it.
In fact, she notes that many people who follow the protocol report losing up to 15 pounds within the month. Delbridge has observed similar amounts of weight lost among Whole30 followers.
Why all of the weight loss on a non-weight-loss diet? The reason is two-fold. First, so many foods are eliminated that people may end up with a caloric deficit, meaning they consume fewer calories than they burn per day, without even trying. (It’s worth noting that the diet does not recommend calorie counting.) Second, the Whole30 diet tends to be high in protein and fat, both of which help to prevent overeating by making you feel full long after each meal, Delbridge says.
Delbridge notes, though, that many people he has seen lose weight throughout the Whole30, gain some or all of it back afterward. He suspects that straight-up eliminating sugar (or any other food) may contribute to increased cravings and potential binges once Whole30 is over.
Many proponents of Whole30, though, claim that following the program actually helped them improve their relationship with food and ultimately reduced cravings.
The Bottom Line
If you want to cut down on (or completely eliminate) your intake of added sugar, alcohol, or food additives, go for it, says Delbridge. “As long as you are getting the nutrients you need, if you feel better not eating a specific food or food group, that’s totally cool,” he says.
And if you suspect you might have an allergy or intolerance to legumes, dairy, or any specific grains (like wheat), systematically removing each food and then reintroducing it into your eating plan is a good first step in identifying any issues. Just make sure to take on the science experiment with a registered dietitian’s oversight, he says. That way, you can be sure that as you cut a food group from your plate, you don’t miss out on any vital nutrients.