Thinking of trying the Whole 30 Diet? Dietitian Abbey Sharp looks at the pros and cons of the Whole30 diet regime.
What is the Whole 30 Diet?
“Let your body heal and recover…Push the ‘reset’ button.” This is the idea behind the Whole 30 Diet designed by husband and wife duo Melissa and Dallas Hartwig. While Melissa is a Certified Sports Nutritionist, Dallas is admittedly not a guru. Their promise is to improve your metabolism, weight loss efforts, relationship with food, unexplainable aches and pains, energy levels, skin, fertility, digestive and inflammatory issues, seasonal allergies and do your laundry (just kidding on that last one).
How can you possibly accomplish all this in 30 days? Simple! Just strip your diet of all the usual victims the diet industry loves to hate. Say goodbye to grains and pseudograins (like quinoa and amaranth), sugar (fruits only!), soy, alcohol, dairy, legumes, MSG, and carrageenan (a thickening agent). Also off limits are any recreated ‘treat’ food. In the eyes of Whole 30, these are just as bad as the real thing and continuing to eat them is missing the point. Still on the menu are “real foods” that according to the Hartwigs means meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds and oil.
After the 30 days, it’s recommended that you slowly reintroduce each food group that have been otherwise off limits for the past month. The website suggests taking 10 days to do this, introducing a new group every few days. This makes sense, as typically elimination diets allow you to assess how you react to different types of foods. If you simply reintroduce all foods on day 31, you’ll never know the true cause of any unwanted side effects.
Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of Whole 30.
Pros of Whole 30 Diet
The Whole 30 diet is clearly a pretty restrictive diet plan, but it is never advertised as a long-term way of life. The team behind Whole 30 know it’s not sustainable and never suggest you keep it up for more than 30 days. Instead, they have created the Whole9, focusing on 9 factors for optimal health to include.
Unlike many other diet plans, even those who claim they aren’t diets, the focus here is not on weight or body composition. Instead, people are encouraged to focus on changes in their sleep patterns, energy, skin and overall feelings. This really allows you to see how different foods affect you, get in tune with your body and realize overall bodily feelings are not all about weight or how much muscle vs. fat you have. It’s even a rule that “you are not allowed to step on the scale or take body measurements for the duration of the program.” I must admit that I actually love this move away from weight and toward a more holistic view of being healthy.
Cons of Whole 30 Diet
The Whole 30 diet is ultimately a form of diet, which means it’s pretty restrictive, even if it is just a month. The website lists a set of strict ‘rules’ that are to be followed closely, along with lists of foods to eat and those that are off limits (there are a lot). 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. Even the language throughout the website follows this harsh and restrictive pattern. One section details how the program isn’t hard, only things like cancer and childbirth are hard, so you have no excuse not to complete the program. I almost get where they’re going with this, but ouch. Eating should be pleasurable, not riddled with such “no pain, no gain” rhetoric. Another major no-no? Cheating. They like to phrase it like this:
“Unless you physically tripped and your face landed in a box of doughnuts, there is no ‘slip.’ You make a choice to eat something unhealthy. It is always a choice, so do not phrase it as if you had an accident.”
Yeow! I understand tough love (even if I don’t agree with it), but this is just plain insulting. Like, I would bitch slap someone who said that to me. I don’t like the idea that we need to start associating these healthful foods with punishment, guilt and shame. If I were to be listening to this crap for a whole month, while cutting out the foods I loved, I would probably never want to see another piece of kale again. This sets us all up for an unhealthy relationship with food.
The many restrictions in this diet leave little room for protein sources other than meat, resulting in a diet potentially high in meat products, which may not be ideal for our bodies or our environment. Not to mention what this means for vegetarians (I guess they’ll be really hungry). Thankfully, the diet creators have graciously allowed vegetarians to consume chickpeas. I do like chickpeas but I’m not sure I’d want to eat them every single day for a month (talk about gas!).
The Whole 30 website offers a helpful timeline describing what your life changing 30 days might look like-and honestly, it’s not exactly encouraging. Day 1 of Whole 30 -you’re sailing, wondering why anyone ever said this is hard. And it’s pretty downhill from there. Next comes the hangover (without the party first), then a phase called ‘kill all the things,’ followed by fatigue, bloating, and the hardest days. By day 12, things are great again and you’re full of energy, but you’re using that energy to dream of donuts and cheese. Next, you’re supposed to feel generally awesome and loving life, and thankfully this is the longest phase. Day 21 and you’re over it and bored of everything on the acceptable foods list. Day 28 you figure you’re close enough and want to give up, but by Day 30 you’re (apparently) feeling pretty good and proud of yourself.
Sounds like an emotional rollercoaster, and that’s without any of the issues of every day life. If you’re thinking of giving this a go, make sure you warn your employer, family, friends and partner because this is NOT the month for them to rock the boat. Moving to a healthier lifestyle definitely isn’t easy, but is it really necessary to suffer so much before feeling better at all?
A few other issues I have with the program include how expensive it can get, it’s promotion of detoxing (which I’ve discussed before), their promise to fix any and all your problems and very importantly the lack of strong supporting scientific research. Since when are most carbs linked to infertility? In fact, studies show that whole grains can improve ovulation!
Does the Whole 30 Diet Work for Weight Loss?
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the focus here is not on weight loss at all, and the aim really does seem to be about improving your energy and solving any potential issues you might be experiencing. This is also a good thing because it doesn’t sound like a long-term weight loss solution at all. Weight loss is a pretty obvious result of 30 days without sugar, a whole food group and a bunch of other foods. This is the story for many who have written magical sounding testimonials about their time on the Whole 30 diet and all the weight they lost. I would be more interesting in hearing what happens a few weeks after finishing the month, but every one I found was written directly after their month is up. If the 30 days force you out of your eating comfort zone and practicing a new way of healthy eating that you can bring into your everyday life, then maybe sustained weight loss is possible. For those who trudge through, suffering while eating plain veggies only to return to daily burgers and fries, don’t be surprised when the weight bounces right back on (and more!)
Is the Whole 30 Diet the Ultimate Cure?
If the Whole 30 diet works and you find the culprit in your diet that’s wreaking havoc on your body, then fabulous and I’m happy for you! I’m also genuinely surprised and I’ll buy a lottery ticket because there must be some luck in the air. There is no scientific evidence to support the Whole 30 as a cure for all gastro problems, allergies, aches, pains, acne, or fertility issues. Other serious issues like PCOS, diabetes or Crohns are supposedly cured by the program, as well. While it is possible that the diet (especially an elimination diet) may be affected by a diet like this, curing them through a month of restrictive eating is a serious stretch.
The Whole 30 Diet is ultimately a diet. It’s restrictive and has strict rules about food, which is never a good idea. It claims to help your relationship with food but breaks the first rule of a healthy relationship by putting so many of them off limits. I also don’t believe it’s necessary to endure a month of being angry, tired, bloated and straight up bored of something as pleasurable as food. If you’ve been reading this blog a while, you know I truly believe food is anything but boring. Most importantly, none of this is has any strong evidence to back it up!
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, it’s important to follow a diet pattern that works for you and promotes both nutritious foods and moderation. Eating healthy no longer means eating foods that are bland or boring, and it definitely doesn’t mean you have to suffer. It’s easier than ever get creative with healthy foods and cook up something nutritious and delicious (just check out my recipe page here!).
Have you tried the Whole 30 diet?
Are you curious about a popular diet plan?
Just like the paleo diet, IIFYM and now Whole30, I’ll get to the bottom of it and show you the good, the bad and the ugly.
Research and Article by RD2B Olivia Cupido
Abbey Sharp is a Registered Dietitian (RD), regulated by the Ontario College of Dietitians. She is a mom, YouTuber, Blogger, award winning cookbook author, media coach specializing in food and nutrition influencers, and a frequent contributor to national publications like Healthline and on national broadcast TV shows.
My doctor recommended Whole30 to me when I gain weight because of my thyroid being out of control and I ended up with inflammation in my ankles with swelling and pain. We’ve found no link to my ankles to any of my diet or my thyroid but she wants me to try this diet to see if I can lose weight and find the source of the inflammation pain and swelling. It looks very restrictive and since I was looking for a long-term solution to my weight and my ankles appeared out of nowhere after 56 years of eating all the foods that diet calls restricted and no foods it seems kind of silly to try this. Any ideas on another diet that would work good for weight loss I can’t walk or exercise right now.
Abbey Sharp says
Hey Jennifer, thanks for sharing. I personally, can’t provide you with a specific diet over the internet, but I suggest getting a referral to see a dietitian. They will be able to assess your diet and find a solution to meet your unique needs. I hope that helps. Good luck
Hey Abbey, thanks for the review. I have a sorta love/hate relationship with Whole30 and wanted to give some thoughts on my experiences with Whole30. About two and half years ago, I did a Whole30, probably not to the letter of the Whole30 law though. Between my Whole30 and a few months exercise I lost about 20 pounds. Two months later I went through a pretty hard and stressful season and dealt with some anxiety. I’ve always had a hard time with moderation and comfort eating so I fell right back into bad habits and put the weight back on shortly after. May of 2016, I did another Whole30 in combination with renewed commitment to exercising. I’ve kept the weight off and continued to lose weight through continued exercise and healthy habits. I completely understand each “con” you mention about Whole30. While Whole30 has benefited me, I don’t feel comfortable recommending it because it’s not a magic pill. It’s a hard, mean, graceless pill. During one Whole30, I forgot to read the label of some coconut milk one time and felt like failure and really ashamed when I realized I’d been putting coconut milk with barely any sugar (BUT SUGAR NONE THE LESS) in my coffee for a week. I’ve noticed that in myself that Orthorexia is very real concern, and I have had to in my post-Whole30 eating life unlearn some of those rigid rules that lead me into being ashamed about what I eat (because there is healthy food outside of Whole30 compliant foods). On the positive side, after each Whole30 I have learned the value or meal prepping and planning. I did lose weight. I saw how much sugar affected my energy level. I’m interested in reading your blog posts about dairy. I have found that dairy causes me to have stuffy noses and increased nasal drip. Normally I have terrible allergies in the spring (Cottonwood just flies around where I live), and last year I didn’t need to take an allergy pill while on Whole30 in the spring. I have not talked to a doctor or dietitian about any of these observation and recognize that maybe I’ve just drunk a little too much of sugarless-tastless-Whole30-kool-aide. I am currently doing my third Whole30 (which is how I stumbled upon your website). Thanks for your thoughtful post; it’s given me a lot to think about as I continue to pursue losing weight and getting healthy.
Abbey Sharp says
thank you so much for your story!! This is so insightful for people and I agree, its definitely a personal thing. I’m glad you got some positives out of the experience!
i did whole30 about a year ago and really liked it, i felt like i had so much more energy than i normally do. i also realized how much sugar i regularly consume. the hardest part is cooking essentially everything you eat at home (i never found any grocery shelf items that didn’t contain a no-no ingredient) but i did go out to restaurants about once a week and the chefs made delicious whole30-compliant dishes. i would do it again.
Abbey Sharp says
thanks for sharing that! It’s great to hear it worked for you!
Danielle N says
I just finished the whole 30 out of curiosity…I know, that makes me sound insane. the prep work was never ending, it was very restrictive and I didn’t start feeling insanely better on any level (and I followed it to the letter). My take away was how valuable label reading is and REALIZING how many products have sugar added to them! I will definitely pay attention to that, since sugar is my weakness. If I can cut it out of my salad dressings and lunch meat (yes, even Boar’s Head and other premium meats have sugar added), then I’m golden.
Abbey Sharp says
that’s all it really needs to be. no need to go to these extremes!!
How did you do? Any weight loss? Im on Day 18 and i feel exactly the same. ?
Abbey Sharp says
oh dear- never did it- just reviewed the protocol, but that doesnt surprised me.
Julie @ Running in a Skirt says
I love the idea of eating healthy whole food, but diets that restrict food (more than me being a pescatarian) just don’t work for me. but i know many people this works well for. it’s all so individual.
Abbey Sharp says
absolutely. It is individual but i agree with you.
Rowena Gordon says
Hi, I’ve been following the Whole 30 ‘diet’ since April 8th 2018. One of my closest friends recommended we try it (she’s a GP).
I haven’t eaten any animal meat for 2 and a half years, only fish.
It is a standing joke at work that I have my own adapted version of the Whole 30 because I still eat potatoes in all forms, chips, crisps, boiled, roasted, mashed. You name it, I’ve eaten it!
I’ve never given up alcohol either!?
Ok, no rice with that Chinese or Indian but have fries! I do all the time!
I’m a 59 year old female and have hovered around 90 kilos for the past 20/25 years.
Today, 18th April 2019 in Dubai Mall UAE, I purchased my first size 12 UK (size 8 USA) in over 27 years!
This time last year I was a size 18 (14 USA).
I started at 89kg and I am now hovering around 59/60kg.
This isn’t a diet, it’s an elimination eating plan, anyone referring to it otherwise is very uninformed!
My high blood pressure which I’ve had for 20 years is the lowest it’s ever been, my menopause symptoms are non existent and I’m feeling better than I did in my 30’s!
It’s not a quick fix ‘diet’ by any means but it is doable!
I did buy the Whole 30 Book but can honestly say I never opened it! All you need are the ingredients you can have and those you can’t, it’s that simple. The best of luck to you ?
Abbey Sharp says
thanks for sharing your journey, glad you found something that works
Jill Conyers says
I know a lot of people rave about Whole 30 but it’s not for me. The share buttons on the side of your blog make it hard to read the post. It covers part of the text. Could it be just my computer? Just thought I would let you know.
dixya @food, pleasure, and health says
i have done whole30, purely because i wanted to know what the craze was all about..I did a weekly review on the blog too – it felt restrictive esp. since i couldnt socialize like i normally do..and it is expensive unnecessarily. i didnt feel anything different but it felt good to eat wholesome, unprocessed food..and learned to be creative in the kitchen.
KAYLA @ BLONDES HAVE MORE RUN says
you make the Whole 30 diet look easy with all these delicious looking recipes!! I know truthfully, there’s a lot of work and cooking behind those recipes though, which is why Whole 30 is usually so hard for most people.
yes, i have heard a lot about whole 30, but would never try it. way too restrictive for me. and i don’t believe in cataloging foods as good or bad. eveerything in moderation (as wendy says above)
Wendy@Taking the Long Way Home says
My motto is everything in moderation. This is way too restrictive for me! No alcohol? No way! :p
Sarah- A Whisk and Two Wands says
As a non meat fan this wouldn’t work for me but I love how you have the pros and cons. Just because it wouldn’t work for me doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be good for others.
Deborah @ Confessions of a mother runner says
As a vegetarian it would never work for me for the reasons you pointed out. I like how you spelled out the pros and cons and I can see how some people can find a lot of benefit from it. it truly is a diet and is very restrictive from what I see. nice analysis
Kerri McGrail says
I did a whole 30 a couple years ago (about 2) and it was not a good idea for me. I thought it was at the time, but looking back i was too fixated on food. i think it can work for some people, but paleo style eating is not for me!
masala girl says
i thought about trying w30, but it’s not for me. i eat waaaay more plant based. i also don’t like that they dont “let” you “mAKE” treats/dishes out of compliant foods (such as the popular banana egg pancakes, or even smoothies! though i can understand the no brownies thing).
i do think they ENCOURAGE a good mindset though, telling you to focus on how you feel, no snacking unless you’re reallly hungry (so focusing on your hunger), etc.
Abbey Sharp says
Yeah, it’s important you listen to your body. Thanks for sharing
I haven’t tried it myself but have looked at it quite a bit. I can see the Pros and Cons like you but don’t see every trying to introduce it into my life at this time.