The 411 on the Whole30 Diet

Can you change your life and undo months or years of unhealthy eating, in just 30 days? Proponents of the Whole30 Diet believe that it’s possible, but many dietitians and nutritionists, including registered dietitian nutritionist Becky Hand, are skeptical of the plan’s nutritional value.

The Whole30 website describes the plan as "a short-term nutrition 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." It sounds great on the surface—but is it all it’s cracked up to be? As with any diet, it’s important to understand the goals, requirements and potential risks before starting.

Basics of the Whole30 Diet

Whole30 is a strict elimination diet that is followed for 30 days. According to the program rules, you can only consume real, whole, unprocessed foods during that time, including:
  • Moderate portions of meat, seafood and eggs
  • Plenty of vegetables
  • Some fruit
  • Natural fats
  • Herbs, spices and seasonings
In addition, the following foods are forbidden for the same 30-day span:
  • Added sugar (real or artificial)
  • Alcohol
  • Grains
  • Legumes
  • Dairy
  • Carrageenan, MSG or sulfites
  • Baked goods, junk foods or treats with "approved" ingredients
"The goal is to look and feel better by eliminating foods that could have a negative impact on your body," Lauren Popeck, registered dietician at Orlando Health, says. "The premise is to exclude foods that cause cravings and inflammation in order for the body to heal. The diet promises that 30 days will change the way you eat for the rest of your life."

So, how does this differ from the "clean eating" we hear so much about? Popeck explains that clean eating is about consuming unprocessed, whole foods that are as close to their natural form as possible. There are no strict rules or lists of foods to avoid. It’s more of a broad concept to choose nourishing foods and avoid refined foods with added sugar, salt and fat.

With Whole30, the rules are much stricter and more specific. Hand’s main concern is the plan’s focus on deprivation for improved wellness. "Weight loss is already plagued by feelings of guilt, remorse and shame," she notes. "We don’t need another eating plan like Whole30 to perpetuate the problem."

Although participants can choose any approved foods, Popeck provides a sample of what a typical daily meal plan might look like for someone on Whole30:
  • Breakfast: scrambled eggs with onion, pepper, avocado
  • Lunch: chicken, bacon, salad
  • Dinner: chicken thighs and roasted veggies
  • Snacks: carrots or coconut flakes


Benefits & Drawbacks of Whole30

On their website, the creators of the Whole30 diet claim that "more than 95 percent of participants lose weight and improve their body composition, without counting or restricting calories." Claims of physical benefits include increased energy, improved sleep quality, better athletic performance, sharper mental focus and better moods. Beyond that, the Whole30 website reports that participants complete the program with healthier food habits, decreased cravings for sugars and carbs and a more positive body image.

Although cutting out sugar and junk food is always a good thing, Popeck points out that many of the foods on the "do not eat" list are actually healthy, and there is no scientific reason to avoid them. Generally speaking, she believes that any diet that slashes entire food groups is not a healthy approach to eating and is not likely to succeed long-term. "I think it’s better to make small changes over a [longer] period of time instead of drastic changes all at once for a short period," she says.

Due to the many restrictions and rules involved with Whole30, Popeck recommends that anyone with a history of disordered eating—such as anorexia, bulimia, binging or any other eating disorders—steers clear of the diet.

Hand asserts that the "good" aspects of Whole30 are outweighed by potentially poor nutritional choices. "The plan emphasizes the use of real foods, not processed meals and snacks—and that’s a great goal," she mentions. "But many of the action steps are illogical."

For example, Hand doesn’t recommend giving up beans, legumes and lentils, which she says have been shown to be highly nutritious and beneficial to controlling blood sugar, lowering blood pressure and decreasing the risks of heart disease, certain cancers and Alzheimer’s.

Hand also is wary of Whole30’s requirement to ditch the dairy. "Don’t be fooled by the ‘health halo’ worn by coconut milk or almond milk," she says. "These don’t come close to the nutrient profile found in milk, yogurt and cheeses made from cow’s milk or soybeans." Additionally, she calls into question the "healthy fats" recommended by Whole30, which can include highly saturated fat from coconut oil, clarified butter, bacon, sausage or high-fat meats.

Can Whole30 Help You Meet Your Goals?

When working with clients who want to adopt a new eating plan, Hand starts by asking them what they want to achieve. She offers her insights on whether Whole30 delivers on some common goals.
  • Heal metabolism? Hand states that Whole30 has no scientific evidence to support metabolism improvement.
  • End food cravings? She also maintains that there is no published research supporting this goal.
  • Fix tummy troubles, food allergies or intolerances or decrease inflammation? "Following Whole30 will only delay the process in determining what can truly help," Hand says.
  • Lose weight? Maybe, says Hand. "With all of those food restrictions, you’ll probably be cutting back on calories—but then again, maybe not. Many can’t make it for 30 days, and the topic of what to do after the plan ends is lacking."

What Happens After 30 Days?

According to the plan, the first 30 days of the Whole30 diet are intended to be a starting point—after that, participants can indulge in foods on the "avoid list" from time to time. If you find that you’re starting to revert to unhealthy habits and are eating more "dirty" than "clean" foods, the plan creators recommend that you "reset" with another 30-day cycle.

Although Whole30 is in essence a strict plan, many people choose to modify it to suit their individual needs. Popeck suggests taking bits and pieces of the Whole30, but says it may not be necessary to follow the "all or nothing" limitations.

"I don’t believe that it’s a sustainable way of eating," she says. "Reducing sweets and eating more fruits and veggies while limiting refined and processed foods are good takeaways—but don’t expect a whole body and mind transformation in a short period of time. True change is a process, a journey. I encourage my patients to explore different eating plans, and I work with them on how to make them work in their lives."