Can you change your life and undo months or years of unhealthy eating, in just 30 days? Proponents of the Whole30 Diet—including hundreds of members of the Whole30 SparkTeam—believe that it’s possible, but many dietitians and nutritionists, including SparkPeople’s own 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."
SparkPeople member SHERIN1 says that Whole30 was one of the easiest lifestyle changes she’s ever made. "I have seen an improvement in sleep and energy. It also gave me a sense of accomplishment. Since finishing the 30 days, I have not added many of the things that were off limits simply because I feel so good without them," she says. "The plan is restrictive, which is exactly what made it so easy for me. I knew what was approved and what wasn't—no questions."
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:
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:
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.
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."