Among the many popular diets, The Whole30® program seems to be the one that has been receiving a lot of buzz lately.
Like every weight loss or diet plan, it is always good to do some research before starting on one. I don’t believe in diets or plans that involve restrictive eating, which are unsustainable and often times results in an unhealthy relationship, so decided to weigh in on this program for those who may be considering it.
What is the Whole30® and what is the point of it?
According to its founders, Whole30® is “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 is a program that is focused on eating minimally processed whole foods.
The description on its website seems pretty enticing for those who are looking for weight loss- “More than 95% of participants lose weight and improve their body composition, without counting or restricting calories. Also commonly reported: consistently high energy levels, improved athletic performance, better sleep, improved focus and mental clarity, and a sunnier disposition.”
What are the rules?
You are NOT allowed to eat the following for 30 days:
- added sugar, real or artificial
- alcohol, in any form, not even for cooking
- carrageenan, MSG, or sulfites
- baked goods, junk foods, or treats with “approved” ingredients.
So, what CAN you have?
From the website, you can eat:
- moderate portions of meat, seafood, and eggs
- lots of vegetables; some fruit
- plenty of natural fats; and herbs, spices, and seasonings.
- "eat foods with very few ingredients, all pronounceable ingredients, or better yet, no ingredients listed at all because they’re whole and unprocessed"
After you complete the program, you can reintroduce food groups, and monitor your body’s reaction to them. The idea is that after reintroducing the food, you will be able to pinpoint which foods cause discomfort to you so you know to avoid or limit those.
A Dietician's Thoughts
My first thoughts about the plan are that it is too restrictive and unsustainable. It eliminates major healthy food groups, including dairy, legumes, and grains. Aside from the plan being very restrictive, vegetarians and vegans will find it very difficult to go on this program and it will also be lacking key nutrients. Instead of having a healthier relationship with food, it can turn people away from healthy food such as dairy, whole grains, and legumes, all which are forbidden on the diet. It is understandable how people are attracted to this program, especially if they state that more than 95% of its participants lose weight on it! With restrictive eating, it is no surprise to me that people would lose weight.
What I find to be most concerning about the program is the guilt that comes with not being able to complete the program. A lot of shame and guilt is seemingly placed on the person if they are unable to successfully complete the program. This can be very serious especially if someone has a history of eating disorder. Here is a little snippet from their website:
“This is not hard. Don’t you dare tell us this is hard. Beating cancer is hard. Birthing a baby is hard. Losing a parent is hard. Drinking your coffee black. Is. Not. Hard. You’ve done harder things than this, and you have no excuse not to complete the program as written.”
This tough love attitude taken to the extreme is the reason why many people fail at following diet plans. To feel that they are failures if they cannot complete the program has many emotional and psychological consequences.
“One bite of pizza, one spoonful of ice cream, one lick of the spoon mixing the batter within the 30-day period and you’ve broken the “reset” button, requiring you to start over again on Day 1.”
Food should be enjoyed and you should not be punished for having a bite of pizza or a scoop of ice cream!
Are there any benefits to this program?
While I would not recommend this specific diet for the reasons above, there are definitely some pro's of the program:
- While it is very restrictive, it does cut out a lot of junk including sugar, chocolate, and alcohol (but also cuts out healthy foods such as dairy, grains and legumes).
- When you focus on whole foods, there is potential to change your eating habits from highly processed foods to whole foods and to learn how to nourish your body with high quality, minimally processed foods.
- If you have a super sweet tooth, it may help lower your craving for sugar. After 30 days of not consuming sugar, you start becoming used to it and eventually lose interest. When you do consume it again, you may feel that things are much sweeter than before.
- If you are experiencing bloating or discomfort after consuming certain foods, by eliminating them for a while, you may be able to detect food sensitivities to specific foods. After 30 days, you can slowly reintroduce each food and monitor for any symptoms.
The Bottom Line
For some people, eliminating entire food groups to get a “fresh start” or “reset” works for them if restrictive eating leads them to manage their intake better. We all need to “reset” after a vacation or weekend once in awhile! However, often with healthy eating, gradual changes are necessary for long-term sustainability.
With restrictive eating, it is no surprise that one would lose weight on this plan. However, by being so restrictive, you take away the pleasure of eating and the joy that comes with it. Although some people may be inspired by their "reset" to continue healthier eating, after the 30 days, I would not be surprised if many people end up going back to their old habits because it is just too hard to follow. We should strive to find a sustainable way to continue living healthy and eating well--not just for 30 days.
Not one size fits all when it comes to healthy eating. Nutrition should be individualized and establishing healthy habits such as cooking at home, family meal times, and having a good relationship with food will take you much closer to a healthy lifestyle than a 30 day fix!
By Joanna Li, R.D. - Expert Dietician