Is the Whole30 Diet Healthy?
Photo: Adobe Stock/Mikhail Malyugin
If you spend time in online health groups or follow health gurus on social media, you’ve probably heard of Whole30. Whole30 is an elimination diet that attempts to remove common sources of food-related health issues. Some practitioners claim that Whole30 changed their lives, cured chronic pain, and helped them shed excess weight. Others have expressed concern about the extreme nature of the diet, and whether adherents can safely get all the nutrients a healthy diet demands.
So is this diet right for you? That depends on your nutritional goals and how much effort you’re willing to put into balanced eating.
The Whole30 diet asks practitioners to eliminate a number of foods for 30 days. The goal, proponents claim, is to identify food intolerances, better understand how certain foods affect health, and eat more “real” foods and fewer packaged, processed items. At the end of the 30 day period, dieters can steadily re-add forbidden foods, while keeping an eye on how each addition affects their health.
Forbidden foods include:
Any added sugar, including honey, agave, nectar, and other natural sugars.
All grains, including rye, barley, oats, wheat, bread, pasta, and all other grains.
Legumes such as peanuts, chickpeas, and lentils.
All dairy products, including cheese and milk.
Carrageenan, MSG, and sulfites. Some natural health advocates claim that these chemicals are harmful, though the research is unclear.
Additionally, the diet prohibits packaged and “fake” foods, even if they technically comply with the program. This means no baked treats, potato chips, or other excessively processed foods. Participants should also avoid substitutes for real foods, so no fake meats or alternative grains.
“The creators of the Whole30 diet claim this is not a diet but rather an overall lifestyle change that should improve medical conditions, eliminate cravings, re-balance your body, and overall create freedom from the stresses of eating,” said Justine Roth, MS, RD, CDN, and registered dietitian at Justine Roth Nutrition.
Benefits of Whole30
The most immediate and obvious benefit of Whole30 is that it eliminates a number of high-calorie foods. Many participants lose weight, and some drop significant weight in a short period. For people with weight-related health issues, this benefit is a significant one.
“There is no weighing or measuring so that can provide some relief to people,” said Roth. “Also, quick weight loss is again due to the low-calorie intake that will occur.”
Proponents claim that the diet can help with chronic inflammation, gastrointestinal distress, infertility, and a host of other health concerns. While some dieters have had health improvements on Whole30, there’s little scientific research supporting its ability to radically improve health. A few benefits that are supported by research include:
Identifying food allergies and intolerances. The diet eliminates a number of common allergens, making it easier to identify food-related health concerns.
Replacing empty calories with better nutrition. Many packaged, processed foods are high in calories, but low in nutrients. By eliminating these foods—along with high-calorie, low-nutrient foods such as white bread—Whole30 can help some people eat healthier diets.
Reducing sugar intake. Eating less sugar can help people lose weight and may improve the health of people with prediabetes or insulin resistance.
Encouraging more prepared meals made with “real” food. A healthier diet generally includes more fruits and vegetables, fewer chips and other processed foods, and a wide range of healthy proteins. Whole30 encourages people to make meals at home that include these ingredients, which can help them save money while teaching them how to prepare healthy food.
For some people, the extreme nature of the diet is also an incentive. People who struggle with easier diets may relish the challenge and rely heavily on support from the large community of people attempting a Whole30 diet.
Risks of Whole30
One of the biggest concerns with Whole30 is that it eliminates all grains. Although many people believe that grains are dangerous or that gluten intolerance is common, there is little evidence that grains harm people who do not have celiac disease. Some grains are enriched with iron, making them a good serving of this vital nutrient. One recent study found that a diet rich in whole grains could increase beneficial gut bacteria. Some other risks of Whole30 include:
Not getting enough protein. Whole30 eliminates many vegetarian sources of protein, so vegetarians who try the diet without consuming meat can end up protein-deficient.
Not eating enough. People who can’t find enough food they like under the restrictive rules of the program might not eat enough or may end up with nutritional deficiencies.
Setting yourself up for failure. The Whole30 program is extremely restrictive. Many people who try it may be unable to stick with it. Failing at one diet can make it difficult to try another.
The diet might not be long enough. People with food allergies or chronic inflammation might need three months or longer to benefit from an elimination diet. The 30-day period Whole30 recommends is arbitrary.
Exacerbating other conditions. People with diabetes and other conditions that depend on good nutrition might not eat balanced meals on this plan.
“The diet recommends cooking most if not all of your foods at home so this can be very difficult, inconvenient, and unrealistic for many,” said Roth. “There is no guidance on portion sizes so this can be very confusing and overwhelming.”
Some experts have also expressed concern about what happens after Whole30. The program doesn’t provide a lot of information about how and when to reintroduce foods. There’s also little research on the effects of avoiding foods the diet forbids over the long term.
Who Should Consider Whole30?
Whole30 may be right for people who show signs of food allergies or intolerances. People who have the time and energy to plan balanced meals around the program’s restrictions may also benefit. Those who find themselves excessively dependent on prepackaged foods may find new, healthier ways to eat with Whole30.
If you need to lose weight, Whole30 may quickly change the number on the scale. But not everyone sees a shift, and you’ll need to continue eating healthy after the 30-day period if you want to keep the weight off.
Who Should Avoid Whole30?
Whole30 may be dangerous for some people. Those include:
Pregnant or lactating women.
People with metabolic disorders.
People who are already underweight.
People with a history of eating disorders.
Because of the extreme nature of Whole30, everyone who tries this diet should first consult a doctor knowledgeable about nutrition. Doing so is especially important for people with chronic illnesses or serious illnesses such as cancer.
You might find that the Whole30 provides the jump start you need to lead a healthier lifestyle. But there are many ways to get healthier, and this is just one option. Work with your doctor or a nutritionist to find the strategy that will best address your unique nutritional and health needs.
“I just recommend making sure you eat often with a lot of proteins/fats and that you have as much of the foods that have carbs in them as you can,” said Roth. “Also be realistic and don’t set expectations for something that might be too much.”
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About the Author
Zawn Villines is a writer who specializes in health journalism. She has also extensively written about legal topics, politics, and parenting. She has published work in dozens of print and online publications, including Psychology Today, Medical News Today, GoodTherapy.org, LegalZoom, Daily Kos, Chron.com, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. In addition, she writes medical content for hospitals, doctors, fertility clinics, and other medical providers. She graduated from Georgia State University, where she studied psychology and philosophy.
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