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Should You Try the Whole30?

Submitted by Amy Sercel MS RD CD

Edited by Marcia Bristow MS RDN CSSD CD

“Do you really want to eat another hard boiled egg?”  That’s what one woman asked herself every time she felt hungry for a snack during the Whole30 Diet.  This restrictive, month-long program seems to be the latest nutrition fad.  The diet’s website claims it will help fix a wide range of health issues, including low energy, food cravings, difficulty with weight loss, aches and pains, skin rashes, and seasonal allergies.1 To get these results, participants must avoid the following foods for thirty days:

  • Any added sweeteners, including sugar, honey, maple syrup, and artificial sweeteners
  • Alcohol
  • Any type of grains, including wheat, rice, and quinoa
  • All legumes, including black beans, chickpeas, soy beans, and peanuts
  • All dairy products
  • Carrageenan
  • MSG
  • Sulfites

The program claims these foods promote inflammation and damage the intestinal lining, leading to health problems.  The Whole30 rules also state that you can’t weigh yourself or take body measurements throughout the thirty days, must re-start if you break the rules at any time, and can’t re-create “junk” foods, even if you use ingredients that fit with the program’s requirements.  This means that muffins or pancakes are still out, even if they’re made with coconut flour, eggs, and raisins, and pizza or baked goods made with almond flour and no added sweeteners are not allowed either.  In addition, the program recommends eating no more than two servings of fruit per day, limiting your snack consumption as much as possible, and avoiding carbohydrates before a workout.2 Participants are instead expected to eat three meals per day, each centered on a 3-6 ounce serving of meat, fill the remainder of their plate with vegetables, and include small servings of approved fats like tree nuts, coconut flakes, or vegetable oils.

Problems With the Whole30

The Whole30 is a highly restrictive program that forbids several food groups without providing any evidence-based explanation as to why these foods are harmful.  It’s likely that you’re supposed to purchase their book to learn the rationale; however, food groups like dairy, legumes, and grains have been part of the human diet for thousands of years and are known to provide important health benefits.  For example, one study found that people who eat 2.5 ounces whole grains each day are around 20% less likely to develop and die from heart disease than people who do not eat grains.  Whole grains also provide fiber that is known to improve gut health and reduce your risk for developing Type 2 Diabetes.3

Along the same lines, legumes and dairy are known to be nutritious food groups that provide protein, carbohydrates, and a variety of vitamins and minerals.  Legumes are a good source of fiber, which supplies food for the good bacteria in your intestines and promotes digestive health.  Legumes also contain several anti-inflammatory compounds that have been shown to protect against colorectal cancer.4

Dairy consumption has also been associated with decreased inflammation and risk for Type 2 Diabetes.  One study looked at people with metabolic syndrome (an inflammatory disease) who were overweight or obese and regularly consumed less than one serving of dairy per day.  Just one week after increasing their dairy intake to three servings per day, participants experienced a decrease in inflammatory stress, improved insulin sensitivity, and lower blood pressure.5 Dairy products also make up a significant source of calcium in the American diet.  Avoiding dairy can result in a low calcium intake, which can lead to osteoporosis and contribute to high blood pressure.  While you can get calcium from vegetables, your body does not absorb this calcium as easily as it absorbs calcium from dairy.  Furthermore, eating a high-protein diet, such as the one recommended by the Whole30, can cause you to excrete more calcium in your urine, which would make it even more challenging to consume enough calcium from food while following this program.6

Finally, eliminating food groups and restricting what you eat might help you lose weight in the short term, but it is very unlikely that you will maintain any weight loss you experience during the Whole30.  The diet is only intended to last for thirty days, so it is likely that you will eventually go back to your old eating patterns.  A review of 31 studies followed people on diets for between two and five years and found that between 30 and 60% of participants had re-gained all or more of the weight they initially lost in the first six months of the diet.  In fact, people who went on a diet were more likely to gain weight within four years than people who did not go on a diet.7,8 While it may seem like you could just re-do the Whole30 to lose any weight you re-gain, this is not the healthiest option.  The cycle of losing and re-gaining weight is associated with heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, meaning that the Whole30 could set you up for future health problems if you use it as a quick weight loss tool.

Positive Aspects of the Whole30

Despite these problems, thousands of people claim that the Whole30 Diet has changed their lives for the better.  It’s likely that people feel better and lose weight during the course of the diet because they are now eating significantly more vegetables while avoiding processed and fried foods, added sugar, and alcohol.  Vegetables provide a variety of important vitamins and minerals, and if you suddenly start eating more of them you may correct nutrient deficiencies you didn’t know you had, making you feel more energized and healthy.  At the same time, avoiding foods high in added sugar and refined carbohydrates will help keep your blood sugar even and therefore cause you feel more energetic and experience fewer cravings throughout the day.

Furthermore, in order to comply with the Whole30’s rules, people who complete it need to become familiar with reading food labels to make sure they aren’t accidentally eating a forbidden ingredient.  Paying attention to the nutrition facts label will help you get an understanding of the number of calories and grams of fat, carbohydrates, and protein in processed foods and learn to make the most nutrient-dense food choice in the grocery store.  Once you develop this habit on the Whole30, you may continue it and become more mindful of the nutrient content of foods you choose even after going off the diet.

Lastly, the Whole30 provides an online forum where participants can ask questions and seek support from each other.  Identifying as part of group in this way might help keep people accountable and provide motivation to continue working towards their goals, making this a positive aspect of the Whole30 program.

A Better Solution

Rather than overhauling your diet and avoiding important food groups for a month, you would be better off incorporating some of the Whole30’s recommendations into your typical meal pattern.  Limit the amount of added sugar, refined grains, alcohol, and processed foods you consume, but recognize that it is perfectly acceptable to consume these foods every so often.  Eat a wide variety of vegetables and lean protein at each meal, and remember the value of eating whole grains, legumes, and dairy.  Meet with a Registered Dietitian who can help you modify your current meal pattern and find ways to enjoy a variety of nutrient-dense foods within your calorie needs.  Make changes that fit in with your food preferences so you will be able to continue them for the long term.  After all, healthy habits should last a lifetime, not just thirty days.

References:

  1.  The Whole30® Program. https://whole30.com/whole30-program-rules/. Accessed August 23, 2017.
  2.  Whole30 101: Rules vs Recommendations | The Whole30® Program. https://whole30.com/2015/01/rules-recommendations/. Accessed August 24, 2017.
  3.  Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health. Whole Grains. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/whole-grains/. Published January 24, 2014. Accessed August 24, 2017.
  4.  Clemente A, Olias R. Beneficial effects of legumes in gut health. Curr Opin Food Sci. 2017;14:32-36. doi:10.1016/j.cofs.2017.01.005.
  5.  Stancliffe RA, Thorpe T, Zemel MB. Dairy attentuates oxidative and inflammatory stress in metabolic syndrome. Am J Clin Nutr. August 2011:ajcn.013342. doi:10.3945/ajcn.111.013342.
  6.  Weaver CM, Proulx WR, Heaney R. Choices for achieving adequate dietary calcium with a vegetarian diet. Am J Clin Nutr. 1999;70(3):543s-548s.
  7.  Wolpert S. Dieting does not work, UCLA researchers report. UCLA Newsroom. http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/Dieting-Does-Not-Work-UCLA-Researchers-7832. Accessed August 24, 2017.
  8.  Mann T, Tomiyama AJ, Westling E, Lew A-M, Samuels B, Chatman J. Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments: diets are not the answer. Am Psychol. 2007;62(3):220-233. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.62.3.220.
  9.  Karfopoulou E, Anastasiou CA, Avgeraki E, Kosmidis MH, Yannakoulia M. The role of social support in weight loss maintenance: results from the MedWeight study. J Behav Med. 2016;39(3):511-518. doi:10.1007/s10865-016-9717-y.

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