You might have heard that Whole30 was ranked as the worst fad diet of the year by US News & World Report‘s annual diet report. But you probably also have *lots* of friends who swear that the 30-day elimination challenge changed the way they think about food. If so many people rave about it, why are the experts less than supportive? We checked in with nutritionists about their thoughts on Whole30 in general, as well as the pluses and minuses for people who end up trying it, so you can figure out whether or not to ditch that diet.
1. The rules are extremely clear. One of the most challenging things about any new diet is learning what you can and can’t eat. Figuring out proportions of different types of food like carbs, fat, and fiber — as many diets require — can be really confusing. Whole30 has no formulas or percentages to deal with. Registered dietitian and Certified Nutrition Support Clinician Lisa Mikus thinks “certain people are attracted to this diet because it is a challenge and it provides very black and white rules. Some people feel they will be more compliant or confident with a structured set of guidelines, or feel like it is a competition with their friends to see who can stay in the program the longest.” If you happen to have a rule-following personality and love order and structure, the clarity of Whole30’s guidelines can be a major plus.
2. It could help with certain digestive issues. “To me, a diet is synonym to ‘way of life’ — an eating approach that’s sustainable, fluid, and easy to follow,” shares Shahzadi Devje, a registered dietitian-nutritionist. “Interestingly, the creators of Whole30 themselves don’t claim it to be a diet. It’s a short-term elimination regimen.” So what is an elimination diet? Mikus explains, “Dieticians and other health professionals use these diets to help patients with food allergies, intolerances, and diagnosed gastrointestinal issues such as IBS or Crohn’s disease to help manage symptoms and inflammation, which certain foods can exacerbate.” If you do have a food intolerance, allergy, or some other digestive issue going on that’s related to foods you skip under Whole30, the diet *might* help with it.
Also, Mikus remarks that some people who are lactose intolerant may feel better and see fewer stomach issues while on the plan. “The fact that they are learning something about their body is a good thing,” she agrees. “But this does not at all mean that they should restrict themselves from all types of dairy. Most yogurts and harder cheese are well tolerated in people with lactose intolerance.” Yay for cheese!
3. The emphasis on wholesome foods is awesome. “As a registered dietitian, I appreciate the emphasis on incorporating more whole foods into your daily intake such as fruits and vegetables versus highly processed foods,” concedes Mikus. Plus, she points out the meal planning and prep are pretty necessary on Whole30, so it encourages people to learn how to get more involved with their food than they may have been before: “Someone on the Whole30 will likely end up trying more vegetables than previously and may try new recipes and cooking techniques.” Those are definitely major pluses.
4. You’ll see the effects fast. Being forced to cut out all processed foods can deliver results, especially if you really stick to the plan. “I can see why some rave about it,” admits Devje. “It’s punchy and promises extraordinary results — all in 30 days. Anybody who goes into this regimen and follows through would see results. By eliminating sugar, alcohol, and processed food, and emphasizing vegetables, you’re bound to lose weight, be energized, and feel great!” That being said, she notes that the plan’s “sensationalized marketing tactics” may do more harm than good and that overall she does not agree with Whole30’s approach. Which leads us to…
1. It eliminates a lot of foods. Probably too many. “I strongly believe that all foods can fit into your lifestyle,” says Mikus. “I never recommend that my clients dramatically restrict entire groups of food from their daily intake, even if just for a temporary period. Grains, legumes, and dairy — which are prohibited on the Whole30 — provide an incredible variety of nutrition for us, including B vitamins, fiber, iron, magnesium, and calcium, among countless others.” While the Whole30 creators claim you can get all the nutrients you need from properly following their plan, not everyone eats the required range of foods, instead only eating their favorites out of those that are plan-approved (hello, bacon!).
2. The health claims are not supported by research (yet, anyway). “One of the reasons that it’s rated so poorly is that it boasts multiple health claims with no evidence of peer-reviewed independent research,” Mikus points out. She observes that on the Whole30 website, it claims the plan is “designed to change your life” and acts as a “short-term nutritional reset” with the intention to end “unhealthy cravings and habits, restore a healthy metabolism, heal your digestive tract, and balance your immune system.” Hmmm. None of those things is actually proven, though, and Mikus expresses her disapproval of the way they’re casually thrown around: “It is unethical to boast extreme health claims without evidence-based research.” The diet is also touted as a “detox” from things like alcohol and sugar. “What people don’t realize is that your body is already detoxing; it’s one of your liver’s main functions,” Mikus explains. “Thank your liver — it’s detoxing for you right now, as you read this!”
3. It could worsen metabolic, digestive, and heart conditions. According to Mikus, people with diabetes, thyroid issues, or gastrointestinal issues such as Crohn’s or IBS should definitely check with their doctor before starting it. She also cautions that if you’re looking to improve your cardiovascular health or if you have heart disease, Whole30 is definitely not for you, because it recommends foods that are high in saturated fat, like coconut milk and cream. “Saturated fats have been long associated with cardiovascular disease. According to the American Heart Association, on an average 2,000 calorie diet, only five to six percent of calories from saturated fats is recommended, which is about 13 grams total or equivalent to the saturated fat in about only four tablespoons of coconut milk.” Yeah, four tablespoons isn’t going to get you very far. Plus, oats and grains — which you can’t eat on the diet — are also known to protect against heart disease. “The fact that this diet prohibits foods which are protective against cardiovascular disease, while promoting foods rich in saturated fats, such as red meat and coconut-based products, is very concerning,” concludes Mikus.
4. It’s got a bad attitude. There’s a tough-love element to Whole30 that can sometimes come off as promoting deprivation. Obviously, this is something that health professionals worry about. “The punitive approach of Whole30 can be risky psychologically and lead to an unhealthy relationship with food,” explains Devje. She especially notes that if you’re at risk of or have a history of disordered eating, a strict plan like this can be detrimental to your mental and physical health.
5. The results won’t last. It’s true that you’ll probably lose some weight and maybe even feel better on the Whole30, but once you start eating normally again, you’ll be back where you started. Mikus also shares that when you lose weight too rapidly, you’re at risk for gaining back even more than you lost.”If you aren’t careful about getting enough energy through nutrition during these 30 days, you could put your body in a hypo-caloric state, which could slow down your metabolism,” she explains. Basically, if a diet tricks your body into thinking there’s not enough food because you’re taking in too few calories, your metabolism is going to switch to storing (as fat) more of the energy you take in to help you survive in case food becomes scarce again. Helpful when our ancestors had to worry about a failed mammoth hunt, but not so much when we’re just making different choices at the grocery store.
The Bottom Line
All in all, it seems that experts agree that while there are some great things about Whole30 (everyone could use more vegetables!), none of them require you to be on the Whole30 to put them into practice, and there are a lot of drawbacks to the diet. “To anyone considering the regimen, I would say: Be kind to yourself, because Whole30 isn’t,” shares Devje. “Think beyond the 30 days, and cultivate an eating philosophy while you learn what foods work for you.” Seems like a pretty reasonable idea to us!
Have you tried Whole30? What did you think? Tell us about your experience @BritandCo!
(Photos via Getty)