Whole30: The Good, The Bad, If It's For You And A Simpler, Easier Alternative

Whole30 has become mainstream. It seems like everyone is giving it a try, and if you haven't heard of it yet, give it one google search and you'll quickly be up to speed.

People try this diet for many reasons, some for weight loss, some use it as an introduction to cleaner eating and others hope to heal their health issues like autoimmune disease, pain, skin conditions, digestive issues or fatigue.

I can't speak much of the actual book and validity of its health claims as I haven't read it in it's entirety, but I am reviewing the dietary plan, since that is what is commonly referenced for those giving it a try.

Here's the 30 day diet plan:

Eliminate:

  • All Sugars (real or artificial)
  • Alcohol (even for cooking)
  • All grains 
  • All legumes (soy, beans, peas, chickpeas, peanuts)
  • Dairy products
  • MSG, carrageenan, sulfites
  • No recreating baked goods or junk food with approved ingredients

After the 30 days you can slowly reintroduce grains, legumes and dairy and see how you feel. During this time, you're supposed to learn to eat home cooked, balanced meals, greatly reduce processed foods, eat whole foods and form a healthier relationship with food.

The Good

Elimination Diet

Whole30 is basically an elimination diet, meant to only last for 30 days (aside from sugars, processed foods and anything you're sensitive to). Elimination diets are really helpful when you're not feeling healthy and vibrant, have health issues or are having trouble losing weight. This diet in particular eliminates the foods that people are most commonly sensitive to, which allows time for the digestive system and body to heal. It also helps you recognize foods that aggravate your body, to eliminate for longer periods.

Eliminates Processed Foods

Eliminating processed foods is probably the best part about Whole30. Processed foods typically have sugars and/or soy added to them, and often include gluten, MSG, carrageenan or sulfites, so by eliminating these ingredients, you pretty much wipe out processed foods altogether.     

Reading Food Labels/Knowing What's In Your Food

This diet plan makes you pay attention to food labels. It helps you recognize unhealthy food additives, that are often harmful and inflammatory. It also makes you think before throwing a food item in your cart when food shopping. This is such a good habit to form, to be more mindful when choosing foods you eat.

It Can Be Empowering

This is a strict plan that is probably a lot different from your normal. So many people who start a diet are scared to fail and either don't try at all or end up feeling disappointed. If you're able to successfully follow the plan for 30 days, not have a slip and feel amazing afterwards, it can be pretty empowering. It shows you that you have control over your health, wellbeing and food choices and can give you a sense of pride you haven't felt from other diets.

Fast Results

Whole30 is the fast track to figure out common food sensitivities. You can spend a short month cutting out many commonly inflammatory foods, the next month reintroducing them, and then have a pretty good idea how you need to eat to feel better.

People experience great results, which is both good and bad. They lose weight, debloat, and improve their symptoms. That's amazing. The downside, is that people associate their great results with the diet as a whole, not just one from one or two aspects of it and think they need to follow it for longer than 30 days to maintain these, or to get even better, results.

The Bad

Wanting To Do It Longer Than 30 Days

Whole30 makes 'banned' foods seem like they're bad for everyone, and often makes people feel that eating them after completing the diet, is cheating. I've seen many, many people do Whole30 for longer than 30 days, and not know what to eat when it ends. In general whole grains are healthy (even if you're gluten sensitive- there's plenty of gluten free whole grains), high quality dairy is healthy, legumes are healthy! Banning these foods from your diet longterm can leave you malnourished and deprived, setting you up for failure.

Too Much (low quality) Meat

A major part of the Whole30 diet is meat, and high quality isn't emphasized. Meat (eggs and dairy too) is healthy when it's consumed in moderation, varied throughout the week and is high quality. High quality meats are pasture raised, grass fed, free range and organic. Whole30 says you don't have to worry about this, and encourages meat at every meal, since other sources of protein (whole grains and legumes) are not allowed.

Doesn't Always Teach You Longterm Healthy Eating Habits

Whole30 doesn't necessarily teach you how to balance your diet because half of it is removed in the plan. After the month is up, many people are left not knowing how to return to a normal healthier life while maintaining their great results. Some end up 'falling off the wagon', some eat the way they'd eaten prior but choose months through the year where they follow the diet, while others follow the diet for many months following. (This. isn't. healthy. eating.) The diet plan leaves successful followers not knowing how to balance an overall healthy diet when other foods are added back in.

Allows Many Inflammatory Foods/Ingredients

The explanation of Whole30, linked above, says the list of eliminated foods is a list of all inflammation causing foods, which is false. There are many inflammation causing ingredients and foods not included on their list. Coffee can disrupt hormones and cause inflammation, but is completely allowed. Synthetic pesticides are inflammatory, neuro toxic and hormone disrupting, but they aren't banned from the diet (conventionally grown produce is allowed). Conventionally raised animal meats are also allowed. Nitrates, found in processed meats like sausage, bacon, hot dogs and lunch meats, are inflammatory and cause digestive discomfort/inflammation for many people, but are not banned.

Won't Help You Determine Less Common Sensitivities

Everyone is different so certain foods/ingredients cause inflammation in different people. Personally, I'm sensitive to chicken (even high quality directly from a farm); it causes severe dermatitis on my hands. Whole30 would never have helped me realize that. It's a good general system that includes some commonly inflammatory foods, but is not an end-all method to reduce all foods that could be inflammatory for you.

Great (but sometimes misleading) Results

With Whole30, you might achieve great results but those results may be inflated. This diet greatly reduces carbohydrate (sometimes too much depending on how you follow it) and processed food (high salt content) intake. You'll inevitably reduce bloating and lose weight quickly. How much depends on what your eating habits were like before starting Whole30. As soon as you add more carbohydrates to your diet, you're progress can slow and you might even gain weight. This can be disheartening and make you feel like you need to stick with Whole30 longer than 30 days. Though, a low carb diet isn't generally good for long term weight loss or maintenance, but rather a way to quickly reduce bloating and jump start weight loss. 

Harsh Language And Tone

Tough love, sometimes condescending language, works for some people, but it's not the best way to initiate healthier and happier eating habits. It can make you feel, even subconsciously, like you can't make your own healthy decisions and that the authors of Whole30 are the ultimate voice of healthy eating. It's typically better to use language that helps people feel empowered, confident, hopeful and capable! You shouldn't have to feel like you've had no self control your whole life or weak and ashamed because you really enjoy milk in your coffee or a piece of chocolate after dinner!

Should You Do Whole30? 

If you're looking for a way to quickly figure out if you have common food sensitivities and can stick to some pretty drastic changes and strict rules, then this plan is great for you. For most people, Whole30 is a bit overkill. If you're looking for the benefits of Whole30 but don't want to do something so extreme, there's a simpler alternative. It might take you a little longer, but it will be easier for you to manage and stick to.

A Simpler, Easier Alternative

  1. Keep a food and symptom journal. Write down what you eat/drink each day and how you feel, the severity of symptoms you feel, your energy level, if you're clear minded, sluggish etc. Just from this, you may realize what foods aggravate your symptoms (It did for me, I realized my dermatitis improved during periods I didn't eat chicken, cut it out and completely healed within 2 weeks!).
     
  2. Eliminate processed foods. Rather than spending hours in a food store examining food labels, simply avoid them altogether. They are not healthy or real foods. If it's in a package in the middle aisles of the food store/ has a long ingredient list, leave it on the shelf (even if it's organic). This goes for marinades, dressings, sauces, soups, many dairy-alternative milks, most chocolate bars, chips, crackers, baked goods/breads, lunch meat, juices, protein powders and shake mixes.
     
  3. Greatly reduce your added sugar intake (3-5 small portions a week total). There are no health or nutritional benefits of refined sugar, so consuming it is for your own tastes and comfort only. Avoid things like fruit juices, jams, syrups, flavored protein powders, candy, desserts, and look out for surprising sources of sugar.
     
  4. If you want to do an elimination diet, try eliminating one food at a time rather than everything. Start by eliminating gluten grains (which is wheat, rather than banning all whole grains) for 30 days and then reintroduce it slowly. Record how you feel. If you feel no difference, then continue eating it. Next, eliminate dairy for 30 days. It can be helpful to work with a nutritionist or physician to guide you through this step.
     
  5. Control your food more. Cook at home and prepare meals and snacks yourself so that you know exactly what is in them, the quality of the ingredients and amount of sugar, oils and other components.

Have you tried Whole30? What did you like and not like about it?