The Whole30 diet was created in 2009 by Melissa Hartwig, a certified sports nutritionist, and her husband Dallas Hartwig. At first glance, Whole30 looks a lot like the Paleo Diet. You will eliminate all ingredients that weren’t available before our modern industrial food system. This includes added sugar of any kind, including maple syrup, agave nectar, coconut sugar, Stevia, xylitol, and other artificial sweeteners; alcohol; grains (including corn and rice); legumes; beans; all soy; dairy; and additives like carrageenan, MSG, or sulfites. That leaves a handful of whole, unprocessed foods: meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, vegetables, some fruits, nuts, seeds, and healthy oils. The premise of the Whole30 diet is different than the Paleo Diet though. Whole30 is supposed to be a 30-day nutritional reset, rather than a lifestyle change. The goal is to eliminate any and all foods that could potentially be damaging your health and to break unhealthy habits or food addictions. Thus, in stark contrast to the Paleo Diet, while on the Whole30 diet, cheating is not allowed! The Paleo Diet allows for “open meals” during which you can consume the foods that are normally off limits. Since the goal of the Whole30 diet is to reset your system, these “cheat” meals would prevent your body from being able to fully rest and heal. Therefore, all treats must be left for later.
Another reason that treats are forbidden is because an equally important part of the program is breaking unhealthy habits and eliminating cravings. It’s hard to end sugar cravings, for example, if every few days you treat yourself to a sugary treat. This also means that “alternative” treats, made with Whole30-approved ingredients, are off limits. In order to re-work your relationship with food, you need to avoid foods that mimic the processed foods you are used to. Another added benefit of avoiding all treats is that it ensures you are eating only in response to hunger. According to Hartwig’s theory, if you aren’t tempted by a huge plate of vegetables, then you probably aren’t hungry.
While on the Whole30, dieters are encouraged to eat only 3 meals a day and to avoid snacking – another way of breaking bad habits. If eating only three times a day is challenging, dieters are encouraged to add more protein to their plate and to eat slightly larger portions at meals so that they don’t get hungry in between.
The good (or maybe bad) news is that this reset is (only?) 30 days long. After 30 days you will start to re-introduce, one at a time, those foods which you had eliminated. In doing so, you will pay close attention to how your body reacts. If after consuming a new food you experience any digestive discomfort, skin disturbances, or dips in energy, then you may have an intolerance to that food.
In terms of getting started, you have several options. The first option is to self-design your own Whole30 diet plan according to information provided on the Whole30 website and/or information provided by the book. The website is incredibly informative – the entire diet and its benefits are clearly outlined and numerous recipes are provided. The book elaborates on all this information and presents it in an organized fashion. The second option, is to sign up for monthly, quarterly, or annual packages that include the Whole30 Setup, new meal plans each month, and exclusive access to recipes.
To date, there is no research specifically reviewing the Whole30 diet. Though, there are studies that have reviewed specific aspects of the diet. Below is an example of research exploring the effectiveness of highly restrictive diets.
A 2012 study published in the journal Steroids found that over an 8 month period, dieters who ate calorie-rich breakfasts that include a dessert such as chocolate cake lost nearly 40 pounds more than dieters who ate low calorie and treat free breakfasts. The low-calorie dieters lost weight faster, but the dessert eaters managed to keep the weight off in the long term. These results suggest that extremely restrictive diets might backfire in the long run.
If you suspect that you might be suffering from any sort of food sensitivity or intolerance, the Whole30 diet might be a great way to determine which foods are causing symptoms (as long as you reintroduce each food one at a time and carefully observe how your body reacts). Because the Whole30 diet eliminates all processed foods, it is also guaranteed to be a step toward improving your health. In addition, you don’t have to worry about counting calories, carbs, or tracking of any type while on this diet.
The diet is incredibly restrictive, even for a month, and may be challenging for some dieters to follow. Since all processed foods are prohibited, it will also require you to spend more time meal planning, shopping, and cooking. Due to the rigid food rules and heavy emphasis on “good” and “bad” foods, anyone with a history of disordered eating or an eating disorder should not follow this program. Additionally, if weight loss is your goal, this may not be the diet for you. The emphasis on eating larger meals in order to avoid snacks could also potentially lead to weight gain in those who are less sensitive to hunger cues.
Another potential drawback is that eliminating entire food groups might cause you to miss out on some essential nutrients like calcium and vitamin D, as well as fiber. Furthermore, despite followers who claim to have been “cured” from their various symptoms or disease–ranging from allergies to asthma, infertility, and depression–studies have not reviewed the Whole30 diet and, thus, there isn’t currently any science to support these claims.
And finally, the cost of food can be prohibitive. Although you don’t have to purchase a membership or any pre-packaged foods, the reliance on animal protein can make this diet expensive.
If your goal is weight loss, this diet might not be right for you. There is no discussion about portion control and if you feel overly restricted, you may be more likely to overeat in an effort to satisfy a craving for one of the prohibited foods. Furthermore, the Whole30 diet relies purely on anecdotal evidence and there is currently no research to support its claims.
For those who do struggle with portion control during mealtime while on this diet, MealEnders could be an effective complement if you are if you aren’t wedded to following the diet to the letter (strictly speaking, no processed foods are supposed to be eaten with Whole30, which includes MealEnders).