The Whole30 diet declares swaths of food off-limits, and sets up ironclad rules about the little that's left. That means it checks a lot of boxes for a fad diet or one that's too draconian to be effective. But there's good here too, enough that it might help if you know what you're in for.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.
The main tenets of the Whole30 diet are cutting out dairy, grains, sugar, alcohol and legumes (basically, beans). In both the bestselling books and their informal hashtag predecessor, you're supposed to commit to a full 30 days of the diet with absolutely no cheating.
The restrictions are based on paleo diet ideas, although Whole30 goes farther by forbidding a few things that paleo eaters typically allow: Honey, for example. Whole30 also prohibits treats that are usually made with non-paleo ingredients, so it's considered cheating to recreate muffins or pancakes even if you use approved ingredients like almond flour.
Some Whole30 Restrictions Are Based on Pseudoscience, but Others Are Worth Cutting Out
Whole30 centres around rejecting certain foods, without any real scientific basis for doing so. Supposedly, without these foods, you'll have more energy, heal unexplained aches and pains and discover that medical conditions from skin problems to "fertility issues" suddenly disappear. If these claims sound like a late-night infomercial, you've got the right idea. There's no science to back up the idea that the Whole30 diet is a miracle cure. Instead, many of the forbidden foods are the subject of popular but unfounded myths.
Legumes are off limits, for example, which means no more beans, lentils, soy or peanut butter. Paleo folks have a longstanding distrust of legumes, based largely on the belief that they contain "anti-nutrients" that can harm our bodies and interfere with our ability to use the vitamins and other nutrients in food.
But those fears are overblown. Paleo guru Chris Kresser correctly points out that while anti-nutrients are indeed real, cooking deactivates some of these, and the rest aren't present in amounts large enough to worry about. Legumes aren't a threat to your health.
The Whole30 diet makes dairy out to be a villain too, on the grounds that milk proteins promote inflammation and therefore disease. But that's also a likely mythical statement. A review published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition actually found that dairy is more likely to be associated with reduced inflammation.
Likewise, there is no evidence-based reason to give up MSG, carrageenan or grains. A few of the rules have potential upsides, though:
- About one in 70 Australians have coeliac disease, triggered by gluten in foods, but most don't know it. Others, who don't have coeliac, experience similar symptoms from gluten-containing foods; the culprit may be certain carbohydrates called FODMAPs in those foods. Make fun of gluten-free diets all you like, but they really are worth a try if you think you might fall into one of these categories.
- Similarly, it's possible to be allergic to sulfites, a group of otherwise harmless chemicals that are used as preservatives. Avoiding them when they're listed on an ingredients label, as Whole30 tells you to do, won't help you avoid them where they naturally occur in foods like grapes — and sulfite allergy is even rarer than coeliac disease. So the Whole30 people are right that this ingredient can be an issue for some people, but if you want to learn whether you're one of them, the Whole30 isn't the best way to find out.
- Giving up alcohol, as the diet tells you to do, can help people to begin to address a drinking problem, and can help eliminate a source of empty kilojoules. Going dry won't suddenly cure what ails you, but for some people it may be a worthwhile thing to try.
- A diet that cuts down on sugar and carbohydrates, like Whole30 does, can help people feel better just by eliminating "carb coma" fluctuations in energy and hunger. This doesn't address a major health issue, but likely explains why people say they feel great on Whole30 and other restrictive diets.
So there's a small chance that you might experience a health benefit from cutting out these foods. But that doesn't mean that you have to cut them all out at once. If you drink a lot, it's OK to give up beer while still allowing yourself pizza and peanut butter. If you want to try giving up gluten or FODMAPs, you don't have to give up sugar and dairy, too.
Conflating all of these things also leaves Whole30 dieters with a problem when they finish the diet: Even if you feel better on the diet than off, you aren't any closer to figuring out which of the many forbidden foods was the problematic one. You then have to experiment with the ingredients individually, which you could easily do without going through Whole30 first.
Super Strict Diets Aren't Helpful
If you slip up on Whole30, even by dumping a creamer in your coffee out of habit, you're supposed to start the 30 days all over again. You also aren't allowed any cheat meals (sorry, treat meals,) and you must adhere perfectly to the diet at all times.
The diet's creators won't cut you any slack. "Don't you dare tell us this is hard," they say on the website. "Beating cancer is hard. Birthing a baby is hard. Losing a parent is hard." Your body is "the most important health cause on earth," they say, which is supposed to somehow justify 30 days of self-inflicted misery.
Restrictive diets are hard to follow, so they can backfire. Especially with a zero tolerance policy, a single "failure" might lead you to give up on the whole diet, while beating yourself up for it. (Other people lost parents, after all, and you were laid low by a cookie.) On the Whole30 diet, you've removed all the mental safety nets that allow you to recover gracefully from a mistake.
Some Whole30 dieters find the strictness helpful, though. Having a clear way to say that cupcakes are off limits can remove the mental weight of deciding whether you can afford a cupcake in your kilojoule budget for the day. It's not a strategy that works for everyone, but some people do better with hard and fast rules than trying to ration out willpower for a million little decisions during the day.
Planning Ahead Helps You Be Successful
One admirable thing about Whole30's instructions is that before you begin, you prepare. The diet's creators ask you not just to commit to the program, but to take specific steps that will help you succeed. These can work for any diet, not just Whole30, of course.
First, you're supposed to decide on a start date, keeping your own schedule in mind — for example, not beginning the diet the week before an important athletic event if you're an athlete. You're also supposed to set up your kitchen to remove temptations, typically by tossing food you don't want to eat and asking other family members or roommates to keep their junk food in a cupboard that's off-limits to you.
You're also encouraged to figure out who your support network is. The website includes a support group forum, but you can also find people to help you among your own friends and family. And you're told to make a plan now for what you'll do when you begin to crave foods that aren't on the diet. That includes deciding how to respond to lunch invitations or other awkward situations that might otherwise take you by surprise.
This planning also includes making an emergency snack kit. The Whole30 website uses this as a chance to plug diet-approved products, but the idea is a solid one: If you might end up at a place without friendly food options, having healthy snacks in your purse, suitcase or car can help you get through that situation without having to give up on your diet.
You even keep on planning after you finish Whole30 — another smart strategy. You take stock of how the month went, and decide what foods to introduce to your diet again. If you found that you can easily do without sugar, for example, you may choose to keep that to a minimum going forward, without having to be so strict about it.
Focusing on Your Health Is a Better Goal Than Counting Kilos
Watching the numbers on a scale can be an emotional roller coaster: If you're down half a kilo, you'll feel good about yourself. Up half a kilo, you might feel like a failure. And if you're working out and gaining muscle while you lose fat, the numbers on the scale might hide real, wonderful changes that are going on inside your body.
For the entire time you're doing the Whole30 diet, you're not supposed to step on the scale. Instead, the diet's authors write that you should focus on how you feel. After all, if you feel great, why should you let the numbers on the scale burst your bubble?
There's also more to healthy eating than whether it helps you lose weight, so loosening your grip on your scale is good even when you're not on a diet. Exercise and eating well are worth doing, whether they change your weight or not.