July 19, 2018
Whole30: Healthy or Hokum?

Whole30: Healthy or Hokum?

by Jeanine Barone  

Several readers have asked what we think of the popular Whole30 Program—whether it can really help them lose weight or have any other health benefits.

Whole30 bills itself as a program that will “re-set” your eating habits, transform your health, and “change your life.” It’s said to heal digestive problems; eliminate cravings; treat a variety of conditions, from acne and allergies to depression; balance hormone levels; boost immunity and energy; and improve sleep. All in 30 days. A bonus may be “effortless” weight loss.

Is there any truth to Whole30’s claims, or is this all just wishful thinking and good marketing? Here’s a look at the plan, as delineated in The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom. Reviews on Amazon for the book, which has sold over a million copies—along with additional Whole30 books and cookbooks—are pretty stellar. Part of the reason why so many people are trying this Paleo-inspired elimination diet is that the restrictive eating lasts only a month. But those 30 days can be very hard—and far from the healthiest way to eat.

Do’s and don’ts

The plan centers on strict “do eat” and “don't eat” lists. Among the prohibited foods are all sugars and sugar substitutes, alcohol, grains (including gluten-free), most legumes (beans, lentils, as well as peanuts and soy), and dairy (an exception is clarified butter, or ghee). That means no honey in your tea, no chewing gum (not even sugar-free), not a splash of wine in your marinade, no oatmeal. If you cheat, even for a special occasion, you go back to day one of the 30-day diet. Having even a small amount of these supposedly “inflammatory” foods—or even just a taste of something sweet—is claimed to disrupt your immune and digestive systems and potentially trigger food cravings and the re-emergence of your symptoms, whatever they are.

The foods you can eat include meat, fish, and eggs, plus fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Fruit-based sweeteners, salt, herbs and spices, and certain fats like palm oil, coconut oil, duck fat, beef fat, lard, and ghee are allowed. Olive, sesame, and avocado oils are okay, too, but, corn, rice bran, soybean, and peanut oils are not. You are instructed to use safflower, sunflower, canola, grapeseed, and sesame oils only in limited amounts.

After 30 days, you gradually reintroduce foods in groups—similar to how some elimination diets are done if a food allergy or food sensitivity is suspected. The idea is to become aware of which foods might be problematic for you. If you haven’t missed a particular food (hopefully sweets!), there’s no need to ever add it back, according to the program’s description—but since so many of the eliminated foods are healthy ones, never eating those again could mean missing out on important nutrients. Moreover, if you suspect some kind of food allergy or intolerance, elimination diets are best done systematically under medical supervision, such as with a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), since they can be very challenging to do on your own.

Pros and cons of the Whole30

Whole30 emphasizes (a limited set of) whole unprocessed foods. It encourages you to read food labels and eat only when you’re hungry. There is no calorie counting. That’s all good. Because you can’t eat out as easily—if you do you have to painstakingly inquire about every single ingredient—following Whole30 means having to prepare most of your own foods, which is generally a healthy habit to get into.

On the other hand, the diet needlessly excludes many healthy foods, including entire groups of “whole” foods, which are claimed to be bad because they are inflammatory, contain gluten, or bind nutrients. But there’s no evidence that legumes, for instance, promote inflammation or are the reason for many health problems. In fact, it’s not even proven that inflammation is directly responsible for chronic diseases or that consuming “anti-inflammatory” foods will prevent them. Forgo yogurt and other dairy foods and you miss out on a top source of calcium. Forgo grains and you miss out on important fiber.

What’s more, some of the “to eat” foods are not particularly healthy. For instance, fruit juice sweeteners are just sugars masquerading as something that sounds healthier than other sugars, but isn’t. Bacon, sausage, and deli meats are allowed if they are not factory farmed and are free of sugar, sulfites, and MSG, though they are just as fatty and salty as conventional processed meats. And as for the oils allowed, the rules make no sense to us: For instance, olive oil is okay, but peanut oil is not, while canola oil is restricted.

Weighing in

A search of the medical literature turned up no independent published studies to back any of Whole30’s claims. Any benefits are anecdotal. In a 2011 company survey of more than 2,000 participants in the program, nearly all reported losing at least six pounds. That’s not surprising because any time you avoid entire food groups, as this restrictive eating plan does, you will likely lose weight, simply because you are cutting calories. In that regard, there’s nothing magical or special about the Whole30 Program. But there’s no follow-up to know how many of these participants kept the weight off. Plus, following a very restricted diet can set up a scenario of what is thought of as “restrained eating,” and studies on restrained eating have found it to be a good predictor of future weight gain.

What others say about the Whole30

When US News & World Report recently rated a variety of diets, Whole30 ranked close to the bottom in all nine categories, including Best Diet Overall, Best Weight-Loss Diet, and Easiest Diet to Follow. Among the conclusions: “Without careful planning, a strong support system and dogged dedication, a business lunch, flight delay or date night can throw you off and send you back to the start. By nature, diets that eliminate entire food groups are tough to follow. On the other hand, it’s only 30 days.” It further said: “No independent research. Nonsensical claims. Extreme. Restrictive. The slams against Whole 30 came in strong from our panelists, and it tied with the Raw Food Diet as the worst of the worst for healthy eating.”

We recently spoke with food and nutrition expert Marion Nestle about Whole30. She said: “No one would argue with avoiding sugar, which has calories that no one needs. Avoiding grains is [the diet’s] main weight-loss strategy. But I don’t quite get why they restrict legumes and dairy except that they, too, are sources of calories, so it’s another way to reduce calorie intake. Anyone ought to lose weight on this diet, though its theoretical basis doesn’t make much sense.”

Bottom line: Following Whole30 for 30 days, as it’s intended, is presumed to be long enough to break bad eating habits, assuming you can make it the whole month. Perhaps it might help stop sugar cravings. But it makes big promises based on unfounded science—the hallmark of a fad diet—and whether it has any lasting health impact remains to be proven. Moreover, the diet eliminates too many healthy foods, even in the short-term, to be advisable. And if you have symptoms of a medical condition, whether gastrointestinal or allergy-related, rather than going on a restrictive diet like this on your own, you should instead see a physician for diagnosis and treatment. If you’re looking for a healthier eating plan, we suggest the Mediterranean, DASH, or MIND diet, or some combination of them.

Also see The Best Diets of 2018.