Hey there friends! It’s been a minute since I wrote a science/nutrition type post. Life has been crazy and all over the place. But let’s not dwell upon that. Let’s talk about the Whole 30 diet. A lot of people ask me about Whole 30. But what is the Whole 30 diet? Is Whole 30 Good for you? Today, we will look at the science behind the Whole30 diet?
PS: Video version at bottom of post or watch here.
What is Whole30?
I never learned about the Whole 30 diet in my masters of nutrition program, nor in my undergraduate nutrition classes. The Whole 30 diet is not included in my Clinical Nutrition textbooks, nor is it in my nutritional biochem textbook (granted, these books are a couple years old, but still).
So, I turned to the internet to find see what was out there about Whole30.
I couldn’t find any scientific studies on Whole30 on PubMed nor Google Scholar.
Thus, I turned to regular Google. According to the Whole30 official website, Whole30 is a 30-day diet that emphasizes whole foods and the elimination of sugar (real or artificial, including maple syrup, agave, coconut sugar, date syrup, Splenda, Stevia, etc) alcohol, grains including wheat, corn, rice, millet, etc, legumes of all kinds (ie: beans, peanuts, and peas), soy, dairy, and carrageenan, MSG, and sulfites.
The Whole30 program also forbids consuming baked goods, treats, or junk foods made with “approved” ingredients, as well as stepping on the scale or measuring one’s body during the 30 days.
According to the website, you must completely adhere to the full program “exactly as written 100% for the full 30 days.” If you have any “slip ups,” (even a bite of pizza) you “have” to start over again on Day 1.
Whole30 is also a lifestyle brand, of sorts. The website offers a couple Whole30-related books, and seems to work with brands on “Whole30-approved” certifications for certain products.
What Does Whole30 promise?
The Whole30 website claims that completing the Whole30 program will lead to “stunning, life-changing results.” According to their website, Whole30 can cure digestive ailments, seasonal allergies, skin issues, inflammation, and improve your immune system.
The Whole30 also advertises itself as a “nutritional reset” to help you “end” unhealthy cravings and habits.
There are no links to any scientific studies to support these claims on the Whole30 website. There are, however, links to Whole30 books available for purchase, written by the Whole30 founders.
Who Designed Whole30?
According to the Whole30 website, the diet was founded by Melissa Hartwig Urban, who obtained a sports nutrition certificate from ISSN (according to her LinkedIn page). ISSN is an online nutrition certificate site,sponsored by Bayer, bioPro, CBD+oil, Muscletech, and many other companies.
I can’t speak about the quality of the program as I have never taken the exam.
What Does the Science Say About Whole30?
As I alluded to above, I couldn’t find a single scientific studies on Whole30 and the diet’s impact on health on PubMed nor Google Scholar, nor did I ever learn about it in any academic nutrition setting. It’s not in any nutrition textbook I own, etc.
So, every health claim made by the Whole30 website lacks scientific data. Normally, when researching a diet or trend, I try to weigh the evidence and sift through the science available to determine the validity of claims made. However, in this case, all I can say is, there is no evidence to support any health benefits of the Whole30.
What are the Pros of Whole30?
After reviewing the Whole30 protocol, I can say I can get on board with the emphasis on whole fruits and vegetables. That’s wonderful. Fruits and vegetables are micronutrient and fiber-rich foods, not to mention delicious. If Whole30 gets people to try some new fruits and vegetables, great.
And like the Whole30 program, I am also an advocate of nuts, as they are delicious, nutrient-rich foods filled with beneficial and satiating fats.
I am also a fan of abstaining from counting calories and weighing oneself. I applaud the Whole30 for encouraging others to avoid these unhelpful habits that I do not believe serve human beings in meaningful ways when trying to achieve a healthier lifestyle.
But that’s about all I’m on board with.
What are the Cons of Whole30?
First and foremost, the Whole30 is very restrictive, and the extent of some of the restrictions seems quite random to me.
I cannot comprehend why legumes, whole grains, soy, and peanuts are banned from the diet, when all of these foods have been well-documented to be nutrient-rich, beneficial foods to incorporate into your diet.
There are other things that also don’t make sense to me. The diet insists on avoiding consumption of MSG, yet MSG is a naturally occurring compound found in mushrooms, tomatoes, grapes, and many other foods…perhaps they mean added MSG? Still, there actually is no evidence to support the claims that MSG is actually harmful.
Also, it paints foods as black and white. Just because something has a single gram of maple syrup added to it, is topped with peanut butter on it instead of almond butter…well, this does not make the food or meal automatically “bad” for you. Many foods can offer nutritional benefits even if they aren’t Whole30 approved, 100% natural, or 100% ‘healthy.’
For example, kombucha often has a bit of sugar content due to the fermenting process and the need to feed the starter. But it isn’t automatically a “bad” food. It offers other benefits, such as microbiome-friendly probiotics.
It seems even the authors of Whole30 have realized some of their rules are seemingly random. This article discusses how white potatoes, formerly banned from Whole30, are now allowed (though chips and fries are not). Sweet potatoes were always allowed. While I applaud anyone who is able to change their stance on something publically (often a difficult thing to do), I’m just not sure why they made this rule to begin with.
Sweet and white potatoes are nutritionally quite similar, with comparable amounts of fiber and protein. Sweet potatoes have more beta-carotene, yes, but white potatoes actually have more potassium. Foods have different things going for them. It’s not black and white.
And again, I can’t wrap my head around why whole grains, legumes, and soy are not allowed. All of these foods are continuously touted for their health benefits, with plenty of science to back them up.
Also, the diet promises that it will “restore a healthy emotional relationship with food, and with your body.” Personally, I can see it doing the opposite.
I am very much not a fan of rigid, food-rule-bound, obsessive diet. This diet is very inflexible; the website even tells dieters you can’t have any “slip ups,” regardless of birthdays, social events, etc.
They insist that you control the food you put in your body. If you ask me, this sounds a little less like a person controlling what they eat, and more like letting the food one allows themselves to eat control the person’s life. I really don’t like things that feed into diet culture, and therefore I can’t get behind this aspect of Whole30.
If you ask me, having a healthy, flexible relationship with food is important. Personally, I think that if your regimented diet causes you a large amount of stress, you are doing your body a disservice, even if your intention was to achieve health (chronic stresss is really, really not good for your body…I could write a whole post about it).
I actually almost included something about the emphasis on avoiding heavily processed foods and added sugar, in the “pro” section, but decided against it since I don’t think it’s necessary to completely abstain from consumption to be healthy.
Is it probably a good idea to not consume a ton of alcohol, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, trans-fatty processed foods, and soda? Sure. But is it essential to strictly eliminate them completely, as well as things like maple syrup and dates to be healthy? I don’t think so.
Health isn’t found through extremes; health is more likely achieved by eating an overall healthful, diverse diet most of the time, getting a good amount of sleep, managing stress, and taking care of your mental health. I say this a lot, but it’s worth repeating.
The Whole30 diet is a very popular lifestyle trend that requires dieters to adhere to a strict diet for 30 days. The diet emphasizes whole foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts and certain proteins (mostly meat and eggs). Whole30 strictly prohibits consumption of legumes, soy, sugars, and grains. Whole30 promises to heal a lot of various health ailments and restore the individual’s relationship with food; however, to date there have been exactly 0 scientific studies to support these claims.
While some aspects of Whole30 may be beneficial to human health, such as increased consumption of fruits and vegetables and decreased consumption of processed foods, the diet randomly eliminates good-for-you-foods, including legumes, whole grains, and seeds, and is quite restrictive and inflexible. Adhering to such a strict diet is not necessary to achieve health.
The best way to improve one’s health is to eat a variety of healthful, whole plant foods (fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, etc) most of the time, and not worry about the rest, and focus on getting enough sleep and managing stress levels.
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