Fad Diets: The Whole30

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The Whole30 is EVERYWHERE. The Whole30 book is even a New York Times “Food and Diet” bestseller.

Essentially, the Whole30 is a 30 day eating plan. Completing a “Whole30” involves eating from a very specific list of foods for 30 days as a sort of “diet reset.” According to the Whole30 website, this program is intended for people who have symptoms like low energy levels, aches and pains, allergies, and digestive problems that have not been helped with medication. It’s also for people having trouble losing weight and maintaining a healthy relationship with food. According to the developers, completing a Whole30 changes the way you view, taste, and select food.

But the list of things you can eat (meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruits, fats) during those 30 days is much shorter than the list of things you cannot (baked goods, grains, legumes, dairy, soy, treats of any kind, added sugar, etc.). Every time you eat one of the foods on the “no” list, you’re supposed to restart the 30 days.

As the Minnesotans say, uff da.

According to the Whole30 authors, these forbidden foods are “craving-inducing, blood sugar disrupting, gut-damaging, [and] inflammatory,” despite the fact that there is very little evidence to support these claims and plenty of evidence to dispute them. Not to mention that no studies have ever been conducted on the Whole30 itself.

Looking at the Whole30 from a nutrition science perspective, three important issues come to mind immediately:

1. The Whole30 suggests that there is something unhealthy about staple foods like bread, rice, and beans.

Yes, about 1% of the population has Celiac disease and cannot consume wheat safely. And yes, some people have food allergies. However, labeling all of these foods and many, many others as “off limits” for a 30 day diet reset is highly restrictive and may even be harmful. Many of the claims about these foods are also unfounded. Emerging evidence from animal studies (like this one and this one) suggests that beans, for instance, are not “gut-damaging” but are actually beneficial for intestinal health.

2. It provides very little framework for what to do after 30 days.

The official Whole30 program provides a guide for how to eat for 10 days after the program ends. It recommends gradually adding back the eliminated foods to assess which one(s) might be causing a problem. This structure roughly mimics the protocol following elimination diets, which are sometimes used for diagnosing the source of symptoms for hives, angioedema, eczema, and allergies. Medical elimination diets, however, remove a small, specific list of foods from the diet for a few weeks and then reintroduce them very gradually. These diets and the reintroduction period are also typically monitored by medical professionals. Removing many foods for 30 days then reintroducing them over 10 days is a different story altogether.

3. Being on a highly restrictive diet, even for 30 days, will affect your social life, work life, home life, and relationship with food.

The Whole30 is known for its tough love approach (“This is not hard.” “You have no excuse not to complete the program as written.”) Sure, compared to other life challenges, the Whole30 is not hard. But does that mean it’s a good idea? The Whole30 is 30 days of eating a highly restricted diet with very little evidence to support it. It does not encourage moderation. It does encourage packing meals for social occasions and work events. I don’t know about you, but I prefer not to bring along a meal with me to enjoy dinner with friends. Or weddings. Or date night. Or a work lunch.

Despite the promise on the Whole30 website that it will change your relationship with food, it does not set the groundwork for evidence-backed habits– like maintaining a consistent dietary pattern, eating in moderation, and making healthy choices at restaurants- that can be part of long-term diet change. To change what and how you eat, try making small changes to your diet over time instead. These changes are more likely to be maintainable and, therefore, have a lasting impact. Choosemyplate.gov has an entire page of suggestions on how to take small steps towards a healthier and more sustainable way of eating.

This blog post was written by Julie Hess, PhD, the 2017 Sylvia Rowe Fellow.