As I’ve been making my way through diet reviews, I thought I’d circle back to the Whole30 diet since it’s been a pretty long-standing, popular diet.
Whole30 Diet Review
What is Whole30?
Whole30 is a 30-day, elimination diet that emphasizes whole, unprocessed foods. That said, it arbitrarily (sorry) eliminates a number of highly nutritious, whole, unprocessed foods and “allows” some contradictory foods… I’ll try to hold my opinion until the end.
Whole30 is intended to be a 30-day “reset” and not intended to be used long-term. The idea is to eliminate a whole bunch of foods and then reintroduce them to see which ones you should keep eliminating long-term and which you can eat. That said, doing multiple Whole30s (at least once a year or for various lengths of time after holidays or anytime you need a reset) is recommended by the developer.
Whole30 has strict rules, and aside from the rules there are strong recommendations which you don’t “have” to keep to “stay Whole30” but are recommended. Whole30 strongly demands, “no cheats, no slips, no excuses” and if you do you are supposed to start back at day 1.
One bite of pizza, one spoonful of ice cream, one lick of the spoon mixing the batter within the 30-day period and you’ve broken the “reset” button, requiring you to start over again on Day 1.
Who Created Whole30? And how was it created?
It was created by Melissa Hartwig and her ex-husband, Dallas Hartwig. (I read her podcast interview with Lewis Howes here to get some background info). After a heavy olympic lifting session one day in 2009, while Melissa was eating Thin Mints right out of the sleeve, Dallas suggested they do a 30-day Paleo diet, “squeaky clean”. That was the genesis of what evolved to become Whole30.
So first came Whole30 in 2009, then the book It Starts with Food was released in 2012, which is supposed to be the science behind Whole30 except that that science has been ripped apart completely here. Melissa has since written a total of 6 books.
In terms of education and training, Dallas has a BS in Anatomy & Physiology, MS in Physical Therapy and a Functional Medicine training certification which requires 20 days of training, two exams and isn’t recognized by any medical body. His MS and BS are legit, and promise a good physiology background but not necessarily any formal nutrition education. Melissa mentions in her podcast interview with Lewis Howes that she was high all four years of college (sarcasm aside, I do think her drug addiction recovery story is amazing) and has a MS in Health and Nutrition Education from Hawthorn University… which isn’t accredited per the US Department of Education (accreditation recognized by the USDE is basically to ensure quality standards for institutions of higher education). Bottom line, Whole30 was developed by persons with limited and/or questionable formal nutrition education training.
What can you eat on Whole30?
Whole30 is dairy-free, gluten- and grain-free, (mostly) lectin-free and (mostly) no sugar added.
Per the official “rules”, these are allowed on Whole30:
- Fruit & fruit juice – notably, fruit is not to be eaten “as dessert”
- A few legumes – includes green beans, sugar snap peas and snow peas only
- Vinegars, except malt vinegar
- Coconut aminos
- Fats for cooking: animal fats, clarified butter or ghee, coconut oil, and extra-virgin olive oil
As mentioned previously, there are a number of additional “strong recommendations“, including a strong push for organic, wild or free-range foods.
What can you not eat on Whole30?
On Whole30 you cannot have:
- Dairy – no cow, goat or sheep products (i.e. no yogurts, milk, sour cream, kefir, cheese or cottage cheese, etc.)
- Most legumes – no beans of any kind (i.e. black, kidney, pinto, etc.), peanuts or peanut butter, no soy in any of its forms (i.e. no edamame, soy sauce, miso, tofu, etc., coconut aminos are the exception)
- Grains – no bread, pasta, rice, quinoa, bulgar, wheat, sorghum, buckwheat, etc. (any and all grains are a no), no gluten-free, cereal-like products
- Added sugar or sugar substitutes – no honey, molasses, agave nectar, stevia, etc.
- Alcohol, including no alcohol in cooking
- Seed oils – no soybean or peanut oil (all seed oils are a no); canola oil (among many others) should be limited per the program
- Anything with carrageenan, MSG or sulfites
- Any baked goods or anything that resembles a “treat”, even with “approved” ingredients – (i.e. no pancakes, waffles, tortillas, no pseudo-pizza crusts like cauliflower pizza crust are allowed although cauliflower rice is allowed, muffins, no pasta alternatives like garbanzo bean pastas although zucchini noodles are allowed, no brownies or cookies with approved ingredients, etc.)
Aside from this list, Whole30 says, “When in doubt, leave it out” if questioning whether or not something is approved.
Things I Like About Whole30
Emphasis on real, whole foods. On a positive note, Whole30 is all about whole foods (although they exclude many). I’m a big fan of encouraging real food. Somehow I think our culture has shifted away from real food and instead has bars, balls and shakes in their place. Shifting to whole foods offers an opportunity to explore the kitchen and incorporate real, nutrient-rich foods into every meal and snack.
Lots of veggies (and some fruit). Fruits and veggies make the world go ’round! Although fruit is suggested only twice daily max per Whole30’s “recommendations” (personally it doesn’t bother me if you have three servings in a day), but if you’re on Whole30, you’re likely to be eating a LOT more color! Fruits and veggies are great sources of antioxidants, fiber and vitamins and minerals. With only 1 in 10 people eating enough fruits and vegetables in the US, this is a positive emphasis.
Protein. Most people eat enough protein, but their follow-through on divvying it up fairly evenly between meals tends to be subpar (banana and coffee for breakfast just isn’t going to cut it, peeps). I think on Whole30, you may be more likely to have adequate protein with each meal since… well… quite frankly you just can’t eat a lot of things.
Low added sugar. Of course, reducing your added sugar intake is a positive thing health-wise. High added sugar in the diet can negatively impact blood sugar, weight and lipid profile.
Things I Don’t Like About Whole30
Those positives noted, let’s dive into some things I don’t like about Whole30. Keep in mind, this isn’t even an all-inclusive list. You’re welcome for being mindful of your attention span.
Highly nutritious foods excluded. Grains, legumes and dairy are all absolutely-nots on Whole30.
- Grains: Rich in B-vitamins and fiber.
- Legumes: Rich in fiber and minerals. And sorry but lectins being an issue in beans just isn’t a real thing because they’re inactivated by cooking… and nobody’s eating raw beans. I’ll be doing a whole review on the lectin-free diet (yes there are lectins in other foods) later. Just know bottom line you don’t need to be worried about them.
- Dairy: Great source of calcium and vitamin D (among other nutrients like potassium and phosphorous).
High saturated fat cooking fats “approved”. Really? We’re going to suggest animal fat for cooking as one of the “best” fats to use? I mean I’m not opposed to incorporating some saturated fat in the diet, and my mom makes some mean brussels sprouts sautéed in bacon grease for the holidays (don’t judge – it’s DELICIOUS), but that’s all in moderation. The USDA recommends keeping calories from saturated fat at about 10% of your total diet and the American Heart Association recommends keeping it at 5-6% (that’s ~13 g per day and would only give you 1 Tbsp of ghee on Whole30 per day for all of your saturated fat).
Veganism or vegetarianism is discouraged and “not Whole30”. Melissa argues you must eat animal protein for a complete diet. That’s just not accurate. Sure, you miss out on vitamin B-12 but that’s easily supplemented with nutritional yeast or a supplement. Yes a vegan diet is lower in calcium and vitamin D but Whole30 already stripped away the most rich source of either of those since it’s dairy-free. Soy is a complete protein but again Whole30 doesn’t let you have that. As long as you’re having a variety of proteins on a vegetarian or vegan diet, you don’t really need to worry about pairing incomplete proteins to avoid amino acid deficiencies. Because vegetarians and vegans would have to “break” Whole30 to include plant sources of protein, being either is considered “not Whole30“.
Attitude. This might be what sucks most about Whole30 (aside from its shotty science). If you read through Whole30’s website, they’re just… I’m trying to avoid obscene adjectives here 🙄… jerks (but stronger)! The entire attitude of Whole30 is extremely black and white, tough love, no ifs, ands or buts. And quite frankly, in my opinion stems from Melissa’s personality. She mentions on her podcast interview that the first time they did Whole30:
And the thing that made me a really good drug addict, also makes me really good at taking on new habits, because I was like, “When do you want to start?” He’s like, “Now.” And I literally handed the thin mints to my friend, Zach, and I was like, “Cool, let’s go!” And we did, and that was the start of the very first Whole30.
Repeatedly, all over the Whole30 website it is degrading and demeaning. Another excerpt from their “rules” page:
This is not hard. Don’t you dare tell us this is hard. Fighting cancer is hard. Birthing a baby is hard. Losing a parent is hard. Drinking your coffee black. Is. Not. Hard. You’ve done harder things than this, and you have no excuse not to complete the program as written.
Sorry, we’re comparing death? I’m not sure what sort of behavior modification training Melissa has had but… this tactic is generally not motivating.
Food is more than just food. It’s emotional, it’s social, it’s cultural. We celebrate with food. Food is the center of gathering. I loved what my colleague Cara Harbstreet said, “Saying we only eat for fuel is like saying we have sex only for procreation.” Mic drop. Moving on.
Emphasis on organic foods. If organic is your preference, then that’s fine and I don’t have a problem with it. But, organic foods are not more nutritious than conventional.
Inconsistencies. Added sugars aren’t allowed but fruit juice is (which is… essentially… added sugar because you would never eat the same amount of whole fruit as you will in fruit juice). Soy isn’t allowed but coconut aminos are. You “have to eat animal protein” because you can’t get all the nutrients you need from plant proteins but you can’t have dairy. You can eat XYZ foods but you can’t eat them if they are combined in the form of a would-be baked good like an alternative pasta, pizza crust or in treat form, or eat fruit as your “dessert”.
Extremely selective food label rules. I don’t disagree that looking for simple food labels is a positive thing. That said, the idea that if you can’t pronounce it, it’s harmful for you just isn’t accurate.
False claims. Whole30 notes how a variety of diseases and symptoms can be “magically eliminated” (their words, not mine) using Whole30, including diabetes, endometriosis, celiac disease, depression, eating disorders (sorry – you’re going to cure an eating disorder by giving an extreme list of rules? that’s weird because I worked in an eating disorder unit and there could not be a more inappropriate treatment), infertility, fibromyalgia, ADHD and lyme disease among others. Wow – you can even cure autoimmune diseases “magically”?! Celiac disease can’t be cured if you missed that in your three nutrition classes… Symptoms managed – yes, with a strict gluten-free diet. But we are not curing diseases here.
Not a long-term solution. First of all, Whole30 is not intended to be used long-term. Secondly, I’m in the business of helping people develop a positive relationship with food and their bodies and creating long-lasting, healthy habits – guilt and shame aside. Whole30 is a very tough-love, short-term, fad diet (with a few redeeming qualities). There, I said it.
What does the science say about Whole30?
Nothing. There has been no research on the Whole30 diet. Again you can read this exhaustive critique which literally rips through every citation in their It Starts with Food book.
Bottom Line, Would You Recommend It?
I’m not going to tell you that you’ll definitely develop some extreme nutritional deficiencies in 30 days of trying Whole30. You probably won’t. If you did multiple Whole30s in a year, maybe some deficiencies (I’ve seen testimonials of people doing it for 4 or 6 months).
I will say I think it’s completely, unnecessarily over-restrictive.
Do some people do Whole30 and love it? Yes. There’s a very devout following for Whole30. Will I discount the fact that people have had positive experiences and maybe started eating much more nutritious foods on Whole30 than they did before because they’re eating a whole lot more real foods now? Nope, I think that’s fantastic.
Here’s what I think: If you have read the drawbacks and are dead-set on trying Whole30, go for it. If you have a great experience, that’s fantastic. If you find it puts you in a negative headspace, you’re feeling lethargic, or feeling like you are constantly thinking about food or shackled to your kitchen, please just ditch it. And don’t start over at day 1. Take what you learned from it (e.g. using real, whole foods in your normal meal pattern, reading food labels and cooking more than going out) and incorporate those healthful principles into your life long-term.
If you’ve been on the edge about trying it, you’ve read the drawbacks and are hesitant, maybe don’t do it. Instead, plan out how you can get more nutritional value into the foods you already enjoy. Add some nuts and fruit to your Greek yogurt at breakfast, throw some quinoa and grilled chicken breast on your salad at lunch, have a sweet potato with dinner tonight. At each meal include rich sources of protein (animal or plant), fiber-rich fruits and veggies and nutritious fats. Try eating half a sandwich instead of a protein bar if you’re hungry. Listen to your hunger and full signals and learn to feed yourself for life without a set of rules.
Have you tried Whole30?
What was your experience with Whole30?