Decoding Popular Diets: Whole30

Years before I became a Registered Dietitian, I tried Whole30 (gasp!).  Full disclosure, I didn't last 30 days.  Details are fuzzy (probably from removing so many foods!), but I doubt I lasted longer than a week.  My decision to begin the program stemmed from lingering eating-triggered pain that I experienced following my gallbladder removal.  It wasn't the right program for me at the time, and now as a dietitian, I'd caution others venturing into it - but not based on my personal experience (sample size of 1 wouldn't hold up in the science journals!).  Let's dig into the details along with my reservations about the program.  

As a review, here are the basics of Whole30:  

Whole30 || The premise: Determine if there are any food-based culprits for your fatigue, aches, or illnesses by cutting out specified foods + food groups for 30 days.  Cheating not allowed!  What's included: An abundance of veggies, some fruit, meat, seafood, eggs, and healthy fats (nuts, seeds, oils).  What's avoided: Sugar (real + artificial), processed foods, white potatoes, corn, dairy, grains (including gluten-free varieties), legumes, alcohol, carrageenan, MSG, and sulfites. It's also advised to exclude any healthy versions of typical junk food (read: don't try creating brownies that fit within the approved food guidelines - they are off limits too!).

The changes:  So many!  My guess is that few people maintain such a restrictive diet on a regular basis.  You're removing a few main food groups along with many convenience foods.  Dining out becomes extremely challenging (although certainly not impossible) and meal planning and prep is basically nonnegotiable.  

The good:  Whole30 includes healthy food choices with a serious emphasis on vegetables.  While it's easy to focus on how much the program forbids, it does allow for inclusion of all macronutrients - carbohydrates, protein + fat - through a combination of fruits and veggies (carbs), animal protein, and nuts/seeds/oils (fats).  Meal planning and prep is an important part of the plan, which can lead to improved eating behaviors and choices.  Whole30 also encourages mindful eating (no calorie counting here!) to help you consider when you actually feel hungry versus when you're eating out of convenience, boredom, or habit.  Finally, the Whole30 is not meant to serve as a complete lifestyle shift (in which you forever forgo a long list of foods) nor is it meant to serve as a weight loss program.  Completing the program may help you better understand how food affect aspects of your life outside the realm of weight loss.  

The questionable:  It's strict - seriously strict!  There's no denying it, and the creators of Whole30 don't try to do so.  So what's the issue?  Well, keeping a list of forbidden foods can lead to disordered eating habits in the future, including a full-on binge the day the program ends.  Additionally, eating a food that's excluded from the Whole30 program is considered a "failure" requiring you to restart the program (yes, back to day 1!).  That level of intensity is certainly not for everyone and can lead to food-associated guilt.  Also, you're removing a LOT of foods at once, meaning it might be hard to identify the causes of your body's responses without appropriately timed reintroduction of those foods (there are guidelines for doing so, but I fear many participants ignore these).  Nutrient deficiency is less of a concern due to the time limit of the program, but could become an issue if extended.  Finally, many of the "success stories" from Whole30 are just that - personal stories.  I don't completely discount their value, but the program currently lacks significant scientific evidence to support the health claims.  

The recommendations:  No judgement here if you still want to give the program a try, but please proceed with caution and do your research before starting.  If possible, work with a Registered Dietitian to help guide you through the process (or provide realistic alternatives to help you reach your goals in a sustainable manner!).  

Here are a few more tips to get you started with Whole30:

1.  PLAN AHEAD!  Most convenience foods won't make the cut, so meal planning and preparation is completely necessary.  Determine a food plan (along with a secondary and tertiary plan) for every potential situation (staying late at work, busy with the kids, traveling, social events, etc) so that you don't find yourself stuck without any approved foods.  

2.  Find a partner, friend, or coworker who will commit to completing the challenge with you.  The program requires 100% commitment (remember, if you screw up, you start over at day 1 of the 30 day challenge!), so the extra accountability + support might be useful.  Also, it will help you stay on track if the people around you aren't tempting you with forbidden foods!  

3.  Ease into it.  Once you begin Whole30, you need to commit completely, but that doesn't mean you can't adjust your diet a little before Day 1.  Try cutting back on forbidden foods in which you indulge more frequently (especially alcohol + foods that aren't nutrient dense) and attempt to avoid the "last supper" approach (cramming all the sugar, grains, dairy, alcohol, etc. into one final mega-meal before you start).  You'll likely find more success if you enter Day 1 feeling positive and energetic rather than bloated and hungover.  

4.  Strategize when choosing the start date of your 30 day program.  Try to find a period of 30 days without significant business, social or travel plans (good luck!).  Finding Whole30 compliant meals in these situations can be challenging (and downright depressing), so it's best to find a window in which you can prep and cook most meals at home.  Another reason you may want to limit plans?   With your new approach to food, you might experience headaches, fatigue or digestive issues - not exactly ideal for big events! 

5.  Get in the kitchen! The best way to follow the rules of the program is to cook everything yourself (and from scratch).  And hopefully this is one piece of the program that will stick with you beyond the 30 days as it can be part of a long-term healthy eating plan.

6.  Before starting the program, create a plan for day 31 so that you avoid binging on all the foods you've avoided for 30 days.  Try to follow the guidelines for reintroducing forbidden foods rather than indulging in a buffet of them immediately.  

If you're interested in reading about others' experiences with the program, you can find loads of personal stories + guides online.  Here are a couple to get you started: 

  1. A comical yet realistic experience with the Whole30 program (Self.com)
  2. A beginner's guide to Whole30 (Greatist.com)

Have you completed or attempted Whole30?  What's the biggest challenge you encountered?  What health improvements, if any, did you notice?  Let me know in the comments below!