What’s the whole story with the Whole30 program? It’s a nutritional reset plan that has worked for countless people, and many of those who have done it swear by it — and defend it up and down.
I know this for a fact, because last month, I wrote a piece on this site that was my attempt to deconstruct some of the latest, most trendy tactics to lose weight quickly. You can read it for yourself and judge the conclusions, but the one tactic that drew the most attention and passionate feedback was my quick take on Whole30. Here’s just one example of the literally dozens in the comments section:
“I think that Whole30 is over-simplified in this article. It is not meant to be a long-term thing or even a weight-loss program. Why would you ever include Whole30 in a roundup like this?”
That was one of the nicer ones.
I was even called out by Whole30’s co-founder, Melissa Hartwig, on Twitter.
— Melissa Hartwig (@MelissaHartwig_) April 12, 2017
I get it. The piece was a slide show, which means I had to be very short and sweet on each of the nine “gimmicks,” as we called them. Many readers voiced criticism for my not being thorough enough on Whole30. I won’t spend extra time breaking it down, but I do recommend going straight the source for an excellent in-depth explanation from the program’s creators.
As the name implies, Whole30 is a 30-day program that embraces whole, complete, unprocessed foods. By eliminating certain aggravators — sugar, grains, dairy, legumes and alcohol — you may have the ability to find exactly what’s causing a hiccup in your goal to achieve optimum health. The idea is that for a full 30 days, you strip these foods from your diet. Then, once you’ve hit 30 days, you slowly reintroduce those “less healthy” foods back into your diet, one group at a time, over the course of about 10 days.
Many of you strongly criticized my decision to classify Whole30 as a weight-loss diet. While it isn’t advertised as such, the program rules deem it beneficial for anyone “having a hard time losing weight, no matter how hard you try.” In the benefits section on the official website, it also claims “more than 95% of participants lose weight and improve their body composition.” That’s great! But you can see why I chose to categorize Whole30 as a diet that some people use for weight loss. Ninety-five percent is a quite impressive statistic, and certainly translates to a successful way to lose weight for those interested. And 30 days — in my professional opinion as a registered dietitian — is most certainly quick when it comes to weight loss. Anything that eliminates that many healthy foods from your plate is, in my opinion, extreme.
There are many great, great (I’ll say it again for emphasis), great things about Whole30. It’s like a reset button for your health — a way to step back and take a look at what types of food you are really eating. The idea is the program will completely change the way you look at food, likely for the better, and hopefully forever — and for most people it does induce some sort of change in some way. You’ll eat fresh, high-quality plants and proteins, learn to plan ahead, learn to read nutritional labels and possibly even target certain foods that may be causing you discomfort or health problems (like sugar, the non-food ingredients that junk up processed foods and too much alcohol). The diet consists of high-quality meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruit and plant-based fats and oils from nuts and seeds.
These are all great things! In addition to likely losing weight, you may also find yourself with improved energy levels, better sleep, a healthier digestive tract and a more balanced immune system. If everyone cut back on added sugars and processed foods, we wouldn’t be faced with an obesity crisis right now. Even I’ve greatly reduced the amount of added sugar in my diet since January 1 and I feel great.
But strip down all the hype and you basically have a 30-day elimination diet. Of course you’ll lose weight when you disallow not only empty calories (sugar) and liquid calories (alcohol), but also 50% of what many people fill their plate with on a daily basis in the form of grains, beans and dairy. That’s where I begin to have issues. In the grand scheme of things, 30 days isn’t long enough to discern what’s causing your problems. And by eliminating so many food groups at once, there’s no clear way to truly pinpoint what it is that’s making you feel terrible.
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I’m fine to give those things up for 30 days, but what you really have to think about is day 31, 32, 33, etc. What happens next? What will you do to sustain the weight loss you’ve accomplished once your 30 days are up? I’m all for continuing with no added sugars and keeping alcohol consumption to moderate levels. But grains, legumes and dairy all deserve their place in a healthy diet. They contain calories, too — good calories, but calories that your plate hasn’t seen in a month. So you’ll need to readjust the balance of whatever it is that makes up your plate as you add them back in.
If you’re Whole30-ing to reset your digestive tract, you may end up doing it more harm than good. Grains, legumes and dairy-based, probiotic-packed yogurt are beneficial to gut flora. Remove them and you could unfavorably shift your microbiome, according to Gerard Mullin, director of the Johns Hopkins Medicine Celiac Disease Clinic.
Maintaining a healthy weight isn’t about depriving yourself of the things you love for the rest of your life. It’s also not about short-term elimination diets. In no way am I setting out to discourage consumers from embarking down the path of Whole30. Again, I think it’s a terrific way to educate yourself about the food industry, to reset your mind and body, or to jump-start your adventure into eating more plants and whole foods. If that’s what you’re after, you’ll likely be among the thousands who swear by Whole30.
What you should not do is trick yourself into believing it’s a sustainable tool for weight loss. It is a tool, absolutely. So use it to learn about your body in the way you need to. But don’t let your whole-grain, grass-fed Greek yogurt, fresh-ground peanut butter-loving taste buds suffer for too long.