Should You Try the Whole30 Diet If You Have Diabetes?

By: Micaela Young, M.S.  |  Diabetic Living Magazine

Many people with diabetes are trying this popular diet craze—and liking it. But is it safe and good for you? We take a closer look.

Sheet-Pan Pork

The Whole30 is a restrictive and short-term diet "reset." For 30 days, participants commit to nonnegotiable food rules: no legumes, grains, dairy, alcohol, or added sugar. They go cold turkey on avoiding dietary staples like whole-wheat bread, oats, rice, peanut butter, beans, and milk. They eat only whole foods from a few food groups: vegetables and fruits, meats, seafood, eggs, nuts, and seeds. If they slip up, they start over—no exceptions. The creators' goal? That participants better understand how the banned foods affect them, while they overcome bad habits and cravings, lose weight, get energized, and cure unexplained aches and pains.

Pictured Recipe: Sheet-Pan Pork & Cherry Tomatoes

Pros of Whole30 for People with Diabetes

  • Clear guidelines of what to eat: Whole30 is a nudge in the right direction. The program offers clear-cut rules and meal-planning guides that aim to take the guesswork out of grocery shopping—and provide added motivation to steer clear of the snack aisle.
  • Supportive online community: The Whole30 also has an active online community to offer support and act as a sounding board for struggles and questions. And it can be inspiring to hear the real-life experiences of those who've followed the Whole30 and lost weight or stabilized their blood sugar. "Many patients have improved glucose control, the ability to stop medications, and increased happiness when I work with them to focus on vegetables, fruits, nuts, and quality meats, while also removing sugar, whole grains, legumes, and dairy," notes Rick Hendricksen, M.D., a Whole30 certified coach.
  • Pay more attention to food: "This program teaches participants to pay more attention to the foods they're eating," says Jill Weisenberger, M.S., RDN, CDE, author of Diabetes Weight Loss: Week by Week. Followers learn to be pickier about the foods they buy, to cook more, and to plan their weekday meals ahead of time.

Cons of Whole30 for People with Diabetes

Zucchini Noodles with Avocado Pesto

Pictured Recipe: Zucchini Noodles with Avocado Pesto & Shrimp

A diet that demands plenty of whole foods, plates full of colorful vegetables, and a pantry clear of packaged snacks and desserts certainly sounds like a healthy plan. And, in many ways, it can be. "Plenty of fruits and vegetables, moderate meat consumption, no added sugar—these recommendations are similar to the ADA guidelines and the Dietary Guidelines put out by the government," says Elizabeth Mayer-Davis, Ph.D., chair of the department of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and past president of the ADA's division of health care and education.

  • Restrictive Food Rules: A number of experts have concerns with just how restrictive the Whole30 can be. The diet "excludes many recommended food groups like legumes, which are a great source of nutrients and fiber, and low-fat dairy, a key source of calcium and protein," says Mayer-Davis. It's true that certain populations have problems with grains, dairy, and legumes. For those who have celiac disease, lactose intolerance, or irritable bowel syndrome, these food groups can pose a problem. And that's why many people with these conditions work with a registered dietitian to pinpoint specific foods that cause them distress. In the general population, however, there is little research to support the complete elimination of these food groups.
  • Missing Out On Healthy Food Groups: Eating whole grains and legumes (think foods like navy beans, pinto beans, brown rice, and bulgur) has been linked with a lower risk of inflammation-related diseases, including insulin resistance, heart disease, and certain cancers (especially those that occur more often in people with type 2 diabetes, like liver and pancreatic cancer). Legumes and whole grains have also been found to increase the number of good bacteria in the gut, which may contribute to increased insulin sensitivity and lower inflammation, says Jo-Anne Rizzotto, M.Ed., RD, LDN, CDE, director of educational services at Joslin Diabetes Center. Low-fat dairy products, such as milk and yogurt, are primary sources of bone-building calcium in Americans' diets, and may lower the risk of high blood pressure and stroke. And peanuts are a low-cost alternative to pricy nuts like almonds and walnuts, with many of the same heart-protecting benefits.
  • Increased Saturated Fat: Another concern with eliminating all these foods at once is that they need to be replaced with other foods. In the Whole30, this may mean eating more foods that are high in saturated fat such as red meat, coconut oil, ghee (i.e., clarified butter), and pork products. "The Whole30 has the potential to be high in saturated fat, which has been shown to contribute to insulin resistance," says Weisenberger. Some PWDs may need to focus on replacing saturated fats with healthy unsaturated fats to help lower their cholesterol levels—and their risk of heart disease.
  • Doesn't Lead to Long-Term Weight Loss: As for promises of weight loss: "There is nothing magical about the Whole30 for weight loss," warns Mayer-Davis, who adds that cutting out major food groups—regardless of which ones—will likely reduce calories and lead to weight loss. Losing weight temporarily is common with restrictive diets, but there are no promises the weight will stay off in the long run.

How to Decide if Whole30 Is Right For You

It's important to approach any fad diet with a healthy dose of skepticism. Grocery shopping for a diet this rigid can be unnecessarily expensive—especially when cheaper protein sources like beans aren't an option. Plus, if you use insulin or any drug with hypoglycemia as a side effect, it is important to monitor your blood sugar with extra care during a diet change this drastic.

Finding sustainable changes that you can manage and enjoy for a lifetime, not just 30 days, is what's really important. And a long-term eating plan can help lower your risk of complications of high blood sugar that can develop over many years, like neuropathy or kidney damage.

According to the ADA, there is no one-size-fits-all diet for managing diabetes. The best diet for each person is one that fits their own life, culture, preferences, and personal goals. For many people, that could be a diet that limits highly processed and packaged foods but isn't quite so rigid. "The most healthful diet is often the least restrictive," notes Weisenberger.

If clear-cut rules are what you're looking for, try making "rules with exceptions," suggests Weisenberger. One strategy she uses herself: "I never eat food that's left in the lunchroom … unless it's an unusual delicacy that I will never have the chance to eat again." Another proven technique? Get ahead of cravings with "if-then" plans: "If I eat out with my friends, then I will choose what I'm going to eat and drink ahead of time."

Long-Term Healthy Eating Plans That Work

Roasted Salmon with Smoky Chickpeas

Pictured Recipe: Roasted Salmon with Smoky Chickpeas & Greens

If you're still interested in following a plan, there are several research-backed diets that experts recommend for the long term. The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet and the Mediterranean diet are both great long-term options to support healthy weight loss and help you manage your diabetes, says Rizzotto. Both eating patterns are available as books, and both come with robust support networks—one DASH diet Facebook group has over 25,000 members!

The DASH diet, which has been shown to promote weight loss and help lower high blood pressure and "bad" LDL cholesterol, is also based on eating lots of vegetables, fruits, fish, and chicken, and limiting sugary beverages and sweets. Where do the Whole30 and the DASH diets differ? The DASH diet includes whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and beans. It also emphasizes lower sodium foods while limiting sources of saturated fat like beef and coconut oil.

The Bottom Line on Whole30 and Diabetes

In many ways, the Whole30 overlaps with expert-recommended healthy eating guidelines. And even though this diet cuts out major food groups, it's only for 30 days. But why not instead put that energy into making changes that last? Talk with your health care providers to figure out what your personal goals should be, and then work toward those goals. Because at the end of the day, it's not the diet that changes your habits, it's you.

Watch: How to Make Zucchini Noodles with Avocado Pesto

Related:
Pros & Cons of the Whole30 Diet
Quick & Easy Recipes for People with Diabetes
Healthy Whole30 Recipes