The Whole30 Diet: Pros & Cons, Plus What You Need to Know Before You Get Started
Have you heard of the Whole30 diet and wondered if it might be right for you? If so, you're not alone. More and more people are looking into this program that claims following along will result in weight loss, high energy levels and better sleep. In addition to physical benefits, the Whole30 diet also promises psychological benefits.
This all sounds great, but as with any diet, it's important to understand the pros and cons before you dive in. Here, we've broken down what following the Whole30 plan would look like and the pros and cons of the popular diet.
Pictured recipe: Lemon-Lime Chicken, Kale & Mango Salad
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What Is the Whole30?
The Whole30 plan was developed by Dallas Hartwig and Melissa Hartwig. It's a 30-day plan designed to help you reset your eating habits and change your health. Eating Whole30 means cutting out a lot of foods, including grains, dairy, legumes, soy and any added sugars or sweeteners. The plan is outlined in the book The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom.
The tenets of Whole30 are pretty black and white and they employ lots of tough love-there's no cheating (or you reset to Day 1) and no excuses of any kind. As the book says, "It is not hard. Don't you dare tell us this is hard. Quitting heroin is hard. Beating cancer is hard. Drinking your coffee black. Is. Not. Hard."
What Can You Eat on Whole30?
- Fish & Seafood
- Meat (check processed meats like bacon for added sugar)
- Healthful oils (olive, walnut, flaxseed, macadamia, avocado, coconut) and ghee
What You Can't Eat on Whole30
- Dairy: including milk, yogurt and cheese
- Beans and legumes: including lentils, chickpeas, black beans and peanuts
- Grains: including whole grains and refined grains
- Added sugars and sweeteners
- Most processed foods
Pros of the Whole30 Diet
The plan doesn't promise specific weight-loss outcomes like "lose 5 pounds in 10 days." You also won't have to do any calorie counting or measuring. True to its name, Whole30 encourages eating whole foods with few ingredients so you're eating food that for the most part is entirely natural and unprocessed.
You are supposed to avoid highly processed foods with unpronounceable ingredients. Consequently, Whole30 encourages reading labels, which is helpful for choosing healthier foods and understanding what you're eating. The program encourages the consumption of meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, oils, nuts, seeds and limited amounts of fruit, which is partly in line with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
With the Whole30 diet, you must avoid added sugar. This includes both artificial sugars and natural sweeteners, such as maple syrup, honey, agave nectar and coconut sugar. This rule is in line with the Dietary Guidelines, which recommend limiting added sugars to 10 percent of daily calories, because they add calories to our diets without contributing essential nutrients. Fruit juice is allowed as a sweetener, listed as one of the program's five exceptions.
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Cons of the Whole30 Diet
As with most prescriptive diet programs, there are some downsides to take into account when considering whether the Whole30 diet is right for you. The most obvious of these negatives is the complete elimination of dairy, grains and legumes. Dairy and grains, in particular, are two of five key portions of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's MyPlate recommendations. On Whole30 you would need to exclude, "wheat, rye, barley, oats, corn, rice, millet, bulgur, sorghum, amaranth, buckwheat, sprouted grains and all of those gluten-free pseudo-grains like quinoa."
Depriving yourself of all these nutrition-packed grains, specifically whole grains, will reduce your consumption of fiber, vitamin E, iron, folate, magnesium, B vitamins and even some protein-all nutrients we should have in our diets. Whole grains have been linked to a lower risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and more, according to a 2016 BMJ study whose findings support current recommendations for increased whole grain intake. Similarly, legumes such as beans, chickpeas, lentils, peanuts and soyfoods (edamame, tofu, tempeh, etc.) boast numerous health benefits and are not a food group deserving avoidance. Legumes, when consumed as a part of a healthy diet along with plenty of fruits and vegetables and whole grains, are linked with lower rates of prediabetes, as reported recently in the British Journal of Nutrition.
Unless you have an allergy or intolerance, there is no science-based nutrition reason to cut out the dairy food group entirely. The USDA recommends eating dairy products, such as yogurt and milk. Dairy foods are excellent sources of protein, calcium, potassium and vitamin D, and have been linked to improved bone health, reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, and lower blood pressure. You'll want to choose unsweetened dairy foods like plain yogurt, and eat higher-calorie cheeses and butter in more limited amounts.
Interestingly, though butter is considered a part of the dairy group, Whole30 actually allows clarified butter or ghee (from grass-fed, organic cows). Conventional butter is not allowed, due to concerns about dairy farming conditions and the health impact of butter's milk solids (which are separated out during the clarifying process).
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The Whole30 Takeaway
Though there are some positive rules and aspects, namely the importance of eating "real food," the program advises you to steer clear of many healthy foods too, like whole grains and legumes. It's better to focus on the foods you can have, not the foods you can't have.
If you're looking to reset your diet, we would recommend focusing on whole foods, lots of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, proteins and healthy fats. And, rather than eliminating healthy foods, consider eliminating added sugars and making a big effort to eat less processed foods.
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