Is The Whole30 Just Another Fad Diet?

The Unsustainability of Restrictive Nutrition

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We are surrounded by a diet culture where many of us are in search of the latest trend for rapid weight loss and improved health. Obesity and being overweight have become an epidemic problem for Americans and a primary reason we have such an overwhelming selection of diet plans. The Whole30 is just one of the various diets promising to “change your life.”

The problem is knowing whether the nutrition plan is healthy or just another fad diet.

A fad diet makes promises of weight loss or other health claims without reliable scientific evidence. Fad diets are also characterized by highly restrictive or unusual food choices, which leads to negative connotations around the word "diet." So, is the Whole30 considered a fad diet?

What Is The Whole30 Diet?

The Whole30 plan was founded in 2009 by Melissa and Dallas Hartwig. The founders don’t consider it a "diet," but a short-term nutrition reset with claims to change your life in a 30-day period. The plan promises to end unhealthy habits, restore a healthy metabolism, and even treat certain medical conditions. Some of the advertised claims include:

  • Heal the digestive tract
  • Balance the immune system
  • Eliminate food cravings
  • Improve medical conditions
  • Boost energy and metabolism
  • Promote weight loss
  • Change how we think about food and food freedom

The founders believe that certain food groups have a negative impact on our health and fitness, causing symptoms like body aches, low energy levels, skin problems, digestive issues, and infertility.

Even the "healthy stuff" can play a role.

The plan recommends eliminating several food groups in order to give the body a break from what they consider "bad foods" for 30 days. During this period, participants are not allowed to consume sugar, alcohol, grains, dairy, and most legumes. This is supposed to be the true test of what foods are good or adversely affect your body, according to the Hartwigs.

In order for the plan to work, absolutely no slip-ups, cheat meals, or special occasion eating can take place for 30 days. Just one taste of any off-limits food can disrupt the healing cycle, say the founders. They claim the Whole30 is “born of science and experience.”

Are the Claims Realistic?

Although the Whole30 founders say the plan isn’t a diet, the rigid food rules suggest otherwise. Remember, fad diets are highly restrictive and make lots of unsupported weight loss or health claims. According to this plan, by day 31, you will be free from unhealthy food cravings and experience a complete reset of your body, which isn't a likely lasting effect.

Research shows that restrictive diets don’t work for sustained weight loss because we’re not able to maintain this lifestyle. Weight may be lost initially but is often regained, plus some.

Diets with rigid food rules are also said to set us up for failure so that we continue to spend money on the same or different fad diet. The diet industry is a multi-billion dollar business with you as their target group. Did you fail? No problem, just try again. The founders of the Whole30 encourage individuals to repeat their program if you’ve slipped up or “just had to eat something off limits at an event.”

Positives of the Program

The Whole30 is essentially an elimination diet according to Dr. David Katz, founding director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center. When foods are removed and reintroduced into the diet one at a time, it allows you to identify foods that may trigger allergies or sensitivities. This is a clinical, time-honored approach and can work for the purpose of identifying trigger foods in order to minimize symptoms, but not for achieving overall health.

Nutrition experts also agree that removing added sugars and processed foods from our diet, like the Whole30 recommends, is a good thing.

Reducing sugar intake decreases inflammation, reduces illness, and improves our overall health.

Another benefit: you'll consume whole foods for 30 days and may experience short-term weight loss. Whole foods on the diet include:

  • Lots of vegetables and some fresh fruit
  • Moderate amounts of lean proteins (fish, beef, poultry, and pork are encouraged to be grass-fed and organic for best results)
  • Plenty of natural fats (olive oil, avocado, coconut oil, or ghee)
  • Nuts and nut butter (almonds, cashews, almond butter). Sorry, peanut butter is out!

Negatives of the Program

The Whole30 plan was included in the annual U.S. News Report best diet survey. There were 38 diet plans examined by a panel of nationally recognized experts in diet, nutrition, obesity, food psychology, diabetes, and heart disease. Each diet was examined in seven categories, including:

  • How easy the diet is to follow
  • Ability to produce short and long-term weight loss
  • Nutritional completeness
  • Diet safety
  • The potential for preventing and managing diabetes
  • The potential for preventing and managing heart disease

Out of the 38 diets reviewed, the Whole30 ranked last at 38. Below are just a few of the panel experts' opinions and comments:

  • The greatest concern was the elimination of essential foods, including dairy, grains, and legumes.
  • The program is extremely restrictive in nature.
  • The plan hasn’t been studied independently in peer-reviewed journals.
  • Experts disagreed that the diet can treat or cure diabetes.
  • Most diabetes experts recommend a diet that includes whole grains, legumes, and dairy products, which the Whole30 eliminates.
  • Diets that require starting over after one cheat meal or slip-up are “quack diets.”
  • The plan is extremely difficult to follow.
  • The recommended intake of red meats and saturated fats can be easily overdone.
  • The plan doesn’t support long-term weight loss and is only a short-term diet.
  • Weight control, heart disease, and diabetes prevention require lifelong effort. This plan doesn’t offer lifelong habits to achieve that.
  • The plan is lacking in nutritional value, considered unsafe, too restrictive, and not based on any scientific evidence.

Expert Opinions and Feedback

Many doctors and nutrition experts disagree with the claims of the Whole30 Diet. Although there are a few positives to the plan, the negatives far outweigh any benefits. Some experts disagree with the general removal of important food groups from the diet, indicating a potential for adverse health effects. The following nutrition experts have provided valuable feedback on the Whole30 Diet plan.

David Katz MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, FACLM, is one of the judges for the U.S. News and World Report annual 'best diet' survey. He is also the Verywell Senior Medical Advisor, founding director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center, founder and director of the True Health Initiative, and globally recognized for his expertise in nutrition, weight management, and prevention of chronic disease. Dr. Katz has provided the following expert opinion:

This diet did not fare well in the rankings overall, and certainly did not fare well with me. The problem is that Whole30 promotes meat consumption, which is generally considered a bad idea, while discouraging perfectly healthy food groups.

In general, I don't think much of a diet built around the tried-and-failed approach of cutting out foods and good groups, and adding them back. I like a diet even less when it cuts out some of the very foods most conducive both to losing weight and finding health, such as legumes.

Much of the Whole30 plan is standard dieting salesmanship. There is no emphasis here on acquiring a full set of skills for healthy living. Because of this, it's not even possible to know if the diet that results from this will be healthful.

Whole30's only potential benefit is for short-term weight loss, not long-term weight maintenance, general health, or longevity. If you're looking to overhaul your diet for any of those reasons, there are 37 other diets on the U.S. News list to consider before settling on Whole30, including the DASH Diet, Mediterranean Diet, and MIND Diet, which were ranked the top three diets, respectively.

Andrea Giancoli MPH, RD, is one of the judges for the U.S. News and World Report annual 'best diet' survey. She is an expert in nutrition policy and vegetarian and fad diets. Andrea is a nutrition and health advocate, consultant, and communicator. She is also a nationally recognized freelance and nutrition writer. Andrea is a past national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and continues to provide nutrition expertise to television, radio, internet and print media outlets across the country. Andrea has provided the following expert opinion:

The Whole30 is a quick weight loss scheme marketing rapid weight loss. Sure, you may lose weight during the 30-day period, but it’s not sustainable. The body is not made to lose weight as rapidly as this diet claims and sustain it lifelong. Also, the diet is very restrictive and lacks nutritional value. When supplements are recommended as part of a diet, as is the case with the Whole30, that signals to me it's lacking in certain nutrients and is not really nutritionally sound.

Diets that claim to reset our metabolism in a short amount of time are hogwash. Physiologically, this is impossible. Calorically restrictive diets can actually slow down your metabolism and promote weight gain. Resetting our metabolism is the new ‘buzz phrase’ for the purpose of marketing these types of diet books. So, the Whole30 promise to reset and increase your metabolism is really false marketing.

I would not recommend this diet plan because it’s overly restrictive and not sustainable. Also, any diet restricting essential nutrients from whole grains, legumes, and dairy is depriving the body of nutrition.

Rachel Berman, RD, CDN, is the head of content for Verywell, a leader in the field of nutrition with numerous appearances on the Today Show, Fox and Friends, and other public media outlets. She is the author of two books: Boosting Your Metabolism for Dummies and Mediterranean Diet for Dummies. Rachel has provided the following expert opinion:

The Whole30 plan claims to help you be more in control of your food choices. Maybe that’s somewhat true, because you have so few choices. But really, by virtue of being so restrictive, the food completely controls your life.

I simply don’t understand the appeal of a diet that forces you to completely overhaul your lifestyle and prohibits you from doing things you may love, like dining out with friends. Also, don’t trust any diet that has a time frame in its name! That is synonymous with non-sustainable. Do you lose weight? Probably. But in my opinion, it also fosters an unhealthy relationship with food long after the diet is over. For example, you may feel shame surrounding eating foods that have been demonized on this plan, when in fact they are foods that can be part of a nutritious diet.

Amy Campbell MS, RD, LDN, CDE, is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) and Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE). She currently works at Good Measures, a provider of registered dietitian services, and previously worked at the world-renowned Joslin Diabetes Center. Amy is a weekly contributor to Diabetes Self-Management’s blog and writes for the Diabetes Research and Wellness Foundation. She is also an expert panelist for the annual U.S. News and World Report annual 'best diet' survey. Amy has provided the following expert opinion:

Thinking about trying the Whole 30 Diet? You should think twice. This eating plan is a strict—and restrictive—diet that you follow for 30 days to essentially reset your metabolism. It sounds appealing, but be prepared for a month-long diet boot camp. You’ll need to cut out a laundry list of foods and food groups, including sugar, alcohol, dairy foods, grains, legumes (beans), soy foods, and foods that contain additives.

So, what can you eat? Plenty of meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs; fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds. Fat is okay, too, even saturated fats such as duck fat and butter. It may not sound all that bad, but brace yourself because one little slip – say, a piece of candy or a cup of yogurt, and you’ve blown it. You have to start the 30-day cycle all over again. If you’re one of the lucky ones to make it through, you’ll gradually re-introduce one food group at a time, carefully watching for symptoms such as bloating, skin reactions, or other signs of allergies or intolerances.

The good news about this diet is that it’s only 30 days—one month out of a year. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with cutting out sweets, processed foods, or alcohol. The bad news? For one thing, it’s not a weight loss diet, although you probably will lose some weight. More importantly: There’s no scientific basis to this eating plan, and its claims that eliminating entire food groups can improve metabolism, your immune system and your gut health are unfounded.

Plus, forgoing whole grains, legumes, dairy foods, and soy food means you forgo many of the health benefits that go hand in hand with these foods. Finally, the Whole 30 Diet doesn’t give much guidance on what to do if you feel perfectly fine after you reintroduce foods. If you suspect a food allergy or intolerance, work with your doctor and a registered dietitian to determine the best and safest approach for you.

Research on The Whole30

Independent research or studies conducted on the Whole30 diet are non-existent, leaving only testimonial feedback to support its claims. A survey given to 1600 Whole30 members showed weight loss among 96 percent of those participants. However, weight loss is typical for all elimination diets like this one.

The problem with many diets, especially those restricting food groups, is not being able to maintain the weight lost. Chronic studies address this dilemma and often conflict in their findings of restrictive diets and weight loss in general.

A study in The Journal of Research and Medical Sciences examined diet-related strategies. They indicated that it remains unclear if diets recommending low carbohydrates, special foods, or consuming moderate fats are useful for preventing weight gain.

A study in The Journal of Steroids showed dieters who ate a high carbohydrate, protein-rich breakfast, lunch, and daily dessert lost significantly more weight than carbohydrate-restricted participants. Individuals following a carbohydrate restrictive diet regained their weight while the high carb group was able to keep it off.

A study in The Journal of Cell Metabolism examined the effects of dietary fat and carbohydrate restriction on fat loss. Study participants consuming a low-carb diet lost weight while individuals eating low-fat lost significantly more body fat.

So while the Whole30 Diet claims to be scientifically sound, there is really no evidence to support its use.

Recommended Diets

Understanding the difference between good nutrition and fad diets is an excellent first step to losing weight and getting healthy. The Whole 30 Diet has some benefits, but overall it falls under the fad diet umbrella since the elimination of healthy food groups is unsustainable, can deprive your body of essential nutrients, and creates an unhealthy relationship with food.

Eating right is a lifestyle, not a diet. When we consume a wide variety of nutritious foods, especially plant-based, it helps us maintain good health and the proper weight. Choose the following nutrient-dense foods as part of a healthy diet:

  • Vegetables and dark, leafy greens (kale, spinach, broccoli, Swiss chard, green beans) 
  • Fruits (apples, berries, melon)
  • Grains (quinoa, brown rice, oats)
  • Lean meats (chicken breast, fish, turkey breast)
  • Beans and legumes (all beans, lentils, peas)
  • Nuts and seeds (walnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds)
  • Dairy (reduced fat milk, cheese, yogurt) 
  • Oils (olive oil, avocado oil) 

And if you're looking for a structured plan, the annual U.S. News Report best diet survey provides the top three eating patterns to try:

  1. Dash Diet: considered the best for adopting healthy eating habits and easy to follow. The diet is also shown to help manage diabetes and promotes heart health.
  2. Mediterranean Diet: considered the best plant-based diet and easy to follow. The diet ranked number 2 for healthy eating, managing diabetes, and best overall diet.
  3. MIND Diet: considered easy to follow and great for adopting healthy eating habits. The diet also helps manage diabetes and promotes heart health.

Sources:

Daniela Jakubowicz et al., Meal timing and composition influence ghrelin levels, appetite scores and weight loss maintenance in overweight and obese adults, Journal of Steroids, 2012.

Fatemeh Azizi Soeliman et al., Weight loss maintenance: A review on dietary related strategies, Journal of Research in Medical Sciences, 2014.

Kevin D. Hall et al., Calorie for Calorie, Dietary Fat Restriction Results in More Body Fat Loss than Carbohydrate Restriction in People with Obesity, Journal of Cell Metabolism, 2015.

Lydia A. Bazzano, MD, PhD, MPH et al., Effects of Low-Carbohydrate and Low-Fat Diets: A Randomized Trial, Annals of Internal Medicine, 2014.

Richard B. Kreider, PhD et al., A Structured Diet and Exercise Program Promotes Favorable Changes in Weight Loss, Body Composition, and Weight Maintenance, Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2011.

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