Jennifer Hanes MS, RDN, LD
updated January 2022
It’s the beginning of the year, and many people have set vague resolutions to lose weight, eat healthily, or get fit.
A couple of weeks in, and they realize they didn’t really set an actionable plan in place, so they start researching and come across somebody touting a diet that CHANGED THEIR LIFE!
That is precisely how Whole30 is marketed to people trying to get healthy, lose a few pounds, maybe come off of their blood pressure or cholesterol medications. But is this diet really healthy?
Whole30 is marketed as a diet reset, giving your body a break from the foods the Whole30 founders believe to be the cause of all the things that ail us.
From their website: “Cut out all the psychologically unhealthy, hormone-unbalancing, gut-disrupting, inflammatory food groups for a full 30 days. Let your body heal and recover from whatever effects those foods may be causing. Push the “reset” button with your metabolism, systemic inflammation, and the downstream effects of the food choices you’ve been making.”
Red Flag #1: Requires You to Buy
This one is not as bad as other fad diets out there, as far as requiring to buy products only available through them. They aren’t pushing supplements or special drinks, which is good.
According to their website, their program will always be free. However, in the next paragraph, they tell you to get started you should buy and read their four books, or at least one as well as join their mailing list.
When you move on to their second step (the rules) they are provided for free, though they do remind you that to get the most information, you should buy their book.
They also have an entire page of affiliate links that they deem as Whole30 Kitchen Essentials. Though they are not receiving money directly from you, they are asking you to buy a lot of products that will then turn into income for them.
Now they sell special Whole30 dressings, just in case you always wanted to spend $8 for a bottle of ranch (minimum order of 4 bottles…). There are also more books now and some Whole30 merch available as well.
Red Flag #2: Requires You to Cut Out Food Groups or Nutrients
Man are they bad about this one!
While on the Whole30 program, you are required to cut out added sugar, alcohol, all grains (including wheat, rye, barley, oats, corn, rice, quinoa, and buckwheat), legumes (all beans, peas, chickpeas, peanuts, and all soy and soy products), all dairy, additives (carrageenan, MSG, and sulfites – welcome to the 3 hour grocery store visit), and any baked goods (even if made with “approved ingredients”)
For some reason, ghee (clarified butter), fruit juice, green beans, snap peas, and snow peas are exceptions to the above rules.
At a quick glance, this diet is low in carbohydrates, the main source of energy for your body (as well as a contributor for the creation of some of our “feel good” hormones) and fiber (that fills our stomachs, makes us poop, and lowers our cholesterol), and high in saturated fat (increases LDL “bad” cholesterol).
I wonder about the validity of a diet that excludes beans and lentils as “bad food” but doesn’t have any restrictions on the type of meat consumed.
Is it really healthier to eat a ribeye full of saturated fat than a bean that is full of fiber, protein, phytochemicals, and low in saturated fat?
Red Flag #3: Promise of Quick Fix or Dramatic Results
Not only do they claim to have the ideal program for weight loss (without restricting calories!), they also claim to cure sinus infections, seasonal allergies, fibromyalgia, ADD, thyroid dysfunction, chronic fatigue, lupus, arthritis, bipolar disorder, endometriosis, migraines, infertility, and polycystic ovarian syndrome.
They also make outrageous claims of “miracle” cures ranging from Type 1 Diabetes, trichotillomania (compulsive hair pulling resulting in hair loss), and juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.
I was amazed to read their disclaimers at the bottom of their list of rules.
“This diet is not hard” and “Don’t even consider the possibility of a slip-up.” They tell you to toughen up and make your momma proud. This all reeks of a way to cover themselves if the program does not work for you.
Didn’t cure your fibromyalgia in 30 days using our plan? It must be because you messed up, not through any flaw on their part.
Or, you know, that some diseases cannot be cured through diet.
This enforced rigidity is also prime material for triggering an eating disorder.
Other Noteworthy Whole30 Statements
The third “step” in their program is to commit to them. This includes (shocker!) telling everyone you know about Whole30.
How’s that for garnering free advertising? They’ll even give you their banner to post on your Facebook or Instagram page! How charitable of them…
Step 4 is to build a support system. I like this idea! You should surround yourself with friends and family that support your decision to eat more healthily and will help you with your goals when you struggle.
OR… you can hire a Whole30 Coach!
What Whole30 Gets Right
Some of their recipes look pretty good, even if they are littered with affiliate links. If you’re looking for some new recipes, you don’t have to completely exclude their website.
Roasted rainbow potatoes, veggie breakfast casserole, and grilled eggplant bruschetta all sound good, and perfectly healthy.
However, you don’t need expensive bone broth or Whole30 bacon to be healthy. Want to throw some beans in your chili to up your fiber or sprinkle some cheese on top? Go ahead!
These recipes can be part of a healthy diet, just don’t feel like you have to adhere to all of their restrictions elsewhere in your diet to enjoy them.
Much of our health is related to the lifestyle decisions we make. Eating healthy does greatly improve our physical and mental health and our self-esteem. I can agree with the authors on this.
However, I cannot agree that having an occasional glass of wine or chocolate cake on your birthday is going to compromise your overall health.
Including splurges in your diet allows us to have a more normal social life, decreases stress levels, and adds variety to our diet. The all-or-nothing mentality and blame game mindset of this program drives me crazy.
Whole30’s website has been updated, including adding a section on “Food Freedom.” While the ideas on this page sound great, they contradict the entire premise of Whole30 and appear to pander to popular Health at Every Size and Intuitive Eating Movements, while completely missing the point of those movements.
Make gradual changes you can stick with rather than overhauling your entire life for one month. (What happens at the end of this month? Do you keep going because your life has miraculously changed? Do you add one thing at a time to your diet and wait anxiously for a symptom of an allergy or other sensitivity? Do you return to your previous diet altogether, knowing that for 1 month, you were healthy?)
Increase healthy options while decreasing unhealthy choices.
Include all fruits, veggies and beans/lentils/legumes, and nuts/seeds in your diet. Limit red meat, alcohol, and sweets to once or twice a week only. If you don’t want to eat meat, that’s fine! (You can still be healthy without that rib eye).
If you have a lot of changes to make, set small, achievable goals and give yourself non-food rewards when you get there. It’s incredibly hard to go from a serving of vegetables a week to 5-6 per day.
Instead, strive for 1 vegetable serving per day. When you consistently get that, increase it to two a day, and so forth.
Set a goal to try new foods, such as that weird looking fruit at the grocery store, or an entire cuisine of food you’ve never had before but your coworker raves about.
Tapas? Indian? Greek? Persian? If you live in a medium or larger city, you probably have more diverse restaurants than you’re aware of.
And maybe try making that grilled eggplant bruschetta. It really does sound amazing.
*All information about The Whole30 Diet comes from their website: Whole30.com
Consider a better option
The Mediterranean Diet pattern is well studied and aligns fairly well with the vegetarian diet.
Unless you’re flexitarian, pescatarian, or full-on omnivore you won’t be eating the fish that’s recommended, but I still run through this diet pattern with my vegetarian clients because many of them aren’t eating enough fruits and vegetables!
And the best thing is, that since it’s a diet pattern, you can easily adapt your family’s or culture’s recipes and your favorite foods, so you’re not missing out on anything!
Jennifer Hanes MS, RDN, LD is a registered dietitian, mom, wife, and vegetarian in North Texas. She has dedicated Dietitian Jenn to be a source of information, ideas, and inspiration for people like her, vegetarians that live with people with different dietary beliefs and/or needs in a multivore household.