Let’s start with what I like about the Whole30. First, the name is no joke: The Whole30 really is an eating plan that emphasizes real food — not processed meals and snacks that regularly sneak into our diets.
For those just tuning in, this diet skips sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes and dairy for 30 days. It permits meat, seafood, eggs, veggies, fruit and “natural fats” like vegetable oils, coconut oil and tree nuts.
The Whole30 also has a built-in support system that encourages accountability — a key part of a successful weight loss. The plan’s presence on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter is the 2017 version of a ’90s Weight Watchers meeting, only on a much bigger scale.
Here’s where they lose me: The Whole30 seems to be either supported by very small, poorly-conducted studies, or based on pure conjecture otherwise disproven by reputable nutrition scientists.
I know being less-than-enthused by this trendy eating plan makes me unpopular, but hear me out! These are a few attributes of the Whole30 that give me pause and why — plus, better ideas to consider in their place.
One horrifically grating thing about the Whole30 books: The authors claim that they’re “not telling you what to eat” while literally telling you what you can and cannot eat. For example, “processed foods” are off limits, but lo and behold you can eat cured pork, otherwise known as BACON and SAUSAGE!
Many Whole30 recipes use bacon and coconut-based ingredients, making the plan high in both saturated fat and sodium, top nutrients of concern identified by the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These nutrients (along with added sugar) have been linked to harmful health effects, including weight gain and increased risk of chronic disease.
TRY THIS INSTEAD: Eat more lean protein instead of cured meats. Seafood, eggs, 100% whole-grains and legumes fill you up without a nutritional downside.
2. Good-for-you legumes are banished.
The Whole30 preaches that legumes contain “anti-nutrients,” which is simply not true. It’s well-established in nutrition science that legumes like beans, lentils, chickpeas, soybeans and peanuts are hands-down the most nutritious foods you can possibly eat!
They’re loaded with prebiotic fiber, which is linked to boosting immunity. The antioxidants and minerals in legumes also improve blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cancer. Legumes are also nature’s gift for weight-loss. They’re low in calories from fat, but higher in fiber, reducing the temptation to snack.
TRY THIS INSTEAD: If legumes make you feel bloated, you’re either not used to eating them, or you’re not drinking enough water! If you’re not a regular chickpea-chomper, gradually introduce these foods into your diet, and sip more H2O.
3. Nutrient-packed dairy products are also no-gos.
Diets that include dairy products (about two cups per day) are linked to a lower risk of chronic disease and smaller waist circumference. Diets that emphasize dairy alternatives? Not so much. Despite the health halo worn by almond and coconut milk, nut- and seed-based substitutes don’t even come close to their counterparts. They’re lower in potassium and protein, higher in sodium and don’t provide the vitamins A and D that you’d get from fortified milk or unsweetened soy versions.
For weight loss, it’s senseless that the Whole30 includes clarified butter (a high-fat, protein-less version) and nixes better-for-you low-fat Greek yogurt. Their rationale: Eliminating milk solids can help you detect an allergy to whey or casein, milk’s predominant proteins. But an actual allergy would cause mouth and throat swelling, as well as hives and anaphylaxis. It’s supremely unlikely to suddenly appear in adulthood, so consult a physician ASAP if you’re truly concerned. Lactose intolerance, on the other hand, is the result of an enzyme deficiency that causes more nuanced discomfort, like gas and bloating.
TRY THIS INSTEAD: Don’t cut healthy protein sources like unsweetened milk, yogurt and part-skim cheeses. Just skip dairy products with added sugar, like milk-based bottled smoothies or sweetened yogurts. Those sneaky added calories can keep you from reaching your weight loss goals. If you suspect lactose might be the problem, a trial elimination diet of about two weeks could help.
4. This whole “sex with your pants on” philosophy is totally backwards.
The Whole30 refers to eating “unapproved” items made from “approved” items (e.g. grain-free, sugar-free pancakes) as “sex with your pants on.” They warn against recreating favorite foods with paleo ingredients because you’ll be tempted to eat the real thing.
While the analogy is pretty clever, coming up with delicious alternatives to satisfy a specific food craving (e.g. making pizza on a 100% whole-grain English muffin) is a smart way to strategize long-term weight loss through immediate action.
TRY THIS INSTEAD: When you’re hankering for an indulgence, start by asking yourself if something else is making you want to nosh (stress, sadness, boredom, etc.). If the answer is yes, you’ve already resolved a craving by recognizing it’s not about food at all. In that case, go for a walk, take a break or call a friend.
If not, determine if you’re wanting a specific flavor: Guac versus a whole burrito, cheese versus pizza, chocolate versus brownie, etc. If your hankering is more about a flavor and less about a whole “throw-in-the-towel” meal, SWYPO is working for you, not against you! And when you just need a cupcake (I feel you!): Indulge, enjoy and move on.
5. We can all tolerate diet torture — but only temporarily.
We can all do the Whole30 for thirty days; it’s not impossible. I only caution that restrictive diets “work” temporarily because they eventually end, and anything that’s temporary by design often yields temporary results.
TRY THIS INSTEAD: Set daily goals that are specific to making you feel happier and healthier: Planning a nutritious, home-cooked dinner for your family, trying an in-season veggie from the farmer’s market or packing your lunch for work. These are small but powerful changes without resorting to deprivation. Once you’ve mastered the daily goal, try setting a few (no more than three!) to up your weight-loss game.
6. Eating out on the plan becomes impossible.
For many of us, it’s simply unrealistic to travel with a personal jar of coconut oil or dine out with friends and order a bunless, cheeseless, baconless burger.
If you really want to commit to the Whole30 lifestyle, no judgment here! My concern is that if this plan seems impractical for you, it’s all too easy to buy into the idea that healthier eating is synonymous with restriction. What follows that mindset? The”Screw-it Diet,” in which you make significantly unhealthier choices because “Screw it! Diets are hopeless, so I’ll order the bacon cheeseburger — make it a double!”
TRY THIS INSTEAD: Prep ahead in ways that are reasonable for you: Bring snacks when traveling, read up on good-for-you meals at favorite restaurants (when in doubt: extra veggies, skip the fried stuff) and always plan what you’ll eat when you do indulge.
No single cheeseburger, meal or trip will make or break your health — nor will it affect the number on the scale. It’s the habits we hang onto over time that help us to make better food choices, lose weight and live healthier lives.