To be honest, I’m amazed that Whole30 is still around. It’s the epitome of a fad diet, with its restrictive and unscientific rules and its short-term nature. And yet, 12 years after its creation, Whole30 is still going strong.
Let’s talk about why that might be (ahem, manipulative marketing and brand partnerships), and why it absolutely doesn’t mean that you should do your own Whole30.
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“This is garden-variety ‘cut out a lot of foods and lose weight fast’ hooey”
Whole30 consistently ranks at the bottom of US News and World Report’s Best Diet Rankings. (Of course, there is no good diet, and even those at the top of the list don’t lead to lasting weight loss, but that’s a story for another day.)
As one US News expert panelist put it: “This is garden-variety ‘cut out a lot of foods and lose weight fast’ hooey.”
Overall, US News says, “Whole30 lacks scientific support and is severely restrictive, according to the experts. Its short-term approach and long-term promises didn’t win over the panelists”
If you’re lucky enough not to know what Whole30 is, here’s a rundown.
It’s a 30-day elimination diet with the following rules:
1. Do not consume added sugar, real or artificial.
2. Do not consume alcohol, in any form, not even for cooking.
3. Do not eat grains.
4. Do not eat most forms of legumes. (This includes beans (black, red, pinto, navy, garbanzo/chickpeas, white, kidney, lima, fava, cannellini, lentils, adzuki, mung, cranberry, and black-eyes peas); peanuts (including peanut butter or peanut oil); and all forms of soy (soy sauce, miso, tofu, tempeh, edamame, soy protein, soy milk, or soy lecithin).
5. Do not eat dairy.
6. Do not consume carrageenan, MSG, or sulfites.
7. Do not recreate or purchase baked goods, “foods with no brakes,” or treats with Whole30 compatible ingredients.
8. Do not step on the scale or take any body measurements for 30 days.
When the 30 days are up, Whole30 recommends that you do a “reintroduction” period, during which you add back foods slowly. This is taken from medical elimination diet protocol, which is done under the supervision of a doctor and/or dietitian and is meant as a way to diagnose food sensitivities in people with severe digestive issues. The truth is that 1) it’s really hard to effectively do this without expert guidance and 2) very few people actually do it, because they’re so eager to eat all the off-limits foods when the 30 days are over.
Now let’s get into the many ways that Whole30 is incredibly problematic.
Whole30 isn’t based on legitimate evidence.
If you’ve ever read one of the Whole30-branded books, you know that they’re littered with scientific jargon and references to studies. Seems legit, right?
Except, no. The creators of the diet have no real background in nutrition or health sciences. he few true experts that they quote are either experts in a different field (exercise physiology, kinesiology, etc.), or experts that go against the evidence-base in their field (like the neurologist who wrote Grain Brain).
Basically, they cite studies completely out of context, twisting the evidence in a way that fits their program. Let’s take the “no grains, no legumes” rule as an example. Their argument is that two particular compounds in grains and legumes, lectins and phytates, are bad for health. This isn’t actually true, but here’s how they got there:
Lectins are proteins found in most plants that bind to carbohydrates.
The Whole30 and other anti-grain diets claim that lectins can lead to “leaky gut” (a term that most medical experts don’t use because there’s not enough evidence behind it) by causing inflammation in your intestines. But this just isn’t substantiated in the evidence. Yes, uncooked lectins in certain foods like kidney beans can lead to digestive issues, but no one is out there eating raw kidney beans! As this 2015 review on the topic states, whole grain consumption has been linked to numerous health benefits, and these anti-lectin claims aren’t substantiated.
Phytates, or phytic acid, are antioxidant compounds found in plant seeds.
The Whole30 argument is that phytates lead to micronutrient (vitamins and minerals) malabsorption and thus are bad for health. That’s based in some truth: phytates bind to certain micronutrients (mainly zinc, magnesium, and iron) during digestion and inhibit their absorption. But this is true of several other compounds, and it doesn’t mean that they’re inherently bad. In developing countries where grains make up most or all of the diet, phytates can exacerbate deficiencies in these micronutrients. But in industrialized countries where people eat diverse diets (not necessarily “five fruits and vegetables a day,” but more than just grains all the time), this isn’t an issue at all.
It’s not worth debunking every claim that Whole30 makes about certain foods being bad for health. Essentially, they manipulate evidence this same way every time.
Whole30 is absolutely not appropriate for anyone with or in recovery from an eating disorder.
In an intentionally wishy-washy blog post, Whole30 co-founder Melissa Urban (formerly Hartwig) responds to a question about whether or not the program is appropriate for people struggling with, or in recovery from, an eating disorder. You can read the whole thing here, but I’ll give a summary so that you don’t have to.
A woman wrote in saying that she’d struggled with an ED for two decades, was in recovery for two years and ate a Paleo diet, but eventually started eating sweets due to peer pressure, which she blames for her relapse into ED behaviors. She wants to try the Whole30, saying “I’m eager to get back into a healthy way of eating and healthy state of mind.”
The very start of Melissa’s response is that her team takes this questions seriously, because they know that eating disorders are serious and difficult to overcome. Because unlike with drug or alcohol addiction, she says, everyone has to eat. This last part is a very weird thing to say, IMO, because it’s suggesting that recovery would be easier if someone could opt to just stop eating altogether? That’s a serious misunderstanding of eating disorders right upfront.
But it’s the next paragraph that really shows how problematic Whole30’s stance on eating disorders is.
Here’s the whole thing:
“I admire your dedication in pursuing a healthy relationship with food, and do believe that eating real, nutrient-dense, unprocessed foods is the healthiest way to nourish your body and break unhealthy cravings and habits. Some people with eating disorders (active or in recovery) have found amazing food freedom with the Whole30. The fact that we don’t count or restrict calories, encourage you to eat healthy foods to satiety, and take the scale and body measurements out of the equation may prove to be the paradigm shift that you need to get back to a healthier relationship with food.”
It’s so wrong to promote Whole30 as a potential tool in eating disorder recovery, for many reasons.
First, the idea that “unhealthy cravings and habits” are the main problem to be overcome in eating disorder recovery is ludicrous. Truly. The woman mentioned in her question that she struggles with restrictive eating disorders, so “unhealthy cravings” really aren’t the issue.
Second, painting Whole30 as a diet that doesn’t restrict calories, encourages people to eat healthy foods, and shifts focus away from the scale and body measurements is completely misleading. While there might not be calorie counting involved, Whole30 is extremely restrictive. It also creates extreme and unnecessary food fear, with all of its unscientific assertions that certain common (and perfectly healthy) foods might ruin your health.
Third, while Whole30 claims not to be about weight loss or transformation, it absolutely is. Check the #whole30results hashtag on Instagram and you’ll find thousands of before-and-after pictures of people showcasing their short-term weight loss. The official Whole30 account doesn’t post these anymore (no doubt because the anti-diet movement is growing, and advertising weight loss explicitly now comes with lots of criticism), but WOW did they used to. Of course people try the program looking for weight loss. It’s why the company goes so hard with the “January Whole30.”
After this paragraph, there are five testimonials from people who say that Whole30 helped their ED recovery.
Which, to be honest, I’m skeptical of. One says that the Whole30 broke her “sugar addiction,” but so many people I’ve spoken with had the opposite experience. The Whole30 creators even say it’s normal to dream about food during the program, since you’re deprived. And, most people find that they have intense cravings for sugar for weeks after the program. They feel completely out-of-control around it because they’ve been so deprived. Another testimonial writer was pleased that Whole30 led to weight loss, which shouldn’t be a focus in recovery.
“I re-learned how to listen to my body, paying attention to giving it what it needs to thrive.” That’s a quote from another testimonial. Maybe this was the case for this person, but again, it’s absolutely not typical. It’s so incredibly rare that following food rules leads to better attunement with your own needs. How can you learn to give your body what it wants when you’re not allowed to give it most foods? Again, maybe it really did work for this one person, but the reasoning just doesn’t work for the vast majority.
The Whole30 covers its ass by saying that it’s not appropriate for everyone with an eating disorder. But this isn’t enough.
Only after these testimonials and Melissa’s assertion that Whole30 can be a tool in eating disorder recovery does the post say that many people with eating disorders, or in recovery, find the Whole30 triggering. There’s then a blurb from Whole30’s psychiatrist advisor (who doesn’t specialize in eating disorders). She says that Whole30 is inappropriate for many people with an eating disorder. Then she says you shouldn’t do it without support from a trusted counselor. (The fact that she didn’t say “therapist” might have something to do with the fact that Whole30 has their own “coaches.”)
They go on to say that Whole30 wasn’t written with eating disorders in mind, and that those with ED histories may have to loosen some of the rules. And, that no one in this position should do this without the help of a “counselor.” But, again, this doesn’t seem like enough. Any expert with extensive training in eating disorders would recommend against the Whole30 for the overwhelming majority of those with an eating disorder history.
The whole “this is not hard, you have done harder things” is really bogus and kind of bullying.
The last thing I’ll say about Whole30 is that their whole tone is condescending, bullying, and bizarre.
“This is not hard. Fighting cancer is hard. Birthing a baby is hard. Losing a parent is hard. Drinking your coffee black. Is. Not. Hard.” That’s from the rules page. And, sure, doing a Whole30 is easier than dealing with death or birthing a child. But what the hell does that have to do with anything? It’s still an unnecessarily hard thing with no proven benefits. To make people feel bad or weak for not wanting to do it? That. Is. Wrong.
They also take the stance of “no mistakes allowed,” which is a horrible way to think about food, health, or literally anything else in life. If you accidentally eat something that has trace amounts of sugar or sulfites? Start the 30 days over. If you go to a restaurant and get served steamed vegetables with butter on top (even though, per Whole30’s advice, you insisted that you be served food according to your exact specifications)? Start over. They say that even trace amounts of the “forbidden” nutrients will “ruin” your results. But that’s hogwash. There are no proven benefits to this diet, so obviously there’s no proof that straying from the rules will negate these supposed benefits.
If you’ve tried a Whole30, there’s no shame in that. (I did one, too.)
Look, the Whole30 is great at marketing itself as an amazing, life-changing, hard-but-worth-it plan. They’ve built a community around it, which can feel nice and supportive. They’ve published recipe books with gorgeous photos and, to be honest, some great recipes. Doing a Whole30 has become kind of a badge of honor in diet culture.
If you’re fallen for their marketing, there’s no need to feel guilty. Once upon a time, before I knew better, I did a Whole30, too. It was very hard and not very rewarding. It made me afraid of sugar and grains for a while afterwards, for no good reason. Now, I understand that none of what they sell is real, and that the only way to true food freedom (a term they co-opt) is to not have any rules around food.
Hopefully, you understand in hindsight that the intense cravings you had for sugar and carbs (or whatever other off-limits foods) in the days, weeks, or months after Whole30 weren’t because sugar and carbs are bad and must be avoided. They happened because of the fear and restriction that Whole30 creates.
If you struggle with an eating disorder, disordered eating, bingeing, or constant food cravings, Whole30 is not the answer. Most likely, it’ll make your problems worse. Instead, working with a registered dietitian can help you break free from unhealthy patterns for good. To learn more about my nutrition counseling services, go here (virtual coaching) or here (in-person counseling in Raleigh, NC).