If you’ve ever shopped around for a diet plan to help you lose a few inches, you’ve likely come across the Paleo diet and the Whole30 diet. At first glance, there doesn’t appear to be much that separates the Paleo diet from the Whole30 diet. Both are very popular, and both are low-carb, high-protein, and free from processed foods.
That said, there are a few key differences between the diets. We asked several nutrition experts to help give us a closer look.
What is the Paleo Diet?
The Paleo diet is also commonly known as “The Caveman Diet.” With that, it should come as no surprise that the diet allows any foods your Paleolithic ancestors ate 10,000 years ago: meat, fruits, nuts, seeds and veggies. You can also use specific oils, including avocado, coconut, and olive.
The idea is, cavemen didn’t have heart disease, obesity, or diabetes, so why wouldn’t we eat like them? Not included? Well, anything made with modern processing methods. That means no frozen pizzas, fried chicken, or bottled salad dressings. Unsurprisingly, dairy, refined vegetable oils, and salt are also a no-no.
What is surprising, however, is that foods like grains, legumes, and potatoes aren’t allowed for the Paleo eater.
What Is the Whole30 Diet?
Like the Paleo diet, the Whole30 diet is high-protein, low-carb, and allows no processed foods. Unlike Paleo, however, Whole30 only lasts 30 days. According to founder Melissa Hartwig, Whole30 is an elimination diet designed to help you identify food sensitivities. “It’s a self experiment after which there is an entire outlined plan to take what you learned and to make it into a sustainable lifestyle,” she previously explained to Men’s Health.
Who needs an elimination diet? Well, they can be helpful for people who are bothered by digestion problems or skin rashes. By cutting specific foods out of your diet for a period of time and then slowly reintroducing them, you can get a better of sense of which foods are causing you trouble.
That said, you’re probably better off working with a doctor if you’re really worried that a food is causing gastrointestinal issues, Alyssa Ardolino, a registered dietitian with the International Food Information Council, previously told Men’s Health.
Which diet is more restrictive?
The Paleo Diet: It’s a cinch that our caveman ancestors didn’t have a ton of food choices back in the day. As such, you’re only allowed grass-fed meat, seafood, fruits, veggies, eggs, nuts and seeds, and some oils (olive, walnut, flaxseed, macadamia, avocado, coconut).
That means things like grains, legumes, refined sugar, dairy, refined vegetable oils, processed foods, and even salt are off-limits. You rare, however, are allowed to eat three non-Paleo meals per week. So theoretically, you should be able to indulge in the occasional beer or slice of pizza, right?
The Whole30 Diet: Similar to Paleo, Whole30 bans dairy, grains, legumes, processed foods, and refined vegetable oils. Also on the list of banned Whole30 foods is anything that includes sugar (sorry, no maple syrup, honey, or stevia), alcohol (even in cooking), soy (tofu, soy sauce, tempeh, miso, edamame), MSG or sulfites, and any baked goods made with “approved” Whole30 ingredients. The idea is to get rid of any foods that may cause GI issues, skin problems, fatigue, and cravings. Essentially, you’re giving your body the chance to heal and reset.
So, what foods are left over? Meat, veggies, fruit, eggs, and natural fat sources like olive oil and nuts. If you’re not sure whether a food is safe or off-limits, you can check out the list of approved and banned foods on the Whole30 website.
There are no “cheat meals” or compromises with the Whole30 diet. If you’re going to do it, you have to follow it to the letter—for the full 30 days.
The winner: Paleo. While both diets are pretty restrictive, Rachele Pojednic, Ph.D., assistant professor of nutrition at Simmons University and former research fellow at the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine at Harvard Medical School, calls out the tough love language Whole30 uses (phrases like “Don’t even consider the possibility of a ‘slip,’” and “This is not hard”), and believes that the diet may encourage an unhealthy relationship with food. “If you’re eating food that makes you feel good, that’s one thing, but restricting out of fear and tough love seems like a very slippery slope,” she says.
Which diet is easier to stick with?
The Paleo Diet: Though both diets restrict similar foods, Paleo is a bit more relaxed than Whole30. As Pojednic notes, Paleo is meant to be a lifestyle. You may not get the hang of it right away—and that’s okay.
The Whole30 Diet: Slip up once on the Whole30 diet and you have start all over again at day one. That’s right, just one spoonful of ice cream or sip of beer and it’s back to the starting line.
The winner: Paleo. The fact that Paleo offers more flexibility makes it easier to follow. That said, knowing that you only have to follow Whole30 for one month may make it easier for some people to stick with it for the duration.
Which diet is better for weight loss?
The Paleo Diet: Any weight loss you do experience on Paleo (or Whole30, for that matter) will likely come from restricting calories, as noted by a review in Current Gastroenterology Reports. As Pojednic notes, the weight loss magic of Paleo isn’t the elimination of certain food groups (ex. grains), it’s the shift toward a healthier eating pattern. Just be warned that going overboard with Paleo-friendly foods like meat, nuts and seeds can lead to weight gain.
The Whole30 Diet: Similar to Paleo, your weight loss on Whole30 will probably be thanks to the fact that you’re eating fewer calories overall, Pojednic says.
The winner: Whole30. “Whole30 probably gives better results just because it’s so restrictive and it’s for a certain period of time,” says Liz Weinandy, R.D., M.P.H., a registered dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
However, she and Pojednic warn that your weight loss results with Whole30 will likely be short-lived: “My guess would be that people do really well on Whole30 for the first 30 days, and then on day 31 things start to come off the rails,” Pojednic says. Paleo may work better for long-term weight loss because it’s more of a culture shift than a 30-day fix.
The verdict: The Paleo Diet is the better diet.
Weinandy and Pojednic both agree that Paleo has a slight edge over Whole30.
“I would give Paleo a little bit more of a thumbs-up just because I don’t really like that attitude [of Whole30],” Weinandy says. She references the tough love language of Whole30 that Pojednic pointed to earlier. “I never like to see that language.” What she and Pojednic do like about the diets is that they both encourage people to focus on eating whole foods.
The fact that both Paleo and Whole30 ban dairy, grains, and legumes, however, means you may want to supplement with calcium and vitamin D if you choose to follow either diet plan. You’ll also want to load up on fruits and veggies to ensure you’re getting fiber. “The true backbone of the Paleo diet is fruits and vegetables layered with different types of protein, so I think as long as you stay true to the intention of that diet, you should be great,” Pojednic says.
That said, think twice before trying either diet. Whichever eating pattern you do choose, make sure it encourages whole foods—without making you fearful of others.
By Lauren Bedosky