According to its creators, the Whole30 Program will “change your life.” Founded on the belief that eating real, whole foods with ingredients you can pronounce can reset your eating habits, rehab your body, and help you shed pounds, the diet has recently surged in popularity.
Simply put, the Whole30 is a diet with a lot of rules. For a month, you eat only meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, natural fats, and limited portions of fruit. Yes, limited fruit.
But what really defines the program is the list of what you can’t eat.
Packaged foods with long ingredient lists are off the table. You can’t have sugar, whether it’s added, real, or artificial. Say goodbye to alcohol in any form. Grains, even the good-for-you ones like quinoa? Nope, you can’t eat them. Legumes like chickpeas, peanut butter, and all soy products are out. Cheese, milk, or other types of dairy will not cross your lips. No MSG, carrageenan, or sulfites. As for baked goods, chips, or fries… do you even have to ask? Even if you make them yourself—say, baked potato wedges—to comply with the rest of the rules is considered cheating.
Real talk: it’s not for the faint of heart.
The major promise of the Whole30 is that eating this way will reshape your diet by changing the way you view food. According to their long list of promises, your sleep should improve and any health problems that may stem from inflammation, like chronic pain or skin issues, will all be solved.
Another touted benefit? You’ll lose weight “healthfully and sustainably.” But for all of the people that have something great to say about the Whole30, there are those on the other side that believe the diet is too strict, and even promotes unhealthy eating habits. So, is this new diet good for you?
So, Will the Whole 30 Help You Lose Weight?
In itself, cutting out processed foods—especially refined sugars—isn’t a bad thing. According to research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health published in the New England Journal of Medicine, consuming high-quality foods—vegetables, whole grains, fruits, nuts, and natural yogurt—is good for your waistline, while eating processed, sugar-loaded foods tend to be one of the main factors contributing to weight gain.
But does that mean the Whole30 will actually help you shed pounds? In the short-term, maybe. “Weight loss is likely because of a decrease in carbs and sodium, which results in water weight loss,” says Alissa Rumsey M.S., R.D., founder of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness and creator of the 5 Minute Mindful Eating Exercise. “For some people, the restrictive diet may mean consuming fewer calories, so that may lead to some weight loss.”
The major problem with the Whole30, however, is that it’s a diet—and most diets just don’t work in the long run, says Rumsey. Case in point: When researchers followed up with Biggest Loser competitors six years after their final primetime weigh-ins, they found that most of them gained the majority of the weight back, according to a study published in the journal Obesity.
Plus, research published in JAMA that compared popular diets, like Atkins and Weight Watchers, found that weight loss was more about how well people could adhere to their plan long-term and less about the rules of the diet itself. So the harder a diet is to stick to, the less effective it will ultimately be for helping you maintain a healthy weight.
“Any diet leads to diet backlash,” Rumsey explains. “Once you stop the diet, you end up binging on the foods that you weren’t allowed to eat. Most of the people I know who have done Whole30 end up overeating food once they finish the month.” In other words, any weight you drop likely won’t be sustainable.
That’s because the Whole30 is extremely restrictive, which can be a recipe for disaster in the long run. Despite Whole30’s claims to rehab your taste buds and defeat unhealthy cravings once and for all, Rumsey says she often sees clients who relapse—hard. “If anything, I see the opposite. Once people finish it, they are craving their favourite foods so much that they end up going crazy after the 30 days is over,” she says.
The result? “The weight usually goes right back on,” she adds.
What’s more, if you don’t eat a particularly meat-heavy diet to begin with, the food limitations can be problematic since other protein sources like soy, legumes, and dairy are on the no list. That’s an issue, because getting enough protein helps keep you full while helping you build and maintain muscle.
And if you’re a picky eater in general, the long list of banned foods might translate into eating fewer calories than you should be, which is not only unhealthy, but can also cause a serious dip in energy, says Rumsey. For instance, say you end up eating just steak at every meal. That means you won’t be eating many carbohydrates, so your workouts may suffer, since carbs give you the energy to go hard at the gym.
So the bigger picture of how the diet impacts your overall health matters. If you want to lose weight—and keep it off—the Whole 30 isn’t necessarily the best way to do it, says Rumsey. Its restrictiveness not only puts you at risk for gaining all the weight back, but also bans healthy foods that can promote weight loss, like legumes and whole grains.
Unlike making long-term lifestyle changes, “anything you are going ‘on’, you will eventually go off” says Rumsey. “It isn’t a sustainable way to change your eating habits.”
By Macaela Mackenzie