Healthy Living

What Is Whole30 And Does It Really Work?

Here's what you can expect.
01/18/2018 07:38pm ET | Updated January 19, 2018

Meet Whole30, the diet program that has likely been peppering your social media feeds lately.

The food plan has seen a surge in popularity since its inception in 2009. The formula is simple ― all you really need is 30 days and time for a whole lot of meal prep using whole foods ― but the execution takes a ton of discipline. There’s also a huge warning: The program is not super beloved or typically recommended by nutritionists and medical experts.

Before you consider diving into the program (or any diet change, for that matter), there are few things you should know about what to expect and a few steps you should take.

Below is a breakdown of Whole30, including what foods you can eat while following the plan, what experts say about it and what results you might see.

The Basics

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Whole30 is a program designed to include more whole foods into your diet. The plan lasts for 30 days, and after it’s completed, its creators advise slowly introducing eliminated items back into your diet, one at a time. The goal is to understand what sensitivities you might have with certain foods.

“You can think of the Whole30 as pushing the reset button with your health, your habits and your relationship with food,” Melissa Hartwig, author and co-creator of Whole30, told HuffPost.

“For 30 days you’ll eliminate foods that have been shown to be commonly problematic to varying degrees across a broad range of people,” she continued. “You’ll pull those foods out to see what happens to your energy, your sleep, your mood, your cravings ... all of these things that can be associated with your diet in ways you might not expect.”

Whole30 isn’t marketed as a weight-loss method and shouldn’t be used as such. (Some people have reported losing weight, but it isn’t guaranteed. More on that later.) It’s notorious for its challenging nature, and according to testimonies from people who have done it, it certainly lives up to that reputation.

What You Can And Can’t Eat

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Whole30 relies heavily on foods like meat, vegetables, eggs and fruit. (A perk: You can eat potatoes.) There’s also a vegan version of the plan. The interest surrounding the diet has even prompted food services like Blue Apron and Fresh Direct to create Whole30-compliant meals for customers. There’s also a wide range of online recipes and cookbooks.

There are certain foods and drinks that are forbidden on Whole30. If you do end up “cheating,” Hartwig recommends that you start the 30 days over to really give your body a chance to adjust.

Comestibles that are not considered compliant with the plan include alcohol, dairy, sugar, legumes (think chickpeas and black beans) and grains (like quinoa). This means that even some condiments and pickled vegetables are not included in the list of approved items because they contain sugar. Whole30 relies on consumers to vigilantly check labels on their food in order to avoid processed items. Carrageenan (an ingredient found in some almond milk), MSG and sulfites are also not allowed.

Miriam Nelson, a women’s health expert and director of the Sustainability Institute at the University of New Hampshire, said that Whole30 does offer a good foundation for what foods should or shouldn’t be included in your overall diet. However, she added that legumes and even some dairy products (as long as you have no medical issues with them) are typically part of a good nutrition plan.

“One of the reasons these kinds of programs do help people is because they make people acutely aware of what they’re eating. They encourage you to really read labels,” she said.

So ... Does It Actually Work?

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It depends on your definition of success. Results will likely vary from person to person, and can also be affected by how much someone is also practicing other healthy lifestyle habits, like exercise.

Anecdotally speaking, individuals who have shared their experiences on Whole30 have said that they felt more energy once they completed the plan, as well as less bloated and more clear-minded. People have also said they did notice some weight loss.

That being said, many health professionals stress that Whole30 may not be as good for you as the claims say. There has been no independent research conducted on the plan’s effectiveness, and it ranks pretty low on U.S. News and World Report’s annual list of diets. It could contain a lot of foods that are high in cholesterol and sodium, depending on what foods you choose to make. Additionally, some worry that Whole30 may possibly alter your microbiome, the set of flora that lines your intestinal tract.

Critics also say the plan can be too restrictive and unsustainable. Hartwig did stress that those who have a history with disordered eating shouldn’t try Whole30 or plans like it, since it is so regimented.

Whole30 also leaves little room for error, which some say isn’t necessarily the best solution for long-term success, if that’s your goal. A lifestyle change when it comes to how you eat and view food might make a bigger difference over time, according to Nelson.

“The reality of any program that is going to work for you is that you have to be committed to sticking to it,” Nelson said.

If you have any questions before you start Whole30 ― or any eating program ― talking with your doctor is never a bad idea. And, above all, it’s important to remember what you need out of an eating program. Whole30 could work for someone’s body and might not be a fit for someone else, Zhaoping Li, the director of the Center of Human Nutrition at the University of California, Los Angeles, said.

“We’re all different,” Li said. “There’s no such thing where one diet will fit all.”

As long as you’re keeping your well-being a top priority, that’s all that matters.

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