What Is the Whole30 Diet?

Whole30 Diet

Verywell / Debbie Burkhoff

At Verywell, we believe there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a healthy lifestyle. Successful eating plans need to be individualized and take the whole person into consideration. Prior to starting a new diet plan, consult with your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian, especially if you have an underlying health condition.

The Whole30 diet is a month-long elimination diet. The premise is that many common foods in Western diets—sugar, alcohol, grains, dairy, legumes, and certain food additives—can be harmful to your overall health, well-being, and energy levels.

U.S. News and World Report Best Diets ranks the Whole30 diet number 35 in Best Diets Overall and gives it an overall score of 2/5. Learn more about the Whole30 diet and how it works to decide whether this is the right eating plan for you.

What Experts Say

"While the Whole30 diet focuses on eating whole, less-processed foods (think vegetables, fish, and nuts, etc.), it also restricts healthy food groups such as grains and legumes. These foods are packed with fiber, protein, B-vitamins, and many other nutrients."

Kelly Plowe, MS, RD

What Can You Eat?

When following the Whole30 plan, you focus on eating whole, unprocessed foods including animal protein, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and healthy fats. At the same time, you avoid grains, legumes, dairy, added sugar, artificial sugar, alcohol, and certain additives.

The rules are simple, but strict:

  • Eat moderate portions of meat, seafood, and eggs; lots of vegetables; fruit; plenty of natural fats; and herbs, spices, and seasonings.
  • Eat foods containing only a few, pronounceable ingredients, or no ingredients because they’re whole and unprocessed.
  • Do not eat the foods to be avoided, even in small amounts, for 30 days.

After 30 days of following the Whole30 eating plan, the off-limits foods are slowly reintroduced one at a time to see if anything triggers a reaction. 

What You Need to Know

The program is based on research about how different nutrients can affect the body. Foods allowed on the plan must meet the diet's four so-called "Good Food" standards. On the Whole30 diet, the food you eat should:

  1. Promote a healthy psychological response
  2. Promote a healthy hormonal response
  3. Support a healthy gut
  4. Support immune functions and minimize inflammation

The Whole30 plan does not restrict the timing of meals, however, it recommends eating three meals a day and not snacking in between.

While the initial program lasts 30 days, reintroduction can take time. During this period, you add one food group back at a time, eating several servings of a variety of foods in the group over three days while remaining true to the rest of the Whole30 plan.

Food groups can be added in any order, however, some people choose to do legumes first, then non-gluten grains, followed by dairy, then gluten-containing grains. Upon reintroduction, it's important to notice any symptoms, including gastric problems, rashes, body pain, or energy dips.

There are no required recipes to embark on a Whole30 diet, but there are many resources for Whole30-compliant meals. In addition to looking for recipes marketed as Whole30-approved, you can simply look for recipes that don't include any dairy, grains, sugar, alcohol, or legumes.

What to Eat
  • Meat

  • Poultry

  • Seafood

  • Eggs

  • Vegetables

  • Fruit

  • Natural fats

  • Nuts

  • Vinegar (except for malt vinegar)

  • Coconut aminos

  • Herbs, spices, and seasonings

What Not to Eat
  • Sugar and artificial sweeteners

  • Alcohol

  • Grains

  • Legumes, including soy and peanuts

  • Dairy

  • Additives, including carrageenan, MSG, or sulfites

  • Certain seed and vegetable oils

No Added Sugar (Real or Artificial)

This includes maple syrup, honey, agave nectar, coconut sugar, date syrup, stevia, Splenda, Equal, NutraSweet, xylitol, and sugar alcohols. Small amounts of fruit juice used as a sweetener in recipes, however, is allowed, and whole fruits are not restricted.

No Alcohol

Do not drink alcoholic beverages or eat foods prepared with alcohol, even if it is cooked out.

No Grains 

This includes wheat, rye, barley, oats, corn, rice, millet, bulgur, sorghum, sprouted grains, quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat.

Avoid Most Legumes

This includes beans of all kinds (black, red, pinto, navy, white, kidney, lima, fava, etc.), peas, chickpeas, lentils, peanuts, peanut butter, soy, and soy products (including soy sauce, miso, tofu, tempeh, edamame, and soy lecithin).

No Dairy

This includes cow, goat, or sheep’s milk products like milk, cream, cheese, kefir, yogurt, sour cream, ice cream, or frozen yogurt. The only exceptions are ghee and clarified butter, in which the milk proteins have been removed.

Avoid Certain Seed and Vegetable Oils

This includes canola (rapeseed), chia, corn, cottonseed, flax (linseed), grapeseed, hemp, palm kernel, peanut, rice bran, safflower, sesame, soybean, and sunflower.

No Carrageenan, MSG, or Sulfites

If these additives appear in any form on food labels, don't consume them.

While the list of restricted foods on the Whole30 makes up a large portion of the standard American diet and removing them may seem overwhelming, the foods allowed on the plan are plentiful and healthy.

Sample Shopping List

The Whole30 diet eliminates dairy, grains, legumes, sugar, artificial sweeteners, other additives, and alcohol for 30 days. The following shopping list offers suggestions for getting started on this plan. Note that this is not a definitive shopping list and you may find other foods that work better for you.

  • Dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, Swiss chard, bok choy)
  • Veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, bell peppers, eggplant, carrots, cucumbers)
  • Fruits (avocado, grapefruit, oranges, berries, bananas, apples)
  • Lean animal protein sources (chicken breast, lean cuts of beef, pork tenderloin)
  • Fresh or frozen fish (halibut, cod, salmon, snapper, sea bass, shrimp)
  • Nuts (walnuts, almonds, cashews)
  • Oils (olive oil, coconut oil)
  • Organic non-dairy plant milk (carrageenan-free)
  • Compliant seasonings (amino acids, malt vinegar, turmeric)
  • Eggs

Sample Meal Plan

The Whole30 plan advises three meals a day with no snacks in between. The following three-day meal plan offers suggestions for following the diet. Note that this plan is not all-inclusive and there may be other meals that are more appropriate for your tastes, preferences, and budget.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Pros and Cons

Pros
  • Emphasizes wholesome, real food

  • No weighing or measuring

  • No fasting or complicated meal timing

  • No essential special products or supplements to buy

  • Coffee is allowed

Cons
  • Very restrictive diet

  • Meal planning and preparation required

  • Difficult to follow in social settings

  • No "wiggle room" for 30 days

  • Must read food labels

  • No sugar or alcohol may lead to physical withdrawal symptoms

The Whole30 Program isn't right for everyone, but those who have completed the program praise its effectiveness in improving energy, mental clarity, and overall wellness. Review the pros and cons before trying this eating plan.

Pros

Nutrient-Dense

The Whole30 plan is filled with healthy, nutritionally dense whole foods, including protein, vegetables, fruits, and healthy fats. Most people report feeling better physically, mentally, and emotionally on this healthy-eating plan.

May Reveal Food Sensitivities

As an elimination diet, it allows you to identify foods that may trigger allergies or sensitivities. This is a clinical, time-honored approach and can work for the purpose of identifying trigger foods in order to minimize symptoms.

Restricts Added Sugar and Processed Foods

Nutrition experts agree that removing added sugars and processed foods from our diet, like Whole30 recommends, is a good thing. Reducing added sugar intake decreases inflammation, reduces illness, and improves overall health.

No Restriction on Compliant Foods

While several foods are not allowed, there is no restriction on the amount of compliant foods you can eat, meaning no calories restrictions and you can eat to fullness. The plan also doesn't require fruits and vegetables to be organic or animal protein to be grass-fed or cage-free.

There is no need to weigh or measure portion sizes, no special timing of meals or snacks, and no essential supplements or special products you must buy to start the program.

Cons

Very Restrictive

The Whole30 plan eliminates several foods that are commonly found in the standard American diet and in most processed and pre-prepared foods.

Meal Planning Required

When following the Whole30 diet plan, you need to carefully read food labels, avoid most restaurants and takeout, plan ahead, and prepare most meals from scratch. It can be time-consuming and many find this to be the most challenging part of the plan.

Difficult to Socialize

The strict diet and no alcohol policy can make socializing difficult. Dining in restaurants and at other people's homes can be challenging.

Plus, the program removes many foods that are physically addictive, like sugar and alcohol, and stopping cold turkey could result in physical withdrawal symptoms. It's recommended to slowly wean yourself off sugar and alcohol prior to starting the 30-day plan.

Strict and Regimented

No deviation is allowed for 30 days. Just one bite of an off-limit food can disrupt the healing cycle and require the clock to be reset back to day one, according to the diet's co-founders. Some people may find this approach off-putting and insensitive instead of motivational.

The Whole30 diet claims to be scientifically sound but it hasn't been studied in clinical trials and no current peer-reviewed studies support it for sustainable weight loss. Nutritionists add its restrictions are unsustainable, can deprive your body of essential nutrients, and can create an unhealthy relationship with food.

Is the Whole30 Diet a Healthy Choice for You?

Whole30 has some nutritional benefits, but it does not meet the recommended dietary guidelines of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) due to the elimination of dairy and grains.

Eating healthy is a lifestyle, not a diet. When you consume a wide variety of nutritious foods, it helps maintain mental and physical well-being and a healthy weight. The USDA recommends choosing the following nutrient-dense foods as part of a healthy, balanced diet:

  • Vegetables and dark, leafy greens (kale, spinach, broccoli, Swiss chard, green beans) 
  • Fruits (apples, berries, melon)
  • Grains (quinoa, brown rice, oats)
  • Lean meats (chicken breast, fish, turkey breast)
  • Beans and legumes (all beans, lentils, peas)
  • Nuts and seeds (walnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds)
  • Dairy (reduced-fat milk, cheese, yogurt) 
  • Oils (olive oil, avocado oil

The USDA indicates that the number of calories a person needs daily varies based on age, sex, and level of physical activity. If you're interested in determining your daily calorie guidelines to meet your goals, use this calculator tool.

The greatest concern with the Whole30 diet is the elimination of dairy, grains, and legumes, which does not adhere to USDA guidelines. The plan can be difficult to follow and doesn’t necessarily support long-term weight loss since it is only a short-term diet.

Health Benefits

Doctors commonly prescribe elimination diets to patients with potential food allergies, digestive problems, rashes, or difficult-to-diagnose symptoms. The Whole30 eliminates potentially problematic food groups for a month, with foods slowly reintroduced one at a time.

Most people who follow a Whole30 diet discover some of these foods cause stomach upset, body aches, headaches, fatigue, rashes, or other uncomfortable symptoms upon reintroduction.

But the main health benefits of an elimination diet like Whole30 come from avoiding potentially unhealthy or problematic foods. The following is a summary of why certain foods may cause problems according to peer-reviewed studies and research.

Added Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners

Few people would argue that sugar and artificial sweeteners are good for you. Foods with lots of added sugar are addictive and full of empty calories.

Artificial sweeteners mimic sugar and are linked to various health conditions including cancer, bowel disease, migraines, autoimmune disorders, and more. Yet, studies investigating the link have yielded inconsistent results.

One review confirms that sugar is addictive due to natural opioids released by its consumption. Another found that artificial sweeteners contribute to metabolic syndrome and obesity by disrupting satiety signals, leading to increased calorie consumption.

Research shows that added sugar doesn't promote a healthy psychological response, can lead to mood swings, and contributes to inflammation in the body. Plus, sugar and artificial sweeteners are added to many seemingly healthy products, including canned tomatoes and fruit, bread, almond milk, yogurt, and more.

Alcohol

Alcohol does not have any redeeming health benefits according to the Whole30 co-founders. It is a neurotoxin, addictive, and provides empty calories.

Alcohol also inhibits decision-making, so it's harder to stick to your diet, and interferes with hormones, glucose metabolism, and gut health. A 2015 study found that moderate alcohol consumption before a meal increases calorie consumption by 11%.

Whole30's co-founders say that any purported alcohol health claim is canceled out by its negative effects and can be found in other foods. For instance, red wine is touted as heart-healthy but a 2009 study suggests the same benefits can be achieved by eating red grapes.

Seed Oils

Some industrial seed and vegetable oils are high in omega-6 fatty acids and are generally considered healthy. But one study reports that the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids has increased from 1:1 to 20:1, leading to obesity, brain-gut problems, and systemic inflammation.

Minimizing omega-6 intake and increasing omega-3 consumption (as recommended during the Whole30 diet) can help balance out the ratio and is "important for health and in the prevention and management of obesity," the study authors conclude.

On their own, omega-6s are not inherently harmful; however, when the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids becomes unbalanced, it can have negative health consequences.

Grains

Grains make up a large portion of the American diet. Their elimination, as recommended in Whole30, sparks controversy with nutrition and medical experts. However, this is a temporary elimination to reset the body and determine if certain grains affect your health.

According to some research, grains can be problematic for some people for a number of reasons. They are easy to overconsume, promote inflammation, and the proteins found in grains—both gluten and gluten-free—can be difficult to digest. Grains are also calorie-dense.

A 2013 study found that anti-nutrients in wheat and other cereal grains may contribute to chronic inflammation and autoimmune diseases. Its authors note that eating grains can increase intestinal permeability and initiate a pro-inflammatory immune response.

Grains are typically touted as a heart-healthy source of fiber and nutrients, but Whole30 creators suggest that grains—refined grains in particular—are not as good a source of nutrition as vegetables and fruits.

Eliminating grains and eating more whole plant material isn't necessarily harmful and may actually pack more nutrients for fewer calories. For example, replacing 1 cup of regular spaghetti with 1 cup of spaghetti squash saves 190 calories; boosts intake of vitamins A, C, and B6; and contains almost the same amount of fiber.

Legumes

Beans, peas, lentils, soy, and peanuts are often touted as healthy foods but many people have problems digesting legumes. Legumes contain lectins and phytate, which may inhibit some of their nutrients from being absorbed during digestion.

In addition, soy contains phytoestrogens (plant-based estrogen), which can have a hormonal response in the body. Soy-based ingredients are prevalent in processed foods, often found on labels as soybean oil, soy protein isolates, and soy lecithin.

While Whole30 co-founders admit the scientific case against legumes may not be strong, they recommend abstaining from legumes for 30 days, then deciding for yourself whether to include them in your diet once you reintroduce them.

Though there is limited evidence to back the Whole30 diet's claims that certain food groups like grains and legumes may be unhealthy for some people, it's important to note that research has also shown these foods provide a number of health benefits, too.

Dairy

Despite milk's reputation as nature's perfect food—it has protein, carbohydrates, fat, and many nutrients—dairy products do not agree with everyone.

Milk contains the sugar lactose, which many people lack an enzyme to digest. This results in gas and bloating. Milk also contains the proteins casein and whey, to which some people react poorly.

According to the National Institutes of Health, an estimated 65% of adults have difficulty digesting lactose. Rates of milk protein allergies are much lower and estimated to affect fewer than 5% of adults.

Milk and dairy products can also contain hormones that may disrupt the endocrine system and lead to weight gain. According to a 2015 review, certain hormones in dairy products may potentially provoke breast, prostate, and endometrial tumors.

As with other foods prohibited on the plan, personal reactions vary. Taking a 30-day break from dairy products gives the body a chance to clear all the dairy from your system so you can determine if you are sensitive to it upon reintroduction.

Carrageenan

Carrageenan is a seaweed extract used to thicken processed foods. It's often found in almond milk, yogurt, deli meat, and other unsuspecting places.

Some people have an inflammatory response to carrageenan, so it is recommended to avoid it for the duration of a Whole30 diet.

A 2018 review reports that carrageenan may be linked to inflammation and digestive problems. In addition, its use as a food additive is on the rise. The authors recommend additional research to determine if carrageenan may compromise health and well-being.

MSG

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a flavor enhancer used in processed foods. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that it's safe and new research adds that swapping salt with MSG can help reduce sodium in your diet, which may improve overall health.

However, scientists have also studied MSG's effects due to reports of adverse reactions including headaches, rashes, hives, and nasal congestion. There have also been concerns about its link with other health conditions, including low-grade inflammation and obesity.

MSG study results have been mixed and methodology is often called into question, such as testing quantities not typically consumed in the human diet. Authors of a large independent research review suggest that more high-quality studies are needed to fully understand the impact of MSG on human health.

MSG is hidden in foods under many names, including maltodextrin, modified food starch, hydrolyzed proteins, dried meat (i.e., dried beef), meat extract (i.e., pork extract), and poultry stock (i.e., chicken stock).

To find out if you are sensitive to MSG, avoid it during the Whole30, then reintroduce it after 30 days.

Added Sulfites

Sulfites are a byproduct of fermentation and occur naturally in many foods. They are also added to processed foods. People who are sensitive to sulfites can experience skin rashes, gastrointestinal problems, and cardio and pulmonary issues.

Avoiding added sulfites during your Whole30, then reintroducing them, can help you determine if they impact your health.

Health Risks

Though there are no common health risks associated with a Whole30 diet, restricting healthy food groups can lead to nutrient deficiencies. Restrictive diets are also not recommended for those who've had or are at risk of developing an eating disorder since they can create an unhealthy obsession with food.

A Word From Verywell

The Whole30 plan promotes healthy, nutrient-dense whole foods while temporarily eliminating foods that may cause health problems. It is not a weight-loss plan, but a nutritional reset that can help eliminate unhealthy eating habits—at least temporarily—and potentially leave you feeling better and more energized.

But the Whole30 diet is not right for everyone. The plan is very restrictive and can be difficult to follow. It requires a high degree of meal planning, which can be a struggle for some. In addition, experts say restrictive diets are unsustainable and can foster an unhealthy relationship with food.

If you choose to try Whole30, familiarize yourself with the rules before you begin. Read food labels to recognize off-limits items and slowly wean yourself off sugar and alcohol to make the transition easier. It's also helpful to test some Whole30-approved meals in advance or you may find yourself trying several new recipes in a row, which some people find overwhelming.

Remember, following a long-term or short-term diet may not be necessary for you and many diets out there simply don’t work, especially long-term. While we do not endorse fad diet trends or unsustainable weight loss methods, we present the facts so you can make an informed decision that works best for your nutritional needs, genetic blueprint, budget, and goals.

If your goal is weight loss, remember that losing weight isn’t necessarily the same as being your healthiest self, and there are many other ways to pursue health. Exercise, sleep, and other lifestyle factors also play a major role in your overall health. The best diet is always the one that is balanced and fits your lifestyle.

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