What Is the Whole30 Diet?

In This Article

salmon with tomatoes, zucchini, and red onion
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The Whole30 diet is a month-long elimination diet used as a nutrition reset. The central premise of the diet is that food should make you healthier, but it says many common foods found in Western diets—including sugar, alcohol, grains, dairy, legumes, and certain food additives—can be harmful to your health, well-being, and energy.

Proponents believe following the plan can help to:

  • Heal the digestive tract
  • Balance the immune system
  • Eliminate food cravings
  • Improve medical conditions
  • Boost energy and metabolism
  • Promote weight loss
  • Change how we think about food and food freedom

During the 30 days, you will eat whole, unprocessed foods, like fruits, vegetables, animal protein, nuts, and healthy fats. After the 30 days, you will slowly reintroduce off-limits food groups to check for reactions.

The program is not a weight-loss plan, but many people find they lose weight on Whole30. The goal is better health, so it is recommended to not weigh yourself or take body measurements during the full 30 days.

What Experts Say

"While the Whole 30 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

Background

The Whole30 Program was created in 2009 by nutritionists Melissa and Dallas Hartwig, who wrote The New York Times bestseller It Starts With Food.

The Hartwigs say the Whole30 was “born of science and experience.” It is not a "diet," but a short-term nutritional reset that eliminates several food groups that may adversely affect your body and give the body time to heal. After 30 days of clean eating, the off-limits foods are slowly reintroduced one at a time to see if anything triggers a reaction.

In order for the plan to work, absolutely no slip-ups, cheat meals, or special occasion eating can take place for 30 days. Just one taste of any off-limits food can disrupt the healing cycle, according to the founders.

How It Works

When following the Whole30 plan, you will focus on eating whole, unprocessed foods including animal protein, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and healthy fats. At the same time, you will 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; some fruit; plenty of natural fats; and herbs, spices, and seasonings. Eat foods with very 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.

What to Eat

Compliant Foods

  • Meat

  • Poultry

  • Seafood

  • Eggs

  • Vegetables

  • Fruit

  • Natural fats

  • Nuts

  • Vinegar (except for malt vinegar)

  • Coconut aminos

  • Herbs, spices, and seasonings

Non-Complaint Foods

  • Sugar and artificial sweeteners

  • Alcohol

  • Grains

  • Legumes, including soy and peanuts

  • Dairy

  • Additives, including carrageenan, MSG, or sulfites

  • Certain seed and vegetable oils

While the list of restricted foods on the Whole30 make 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.

All animal proteins (except dairy), vegetables, fruits, natural fats, most nuts, and most herbs, spices, and seasonings are allowed, which offers a lot more variety than appears at first glance.

The restrictions are clear cut and require reading labels to ensure you don't inadvertently eat off-limit foods:

  • 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, and soy and soy products (soy sauce, miso, tofu, tempeh, edamame, and soy lecithin). The exceptions are green beans, sugar snap peas, and snow peas because these are more “pod” than “bean.”
  • 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 the label, don't consume it.
  • No baked goods, junk foods, or treats with “approved” ingredients. 

Supporting Science

Doctors commonly prescribe elimination diets to patients with potential allergies, digestive problems, rashes, or difficult to diagnose symptoms.

The Whole30 eliminates many potentially problematic food groups for a month, then the foods are 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.

The program is based on research on how different nutrients can affect the body. Foods allowed on the plan must meet four "Good Food" standards. The food we 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.

Here is a brief summary of why certain foods may cause problems, according to peer-reviewed studies and additional research compiled in the book It Starts With Food.

Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners

Few people would argue that sugar and artificial sweeteners are not good for you. Sweets are addictive and full of empty calories. Artificial sweeteners mimic sweets and are linked to various health conditioners including cancer, bowel disease, migraines, autoimmune disorders, and more.

A research review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2018 confirms that sugar is addictive in both animal and human studies due to natural opioids released by sugar consumption.

In addition, a 2017 review published in the journal Current Gastroenterology Reports found artificial sweeteners contribute to metabolic syndrome and obesity by disrupting satiety signals leading to increased calorie consumption.

Added sugar—real or artificial—does not promote a healthy psychological response, leads to mood swings, and contributes to inflammation in the body. In addition, sugar and artificial sweeteners are added to many seemingly healthy products, including canned tomatoes and fruit, bread, almond milk, and more.

Alcohol

Alcohol does not have any redeeming health benefits. It is a neurotoxin, addictive, and empty calories. Alcohol inhibits decision making—so it's harder to stick to your diet—and interferes with hormones, glucose metabolism, and gut health.

A 2015 study in the journal Appetite found moderate alcohol consumption before a meal increases calorie consumption by 11 percent.

According to the authors of Whole30, any purported health claim of alcohol is canceled out by its negative effects and can be found in other foods. For instance, red wine is touted as heart-healthy, but the same benefits can be achieved by eating red grapes.

Seed Oils

Industrial seed and vegetable oils are high in omega-6 fatty acids. On their own omega-6s are not inherently harmful, however, when the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids become unbalanced, it can have negative health impacts.

A 2016 study published in the journal Nutrients 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 in Whole30, can help to balance out the ratio and is "important for health and in the prevention and management of obesity," the study authors conclude.

In addition, these oils are temperature sensitive and more likely to go rancid, which changes the chemical profile of the oil and leads to oxidation and free radical damage.

Grains

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

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

A 2013 study in the journal Nutrients found anti-nutrients in wheat and other cereal grains may contribute to chronic inflammation and autoimmune diseases. The study authors note 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 the Whole30 creators point out that grains—and refined grains in particular—are not as good of a source of nutrition as vegetables and fruits. All of the fiber, protein, and vitamins in grains can be found in fruits and vegetables.

Eliminating grains and eating more whole plant material is not 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

Like grains, beans, peas, lentils, soy, and peanuts are touted as healthy foods, but many people have problems digesting legumes. Legumes contain lectins and phytate, which may inhibit 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 very prevalent in processed foods, often found on labels as soybean oil and soy lecithin.

While the Hartwigs admit the scientific case against legumes may not be strong, they recommend abstaining from legumes for 30 days, and deciding for yourself once you reintroduce them.

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 that many people lack an enzyme to digest (lactase, the active ingredient in Lactaid tablets), resulting in gas and bloating. Milk also contains the proteins casein and whey, which some people react poorly to.

According to the National Institutes of Health's genetic research library, an estimated 65 percent of adults have difficulty digesting lactose. Rates of milk protein allergies are much lower, and estimated to be less than 5 percent of adults.

Milk and dairy products can also contain hormones that disrupt the endocrine system, and promote weight gain.

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

Carrageenan

Carrageenan is a seaweed extract used to thicken processed foods. It's 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 for the duration of a Whole30.

A 2018 review published in the journal Food and Function reports that carrageenan may be linked to inflammation and digestive problems. In addition, its use as a food additive is on the rise, with increasing levels found in our diet. The study authors recommend additional research to determine if carrageenan may compromise human health and well-being.

MSG

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a flavor enhancer in processed foods that may have neurotoxic properties and promote obesity. Adverse reactions to MSG, including headaches, rashes, hives, and nasal congestion, have been reported since the 1980s.

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 the 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 suffer from skin rashes, gastrointestinal problems, and cardio and pulmonary issues.

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

Recommended Timing

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 for 30 days, the reintroduction period can take time. It is recommended to add a food group back in for three days, eating several servings of a variety of foods in the group and remaining true to the rest of the Whole30 plan.

Food groups can be added back in any order, however, many people choose to do legumes first, then non-gluten grains, followed by dairy, and then gluten. In evaluating food upon reintroduction, it is important to pay attention to any symptoms, including gastric problems, rashes, body pain, or energy dips, that occur.

Resources and Tips

The Whole30 website contains lots of useful information, including the program rules, a free newsletter, a support forum, recipes, and a subscription meal planning service.

In addition, the Hartwigs have written several books that explain the guidelines and provide helpful recipes that fit this plan, including The Whole30 Cookbook: 150 Delicious and Totally Compliant Recipes to Help You Succeed with the Whole30 and Beyond.

There are no required recipes to embark on a Whole30. Simply look for recipes that are labeled Whole30 or Paleo, which should not include any dairy, grains, sugar, alcohol, or legumes.

Pros and Cons

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.

Pros

  • Eat wholesome, real food

  • No weighing or measuring

  • No fasting or complicated meal timing

  • No essential special products or supplements to buy

  • Improved energy, wellness, and mental clarity

  • Coffee is allowed

Cons

  • Very restrictive diet

  • Meal planning and preparation required

  • Difficult to follow in social settings

  • No cheating for 30 days

  • Must read food labels

  • No sugar or alcohol may lead to physical withdrawal symptoms

Pros

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.

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.

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

While several foods are not allowed during a Whole30, there is no restriction on the amount of included foods allowed. The plan does not 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

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

This means you will need to carefully read food labels, avoid most restaurants and takeout, plan ahead, and prepare most of your meals from scratch. This can be time-consuming and many people find this is the most difficult part of the plan.

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

In addition, the program removes many foods that are physically addictive, like sugar and alcohol, and stopping these foods cold turkey can result in physical withdrawals, cravings, and body aches that can last for several days. It is recommended to slowly wean yourself off sugar and alcohol prior to officially starting the 30-day plan.

Because it is an elimination diet, there is no cheating allowed for 30 days. Just one bite of an off-limit food can disrupt the healing cycle and require the clock be reset to day 1.

The program was created by certified sports nutritionists, who take on a tough-love coaching approach that some people find off-putting and insensitive instead of motivational.

While the Whole30 Diet claims to be scientifically sound, the overall plan has not been studied in any clinical trials and there are no current peer-reviewed studies indicating Whole30 supports sustainable weight loss. In addition, nutritionists say the restrictive program is unsustainable, can deprive your body of essential nutrients, and creates an unhealthy relationship with food.

How It Compares

The Whole30 plan was included in the annual U.S. News Report Best Diets rankings. However, out of 41 diet plans examined by a panel of nationally recognized experts, Whole30 tied with the Keto diet at number 38.

The 2019 U.S. News and World Report Best Diets ranks the Whole30 Diet number 38 in Best Diets Overall and gives it an overall score of 2.1/5.

The greatest concern was the elimination of dairy, grains, and legumes and the program's restrictive nature. The plan is extremely difficult to follow and doesn’t support long-term weight loss because it is only a short-term diet.

USDA Recommendations

Whole30 has some benefits, but it does not meet the USDA recommendations due to the elimination of dairy and grains.

Eating right is a lifestyle, not a diet. When we consume a wide variety of nutritious foods, especially plant-based, it helps us maintain good health and the proper weight. The USDA recommends choosing the following nutrient-dense foods as part of a healthy 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) 

Similar Diets

The Whole30 program is similar to Paleo and Primal diets, with a few exceptions.

The Paleo Diet: Intended as a long-term way of life, this plan offers a little more flexibility than Whole30 and allows for certain types of alcohol and natural sugar, such as honey and maple syrup. The Paleo diet recommends buying pastured raised meat and organic fruits and vegetables. But unlike Whole30, Paleo discourages caffeine and advises against nightshade plants, which includes potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers.

The Primal Diet: Also similar to Whole 30 and Paleo, the Primal diet allows for raw, full-fat dairy, nightshade vegetables, and coffee.

A Word From Verywell

The Whole30 plan promotes eating healthy, nutrient-dense whole foods, while temporary 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.

However, 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 great for people who love to cook and have ample time to prepare meals but 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 give Whole30 a try, familiarize yourself with the rules of the program before you begin. Start reading food labels to recognize off-limit foods and slowly wean yourself off some of these foods—sugar and alcohol, in particular—to make the transition easier.

It is also helpful to test out some Whole30-approved meals in advance, or you may find yourself trying out several new recipes in a row, which some people find overwhelming.

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