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Can Whole30 change your life? We asked an expert to weigh in on this popular eating plan.

Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD
February 21, 2018

Our highly-processed, modern diets trigger inflammation, hormone imbalances, and subtle food intolerances in the body, and the combined effect has a cascading effect on our health, appetite, and cravings. This is the premise behind Whole30, a food “reset” centered around eating only whole, unprocessed—or very minimally processed—foods.

Introduced by Melissa and Dallas Hartwig in 2009, the Whole30 program is marketed as a way to “put an end to unhealthy cravings and habits, restore a healthy metabolism, heal your digestive tract, and balance your immune system.”

Focusing on healthy eating changes—albeit pretty drastic for most people—for a set time period is much more appealing when compared to diets with an infinite end. But how much impact can the Whole30 program really have on health, food cravings, and future food choices? Better yet, is it a safe way to eat long-term? Here’s everything you need to know.

What Is Whole30?

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By following Whole30 guidelines—which include cutting out foods triggering inflammation and imbalances for 30 days—you can effectively “calm” your body down. After eating “clean” for 30 days, you can continue with the program or slowly add restricted foods back into your diet. This way, you’ll be able to effectively identify which ones may be having subtle effects on your health.

Meals during the 30 day-period center around lots of vegetables, moderate amounts of protein from meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs, some fruits, and healthy fats from foods like nuts, seeds, oils, avocados and olives. Nut milks and nut butters are allowed, as well as all spices and herbs.

Now, here’s what you must eliminate or avoid:  

  • All added sugars and artificial sweeteners
  • Grains (refined and whole)
  • Legumes, peas, and soy products
  • Dairy
  • Highly processed foods and foods with certain additives
  • Alcohol

While Whole30 isn’t usually marketed as low-carb, eating on this plan tends to be lower in carbohydrates. And because some fruits and starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes are encouraged, Whole30 isn’t nearly as carb-scarce as the Atkins diet or Keto diet.

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In fact, from a macronutrient prospective, a day of Whole30 eating isn’t too far off from the current health recommendations (45-65% carbs, 20-35% fat, and 15-25% protein). Here’s how a typical Whole30 day breaks down: approximately 35-50% from calories from carbs,  25-35% from fat calories, and 25-35% from protein calories.

What’s the Difference Between Whole30 and Paleo?

Whole30 and the Paleo diet both surged in popularity a few years ago around the same time (when their respective books hit the market), and they have lots of similarities. Both diets focus on eating whole, unprocessed foods and cutting out added sugars, grains, legumes, dairy, and processed foods.

However, there are several key differences between the two diets. Whole30 is a strict, 30-day reset period that some then choose to adopt as a long-term eating approach. The Paleo diet, on the other hand, is viewed as a long-term way of living and eating that emphasizes grass-fed, sustainable proteins and local produce. Lastly, nutrient intakes of Paleo followers tend to be a little higher in protein and saturated fat.

Potential Health Benefits of Whole30

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While eating according to the Whole30 guidelines may initiate some of these health improvements, this isn’t the full picture. These changes aren’t necessarily triggered by Whole30 itself, but rather the act of following an elimination diet that emphasizes anti-inflammatory eating.

Elimination diets are therapeutic eating protocols that health practitioners have used for years. When a person is plagued by vague, but ongoing symptoms like digestive issues, headaches, joint pain, or skin conditions, they are especially useful in identifying food sensitivities. However, unlike food allergies, food sensitivities are difficult to detect through testing.  

RELATED: 3 Creative Whole30 Breakfasts You Can Make Even When You’re Half Asleep

Continued consumption of trigger foods can contribute to low-level inflammation and imbalances in the body. Now combine an unknown potential food sensitivity with the typical American diet high in foods that trigger chronic inflammation—added sugars, fried foods, refined carbs, artificial sweeteners, excess alcohol, processed meats, and saturated and trans fats—and you’ve got a perpetual cycle of inflammation. Research has demonstrated that this type of inflammation increases risks for cancer, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, some autoimmune diseases, and possibly brain alterations.

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Whole30 is essentially a consumer-friendly version of an elimination diet that cuts out potential food sensitivities for 30 days, as well as drastically decreases inflammatory food intake and increases key anti-inflammatory foods like fruits, vegetables, and omega-3 fatty acids. Whether you have an unidentified food sensitivity or not, the overall effect of eating like this eases inflammation—so you could see subtle health improvements related to digestion, skin, headaches, and joint pain.

Potential Problems with Whole30

While the Whole30 diet may be a good “kick-off” for an anti-inflammatory or clean eating approach, its guidelines don’t align with research and health recommendations. Among the biggest concerns are the restrictiveness and avoidance of certain food groups. Here are four problems health professionals have when considering this diet as a long-term eating plan:

1. Elimination diets are meant to be temporary.

While extremely helpful to identify foods triggering issues, elimination diets are also very restrictive. They’re designed to be a temporary diagnosis tool—and not a permanent way of eating. Elimination diets recommend avoiding certain foods for 4 to 6 weeks, then slowly adding them back one-by-one to identify any triggering issues.

Because Whole30 guidelines don’t require the re-entry of restricted foods after 30 days, you may be putting yourself at risk for nutrient deficiencies. Calcium and Vitamin D deficiencies are the biggest concerns, but magnesium, folate, Vitamin A, Vitamin E and others may be affected if you aren’t getting an adequate variety of produce and healthy fats.

2. Avoiding Whole Grains.

Consuming whole grains is associated with lowering inflammatory markers in the body and has demonstrated a protective effect when it comes to diabetes and heart disease. The Mediterranean Diet is a key model for anti-inflammatory eating and suggests whole grains be a staple part of one’s diet. And unless you’re sensitive or allergic to gluten or specific grain, research only supports avoiding refined grains.

3. Avoiding Legumes.

Paleo and Whole30 diets are largely responsible for planting the seeds that beans and legumes should be avoided due to their anti-nutrients. However, these compounds typically have little negative effect on the body—or not nearly enough to outweigh the benefits—when beans are consumed a few times per week. The Mediterranean Diet also recommends legumes as a key source of protein and high-fiber, low-glycemic carbs.

4. Avoiding Dairy.

Unless you have a dairy allergy or sensitivity, there’s little research to support avoiding dairy long-term. In fact, dairy products have an anti-inflammatory effect in most people, especially yogurt.

What’s the Verdict on Whole30?

The Whole30 diet is a quick snapshot of a healthy, but pretty restrictive, eating pattern. If you frequently consume highly-processed foods and are looking to adopt a healthier lifestyle,  you may find the strict parameters helpful. However, research suggests that healthy eating doesn’t has to be nearly as limited as the Whole30 guidelines.