Do you want to stop drinking alcohol and cut all sugar, grains, beans, peanuts, and dairy from your plate for a month? Then the Whole30 diet is for you.
Created in 2009 by then husband-and-wife pair Melissa and Dallas Hartwig, the premise of the monthlong regime is that if you put only “good” things in your body you’ll feel better, reduce inflammation, and transform your relationship with food.
Melissa, a former heroin addict, came up with the plan after she left rehab, quit smoking, joined a gym, and started eating healthier. She shared what worked so well for her with the masses, and the Instagrammable hashtag #Whole30, which to date has spawned 3.4 million posts, was born.
Whole30 involves a lot of diet restriction and willpower, which means the diet may not be the right choice for everyone. In fact, it ranked near the bottom of the list of US News & World Report’s 40 best diets of 2018.
Here’s how it works.
There are at least seven big no-no’s on the Whole30 diet.
The first: absolutely no alcohol all 30 days. This includes cooking with wine. Whole30 is meant to be a kind of radical body cleanse, and for that reason the inventors also ask people to refrain from smoking during the 30 days of the fast.
Bread and whole grains are off limits.
That includes quinoa.
Just about every kind of starch, bran, or germ you can think of is off limits. Gluten-free bread, buckwheat flour, amaranth, or rice? No, no, no, and no.
But potatoes, formerly banned from the diet, are OK for Whole30-ers now. (Still, no potato chips or french fries allowed.)
Forget about sugar, at least for the next 30 days.
That includes less obvious sweets, too, like honey, agave, and maple syrup.
Sugar replacements like stevia, Splenda, and Equal are also not allowed.
The point of the diet is to upend your bad eating habits completely, not just replace one treat for another treat substitute.
No beans or peanuts.
In general, these are cheap, fibre-rich protein sources, however.
There’s no dairy on the plan, either. You won’t be getting any gut-friendly yogurt cultures or probiotics this month.
If you eat out or nibble on something in a package, make sure it doesn’t contain any seaweed-derived carrageenan thickeners in it or MSG (monosodium glutamate).
Whole30 also says that sulfites are banned from the diet, but dieters are still allowed to season with balsamic vinegar and cook eggs, even though both of those contain sulfites. (Sulfite sensitivity is a fairly rare condition, affecting between 1 in 20 and 1 in 100 asthmatics.)
In fact, there are several ways that Whole30 lets you break its strict regime: clarified butter is OK, though real butter is not, and iodized table salt, which contains some sugar is allowed. It’s not clear why Whole30 made these exceptions, but without them the diet would be extremely hard to follow.
Don’t even think about stepping on the scale this month.
You aren’t allowed to weigh yourself, and you don’t need to count calories on the diet.
That’s a strange strategy because regular weigh-ins are generally considered a helpful way to maintain a healthy weight for the long haul.
Other processed foods you might crave, like cookies, pancakes, pizzas, and chips, are also not welcome on your journey — even if they’re made from ingredients that are technically not on the “banned” Whole30 list.
Anything you enjoyed eating before that you don’t think is “psychologically healthy” for your diet isn’t a good idea, according to Whole30.
The premise is that by severely restricting what you eat for a month, you’re clearing out your system and figuring out what causes inflammation, while also changing your relationship with food.
“A pancake is still a pancake, even if it is made with coconut flour,” as the Whole30 crew says.
The Whole 30 website even says the mantra of the program is restriction: “When in doubt, leave it out. It’s only 30 days.”
At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Is there anything at all I can eat on Whole30?”
Ideally, your diet is going to consist of a lot of fresh veggies and meats.
No sugar or sweeteners are allowed. But since fruit juice comes from fruit (which you are allowed to eat) this is one way you could sweeten things up for the month.
The Whole30 site says simply: “We had to draw the line somewhere.”
The diet allows a little fruit juice to flavour sauces, soups, and entrees. But drinking a glass of fruit juice is not in the spirit of the diet, and juice has less nutritional value than a piece of fruit, so don’t think you’re going to sip your way through the month.
Eggs, fruit, and natural fats like avocados, cashews, coconut products, and olive oil are basically the rest of your diet.
Whole30 also recommends some supplements, including fish oil, vitamin D, magnesium, and probiotics.
Research tells us that, with the notable exception of Vitamin D, it’s probably better to get those things in foods, not pills.
In short, Whole30 is not the cheapest diet you could pick out.
But you’ll probably be preparing a lot more food at home, and not drinking, which may help balance out the cost of buying extra meats, fish, and fresh fruit.
It’s also not the best diet for the earth.
If everyone in the world decided to embark on the Whole30 diet, we’d all be pretty hungry. There simply aren’t enough eggs, meat, and fish to go around when we’re not eating other protein sources.
Whole30 is a very strict diet: If you slip up and eat a banned food, it’s back to day one.
At some point, your willpower is probably going to break a little. So a harsh slap on the wrist probably isn’t the most effective way to improve your diet over the long term.
Diet experts say the goal of the Whole30, a healthier relationship with food, is an admirable one. But many argue this diet goes about it in a counterproductive way.
Dietitian Jessica Penner isn’t a fan: “The Whole 30 is a short-term solution to a long-term problem,” she writes on her website.
The founders call the plan a “short-term nutrition reset” After 30 days, you can slowly add more banned foods back in to your daily routine.
The idea is that you pay attention to how you feel as you begin adding more foods to your plate, and limit those that make you feel inflamed and sluggish. Nutrition experts caution that 30 days may not really be enough for your body to reset, though.
“In a clinical setting, we put patients on these sorts of restrictive diets for three months, because the immune system needs three months to shut off,” Alessio Fasano, director of the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital, told Time. “Thirty days isn’t enough time to turn off systemic inflammation.”
While Whole30 aims to improve people’s relationship with food, it can sometimes have the opposite effect, shaming people into feeling awful for slipping up and eating a “bad” food, or forcing them to give up on the diet because they decide they don’t have what it takes.
Whole30 may look pretty in pictures, but it’s much simpler to opt for smaller, reasonable changes to your diet.
Most nutritionists agree that plant-based diets centered on veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins (like beans) are the way to go.
So if you’re just looking to make small improvements to your eating habits, the Whole30 diet probably isn’t the best option for you.
After the 30 days are up, you’re largely on your own to decide how to add a variety of banned foods – including bread, beans, and cheese – back in to your regular diet.