I first heard about the Whole30 diet back in 2012 when I was working through the Integrative Institute of Nutrition (IIN) Health Coaching Certification program.
The IIN Health Coaching program’s philosophy has a lot of overlap with the purpose of the Whole30 diet—find the best foods that nourish the body without causing issues, understanding that there is not a single best diet for anyone.
But, how does a diet do that? What is the Whole30 diet?
Unlike a weight loss diet, the Whole30 diet is designed to help people identify problematic foods that are causing underlying health issues and then remove them from the diet to support better health.
In this guide, we will discuss what the Whole30 diet is, how to follow it, what you can eat on the Whole30 diet, foods to avoid, and potential pros and cons of this diet plan.
Let’s jump in!
What Is the Whole 30 Diet?
The Whole30 Diet1The Whole30® Program – As featured in the New York Times bestselling book, The Whole30. (2019). Whole30.com. https://whole30.com/isn’t necessarily intended to be a long-term weight loss diet or a dietary approach.
This diet was created in 2009 by Melissa Urban and Dallas Hartwig, a husband and wife team who both work as sports nutritionists.
The couple designed the Whole30 diet to serve as a 30-day dietary reset eating program to help people identify food sensitivities and triggers of inflammation, food cravings, low energy, hormonal imbalances, and digestive dysfunction rather than just a crash diet promoting quick weight loss.
This is ultimately what distinguishes the Whole30 diet from other popular weight loss diets: it is not necessarily intended to help you lose weight, but rather to identify foods that are causing underlying physiological or psychological issues.This is not to say that you will not lose weight on the Whole30 diet protocol, but that is not the primary aim of the program.
That said, because the Whole30 diet plan is so restrictive, most people do see significant weight loss results.
The Whole30 Diet focuses on consuming whole, unprocessed foods, but the actual list of allowable foods is extremely restrictive.
Moreover, the Whole30 diet plan can sort of be considered a diet challenge in that if you are going to try the Whole30 diet program, you are supposed to commit to the 30-day diet without a single deviation.
If you eat any food that isn’t allowed on the Whole30 meal plan—even one bite one time—you are supposed to start all the way back at day one of 30.
In this way, the Whole30 diet program is considered to be extremely strict and thus hard to stick with.
How Do You Follow the Whole30 Diet Plan?
This diet can be considered an elimination diet because you are removing many major food groups with hopes of identifying potential triggers for underlying inflammation or other health problems you are experiencing or noting certain food groups that might be causing food cravings or compulsions to overeat.
After the 30 days of the Whole30 dietary reset phase, you are allowed to slowly reintroduce the foods you really miss, one at a time, while paying attention to note any adverse reactions.
If you notice that the food or food group you have reintroduced is causing some sort of symptoms such as bloating, low energy, inflammation, sleep disturbances, or food cravings, then you are supposed to permanently eliminate the food from your diet moving forward.
There are numerous Whole30 diet rules, including the following:
Whole30 Diet Rules
- You can only weigh yourself and take body measurements with a tape measure or body photos on the first and thirtieth day of the program—no other days in between.
- You are not supposed to track calories; instead, focus on eating until you feel full but not beyond that point.
- You can only eat from the Whole30 diet foods list.
- You must restart the program from day one if you break any of the rules over the 30-day program.
What Foods Can You Eat On the Whole30 Diet?
The Whole30 food list includes only a handful of food groups.
All Whole30 meals should be made from foods that come in their whole, natural, unprocessed state. Zero processed foods are allowed, even if they fall within the Whole30 diet plan food categories.
For example, you can eat seafood on the Whole30 meal plan but you would not be able to have fish sticks or tuna salad from a deli.
Similarly, the Whole30 food list includes meat, but you can only have real, natural meats, not any meat that is processed or cured such as deli meat, salami, sausage, etc.
You are to eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full, choosing whatever foods in whatever quantities work for you, as long as you are eating only things found on the Whole30 diet food list.
Here are the foods allowed on the Whole30 Diet meal plan:
Whole30 Diet Foods
- Fruit: Fresh and canned fruit is allowed, but fruit products with added sugars are not
- Healthy fats like avocados, olive oil, and ghee
- Fresh or frozen vegetables, not canned
- Nuts and Seeds: All nuts except peanuts and peanut products because peanuts are legumes
What Foods Do You Have to Avoid On the Whole30 Diet?
If you think that the list of foods you can eat on the Whole30 diet looks concerningly short, you are not alone. The biggest criticism about the Whole30 diet plan is that it is too restrictive.
As you will see, this diet plan excludes many food groups that are generally considered to be healthy by most nutrition professionals.
Here are the Whole30 banned foods:
- All grains, including whole grains, cereals, bread products, granola, etc.
- All dairy products, including cheese, cottage cheese, yogurt, milk, ice cream, sour cream, butter, etc.
- All legumes, such as peanut butter, nuts, beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas, hummus, and peanut oil.
- All soy, including soy lecithin, tofu, soy milk, tempeh, miso, vegan “meats,” and soybean oil.
- All alcohol, even if it is cooked off in a meal like a wine sauce.
- All sugar, even natural sugars like honey, maple syrup, date syrup, jelly or jam, jello (even sugar-free), brown rice syrup, and agave syrup.
- All artificial sweeteners like Splenda, xylitol, monk fruit, sugar alcohols like erythritol, stevia, aspartame, sorbitol, or any other sweetener, even in chewing gum.
- All processed food additives, such as carrageenan, sulfites, and MSG.
- All sweets, treats, or breads, even if made only with ingredients approved on the Whole30 Diet.
What Are the Pros and Cons of the Whole30 Diet?
There are no scientific studies3Whole30 Diet. (n.d.). Boston Specialists. https://www.bostonspecialists.org/whole30-dietthat has specifically looked at the benefits of the Whole30 diet plan and whether it actually works to improve health, reduce inflammation, or back up any of the claims made by the creators of the diet.
This is quite problematic because many people are misled to believe that the Whole30 Diet can be sort of a panacea that will transform your health.
This is because the creators say that people who successfully complete the protocol for the 30 days experience impressive improvements in their health including weight loss, reduced body fat, better sleep, clearer skin, increased energy, blood pressure, fewer food cravings, and less bloating and gas.
While this is probably true, and you might experience some significant improvements in your health with the Whole30 diet meal plan, it is important to remember that these are anecdotal accounts from individuals, not research-based evidence.
That said, we aren’t chastising the Whole30 diet plan in its entirety.
The Whole30 Diet has a couple of benefits:
- It encourages intuitive eating rather than counting calories, so it helps you become more mindful and cognizant of your hunger and satiety signals rather than eating mindlessly or because it’s “time” to eat.
- Worrying less about how much you weigh and instead focusing on how your body feels is also a good Whole30 diet principle, but if you are trying to lose a significant amount of weight, studies4Steinberg, D. M., Bennett, G. G., Askew, S., & Tate, D. F. (2015). Weighing Every Day Matters: Daily Weighing Improves Weight Loss and Adoption of Weight Control Behaviors. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 115(4), 511–518. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2014.12.011suggest that counting calories and consistently weighing yourself can be helpful tools for some people.
- During the re-introduction phase, you are supposed to pay close attention to how the foods are affecting how you feel physically and emotionally. This can help you re-examine your relationship with eating and encourage you to listen to the signals from your body and give your body the foods that nourish you well without adverse effects.
- The Whole30 plan removes all processed foods,5Certain Foods Linked to Long-Term Weight Gain. (2015, May 22). National Institutes of Health (NIH). https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/certain-foods-linked-long-term-weight-gainfake sugar, alcohol, etc. These types of foods are known to cause inflammation, weight gain, and other adverse health problems.
However, the Whole30 food list is too restrictive and it eliminates healthy foods like whole grains and legumes, which are good sources of dietary fiber, B vitamins, and other phytonutrients.
The rigidity and “punishment“ if you make one mistake or break one of the Whole30 diet rules seems unhealthy from a psychological standpoint and might contribute to disordered eating and unnecessary food rules down the line.
Working with a Registered Dietician (RD) or nutritionist is generally the most effective way to identify food triggers and develop a sustainable, healthy meal plan.
For a healthy approach to eating, check out our guide to clean eating, here.
- 1The Whole30® Program – As featured in the New York Times bestselling book, The Whole30. (2019). Whole30.com. https://whole30.com/
- 2Whole30. (2013). The Whole30® Program | The Whole30® Program. Whole30.com. https://whole30.com/whole30-program-rules/
- 3Whole30 Diet. (n.d.). Boston Specialists. https://www.bostonspecialists.org/whole30-dietthat has
- 4Steinberg, D. M., Bennett, G. G., Askew, S., & Tate, D. F. (2015). Weighing Every Day Matters: Daily Weighing Improves Weight Loss and Adoption of Weight Control Behaviors. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 115(4), 511–518. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2014.12.011
- 5Certain Foods Linked to Long-Term Weight Gain. (2015, May 22). National Institutes of Health (NIH). https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/certain-foods-linked-long-term-weight-gain