After the holiday indulgences of sweets, cocktails, and rich foods, many people's top New Year's resolution is to eat healthier, exercise more (or at all), and lose weight. An increasing number of people I know (and many more that I don't) are turning to the Whole30 Diet as a way to cleanse themselves and to recharge. Its draconian approach to prohibiting foods and establishing ironclad rules for the foods that are allowed scream FAD DIET, yet this is also what appeals to the mass of people who take it on and swear to commit to its rules for thirty days.
The main tenets of the Whole30 diet are eliminating dairy, grains, legumes, sugar, and alcohol for 30 days, after which you are encouraged to add certain foods back into the diet with mindfulness. At first glance, this approach seems to be a great way to follow the Michael Pollan-esque mantra of "Eat Real Food" while eliminating all of the junk. Thus, most people who follow Whole30 will dramatically lower their junk food intake, which is unarguably a great thing.
However, if you look a little deeper at the rules, the rejection of many of the foods are based on no true scientific information but instead on the Paleo diet idea that humans may not have evolved to eat certain foods, such as added sugars, dairy, grains, legumes and peanuts, so these foods may cause a host of health problems including diabetes, chronic inflammation, and unhealthy psychological cravings. Whole30 claims that cutting the particular foods out will give you more energy, heal unexplained aches and pains, and possibly even make medical conditions from skin problems to “fertility issues” suddenly disappear. If these claims sound too good to be true, you’ve got the right idea. There’s no science to back up the idea that the Whole30 diet is a miracle cure. Instead, many of the forbidden foods are the subject of popular but unfounded myths.
Scientists generally agree that added sugars play a major role in obesity and heart disease. Many people are intolerant to lactose, meaning they can't digest the sugar in dairy. At least 1 percent of Americans suffer from celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that prevents them from eating gluten, a protein found in many grains. And several studies, have found that people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) find that their symptoms improve if they cut out certain types of carbohydrates commonly found in grains and many fruits and vegetables, called Fermentable, Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides And Polyols (or FODMAPS). So, while it may be wise (and even necessary) for some individuals to cut out some foods, most people don't have celiac disease or FODMAP intolerance, and eliminating so many foods from the diet could contribute to nutritional deficiencies over time.
Whole30 eliminates all grains: All grains, including healthy whole grains, are prohibited because of their “problematic proteins” such as gluten. This in itself is a misguided interpretation of science. In people with Celiac Disease and some gluten sensitivities, the body cannot tolerate gluten and produces an inflammatory immune response, so cutting out gluten containing grains is likely a helpful choice. But for the vast majority of the population without gluten disorders, the opposite is actually true. Eating whole grains actually decreases inflammation by increasing the "good" bacteria in your gut that fight inflammation.
Whole30 eliminates all legumes: Another healthy food group, slashed from your diet! The creators of Whole30 warn that legumes (chickpeas, beans (black, pinto, kidney, etc), lentils, peanut butter, soy) contain "anti-nutrients" (phytates), which block the uptake of certain nutrients by our bodies. While this is true and might sound alarming, what the Whole30 creators fail to also tell you is that ALL plant foods contain varying levels of phytates (antioxidant compounds), and more alarmingly, that many of the foods promoted by Whole30 (such as kale and wild meats) have even more phytates than legumes. Additionally, Whole30 creators fail to remind you that there are so many factors that affect the uptake of nutrients (how a food is stored/processed/cooked, what other foods are eaten at the same time, etc). A reductionist approach of analyzing foods by the milligrams of nutrients that you may or may not be fully absorbing is an entirely pointless pursuit.
Rather than being evil, phytates, actually have some health benefits, including anti-inflammatory effects. In research studies, phytates have helped normalize cell growth and stopped the proliferation of cancer cells. They also may hep prevent cardiovascular disease because of their cholesterol-lowering effects. Lastly, phytates may lower the glycemic load of a food which can be helpful to people with diabetes.
In sum, phytates cannot be avoided (unless you were to eat only synthetic, processed foods which Whole30 strongly discourages) nor should they be. Legumes are not a threat to your health.
Whole30 eliminates all dairy. Plant-based diets that eliminate animal products, including dairy, can certainly be healthy. In fact, the Harvard School of Public Health, among others, have suggested that dairy be limited to less than 2 servings per day while other calcium-rich foods be added to the diet (legumes and green leafy vegetables) in addition to sun exposure and exercise for healthy bones.
However, fermented dairy products, such as yogurt, can play important roles for the microbiome, the flora that line the intestinal track. When the microbiome is healthy, you are more likely to burn body fat, fight infections, and reduce allergies. In contrast, a diet high in meat intake is associated with a decrease in healthy gut bacteria. Additionally, if dairy is prohibited, along with grains and legumes, then half of the food pyramid has been eliminated. There is no diet that can claim health when such an unbalanced style of eating is prescribed.
Whole30 eliminates all added sugars. I highly praise the diet for this particular prohibition. Most people should cut back on sugar as it has been identified as the major culprit in many diseases. The World Health Organization recommends eliminating sugar to less than 25 grams, or 6 teaspoons, per day. Just to put that in perspective, a 16-ounce bottle of regular Coke has 52 grams of sugar. A diet that cuts down on added sugars and simple carbohydrates, can help people feel better just by eliminating fluctuations in energy and hunger. This doesn’t address a major health issue, but likely explains why people say they feel great on Whole30 and other restrictive diets. I am actually currently writing a post on giving up or reducing added sugars for 30 days, so if you are inclined to change the way you eat and want a reboot for health in this new year, stay tuned for more on removing sugars from your food.
Despite its many shortcomings and false nutritional and health claims, the Whole30 elimination of highly processed foods, added sugars, and even alcohol from your diet is wise, particularly after a holiday period of high sugar foods and over served alcohol. But don’t also exclude wholesome plant foods, like whole grains or beans. Healthy diets should be based on a wide variety of minimally processed plant foods, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, and fish.
Judging by the no-apologies way that the rules are written up (and by the rules themselves), Whole30 seems to be designed to take the pleasure out of eating. Healthy eating is not a punishment and should not be perceived as one. If done right, healthy food can be joyful, delicious, and a lifelong habit. But Whole30 is not healthy eating done right. It is restrictive, antagonistic, and misguided. It is a fad diet and like all fads, people may be able to tolerate and complain their way through it for a short time (30 days), but then all the demons return and sometimes with a fury.