Have you heard of the Whole30 diet? It feels like everyone and their sister are hopping on the Whole30 bandwagon. It’s gaining in popularity like crazy, like most things do in the nutrition and fitness world. Something will catch a strong wave and ride it out for a while, gathering followers and fans as it goes. But then it usually peters out and the next wave will come along.
What is the Whole30 diet? It’s a 30 day diet program that completely strips certain foods from your diet so your body can “reset”. It’s “designed to help you put an end to unhealthy cravings and habits, restore a healthy metabolism, heal your digestive tract, and balance your immune system.” (from whole30.com) It explains that certain food groups (like sugar, grains, dairy and legumes) could be wreaking havoc on your health and you could be completely oblivious.
While on the Whole30 program, you do not eat sugar (real or artificial), no alcohol, no grains, no legumes, no dairy, no sulfites or MSG, no baked goods, and no junk foods or treats. The idea is to completely remove these foods for a period of time so you can experience how amazing it feels when your system gets rebooted. Learn “once and for all how the foods you’ve been eating are actually affecting your day to day life, and your long term health.” (from whole30.com)
That sounds quite nice, actually.
What I like about it...
I’ll admit, there are a few things about Whole30 that I can get behind.
1. It teaches you how amazing you can feel when you eat healthy. Because it's pretty extreme, you notice right away how much your nutrition affects the way you feel. When you get rid of junk, you’ll regain energy, lose weight, reduce inflammation and improve your health in many ways.
What we eat impacts nearly everything in our bodies, and when you switch from eating like a traditional North American (lots of processed foods, refined sugars and grains, and too much saturated fat) to the Whole30 diet, you will feel great.
2. It emphasizes whole, real foods and teaches you to stop eating out of packages. Processed foods are probably the biggest culprit for health issues in our country. With the Whole30 program, you are forced to eat real, whole foods. You learn to stop eating junk and start eating clean, lean protein and lots of produce.
What I don't like about it...
But, as nice as all that sounds, I’m actually not a fan of Whole30, and I’ll tell you why.
1. It has very strict rules and perpetuates the all-or-nothing mentality, appealing to career dieters. Some people like to be told rules, and I agree, it does feel good to have strict boundaries. And with Whole30, you’ll have really strict boundaries. There’s no wiggle room or flexibility. For 30 days you can’t touch those foods with a 10 foot pole. If you put a splash of milk in your coffee you have to start over.
But, it is so important to break this extreme dieting cycle at some point, and graduate to using balance and moderation. If you can’t figure out how to splurge on occasion in appropriate ways, you will be a lifelong dieter. Point-blank.
2. With Whole30, lot of foods are eliminated, even foods that can have a very healthy place in your diet. Foods like quinoa, lentils, oats, beans, yogurt and peanuts are rarely offenders for gastrointestinal issues, metabolic problems and craving imbalances. These foods are very high in fiber, vitamins, minerals, slow-releasing carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Most nutritionists would recommend that you eat more of these foods, not cut them out completely.
3. When you eliminate a bunch of foods in such an extreme way, it’s easy to see foods differently and start to demonize them. We start to label foods as “bad foods”, rather than understanding the proper time and place to enjoy them. Barley is not bad. Beans are not bad. Ice cream and alcohol are not bad when enjoyed appropriately, and you’re not bad for eating them. All foods are good and should be enjoyed in a proper context.
(Unfortunately, along with this labeling can come a big heap of judgement. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard someone judge someone else for eating certain foods that might have a perfectly healthy place in that person's diet. Whether it’s Whole30 or not, you are no more of a saint for eating gluten-free.)
4. The Whole30 program has a very short time frame, but it’s just long enough to make you go crazy. What happens after 30 days? Cravings return with a vengeance, temptations come back, and most foods will get dumped back into your life. So, you go "on" the program again, and then "off" again. The diet rollercoaster at its finest.
You’ll convince yourself that you can do anything for 30 days (and you can), but you can’t create lifelong habits in that amount of time. It takes more like four to six months to create a rut that feels weird to deviate out of. You better find an eating program that you can maintain for that long, not just 30 days.
A true life-long habit takes consistent effort for at least four to six months, not just 30 days.
5. It's basically an elimination diet, pulling out all the normal offenders that might make us feel like crap. But it doesn't identify anything. You’re pulling everything out until the program is over. Sure, you’ll probably feel better if you had a particular intolerance to something, but what was it?
A good elimination diet done with a nutritionist is specific and can pinpoint the exact offender. You pull things out and put things back in gradually and with precision. So, if your body is perfectly tolerant of gluten or legumes, why get rid of them?
(And what about eggs? Many people have an allergy to eggs and that’s allowed on the program. If you’re allergic to eggs and still eating them with Whole30, you’ll still feel like crap.)
It's harsh, I know. This all might sound harsh, especially if you’ve done it before and had great results.
“But it worked for me!”
Did it? Are you still doing it? Have you created habits that can last for the rest of your life? Or did it feel like just another diet? Are you thinking you should go back "on" it? If you feel like it's something you're climbing "on" and "off", that's your clue.
If you don’t agree with me, unfortunately a lot of nutritionists do. The US News and World Report, which drew upon the expertise of a panel of dietitians and nutritionists, ranked the Whole30 diet as one of the worst diets in 2015 and 2016. The slams against the diet came in hard from the panel because it was so restrictive and extreme, with nonsensical claims and no independent research. (http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/whole30-diet)
Facets of it sound great, but with Whole30, if you simply chew a stick of sugary gum, you have to start over. “Experts worry that restrictive diets with no room for error can set followers up for failure and prompt them to put the pounds back on – and then some – once the diet is over.”
What's the alternative? You knew I wouldn't leave you without a solution.
At the end of the day Whole30 is all about getting stuff out of your diet. What if, instead, we thought about getting stuff in to your diet? Completely flip the focus around. What do you need to eat more of...a lot more of? Put bushels of that stuff into your diet and you will slowly shove out the junk you don't need.
Take out the time frame and implement a slower approach. Make small changes, one at a time, mastering those changes before you add something else. Get really, really good at eating when it’s mealtime and not eating in-between meals. Do you have that mastered? Great, now try eating mostly protein and produce with each one of those meals. Is that mastered? Awesome, now make that produce mostly vegetables. Can you see how this sets you up for success and creates strong habits?
Stop demonizing foods. Every food can have a special place in a healthy diet. It’s no secret that I love ice cream. According to Whole30 this is horribly bad, and I would have to muscle up the willpower to avoid it altogether. If someone told me today was the last day that I could enjoy ice cream for the rest of my life in order to be truly healthy, I would slap them and run. Or I would cry and crave it even more. Instead, I’d rather learn how to enjoy my ice cream with balance and moderation. Wouldn't you?
Psychologically, this is a far better approach. It's positive, and full of wins. Instead of feeling deprived and stripped, you feel nourished and empowered. And most importantly, you don’t feel like you’re dieting, so you can do it forever. Literally, forever.
Are you considering doing Whole30 or a similar extreme diet? Please don't. For your sake, for my sake, and for your family's sake, just don't. Invest the time to learn healthy eating from the ground up. It will probably take you more than 30 days, but it's so worth it!
If you feel ready to get off the never-ending diet rollercoaster, come check out the Strong Mommas Membership. I give you extremely simple principles of healthy eating that will last for the rest of your life. Yes, there are boundaries if you like that kind of thing, but there's also wiggle room. Let me teach you how to lose weight, gain muscle and gain true health the right way. Click here to learn more. (And to take advantage of the Spring Special, which ends April 30th!)
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Megan P. Dahlman
Hi friend! I'm a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist, Precision Nutrition Certified Coach, Wife to Scott, and Mom to two crazy boys, Calvin & Peter. I train hard, eat well, rest just enough to keep going, and do my best to maintain a heavenly perspective. I'd love to coach you to do the same. Cheers!
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