Trendy diets often come with crazy rules. The ketogenic diet’s guiding principle has you limiting carbohydrate intake to no more than 10 percent of your daily calories (that’s, like, nothing). With Paleo, you’re only allowed to eat food that was available 10,000 years ago. But the Whole30 Diet takes the rule thing to a whole other level.
And according to founder Melissa Hartwig, Certified Sports Nutritionist, these rules aren’t just arbitrary. Prior to starting the program, Hartwig consulted as a personal trainer and nutrition coach, but is not a registered dietitian. Whole30 was created to help people figure out how foods impact them both physically and mentally, whether it’s tied to cravings or feeling sluggish.
But how does it do that? And is it a good diet for weight loss and overall health? Here’s what you should know:
What is the Whole30 diet?
Hartwig explains that Whole30 is designed as an elimination diet to help people identify food sensitivities, which is why so many things are restricted. You basically eliminate the “banned foods” for 30 days and carefully add them back in, she says.
“I think people misunderstand the program,” Hartwig explains. “It’s a self experiment after which there is an entire outlined plan to take what you’ve learned and to take it into a sustainable lifestyle.”
People might try an elimination diet if they frequently experience gas, bloating, digestion problems, or even skin rashes, and suspect a food allergy or intolerance.
However, Alyssa Ardolino, R.D. at the International Food Information Council, only recommends elimination diets for people with major gastrointestinal problems. Even then, she believes drastic measures aren’t necessary.
“Typically people who have GI issues they’ve noticed which foods kind of bother them,” she tells MensHealth.com. “Sometimes you can kind of just eliminate that one food instead of going so drastic.”
As Ardolino explains, it’s best to develop an individualized approach with a doctor to determine if food could be causing health concerns.
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What can I eat on the Whole30 diet?
This plan is not for the faint of heart. Basically there’s a long list of foods that are off-limits during the diet:
Added, real and artificial sugars: this means no maple syrup, agave, honey, coconut sugar, stevia or date syrup
Alcohol: not even when cooking
Grains: including wheat, oats, corn, quinoa and buckwheat
Legumes: all beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils and peanuts are out. Yes, this means no peanut butter.
Soy: soy sauce, miso, tofu, tempeh, edamame are omitted
Dairy: cow, goat, or sheep’s milk products
Carrageenan, MSG, or sulfites
Baked goods, junk foods, or treats with “approved” Whole30 ingredients: recreating a cookie with Whole30 approved ingredients is not OK
There’s also an entire list of additives that aren’t allowed, which can be found on the Whole30 website.
So what can you eat? Meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, natural fats (needs, avocado olive oil), and fruit. There are certain exceptions to the no dairy and soy rule. For example, clarified butter and coconut aminos are permitted.
Lists of banned and approved Whole30 foods can be found on their website.
What are the benefits of doing Whole30?
Whole30 doesn’t promise to fix all your health woes, but they do offer a very long list of benefits that dieters have experienced, which include:
“We’ve got legitimately hundreds of thousands of testimonials,” Hartwig says. “We hear from people who report improvement of allergies and migraines and cravings.”
Of course, all of these benefits are anecdotal, so there is no scientific evidence that shows Whole30 really does anything, says Ardolino. Plus, how we feel is determined by more than what we eat for dinner.
“Our health is not only based on what we eat. It’s also based on how stressed we are [and] how much sleep we’re getting,” she says.
But Ardolino says there is one positive aspect of the Whole30: its emphasis on whole foods over processed packaged products.
Getty ImagesEkaterina Smirnova
So, Will the Whole 30 Help You Lose Weight?
Before getting into this, it’s important to stress that the Whole30 doesn’t market itself as a weight loss diet. In fact, one of the rules is that you can only weigh yourself the first and last day of the diet. That said, many people do claim to lose weight after following the plan.
“If you really truly improve your health in a sustainable fashion, natural sustainable weight loss does follow,” Hartwig says.
Cutting out processed foods—especially refined sugars—is the tenant of nearly all doctor-approved diets. According to research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health published in the New England Journal of Medicine, consuming high-quality foods—vegetables, whole grains, fruits, nuts, and natural yogurt—is good for your waistline, while eating processed, sugar-loaded foods tend to be one of the main factors contributing to weight gain.
But following the Whole30 doesn’t mean you’ll magically shed pounds as you can still still overdo it on caloric foods like avocados, nuts and dried fruit.
Getty ImagesSeksak Kerdkanno / EyeEm
Is the Whole30 healthy?
According to Hartwig, one of the best things about Whole30 is that it forces you to cook.
“They’re getting into the kitchen and buying real whole food, and they’re cooking,” she says of Whole30 followers. “That’s the single most important thing that people can do if they want to start eating healthier.”
Hartwig isn’t off base. Studies show that restaurant meals contain way more calories than a person needs in a single meal. Research published in April 2016 showed that the average restaurant dish has about 1,200 calories.
And while Ardolino says Whole30 emphasizes nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables and healthy fats, she doesn’t like that it restricts food groups. Plus, the dietitian believes that thinking of food as good and bad can foster negative feelings in people who have disordered eating habits.
“If somebody then caves and eats one of these foods that are off limits, that feeling of shame and guilt comes in,” she says.
For people trying to lose weight, Ardolino recommends something drastic: avoiding the scale.
“I really believe that in order for somebody to improve their health they have to be able to set the goal of weight loss aside,” she asserts.
Ardolino believes building good habits should always be your primary goal. Start by adding just one more serving of fruits and vegetables into your day. Go for a walk, or increase your gym visits from two to three times a week.
She also advises being mindful about whether or not you’re truly hungry before eating. “Take a second and say, ‘Am I trying to solve an issue by eating this food?’” she says.
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