There's a good chance someone you know has been talking, posting, or complaining about Whole30 a whole lot lately. Lots of people embark on the 30-day program with cultish appeal at the start of the New Year, because unlike other diets that guarantee weight loss, Whole30 promises to change the way you feel — and also your life.
According to the Whole30 website, most people report having consistently higher energy levels, boosted athletic performance, better sleep, improved focus and mental clarity, and "a sunnier disposition" after completing the diet. And those are just the physical benefits! Whole30 will also supposedly change your tastes, habits, and cravings, and the way that you think about food. "It could, quite possibly, change the emotional relationship you have with food, and with your body," the website says. Damn.
If you've never heard of Whole30, it's a program that lasts for 30 days, during which you can't eat processed foods, added sugars, alcohol, grains, legumes, or dairy. That leaves you able to eat meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruit, natural fats, herbs, spices, and seasoning in "moderate portions." Essentially, Whole30 is an elimination diet rebranded with a catchier name.
"[Whole30] is not a diet, it's not a weight loss program, it's not about just following the rules and checking boxes," says Melissa Hartwig, the creator of Whole30 (who doesn't have an educational background in nutrition). "It's about committing to self-awareness and looking at your habits and emotional relationship with food."
So, yes, Whole30 could definitely change your relationship with food, but according to registered dietitians, not necessarily for the better.
"Whole30 is overly restrictive and not sustainable long term," explains Melissa Bailey, MS, RD, LDN, a clinical dietitian in Philadelphia and one half of Two Hungry Work Wives. Bailey's business partner, Liz Smith, MPH, RD, CNSC, did Whole30 a year ago as a true elimination diet in order to pinpoint some gastrointestinal symptoms, and said that it was helpful in that sense. But they both agree that if you're doing Whole30 for vague "health" reasons or weight loss, then you're most likely going to fail in the long run because the guidelines are not realistic or necessarily healthy for everyone.
"It may hurt your overall relationship with food, because certain foods become labeled as 'non-compliant,'" Bailey says. (A "non-compliant" food in Whole30 would be anything processed — but FYI, not all processed foods are bad for you.) "This can lead to labeling foods as 'good' or 'bad,' and those words should not be used when it comes to food."
Despite the fact that the actual rules are intense and strictly regimented, many people are convinced that Whole30 will be their nutritional silver bullet. Whole30 stands out from the crowd of fad diets and cleanses because it's neither of those things — it's a "program" with a massive following on Instagram. In a way, saying that you're "on Whole30" is chicer than saying you're "on a diet" or "trying to lose weight." It gels with the picture-perfect "clean eating" trend (which, for the record, is often based on BS). And given all the hype around how Whole30 will make you feel, it makes sense that people are thirsty to jump on the bandwagon.
When we asked Refinery29 readers to share reasons why they went on Whole30, the majority said that they "needed to hit the reset button," wanted to lose weight, had some unresolved "stomach issues," or were determined to quit sugar cold turkey — and they really believe it worked.
One reader said she "100% experienced less food-related illness" while on Whole30. To her, that meant less bloating, upset stomach, and even fewer migraines (though bloating is actually not a health concern). Others said their skin cleared up. And many said they had more energy and "felt brighter," despite giving up caffeine. Who knows whether or not these symptoms are all related to the placebo effect, or just the sense of accomplishment, but these Whole30-ers (and the countless Whole30 acolytes who fill the blogosphere) claim the 30 days of pain were well worth it.
The question is, what really happens on day 31 of Whole30? For many people, Whole30 is just an experiment to see what happens when they stop eating certain foods, like dairy, glutenous carbs, or legumes. Once it's over, they feel the mood boost of succeeding at a difficult task, and then immediately go back to their old ways. A few people told us that they had a "victory meal" full of foods they weren't allowed to eat while on the program. "I thought I would stick to a Whole30-esque diet when I was done, but that idea went right out the window when I had ice cream again," one reader said.
While most people treat Whole30 as a one-off, time-based reset, that's not necessarily how the program was initially designed, Hartwig says. The goal of Whole30, besides getting through the 30 days, is to develop what Hartwig calls "food freedom," which is the idea that you're in control of food, as opposed to feeling like food controls you.
Most readers said Whole30 informed the way they now grocery shop or snack. One reader explained that she felt "conscious of the fact that I use carbs as an [emotional] crutch" after completing the program, but expressed that she felt apprehensive at first about resuming "normal" eating, because she liked the way she felt on Whole30.
Post-Whole30, you're supposed to slowly re-introduce foods into your diet to see how your body "responds" to the foods. According to Bailey and Smith, it's unfortunately common for people to feel food-related anxiety when it comes time to re-introduce foods that you've already labeled as "bad" in your mind. While some people feel "freedom" in being able to identify healthy foods after Whole30, some may be confused by the habits they developed during Whole30. "Whole30 allows you to listen to your hunger cues, but you're then restricted on the actual foods you can consume," Bailey says. "We are big believers in intuitive eating and giving your body what it needs."
Hartwig says that the "food freedom" that comes from Whole30 is exactly the same thing as intuitive eating, the idea that you should eat when you're hungry, feel your fullness, and respect your body. "You get to decide whats worth it, and whether you really want it," she says. If a food is "worth it" (whatever that means) and you want it, she says you should eat it — mindfully. "But to savor it, and there's no guilt, no shame, and no morality attached to it," she says.
There's irony in the idea that in order to achieve "food freedom" you have to enter a food prison, so to speak, via a restrictive diet. In today's wellness-focused diet culture, people are quick to demonize a specific food and assume they have an "allergy" or "sensitivity," just because they experienced an uncomfortable symptom that could be related to an entirely different thing. Many people who complete Whole30 say that it's life-changing, sure. But is it worth it if it means dipping your toe in all-or-nothing eating patterns that can lead to restriction, guilt, cravings, binge-eating, and other disordered eating behaviors?
If you're still convinced that Whole30 is a good idea, because the food you're eating is causing uncomfortable symptoms, talk to a doctor who can rule out any underlying conditions first. Then, if they agree it could be related to your diet, see a registered dietitian who can safely figure out what is going on. Or, if you're just trying eat healthier, start small, Bailey says. "If there's a particular food or food group that you have trouble with, try limiting that in your overall diet," she says. "Being overly restrictive can backfire, therefore small steps over time is the best way to make changes to your food intake." (This is also a great way to get that accomplished feeling that many Whole30-ers report, without entering extreme territory.)
The thing is, diet culture has made many of us feel like we're metaphorically imprisoned when it comes to our food choices, so the answer to that probably isn't going to be another diet. More than likely, what specifically works for you is not what works for the rest of the internet — and no matter what any wellness blogger says, that's the whole truth.