I haven’t heard about the Whole30 for a really long time, but apparently it’s still really popular.
I reviewed this program in 2016, but since people are still into Whole30, here’s my revised and updated review.
What is the Whole30?
It’s pretty simple. The Whole30 is essentially a 30-day elimination diet that strictly prohibits any dairy, legumes, grains, sugar, and alcohol, sort of like a Paleo diet on steroids.
You’re allowed to eat meat, seafood, nuts and seeds, vegetables, and fruit – although fruit is on shaky ground with the Whole 30 because it’s sweet and can wake up your ‘Sugar Dragon’.
The Whole30 frowns upon eating fruit to satisfy a sweet craving, because according to the authors, you’re supposed to be crushing (aka ignoring) your cravings, not feeding them.
This is just the tip of the punishing iceberg, as you’ll see.
Overall though, you can’t do much to your diet that’s sustainable for 30 days that will be super-harmful. I mean, if you want to eliminate entire food groups from your diet to get a ‘fresh start’, and you think that doing this sort of restrictive program will cause you to manage your intake better and not spur you to hoover the entire kitchen the second those 30 days are over, fine.
Physiologically, it’s not going to do much harm and you’re the boss of you. Psychologically, it may be a different story,
The Whole30 Authors
Meet Melissa Hartwig and Dallas Hartwig.
Dallas is a functional medicine practitioner, a sports nutritionist, and a PT. He also apparently has a degree in anatomy and physiology from Andrews University.
To be certified in functional medicine requires only money and 15 days-worth of modular study. Functional medicine is widely known for its support of homeopathy, anti-vaccine sentiment, and detoxes, aka pseudoscientific quackery.
The Sports Nutritionist designation, or CISSN, is a fabulous adjunct to a degree in nutrition, which Dallas doesn’t have. Instead, he wrote a 200-question exam and got at least 70%, to be awarded this title. When he wrote Whole30, he didn’t seem to have a science-based background in nutrition beyond a 200-question exam.
Melissa has her CISSN, a whole lot of media experience, and her Masters of Science in Health and Nutrition Education from Hawthorne University. That sounds amazing, until you realize that Hawthorne University is an online, unaccredited program.
You can draw your own conclusions about Dallas and Melissa’s qualifications.
It’s shocking but not surprising in the least when the public goes nuts for diet books written by just anyone.
People like Suzanne Somers, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Vani Hari have had popular diet books, so it just goes to show you what people will believe. Just because a book is a New York Times bestseller doesn’t give it credibility. It simply means that far too many gullible people are buying into it. And just because something is based on ‘science’ doesn’t mean the science is good, credible, recent, and reliable.
My problems with the Whole 30 lie not necessarily in its actual diet restrictions. My problems with this diet are more about its execution and ridiculous claims and garbage science that it’s built on. Here’s what I mean by that:
The Whole 30 uses shame and guilt to whip you into submission:
I can only believe that the Whole 30 has a hard-core, nasty narrative because some people like to be berated to convince them that they’re really doing something special and that they’re part of a unique club of people who can ‘tough it out’. And there’s shame in messing up on the Whole 30, punished by starting over each and every time you have cream in your coffee, a single glass of wine, or a piece of cheese. If you’re on day 29 of the diet and you eat one of the forbidden foods, it’s back to day 1 for you!
Shame and guilt should have no place in nutrition, and it can be psychologically damaging to adopt this view of food and eating. If you have any hint or history of an eating disorder, this approach can likely be exceptionally damaging.
Dallas and Melissa’s famous tough-love approach is summed up by this page from their website:
Why does it rub me the wrong way that they even mention cancer in this rant? Because it’s opportunistic and gross?
As a dietitian, these quotes say one thing to me: IF YOU FAIL, IT’S YOUR FAULT. YOU WERE WEAK.
Not okay. Not even a little. bit.
The Whole 30 uses scare tactics and chemophobia:
The program uses major fear-mongering and fear mongering’s best friend – poorly done studies – to convince people that eliminating otherwise healthy foods is the best solution to their weight and health issues.
Lots of people have a hate-on for dairy lately, but most times they’re basing their opinions on nothing. If you don’t like dairy, don’t eat it. You can definitely have a healthy life without it. But this ‘dairy is inflammatory’ or, ‘dairy is only for baby cows’ stuff has gone way too far.
Dairy may actually be anti-inflammatory, and for most people, there is absolutely no reason to eliminate it.
As far as avoiding grains and legumes, the Whole30 cites phytates and lectins as the main reason. This is utterly ridiculous.
Phytates in grains and legumes can impair absorption of some minerals in our bodies, but sprouting, fermenting, and cooking our grains and legumes can dramatically reduce phytates, and balancing your diet can also reduce their effects. Nobody eats raw grains and legumes, anyhow.
Phytic acid is also an antioxidant and may actually protect against certain diseases. (Read my post about the lectin-free diet and Plant Paradox here)
There’s also the grains = inflammation story that Dallas and Melissa parrot to everyone.
The issue with this determination is that there’s really no good research to confirm that grains cause harmful inflammation in healthy people. In fact, there IS research that concludes that whole grains can prevent inflammation (here and here and here) and are good for our guts, but that doesn’t fit with the Whole30 agenda.
Grains and legumes are some of the oldest cultivated crops in the world. If they were so harmful, we’d be in serious trouble. And don’t tell me that our grains are so different than they used to be. They aren’t.
Bottom line? In a balanced non-vegetarian diet, phytic acid and lectins don’t present a significant issue.
One little aside: white potatoes and nuts contain plenty of phytate, but they’re allowed on the Whole30. I guess on a diet that allows pork belly but not quinoa, you should get used to this sort of confusing stuff.
I’m not saying that your diet should be based on grains, but taking the extreme view that grains are the devil isn’t smart or healthy. Remember that diets are a combination of many foods, not only one or two – and diet programs like these tend to hyperfocus on the myth of ‘evil’ foods that, when eliminated from your life, will result in ‘magical’ results. Big red flag.
Chemophobia, mostly found in the media as the fear of toxins (and the ubiquitous ‘cleanse’ trend to get rid of said toxins) is hard at work in the Whole30.
Dallas and Melissa talk a lot about detoxing on their Whole 9 Facebook page, along with the harm of non-organic foods (contaminants!); the birth control pill (increased risk of brain cancer!); HFCS (Worse than sugar!); GMO foods (cause cancer!) and lots more.
It’s all based on horrible science that doesn’t prove any of their assertions, but I sure as hell don’t expect the general public to be able to see through that. Apparently, neither do the authors, which is probably why they’re apparently comfortable making these absurd claims.
Completely plant-based diets are discouraged, and for the worst reason ever:
On the Whole30 website, the authors make a rather patronizing, definitely disingenuous statement about how they’re ‘thrilled’ when vegetarians and vegans want to join the program.
They then turn around and dose those people with their ‘tough love’, saying that a plant-based diet can be detrimental to health and that optimal health is simply not achievable without animal protein.
This is one of the most outlandish, unscientific, offensive, and absurd things I’ve seen with this program (besides their claim that birth control pills increase brain cancer risk, which is seriously deranged) but I digress once again):
If (a vegan diet) is your context, however, it’s important for us to be clear in our expectations. We can get you to better health with our Whole30 framework, but not optimal health. The inclusion of plant-based protein sources known to have detrimental effects on hormonal balance, the digestive tract, and the immune system, and the lack of nutrients (like vitamin B12 and heme iron) found only in animal protein sources means that your health potential is limited. We’ll do our best to help you implement the Whole30 framework in a way that makes the most of your dietary choices, but we caution you not to expect the same stunning, dramatic results that omnivores commonly report.
As if the above isn’t breathtakingly ignorant enough, the Whole30 authors then make a rather lame attempt to convince vegans and vegetarians to eat meat again for the duration of the program. There’s even a paragraph that says how Melissa has issues ‘with eating flesh’, but she got over it and so can you!
What is wrong with these people? Seriously!
This view on plant-based diets suggests a misunderstanding not only of nutrition but also of scientific research, as a plant-based diet has consistently been proven to be healthy (and here) and complete when done correctly.
It becomes a morality issue:
The rather gross, in-your-face morality-based messaging of the Whole30 program can’t be missed. Essentially, followers get the idea that:
People who follow the program are tough.
People who can’t follow the program are weak.
People who are skinny are strong.
People who are fat are weak.
People who are wealthy (and can afford the Whole 30 meat-centric program) are privileged.
People who can’t afford the program aren’t worthy.
Whole30 has even added ‘Whole30 Families,’ another niche on the Whole30 website so you can share your horrible diet behavior with your family. Please don’t. The entire ‘family’ aspect is cringeworthy. Melissa even mentions how ‘toxic’ diet culture is for teens, all the while promoting her DIET. TO. TEENS. I can’t.
DO NOT DIET IN FRONT OF YOUR KIDS. PERIOD. It isn’t teaching them ‘self care.’ It’s teaching them to hate their bodies.
When I first reviewed Whole30, I discovered the program’s leaders making very interesting claims about it:
Since 2009, their underground Whole30 program has quietly led tens of thousands of people to weight loss, improved quality of life and a healthier relationship with food – accompanied by stunning improvements in sleep, energy levels, mood and self-esteem.
More significantly, many people have reported the “magical” elimination of a variety of symptoms, diseases and conditions – in just 30 days.
diabetes · high cholesterol · high blood pressure · obesity · acne · eczema · psoriasis · hives asthma · allergies · sinus infections · migraines · acid reflux · celiac disease · Crohn’s · IBS bipolar disorder · depression · seasonal affective disorder · eating disorders · ADHD endometriosis · PCOS · infertility · arthritis · Lyme disease · hypothyroidism · fibromyalgia
What? Changing your diet can eliminate Crohn’s disease, bipolar disorder, Lyme disease, endometriosis, and celiac disease among others? Nope. These conditions and their symptoms may be affected by diet, but once you have them, you have them.
It’s like saying that Whole 30 can change your eye color from brown to blue. It amazed me that a claim like this could even be published.
Whole30 is a diet, masquerading as something ‘healthy.’ It’s not.
The name Whole30 has a healthy, non-restrictive connotation when really that’s the opposite of what the diet involves. Although it’s a short-term challenge, but it’s essentially a month-long cleanse based on nothing.
And what happens after your Whole30 challenge is over? You do their reintroduction protocol, which involves adding the foods you’ve eliminated back into your diet.
But still, the uncomfortable verbiage around food persists. In the reintroduction content, there’s this sort of unscientific nonsense:
The combo of sugar + gluten/non-gluten grains/dairy tends to be what causes symptoms like brain fog, mood swings, low energy and bloating and can awaken your Sugar Dragon, so most skip the “just sugar” and start with either alcohol or legumes.
There’s absolutely nothing about the combination of sugar, grains, and dairy that causes these symptoms, and my issue with Whole30 saying something like this is that they’re subconsciously telling followers that these foods are still ‘bad’ in some way.
Not a shock, but still harmful.
Hartwig’s book that follows Whoel30 is called Food Freedom.
The funny (and I mean this like, ‘funny weird’, not ‘funny haha’), is that in Food Freedom, Melissa continually talks about how the plan isn’t a diet, that guilt and shame don’t belong with food and eating, and that morality-based language around food is wrong.
She then proceeds to contradict herself spectacularly, STILL using morality-based language like ‘bad’ and ‘good’ to describe food, focusing on weight, and telling people that if they slip up with their eating, they should ‘reset’ with another Whole30 round to basically ‘repent’ for their eating.
Yeah, that’s called ‘chronic dieting.’
It’s obvious that either Hartwig has a glaring lack of self-awareness about the fact that she’s doing exactly what she claims to want to fix in people, or she just loves money and is using the term ‘food freedom’ to sell the same Whole30 diet AGAIN.
Dallas and Melissa claim their program ends your ‘unhealthy relationship with food’, but more likely, it will start or prolong it in a different, but still unhealthy, way.
Sure, change your diet if you want to. But going this far and for the reasons the Whole30 gives us, isn’t necessary. Want to have a fresh start? By all means, cut down ultra-processed foods and start cooking your own meals.
The Bottom Line:
The Whole30 isn’t a whole foods diet, it’s a half-wit cleanse that cuts out a ton of healthy food for no good reason. It uses poorly done research and is written in an insulting, punitive way.
Whole30 gets nowhere NEAR the psychological reasons WHY people make the food choices they do in the first place. Anyone can do a 30-day diet, but it’s just going to be a temporary band-aid for what’s really bothering you. And, it’s probably going to erode your relationship with food even further.
The Whole30 is a lesson in extremes: good vs bad. Toxic vs clean. Strong vs weak. Not many things in life are that black and white, and food is certainly not one of them.