(Diet Review) The Whole 30: A Lesson In Extremes.
I didn’t have to delve deep into the Whole 30 Program before I started seeing stuff that looked suspicious.
A slickly marketed program based on a book called ‘It Starts With Food’, the Whole 30 has gotten a whole lot of press. But does it deserve the attention? This is a long post, so I’ll get right to it!
First, the website:
The trouble started for me immediately when I took a look at the Whole 30 website. The following jumped out at me:
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? Actually no, it can’t. 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 an irresponsible claim like this could even be published. I decided to check out the authors’ credentials to see what these people are all about.
Meet Melissa Hartwig and Dallas Hartwig, the brains (ahem) behind Whole 30.
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 well known for its support of homeopathy, anti-vaccine sentiment, and detoxes. Woo woo! ‘Pseudoscientific quackery’ at its best.
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. So he has no legitimate, science-based background in nutrition beyond a 200-question exam.
The bottom line is that Dallas has a degree in an area that teaches little or no nutrition science, a functional medical certification that’s not based in science and available to anyone who has the cash and 15 days. CISSN is good designation for someone with prior nutrition training, but it’s not adequate solely as a nutrition degree.
Melissa has her CISSN, a whole lot of media experience, (so do Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump, so there’s that) 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, but if they’re going to use said qualifications to present themselves as ‘nutrition experts’, they should probably think twice about that claim, and so should their followers.
It’s shocking but not surprising in the least when the public goes nuts for diet books written by weakly-qualified, non-nutrition professionals. Why wouldn’t they? 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. Putting citations into your work doesn’t automatically make it legit; there’s a lot of bad research out there, and a lot of people who cherry pick it to suit their purposes. The Whole 30 is a prime example of all of that.
The Whole 30 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 Whole 30 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,
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 junky claims and research 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, loser!
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 ridiculous paragraph:
It is not hard. Don’t you dare tell us this is hard. Quitting heroin is hard. Beating cancer is hard. Drinking your coffee black. Is. Not. Hard. You won’t get any coddling, and you won’t get any sympathy for your ‘struggles’.
Why does it rub me the wrong way that they even mention cancer in this rant? Because it’s opportunistic and gross?
But I digress.
The Whole 30 uses scare tactics and chemophobia:
The program is dogmatic to the max and 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.
Honestly, there isn’t any credible research showing that the elimination of dairy or legumes from anyone’s diet – besides people who are intolerant of those foods, of course – is warranted or even healthy.
Lots of people have a hate-on for dairy lately, but most times they’re basing their opinions on nothing. Read my post Dairy Dilemma – Should You Be Avoiding Milk Products for the real deal about dairy.
As far as avoiding grains and legumes, the Whole 30 cites phytates and lectins as the main reason.
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.
Lectins may increase gut permeability in some people, but again – sprouting, cooking, and fermentation can significantly reduce lectins in food.
There’s also the grains = inflammation story that Dallas and Melissa spoonfeed their followers.
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 Whole 30 agenda.
Did you ever think that people all over the world have been eating these foods since the beginning of time, with no apparent nutrition consequences? Come on, people. Don’t want to eat grains, legumes, or dairy? Don’t eat them. But at least do it for a reason that’s legit.
Bottom line? In a balanced non-vegetarian diet, phytic acid and lectins don’t present a significant issue. Precision Nutrition has a great article on this subject. Read it here.
One little aside: white potatoes and nuts contain plenty of phytate, but they’re allowed on the Whole 30. I guess on a diet that allows pork belly but not quinoa, you should get used to this sort of confusing BS.
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. Big.
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 Whole 30. Dallas and Melissa, true to form, 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 feel comfortable making these absurd claims. Horrifying.
Completely plant-based diets are discouraged, and for the worst reason ever:
On the Whole 30 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 nonsensical enough, the Whole 30 authors then make a rather lame attempt (lame because who would even do this) 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 further demonstrates Dallas and Melissa’s ignorance 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 insinuations of the Whole 30 program can’t be missed:
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.
This isn’t a Whole Diet:
The name Whole 30 has a healthy, non-restrictive connotation when really that’s the opposite of what the diet involves. Yes, I know it’s a short-term challenge, but it’s essentially a month-long cleanse based on nothing. If you’re going to eliminate foods from your diet, at least promise me you’re going to base your decision on something credible. And what happens after your Whole 30 challenge is over?
Far from being a ‘life changing’ way of looking at food, the Whole 30 doesn’t teach us to enjoy food or to relish the beauty of it, which is something I promote 100%. Whole, fresh food is beautiful and choosing, cooking, and eating it should be pleasurable. On the flipside, the Whole 30 is punishing, punitive, and it categorizes foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘toxic’ or ‘clean’. That screams ‘fad’ to me, since no foods are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, I won’t even go there with ‘toxic’, and ‘clean’ has no official meaning.
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.
We all need a diet ‘reset’ every once in a while, but going this far and for the reasons the Whole 30 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:
Whole 30 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 to ‘prove’ points and is written in an insulting, punitive way. The Whole 30 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.
Like to be bullied? Get someone to yell at you. But don’t be scared into submission by the nonsense in the Whole 30.
To review this book in its entirety would take me a lot more time and effort than I’m willing to expend on it, so this review is really just top-line. For a more thorough, smart, science-based review of the Whole 30, head over to Nutrition As I Know It. Michael Hull does an incredible job of the deep dive into every bit of literature cited by the diet.