"I think it'd be fun to cut out sugar, sulfites, wheat, rice, legumes, dairy, carrageenan, baked goods, and malt vinegar"...said no one ever. Truth is, most of us didn't even know how to pronounce carrageenan, let alone care to remove all traces of it from it from our diet. That all changed when the Whole 30 Diet Plan came out in April of 2015. Ever since, this plan has been frustrating nutrition professionals and confusing consumers. Today, we're sharing the whole story on the whole 30.
The Whole Thirty Promise
The Whole 30 premise is fairly straightforward. Cut out any foods that might be triggering low energy levels, random aches and pains, inability to lose weight, skin issues, digestive ailments, seasonal allergies, or chronic pain, and watch your health status skyrocket. These foods include (but certainly are not limited to) wheat, rice, sugar, sugar sweeteners, honey, cheese, milk, legumes, soy sauce, tortillas, dates, gluten free pastas, MSG, and alcohol. Their website offers dire warnings about any baked goods, and sagely warns readers that, "a pancake is still a pancake, even if it is make with coconut flour." After the 30 days are over, there is an entire book devoted to finding food freedom after you've reset your body through resisting the cravings that once tempted you.
The Whole 30 Problem(s)
First, let us just say that we get why this approach seems so appealing. Who wants to be in pain and discomfort? And if cutting out various foods fixes it, why wouldn't you want to try that? We totally get why this seems attractive. However, there are several concerns that we have with this diet (yes, we'd still call it a diet, even though it's labeled as a "lifestyle"). Here are our top concerns:
1. Blanket Promises
On the Whole 30 website, there are many testimonials proclaiming the wonders of the Whole 30 diet: autism, Crohns disease, depression, eustacian tube dysfunction, migraines, sleepwalking, and more are reported to have been cured or improved through jumping on the Whole 30 bandwagon. From a medical perspective, however, advertised testimonials like these raise major red flags! As dietitians, we specialize in medical nutrition therapy, that is, applying nutrition to treat specific medical conditions. Multiple coursework and internship hours are spent learning about the minute differences between Crohns disease and ulcerative colitis, for example, and how to treat these conditions with nutrition (in the context of an entire medical team). So, we agree that nutrition can be used to support treatment or improvement in symptoms resulting from numerous medical conditions. However, nutrition and medical conditions are so individualized that it doesn't make much sense and can actually be quite harmful to utilize a one-size-fits-all approach. Not only do diets like these undermine the important distinctions between disease conditions, they oversimplify the treatment of them.
2. Fake Food Freedom
Food freedom is promised repeatedly on the Whole 30 Website. The Whole30 book titled "Food Freedom Forever" provides advice for "retaining your food freedom during holidays, vacations, periods of life stress, social pressure, and criticism from friends and family." This freedom is sought by eliminating "trouble" foods and permission surrounding them. Translation: food restriction for life! For all practical purposes, it is nearly impossible to eliminate entire groups of food and live a normal, balanced lifestyle. Furthermore, research shows that this backfires! As detailed here, studies have shown that restricting food groups and calories actually leads to overeating, food binges, and weight-cycling, rather than the "freedom" people desire.
The Whole 30 Alternative
It doesn't do much good to denounce a diet if there isn't a better option. Fortunately, there is!
1. Individualized Nutrition
Do you have a medical condition such as diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, food sensitivities, Crohns disease, or high cholesterol? Rather than relying on an overgeneralized approach such as Whole30, consider seeking out the help of a registered dietitian. They specialize in using nutrition to improve medical conditions. Better yet, their training allows them to specifically adapt a nutrition plan for you, factoring in your specific culture, preferences, lifestyle, gender, age, and medical risk factors.
2. REAL Food Freedom
Many people want to be free of cravings, liberated from constant thoughts about food, and able to eat in a flexible, nourishing way. Here at Rethink Nutrition, we help you accomplish just that. Rather than focusing on what foods you should cut out, we believe it is more practical (and sustainable) to focus on what foods to add. Rather than banning broad categories of foods, we acknowledge that all foods can fit in balanced diet. This includes eating salads and birthday cakes, lentils and pizza. We'll help you examine not just what you're eating, but why and how. If your medical condition requires caution around certain foods, we'll help you navigate that in the least restrictive way possible, with no shame involved.