It’s not surprising that the Whole30 diet has a diehard following. Since 2009, the 30-day elimination diet—which cuts out alcohol, sugar, legumes, grains, dairy, and all processed foods—has helped followers lose weight, up their energy levels, and identify the problem foods that make them feel meh. But like any ultra restrictive diet, Whole30 falls short on multiple fronts.
“While I like the fact that the diet focuses on whole, minimally processed foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, it eliminates many healthful foods like grains, soy, beans, and lentils,” says Sharon Palmer, RDN, nutritionist and author of The Plant-Powered Diet. From banning certain superfoods to unnecessarily upping protein intake, Whole30 isn’t without flaws. Here, Palmer explains the top five dangers of doing Whole30, plus what the meal plan gets right.
It might mess with digestion
“The science on the health benefits of soy foods and pulses like beans, lentils, dried peas is overwhelming,” says Palmer. “They’re packed with high-quality nutrients, such as protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.” What’s more, legumes are basically your gut’s best friend. Rich in both soluble and insoluble fiber, beans are critical for a healthy gut microbiome, as they help feed the good bacteria in your intestines.
So why does Whole30 ban beans? The theory goes that beans contain “anti-nutrients” like phytates, compounds found in plants that can potentially block the body’s absorption of important minerals like magnesium, iron, and calcium. In reality, the health benefits associated with beans far outweigh this potential interaction, and phytates are largely destroyed by food prep methods like sprouting and soaking.
“This is one of my key issues with Whole30,” says Palmer. “There is no science to support eliminating these foods.”
It could actually induce food sensitivities
Once dieters complete Whole30, they enter a “reintroduction” phase during which they add the foods they’ve avoided for a month back into their diet one by one. The point of this phase is to help people pinpoint the food groups that aren’t serving them. For example, if someone eats a bowl of yogurt post-Whole30 and suddenly gets super bloated, it may be a signal that dairy doesn’t sit well with them.
The catch? Once you cut foods out of your diet for an extended period of time, it’s possible you’ll react to them when they’re reintroduced, whether you previously had a sensitivity to them or not. “There is some evidence to show that when you shift your diet, your gut microbiota composition and enzymes shift too,” says Palmer. For example, if you cut out dairy, you may drive down the amount of enzymes you have to digest it. “Our bodies are wonderfully adaptive, but sometimes this has consequences.”
It could make cravings even worse
Ever told yourself you can’t eat dessert and then all you can think about is…dessert? The Whole30 diet is basically a month-long exercise in this very thought pattern, so don’t be surprised if you start wanting all the sweets (or gluten or dairy or wine) while following the strict plan.
Why that’s bad: “When you overly restrict the diet, it can set up unhealthy eating behaviors and attitudes,” says Palmer. “If you feel deprived, the diet encourages you to have a strong desire for ‘forbidden’ foods.” Not only is it no fun to yearn for off-limits eats for an entire month, but it also means you may be more likely to go overboard on them once the program is over. Womp womp.
It could heighten your risk of chronic diseases
Unlike plant-based protein sources such as beans, soy, and even whole grains, animal proteins like red and processed meats have been linked to a whole host of chronic diseases. “Numerous studies have documented health risks associated with high meat diets, such as increased risk of type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, and heart disease,” says Palmer. Since the majority of Americans already consume about two times more protein than they need on a daily basis, Whole30’s recommendation to swap black beans for bacon is at best unnecessary and at worst dangerous.
It's not sustainable
Whole30 isn’t meant to last forever. Head to the program’s website and you’ll even see the tagline, “It’s only 30 days.” On the one hand, this one-month focus makes sense: No one should have to ditch grains, legumes, and dairy forever. But Palmer says the 30-day program is problematic as it fails to impart sustainable healthy habits.
“A diet needs to be a way of eating that you can maintain for your whole life,” she says. “It should set you up for a healthful, more vibrant life, not just for a period of time of weight loss.”
Since it’s pretty much impossible to go through life without ever having bread, pizza, or cookies again, most long-term Whole30-ers end up abandoning the meal plan. Instead of taking an all-or-nothing approach, Palmer recommends simply applying the core principle of Whole30 to your lifestyle whether you’ve tried the elimination diet or not: Eat more whole, unprocessed foods.
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