It’s that dieting time of the year and that means lots of people jumping on the Whole30 bandwagon. Check out the Whole30 website and you’ll find The Rules. For 30 days, you are not allowed to eat: added sugar, artificial sweeteners, alcohol (even in cooking), grains, most legumes, dairy, baked goods, junk food, or anything made with carrageenan, MSG, or sulfites. So now you’re thinking, what can I eat? For 30 days you will eat meat, seafood, vegetables, fruit, “natural fats”, herbs, spices, and seasonings. Luckily, basil and parsley are so filling and satisfying. Oh, and you are allowed coconut aminos – yum!
Now it’s just for 30 days and then you transition to include more foods so there’s probably no real harm – or is there? I wouldn’t be surprised if Whole30 induced eating disorders in susceptible people. But there’s no data to support that. In fact, there’s no data to support any of the claims in the New York Times best-selling book and website.
The Whole30 website claims that “millions of people have successfully completed the Whole30 program with stunning, life-changing results”. I checked the PubMed database to see if there are any published studies on any of these millions. The top two studies that popped up in my search were: Repeat whole blood donors with a ferritin of 30 mug/L or less show functional iron depletion and Whole-body magnetic resonance imaging in children: technique and clinical applications. It seems one of the biggest predictors of a bestselling diet book is a great personal story and a complete lack of evidence.
I decided to check my refrigerator and cabinet to see how many Whole30 sanctioned foods I could find. My fridge is dominated by cheese, yogurt, flour, diet sprite, and leftover Chinese take-out – but also lots of fruit and vegetables so that’s good. My cupboard is mostly carbs with the exception of canned Italian tuna, peanut butter and canned cat food; cereal, pasta, popcorn, brown rice, chocolate, sugar and crackers take up most the space in there. Still, I was able to cobble together a Whole30 meal: carrot sticks, salmon, spinach and raspberries for dessert. I’d better add coconut aminos to my shopping list.
I do get the appeal of a 30-day transformation. Remember, I'm the one who dutifully puts collagen powder in her smoothie every morning hoping it will make me look ten years younger. The power of personal stories and the community of fellow travelers on the same path can be life changing. And I’d guess that quite a few people find success on diets like Whole30. Thirty days of extreme dieting could be the kickstart you need to lose weight and feel better. Or it could throw you down a shame spiral because you slipped up and ate rice. So why am I such a cynic? After 30 years as a registered dietitian, I’ve seen too many people get messed up by repetitive extreme diets. They can mess with your head and your relationship with food and cause a lot of pain. So if you’re thinking about a 2021 diet transformation, just be careful out there.