First, I acknowledge that I’m adding to a long list of Whole30 dietitian reviews. Type “Whole30 dietitian review” into the search bar if you’re hungry for more. I’m publishing this for two reasons: 1) I haven’t added to that list yet, and 2) someone asked me about this diet over the weekend, and I’m like IS THIS REALLY STILL A THING? More on that below.
The talk I gave to my fellow lady runners that day had nothing to do with The Whole30, or any other elimination diet, but inevitably the “What do you think about” questions will come. I’m ready for them. I try to stay up on the diet trends. We usually talk about them on the RD Real Talk podcast. But, The Whole30? I hadn’t heard that one in a while. Nine years after its debut, though, it is still A Thing.
This talk I gave was actually about Intuitive Eating (IE) and sports nutrition. I was at Summit to Soul, partnering with the store for another month of Lane 9 Project group running. We added a nutrition talk to this month’s event; I wanted to keep it brief. Most people want to get on with their Saturdays, or talk about what they are or are not training for, or recap their most recent race experience, or simply enjoy the free chocolate chip peanut butter cookies over casual conversation! Not eat free cookies while listening to a “nutrition talk.” I get that. (Kim, I love that you brought cookies to the morning run nutrition talk. Seriously.)
After my ten-minute IE spiel—which I awkwardly ended with “My name is Heather Caplan…Caplan with a C…I’m easy to find on the internet!” because I forgot to bring business cards—I invited questions. I love the personal insight that comes with someone asking a question. I always learn something, or explore something in a way that I haven’t before. I brace myself for the, “So, what do you think about…” questions, but also love them because if you know me at all you know I’m kind of opinionated and I keep it real. So, here we go…
“What do you think about The Whole30?”
Real talk: When it came out in 2009, I thought it was kind of a cool trend. Yes for whole foods! Yes for learning more about what you eat! Whoop! I wasn’t thinking straight.
On one episode of RD Real Talk I talk about when I read one of their first books (It Starts With Food, 2009). I admitted that as a young RD, I was intrigued. Against my education’s teachings, I found myself wanting to believe some of what they were saying. I took notes! I was impressionable and trying to recover from an eating disorder, so of course I welcomed any food rule that seemed semi-justifiable. Of note: they have no degree in nutrition or public health. They have a nutrition certification; you could have one, too, in a matter of hours or weeks, depending on your certification of choice. Plenty of people, certified or not, write books about food and we just go with it. It’s not a crime. What you should know: They created a diet plan backed by no research at all. Not a single study or review is listed on their website (or, if I remember correctly, in their book).
Then I started to question it, because it IS a 30-day elimination diet, but they try to pass it off as “not a diet.” Since the recipes in their Whole30 cookbook are “healthy” and “delicious,” they note it can’t possibly be a diet. (Fake nutrition rule.) They say they don’t want you to expect weight loss. They don’t want you to focus on the numbers, but they DO want you to talk about your “transformation” before and after. And they claim “stunning” results! I wasn’t sure people needed to be following elimination diets, but I thought I was okay with the way it promoted “whole foods.”
The word diet is ubiquitous and can simply mean “way of eating” anyway so who cares whether it’s a diet or not. What I do care about: They eliminate a lot of “whole foods,” based on their own rules of what a whole food is. (They don’t get to decide that.)
My thoughts on The Whole30 as a dietitian (and human) have evolved, to say the least.
Based on what I’ve seen, people turn to the Whole30 to “detox,” jumpstart weight loss efforts, control their food intake in a new way, or identify a potential cause of indigestion. There is no shortage of testimonials singing this program’s praise. I applaud individuals who have made strides in improving their health, if their health needed to be improved, and doing so on their own. I know not everyone can afford to work with a dietitian one-on-one. I know not every physician gives reasonable or realistic nutrition advice. You gotta do you.
What I can’t get behind is the way the co-founders claim certain foods can have a “negative impact on your health and fitness without you even realizing it.”
Is food the problem? Or is the problem the mindlessness with which we tend to consume our food?
If we’re not realizing the effects these “certain food groups” have on our body, how is the food to blame? If we’re not realizing it, is it a big problem to begin with? If grains, dairy, and legumes are so bad for our health, why does research consistently show that plant-based diets (which often include dairy in studies) improve health markers such as cholesterol, blood pressure, and hemoglobin A1C? “This will change your life,” they say. You get to “eat real food,” just not grains, dairy, alcohol, legumes, dairy, or any junk foods. So, real food, as they decide to define it—as the “Whole30 set of rules” will outline for you.
Food rules: one thing none of us need any more of.
I think The Whole30 is unethical.*
I think The Whole30 is nothing but a useless set of food rules that scare people into thinking “certain food groups” cause too many problems. I think it is a breeding ground for disordered eating. It invites food shaming and superiority on social media channels, in their forums, and in conversation. I think it fosters judgment and fearmongering. I think it is socially isolating, as food should never be. I think it is a weight-loss gimmick that the co-founders continue to profit from.
I think it’s careless that the co-founders have based their success solely off of personal testimonies, including their own, instead of testing their program responsibly with scientific longitudinal studies. At this point, they’ve had plenty of time to do some real research; they’ve chosen to focus on “before and after” photos and testimonials instead. If this was just a fad, I wouldn’t care as much. But we’re almost on year 10 of their soapbox preaching, claiming drastic health improvements that are not to be taken lightly. (Are there longitudinal studies being done? I’m legitimately curious. I just typed “Whole30” into PubMed to check. It yielded zero results.)
I think it’s irresponsible to blame digestive issues, inflammation, poor energy levels, bad sleep, various cravings, and poor gut health on food, alone.
Stress, genetics, environment, and emotional health are a few additional contributing factors, if anyone is curious. I think the co-founders may have had their own food issues to work through, and that process produced this seemingly never-ending trend. Instead, they created this quick fix, point the finger of blame at food, instead of exploring the many reasons that stress, indigestion, and health complications arise in individuals.
In short: I think encouraging consumers to take on an elimination diet without a health professional’s guidance, or a medical need to do so, is unethical.
*The sentiment is not reserved for The Whole30.
THAT SAID, let’s get some real talk going. I’m curious, and understand we all have different experiences with these things. Food choices are always personal, and we have unique, often very personal, reasons for changing the way we eat (or don’t eat).
If you’ve tried it and found success, what does that success look like for you? What were your initial goals? How do you think about nutrition and food now? What food rules linger (if any)?
Real talk it up.