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Pros and Cons of the Whole30 Challenge

The Whole30 nutrition challenge is wildly popular. But can it really deliver on its promises? Nutrition Diva examines the pros, cons, and alternatives.

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
March 7, 2017
Episode #420

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I’ve gotten a lot of questions and emails about the Whole30 diet, including one from Jazmine, who wrote:

“I have recently been researching the Whole30 diet promoted by Melissa Hartwig. I have been reading her book and getting very excited, until I saw that the diet was ranked 38th out of 38 in US News and World Reports annual diet ranking. I have found your balanced, real-world, science-based approach to nutrition to be a breath of fresh air in the often murky waters of fad diets and I trust your opinion, so what do you think? Is the Whole30 healthy? Or harmful?”

What Is the Whole30 Challenge?

For those who may not be familiar, the Whole30 is a popular 30-day nutrition challenge created by Doug and Melissa Hartwig and promoted on their website (whole30.com) and through their several best-selling books.

The Whole30 is described as a whole foods approach. But the challenge is not just to eliminate processed and packaged foods from your life for 30 days. You are also instructed to avoid beans and legumes, dairy products, sugar (including natural sweeteners like honey and maple syrup), alcohol, all grains, and starchy vegetables like potatoes.  

Moreover, it’s not just about cutting down or reducing these foods but about completely eliminating them from your diet. The Hartwigs promise that this will yield all kinds of amazing health benefits, including restoring a healthy metabolism, reducing systemic inflammation, healing your digestive tract, and balancing your immune system. Evidence that the program produces these benefits is anecdotal.

Other promised benefits are more psychological or behavioral: The program is said to act as a “nutritional reset, designed to help you put an end to unhealthy cravings and habits.”

Pros and Cons of Whole30

The program is disruptive—and this is part of its power. A period of radical abstinence might serve to disrupt unhealthy habits, shaking you out of your established patterns and forcing you to find alternatives.

If a glass or two of wine has become a daily routine, for example, committing to going without for 30 days might compel you to find some new ways to decompress after work. Maybe you end up replacing happy hour with a walk in the park with a friend.  I also do not doubt that restricting your diet this dramatically will change how you think about and experience food.

Other forms of disruption may not be quite as welcome. Doing the Whole30 requires a good deal of planning. Shopping and meal preparation take up a lot of time because you’ll need to make all your food from scratch. Eating in restaurants is challenging, to say the least. Pray that no business trips, family birthdays, or head colds come up during your 30 days.

If you can recruit your entire family, office, church, and book club to join you for your 30 days, that’s going to make life a lot easier. Otherwise, you may find socializing a bit tricky during your challenge.

The Appeal of Difficulty

None of this is insurmountable. In fact, some people really love a challenge.

Take marathon runners, for example, or triathletes. They are willing to sacrifice enormous amounts of time to train for their goal. Accomplishing great feats of physical strength and mental toughness makes them feel like a million bucks.

But do you have to complete a marathon in order to get fit? Of course not. You can get into pretty good shape training for a 5K. You’re also less likely to suffer an injury that relegates you to the couch for 6 weeks.

Your diet doesn't have to be this restrictive in order to be healthful

And by the same token, I understand that some people are attracted to the austerity and purity of the Whole30 challenge. But I simply don’t agree that your diet has to be this restrictive in order to be healthful—or to deliver the kinds of benefits that the Whole30 promises.

In fact, one of the main reasons that the nutrition experts who evaluated diets for US New and World Report gave the Whole30 such a low ranking was concern that the diet was overly and unnecessarily restrictive, eliminating entire categories of nutritious foods. I also worry about the sustainability of such an extreme approach.

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