Whether it’s the Whole30®, keto diet, or paleo diet, we often see bold proclamations of the health benefits of today’s popular diets across social media and online publications.
Some people consider these diets as a fad or trend. These types of diets and plans aren’t exactly new. William Banting’s “Letter on Corpulence,” which appeared in 1864, was probably the first diet book ever published. Since then, popular diets have run the gamut from extreme tactics (the Tapeworm Diet, anyone?) to particular “miracle” foods or a specific eating regimen.
Regardless of their tactics, underlying almost all of these fad diets is the promise of fast, easy weight loss.
What is a Fad Diet? … and is Whole30 a Fad?
Counting calories can be hard. Dieting carries a “no fun” feeling of deprivation. We want to have our cake and eat it too, all while getting lean and healthy for an upcoming vacation or beach season. That’s where fad diets step in: they subtly — or not-so-subtly — promise to help you lose weight “purportedly without the severe feelings of deprivation.”
Many popular fad diets involve short-term fixes. They’re designed to work fast, and many trendy diets claim to be easy or simple. You do an all-liquid “cleanse” to get into a particular outfitby this weekend or only eat one particular food for three days. In other words, fad diets aren’t really sustainable over the long term. They have other downfalls, too — we don’t know their long-term effects or their potential adverse side effects. Despite that criticism, fad diets continue to be trendy because hey, we all want to get lean and swimsuit-ready by this weekend. And most trendy diets promise to help you do just that.
Whole30: Trendy Diet or Worth the Hype?
Among the most popular diets in America is the Whole 30 Program, sometimes just called “Whole30.”
Authors Melissa Hartwig Urban and Dallas Hartwig outlined the principles of this diet in their book The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom.
“Your only job during the Whole30 is to focus on making good food choices,” says their website. “You don’t need to weigh or measure, count calories, restrict calories, or purchase everything organic or grass-fed. Your only job is to stick to the Whole30 rules for 30 straight days… no cheats, no slips, no ‘special occasions.”
I first learned of Whole30 by seeing a good friend of mine become passionate about food and nutrition through this program. Frankly, her food choices over time seemed to align with mine! I’ve earned tremendous respect for Melissa and Dallas Hartwig. They’ve transformed countless lives!
So, what is their plan? Sticking with Whole30 sounds fairly simple: you remove problem foods for 30 days.
“The theory behind [“Whole30] is that all sorts of physical and mental health issues – ranging from acne to depression to allergies – could be due to your diet,” says US News and World Report. “But you can’t know which foods are to blame for what ails you unless you cut out all traces of sugar, alcohol, grains, dairy and legumes for 30 days.”
Instead, you eat whole, unprocessed foods such as meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, and fruit.
The plan also incorporates herbs, spices, and seasonings. Choose foods with few and recognizable ingredients. Or, better yet, no ingredients at all.
The bigger-picture goal with Whole30 is to change your relationship with food and determine what foods work for you. You do that by slowly reintroducing certain food groups to see how each one impacts you.
“The goal is to investigate how your body responds to certain foods, by first eliminating them and then slowly reinstating them after the 30 days are up,” says Ariel Knutson. “If they still work for you — great! If you find something that helps you feel better in your body, that’s great too.”
Whole30: Drawbacks and Criticism
All that might sound logical, but critics have not always been kind about Whole30. US News and World Report, which publishes an annual ranking about popular diets, gave this one a big thumbs down. On their “Best Diets” list, Whole30 landed at the bottom: #38 in Best Diets Overall and #36 in Best Weight-Loss Diets.
Likewise, some journalists have made the plan sound like a difficult challenge. “I Just Finished Whole30 and Lived to Tell the Tale—Here’s How I Made It Through,” goes the headline of Julia Naftulin’s article in Health magazine. Even though she admits sugar withdrawal felt challenging, she did benefit from the plan before boredom set in. Even the whole “come on, you can do this for 30 days” type of thinking suggests a potential challenge awaiting you.
In all fairness, any diet modification will probably feel challenging in the beginning. You’re learning new eating habits that you’ll (hopefully) carry throughout life, determining what foods work for you and which ones don’t, and eliminating comfort-food favorites that aren’t good for your health or waistline. From that perspective, Whole30 has a lot to offer. This plan seems designed for short-term results that also carry through the long haul, transcending the fad-diet stereotype.
A few of the guidelines get confusing. They allow fruit juice as a stand-alone ingredient or natural sweetener. Ditto with certain legumes such as green beans, sugar snap peas, and snow peas that they consider far more “pod” than “bean.”
Beyond Whole30 and Other Fad Diets: Align Your Health
Many principles outlined in MaxLiving’s Align Your Health overlap with Whole30. Here, I emphasize choosing high-quality, whole foods. These are foods without barcodes or long lists of ingredients.
In Align Your Health, I’ve taken my nutritional knowledge and years of work with patients to create a Core Plan that transcends fad diets to integrate lasting eating habits that work for almost everyone. But when you eat well, following a framework like the Core Plan, and still find yourself sluggish, ill, or inflamed, a period of stricter, the Advanced Plan is ideal.
Optimizing an Anti-Inflammatory Diet
The Advanced Plan is just that: A little more restrictive to get more focused results. Both the Advanced Plan and Whole30 addresses inflammation, which underlies almost every disease. Both plans have a few similarities and differences, including:
- Fruit. Whole30 allows all fruits. But fruit can also be high in fructose (some fruits higher than others). Fructose is a sugar that can create or exacerbate inflammation. That’s not to say fruit is bad. On the Core Plan, we emphasize nutrient-dense fruits such as berries. We recommend eating higher-sugar fruits such as bananas in small portions only and earlier in the day or around exercise. The Advanced Plan option eliminates higher-sugar fruits and anything else that converts quickly to sugar.
- Grains. The Advanced Plan eliminates any potential inflammatory culprit. That means removing all grains (not just gluten), which Whole30 and our Advanced Plan both do. In my experience, if you’re struggling with inflammation, pain, fatigue, and illness, getting off gluten — and really, all grains — will probably make you feel better.
- Protein intake. The Advanced Plan emphasizes moderating protein. Feeding the body too much protein can cause problems with insulin, just like sugar. In place of the decreased protein, increase healthy fats. Instead, you’ll increase your intake of healthy fats on the Advanced Plan.
Which Nutrition Plan Should You Choose?
Whether you choose our Core or Advanced Plan depends on your health goals. Food-wise, The Core Plan is a bit more lenient. You can eat more varieties such as carrots, sweet potatoes, wild rice, and whole wheat tortillas. Put another way, the Core Plan is more flexible in everyday life. It’s particularly great for kids!
On the other hand, the Advanced Plan targets specific body conditions including inflammation, so it is less flexible. Just like with Whole30, the Advanced Plan can feel difficult at first. You’re essentially changing the fuel your body uses. Give your body time to adapt to the increased fat intake so that you can efficiently digest what you eat and use it for energy.
Healthy Diets: Everybody and Every Body is Different
Ultimately, Whole30 — just like the Core and Advanced Plans — encourages you to evaluate your relationship with food and how specific foods impact your body. While most people lose weight and feel better on these plans, this isn’t a quick-fix approach like fad diets. From that perspective, the best diet is the one you can easily follow and stick with. If choosing foods every day feels like a herculean challenge, you aren’t likely to get long-term results.
Your goals might change with time, too. Almost everyone does well on the Core Plan. You might start there and move into the Advanced Plan to address specific health goals. Likewise, you might transition from Whole30 into the Core or Advanced Plan.
Being proactive about your health forms the core of these plans. Figure out which type of diet works for you, and adjust as necessary. Work with a chiropractor or qualified healthcare practitioner at some point if you get stuck or need to hone in on foods that work for your condition.
Everyone is different. Your individualized needs will shift and vary based on your genetics, your life to this point, what’s feasible, what’s necessary, and what goals you need to prioritize. Ultimately, fad diets are only effective when they are sustainable. That goes for ketogenic diets, intermittent fasting, Whole30, or any popular or trendy diet. And whether they can be sustainable depends on whether you can stick with them. Not just for 30 days, but for life.