If there’s one thing that I hope has come across on my blog is my philosophy for food, “all food fits”. I don’t believe in diets, detoxes, cleanses or anything that involves restriction. Why? Because these methods are unsustainable, lead to an unhealthy relationship with food and can actually lead to a slower metabolism and weight gain.
Lately, I’ve been noticing more and more people talking about the Whole 30 program. It’s certainly not a new program, it began in 2009, but there seems to be a resurgence in its popularity. Seeing this, I wanted to do a review of the program from a Dietitian’s perspective. But reading through the program I realized a lot of the “evidence” comes from testimonials so I figured the only way that I could truly talk about the program was to try it for myself. I started March 15 and quit on March 23, I’ll get to why and my experience with the diet in tomorrow’s post.
What is Whole 30
First, for those unfamiliar with the program, I call Whole 30, a Paleo diet taken to the extreme.
The foods that are eliminated include:
- All grains (wheat, rice, oats, corn, etc. they’re all off limits)
- Legumes (beans, chickpeas, lentils, peanuts)
- Soy and all soy-containing products
- Dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese)
- Sugar, artificial sweeteners and natural sweeteners (IE Stevia)
- Carrageenan, MSG or added sulfites
So what’s left? Vegetables, fruits, nuts (except peanuts), eggs and meat.
There are also “rules” to the program. No making “bad” foods out of good ingredients. IE no making almond butter cookies, cauliflower crust “pizza”, banana egg pancakes, etc.
Who Created Whole 30?
Whenever I see a diet program, book, etc. the first thing I want to know is who wrote it and what are their credentials? Whole 30 was written by Melissa and Dallas Hartwig, who are Certified Sports Nutritionists. This is a credential anyone can get by taking an online test without any prior nutrition credentials (which neither of them has). Remember, nutritionist is not a protected title and can be used by anyone. So don’t be fooled that these are experts in the field writing this book, they are not.
When I first began researching the diet, I was looking at their online resources. I was unable to track down any of their evidence so I assumed it was all printed in their book. I got my hands on a copy of the Whole 30 book and was absolutely shocked to find that not a single scientific reference is included in the book. This program goes on and on about being “science based” and yet there isn’t a SINGLE reference to research to be found. There is also another booked called It Starts with Food that I haven’t read and so I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt that the research is in that book. But why make this research so hard to find? Why not include it on the website where it’s easily accessible and proves that you are research based? To me, that’s a red flag.
The Good Parts of Whole 30
There are a lot of things I like about the Whole 30 program. Encouraging people to eat more whole foods, emphasizing the importance of vegetables and fruits and cutting out alcohol and added sugar (though I think complete elimination is going too far) are all good things.
The Bad Parts of Whole 30
However, there are a lot of points I disagree with on the Whole 30 program. Elimination of entire food groups with bogus rationale does not sit well with me and so I am going to dissect some of the arguments the program uses.
The argument: Not as nutrient dense as vegetables & fruit and contain added sugar and salt.
No one is arguing that vegetables and fruits aren’t an amazing source of fibre, vitamins & minerals but so are grains. I absolutely loved this post by Registered Dietitian, Diana McHard on why this argument doesn’t make sense. In a nutshell, she explains that comparing vegetables to grains is comparing apples to oranges. Both of these foods have a place in our diet and both contribute to our overall health. We should not reduce food to individual nutrients to compare, instead, we should consider overall factors that include taste and satisfaction.
It’s also important to consider that there is a spectrum of grains. While a slice of bread can have 200 mg of sodium, quinoa contains negligible amounts. Using a blanket statement of eliminating all grains is reductionist science and a veiled attempt at creating yet another low-carb diet book.
The argument: Grains contain phytates minimizing the ability to absorb key ingredients
Grains and legumes both contain phytates which can reduce the bioavailability of protein, iron, zinc and magnesium. But nuts and some vegetables also contain phytates and yet they are allowed on the diet.
There are many things in our diet that affect the absorption of vitamins and minerals. For example, coffee reduces the absorption of iron. That doesn’t mean every person who drinks coffee will be iron deficient, just like consuming grains or legumes will not make you deficient in zinc, iron or calcium.
Additionally, through cooking, soaking, fermenting, etc. beans and legumes, phytates are reduced and the nutrients become more bioavailable. When eating in a modern environment where our diet is varied and diverse, phytates do not present a concern to our health. And there is actually newer research showing phytates act as antioxidants and may play a role in cancer prevention.
The argument: Short-chain carbohydrates aren’t digested and absorbed in the digestive tract causing gas
This argument perfectly demonstrates the author’s misunderstanding of nutrition. Yes, it’s true that there are short chain carbohydrates that don’t digest and act as food for bacteria in the intestine, but this is an argument FOR legumes, not against.
Research on the role of fibre and it’s effect on the gut microbiome is a hot topic right now. The research is showing that fibre has a very important role in the development of the gut microbiome which subsequently can benefit our cardiovascular health, immune function, and weight management.
In some people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), the intake of short-chain carbohydrates can cause symptoms such as excessive gas, bloating, cramping, etc. An elimination diet is a current strategy being used for those with IBS. However, it’s important to remember that this is for a specific subsection of the population, the diet is done under medical supervision and is irrelevant to a healthy population.
The argument: Casein can cause a histamine response and whey increases insulin response.
4% of the population is allergic to casein and will elicit a histamine response. A casein intolerance that the authors suggest is not a documented disorder.
Whey protein has been shown to produce high levels of insulin, however, this effect is actually used to the advantage in many populations such as those with type 2 diabetes as a way to reduce post-meal blood sugars. Consumption of dairy products has been associated with the regulation of weight, satiety and blood sugar control.
The books restriction of all dairy products forgets to consider the positive benefits of fermented dairy on the healthy gut bacteria.
At the core, the idea behind Whole 30 is a good one. The majority of the population eats a lot of processed foods and added sugars. Reduction in these will positively impact health. However, dairy, legumes, and grains are whole foods and this is where the premise of the book begins to fall apart. Rather than truly focusing on whole foods, the book segways into reductionist science as another attempt to create a low-carb diet with a different name.
If you want to work on your diet, start by reducing processed foods and sugar, not by eliminating healthy foods and entire food groups.