Is The Whole 30 Diet Right For You?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Diets, The Whole 30 Diet

Rules For Selecting A Healthy Diet

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

the whole 30 dietRecently, someone asked my opinion of the Whole 30 Diet. When you look at their web site, the claims are impressive:

  • Blood sugar swings disappear, energy levels improve, digestive issues and inflammation disappear.
  • Lose weight without counting calories.
  • Eliminate a long list of lifestyle-related diseases.

You probably want to know whether these claims are true. I do not have time to evaluate every diet, so let me evaluate the Whole 30 Diet in terms of principles you can use to evaluate any of the diets you will encounter in the new year.

What Is The Whole 30 Diet?

Basically, the Whole 30 Diet is a 30-day elimination diet designed to help you lose weight rapidly and change the way you eat.

the whole 30 diet an elimination dietThe diet allows you to eat “moderate portions of meat, seafood, and eggs; lots of vegetables; some fruit; plenty of natural fats; and herbs, spices, and seasonings.” [You are instructed to] “eat foods with very few ingredients, all pronounceable ingredients, or better yet, no ingredients listed at all because they’re whole and unprocessed.”

  • Recommended meats are grass-fed beef, organic poultry, and wild-caught fish.
  • Recommended fats are coconut oil, olive oil, and ghee (clarified butter).

The diet forbids:

  • Added sugar, real or artificial, in any form.
  • Alcohol
  • Grains
  • Legumes
  • Dairy
  • The additives carrageenan, MSG, and sulfite.
  • Baked foods, junk foods, and treats (sweets).

Although, not explicitly stated, because this diet eliminates sugar, grains, legumes, and baked goods, it is essentially a low carb diet.

This diet prescription is absolute. According to the authors of the diet: “Just a small amount of any of these [forbidden] inflammatory foods could break the healing cycle; promoting cravings, messing with blood sugar, disrupting the integrity of your digestive tract, and (most important) firing up the immune system. One bite of pizza, one spoonful of ice cream, one lick of the spoon mixing the batter within the 30-day period and you’ve broken the “reset” button, requiring you to start over again on Day 1.”

My comment: This statement is not accurate, but I understand why they say it. They are simply trying to get you to adhere strictly to the diet. After all, it is the little “modifications” we make that doom most diets to failure. It’s when we say: “Surely, one ice cream sundae can’t hurt” or “I don’t have time to fix dinner. I’ll just pick up some fried chicken on the way home.”

Finally, the Whole 30 Diet:

  • Tells you not to count calories and not to step on the scale for 30 days. I consider this a plus. Successful diets should emphasize lifestyle change, not counting calories.
  • Says nothing about exercise. This is a glaring omission.

Does The Whole 30 Diet Uphold The Rules For Selecting A Healthy Diet

 

Here are my rules for evaluating healthy diets:

First, let’s look at the initial (short-term) weight loss:

  • the whole 30 diet short term weight lossAny diet that eliminates sodas, junk foods, fast foods, and sweets will make you healthier and will help you lose weight. This is a big plus for the Whole 30 Diet.
  • Any diet that emphasizes whole foods over processed foods is likely to help you lose weight. This is also a plus for the Whole 30 Diet.
  • Both low carb and low-fat diets can help you lose weight. Let me be clear. I am talking about plant-based low-fat diets, not low-fat diets with a lot of sugars and simple carbohydrates. Low carb diets also result in water loss. This is also a plus for the Whole 30 Diet.
  • Diets that eliminate whole food groups tend to result in short-term weight loss. That’s because they eliminate some of your favorite foods, and it generally takes you a while to adjust. Since the Whole 30 Diet is focusing on the first 30 days, this is also likely to be a plus for the Whole 30 Diet.
  • Exercise is an essential component of healthy weight loss diets. The lack of a defined exercise component is a minus for the Whole 30 Diet.
  • On balance, the Whole 30 Diet is likely to be effective for short-term weight loss. However, this is true for most popular diets because they also eliminate sodas, junk foods, fast foods, and sweets. I have heard of the “Meat Lovers Diet” (which I don’t recommend), but I have never heard of a “Junk Food Lovers Diet.”  Many of the popular diets also favor whole foods and eliminate multiple food groups.
  • The main difference between the Whole 30 Diet and other popular diets is their absolute prohibition of any deviation from their diet plan. This makes the diet harder to follow, but it increases the probability of weight loss for those who do follow the plan.
  • Weight loss improves blood sugar control, energy levels, and inflammation. Thus, those claims are likely to be true, but not entirely for the reasons the diet proponents claim. The diet’s effect on digestive issues are likely to vary from one individual to another. However, if you have digestive issues to begin with, you probably have a problem with one or more of the foods you are currently eating. The elimination of multiple foods from your diet may help.
  • Weight loss can also reduce the severity of diabetes and other lifestyle diseases. This claim may also be true, but not for the reasons the diet proponents claim.

Next let’s look at long term weight loss. Here the Whole 30 Diet doesn’t look as promising. The Whole 30 Diet has only been around since 2009, so we have no long-term data comparing weight maintenance with other diets. However, here is what we do know.

Finally, let’s look at long term health. The information on the Whole 30 Diet’s web site does not make it clear what kind of diet they are recommending once you have completed your 30 days. However, if they are recommending a similar diet long-term, there are no long-term data showing it is healthy. The data we do have on that type of diet is mixed.

  • the whole 30 diet long term healthConsumption of sodas, junk foods, and fast foods is associated with an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease. Thus, elimination of these foods is a plus for the Whole 30 Diet, as is the reliance on whole, unprocessed foods.
  • However, multiple studies have shown that primarily plant-based diets are associated with significantly lower long-term risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other lifestyle diseases than meat-based diets. I have covered these studies in several recent issues of “Health Tips From the Professor.”  This is a minus for the Whole 30 Diet.
  • Diets that eliminate whole food groups are likely to result in nutritional deficiencies. For example, the Whole 30 Diet is similar to the paleo diet, and a recent study showed the paleo diet results in multiple nutritional deficiencies. This is also likely to be a minus for the Whole 30 Diet.

Other Comments:

  • All added sugar is not bad for you. I agree that added sugar in sodas, junk foods, fast foods, and sweets should be avoided. However, for other foods the glycemic index is more important than whether the food contains added sugar. I covered this topic in detail in a recent article called “Is It The Sugar, Or Is It the Food?
  • Red meat is considered a probable carcinogen. There is no evidence that grass-fed beef is any healthier with respect to cancer risk than conventionally raised meat. I covered this in detail in my recent article on the paleo diet.
  • Olive oil has been shown to be healthy in multiple studies. However, both coconut oil and ghee contain ~50% long-chain saturated fats and are problematic. I have covered this in detail in a previous article on coconut oil.
  • Whole grains and legumes are included in most anti-inflammation diets. Their exclusion from the Whole 30 Diet cannot be justified on the basis of inflammation.
  • I would be far more concerned about additives like artificial colors, flavors and preservatives than I would be about carrageenan, MSG, and sulfite. I have covered carrageenan in one recent article and MSG in a second article.

 

Is The Whole 30 Diet Right For You?

 

In summary, there is a lot to like about the Whole 30 Diet:

  • It eliminates sodas, junk foods, fast foods, and sweets.
  • It focuses on whole foods rather than processed foods.
  • If followed exactly as described for 30 days, it is likely to result in successful short-term weight loss.
  • The weight loss is likely to be associated with health benefits.
  • However, these statements are equally true for most popular diets.

The web site for the Whole 30 Diet does not indicate what diet is recommended at the end of the 30-day period. However, if the Whole 30 Diet is continued, it is not clear whether it would be ideal for weight maintenance and health long-term.

  • The elimination of sodas, junk foods, fast foods, and the reliance on whole foods is a positive.
  • It’s reliance on meat rather than legumes and other plant protein sources is a negative.
  • It’s elimination of multiple food groups is likely to lead to nutritional deficiencies.

 

The Bottom Line

 

If you are primarily interested in an evaluation of the Whole 30 Diet, here is a summary:

There is a lot to like about the Whole 30 Diet:

  • It eliminates sodas, junk foods, fast foods, and sweets.
  • It focuses on whole foods rather than processed foods.
  • If followed exactly as described for 30 days, it is likely to result in successful short-term weight loss.
  • The weight loss is likely to be associated with health benefits.
  • However, these statements are equally true for most popular diets.

The web site for the Whole 30 Diet does not indicate what diet is recommended at the end of the 30-day period. However, if the Whole 30 Diet is continued, it is not at all clear whether it is ideal for weight maintenance and health long-term.

  • The elimination of sodas, junk foods, fast foods, and the reliance on whole foods is a positive.
  • It’s reliance on meat rather than legumes and other plant protein sources is a negative.
  • It’s elimination of multiple food groups is likely to lead to nutritional deficiencies.

If you would like to know the principles used to reach these conclusions (principles you can use to evaluate any diet), read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (2)

  • Ginger

    |

    I followed the Whole30 for the prescribed period. The biggest lesson I learned was how to eat consciously. I shop the outside of the grocery store and cook with lots of spices, herbs, and seasonings.

    My daughter joined me in the experiment and as a result, she was able to eliminate the migraine headaches that plagued her for years. She feels that eliminating sugar did the trick. I also discovered peanuts give me a headache. I love peanuts but now know I need to avoid them and opt for walnuts. Going forward, I’ll be adding some of the eliminated items back into my diet but will do so consciously and in moderation.

    In closing, I think the goal of this diet is to first eliminate the foods that are most likely to cause inflammation and sensitivity than to reintroduce them one at a time to see if there is any negative feedback from your body. I totally didn’t expect an issue with peanuts but I guess my body just created its own coping mechanism that enabled me to eat them. The Whole30 was a learning experience for me with some positive outcomes primarily in the form of developing healthy eating habits. The thirty days enabled me to break some eating habits that definitely needed to go.

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Ginger,

      The scenario you described is the strength of the Whole 30 diet. It is a very rigid elimination diet that will lead to weight loss, plus most people will feel better because of the junk foods they eliminate. It can also help people identify unexpected food allergies.

      My only concern is that it eliminates some very healthy foods without a strong scientific rationale. If participants were to follow the Whole 30 diet for more than 30 days, it would be nutritionally inadequate.

      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

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Latest Article

Can Plant-based Diets Be Unhealthy?

Posted September 10, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

plant-based diets vegetablesPlant-based diets have become the “Golden Boys” of the diet world. They are the diets most often recommended by knowledgeable health and nutrition professionals. I’m not talking about all the “Dr. Strangeloves” who pitch weird diets in books and the internet. I am talking legitimate experts who have spent their life studying the impact of nutrition on our health.

Certainly, there is an overwhelming body of evidence supporting the claim that plant-based diets are healthy. Going on a plant-based diet can help you lower blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol and triglycerides. People who consume a plant-based diet for a lifetime weigh less and have decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

But, can a plant-based diet be unhealthy? Some people consider a plant-based diet to simply be the absence of meat and other animal foods. Is just replacing animal foods with plant-based foods enough to make a diet healthy?

Maybe not. After all, sugar and white flour are plant-based food ingredients. Fake meats of all kinds abound in our grocery stores. Some are very wholesome, but others are little more than vegetarian junk food. If you replace animal foods with plant-based sweets, desserts, and junk food, is your diet really healthier?

While the answer to that question seems obvious, very few studies have asked that question. Most studies on the benefits of plant-based diets have compared population groups that eat a strictly plant-based diet (Seventh-Day Adventists, vegans, or vegetarians) with the general public. They have not looked at variations in plant food consumption within the general public. Nor have they compared people who consume healthy and unhealthy plant foods.

This study (H Kim et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, 8:e012865, 2019) was designed to fill that void.

 

How Was The Study Done?

plant-based diets studyThis study used data collected from 12,168 middle aged adults in the ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities) study between 1987 and 2016.

The participant’s usual intake of foods and beverages was assessed by trained interviewers using a food frequency questionnaire at the time of entry into the study and again 6 years later.

Participants were asked to indicate the frequency with which they consumed 66 foods and beverages of a defined serving size in the previous year. Visual guides were provided to help participants estimate portion sizes.

The participant’s adherence to a plant-based diet was assessed using four different well-established plant-based diet scores. For the sake of simplicity, I will include 3 of them in this review.

  • The PDI (Plant-Based Diet Index) categorizes foods as either plant foods or animal foods. A high PDI score means that the participant’s diet contains more plant foods than animal foods. A low PDI score means the participant’s diet contains more animal foods than plant foods.
  • The hPDI (healthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “healthy” plant foods. A high hPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) and low in animal foods.
  • The uPDI (unhealthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “unhealthy” plant foods. A high uPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) and low in animal foods.

For statistical analysis the scores from the various plant-based diet indices were divided into 5 equal groups. In each case, the group with the highest score consumed the most plant foods and least animal foods. The group with the lowest score consumed the least plant foods and the most animal foods.

The health outcomes measured in this study were heart disease events, heart disease deaths, and all-cause deaths. Again, for the sake of simplicity, I will only include 2 of these outcomes (heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths) in this review. The data on deaths were obtained from state death records and the National Death Index. (Yes, your personal information is available on the web even after you die.)

 

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

plant-based diets reduce heart deathsThe participants in this study were followed for an average of 25 years.

The investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years and compared people with the highest intake of plant foods to people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods. The results were:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

What Else Did The Study Show?

The investigators made a couple of other interesting observations:

  • The association of the overall diet with heart disease and all-cause deaths was stronger than the association of individual food components. This underscores the importance of looking at the effect of the whole diet on health outcomes rather than the “magic” foods you hear about on Dr. Strangelove’s Health Blog.
  • Diets with the highest amount of healthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of carbohydrates, plant protein, fiber, and micronutrients, including potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, and lower intake of saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Diets with the highest amount of unhealthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of calories and carbohydrates and lower intake of fiber and micronutrients.

The last two observations may help explain some of the health benefits of plant-based diets.

 

Can Plant-Based Diets Be Unhealthy?

plant-based diets unhealthy cookiesNow, let’s return to the question I asked at the beginning of this article: “Can plant-based diets be unhealthy?” Although some previous studies have suggested that unhealthy plant-based diets might increase the risk of heart disease, this study did not show that.

What this study did show was that an unhealthy plant-based diet was no better for you than a diet containing lots of red meat and other animal foods.

If this were the only conclusion from this study, it might be considered a neutral result. However, this result clearly contrasts with the data from this study and many others showing that both plant-based diets in general and healthy plant-based diets reduce the risk of heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths compared to animal-based diets.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

There is one other subtle message from this study. This study did not compare vegans with the general public. Everyone in the study was the general public. Nobody in the study was consuming a 100% plant-based diet.

For example:

  • The group with the highest intake of plant foods consumed 9 servings per day of plant foods and 3.6 servings per day of animal foods.
  • The group with the lowest intake of plant foods consumed 5.4 servings per day of plant foods and 5.6 servings per day of animal foods.

In other words, you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study analyzed the effect of consuming plant foods on heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths over a 25-year period.

When the investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

A more subtle message from the study is that you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet. The people in this study were not following some special diet. The only difference was that some of the people in this study ate more plant foods and others more animal foods.

For more details on the study, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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