While we are well past the buzz of New Year’s resolutions, wellness culture and diet-talk still perpetuate on Facebook, Instagram, and essentially anywhere else people can promote it. Even if you have no intention of implementing new habits or changes (though you stand to gain a lot of value if you do), you’ve more than likely heard people raving about their Whole30 journey.
That’s all with good reason: the Whole30 diet is sexy, flashy and it seems like every year more and more people do it to achieve a coveted super-healthy status. But there’s a lot of debate about whether it’s actually a healthy program.
You’ve also more than likely seen and heard people promote the paleo diet, a modern-day tribute to living as our caveman ancestors did. Restaurants are even promoting paleo-friendly menu items. Both paleo and Whole30 diet emphasize eating more whole, nutrient-dense foods and less packaged, processed ones. While both diets stand to teach you about food choices — and possibly end up as your thoroughfare to a healthier lifestyle — there are some key differences and things to look out for.
What Is Whole30?
Whole30 is a self-proclaimed “non-diet” diet that purports life-changing results. The program is based on cutting out entire food groups such as dairy, grains, beans, refined carbohydrates, and added sugars for 30 days to “reset” your relationship with food and help you pinpoint foods that might be affecting your health. During the plan, you can eat meat, seafood, eggs, veggies, and small amounts of fruit, oils (like olive oil or coconut oil), nuts, and seeds. The diet does not set a calorie limit.
Whole30 is an extremely popular program, especially around the New Year and going into the summer months. It strives to alleviate issues like bloating, allergies, chronic pain, hormonal imbalances, skin problems and more. The creators of the diet, Dallas and Melissa Hartwig, claim it can improve your relationship with food, cravings, and the psychological effects of food choices. Weight loss is an added benefit, the program says.
Whole30 is essentially an elimination diet, which is most often used to uncover food allergies or sensitivities. The program’s website says that the main purpose of the diet is to help participants find out what foods they might be sensitive to.
However, there isn’t any scientific evidence supporting their claims, only anecdotal evidence in the form of testimonials.
Benefits of Whole30
It emphasizes unprocessed foods and teaches you to stop eating out of packages.
This is very true of Whole30. Since you’re essentially banned from the inner aisles of the grocery store, the program teaches you to make and enjoy meals that use only whole foods. Many “Whole30-approved” recipes are both delicious and extremely nutrient-dense.
It teaches you how amazing you can feel when you eat healthily.
This is where it is easy to give a nod of approval to Whole30. A diet rich in whole foods — and not in sugar, salt, and chemicals — is a surefire way to boost your energy level, decrease fatigue and brain fog, and perform well in all areas of life.
It can help you identify food intolerances.
The Whole 30 diet almost lets you start over with food, allowing you to take food groups out of your normal rotation and put back in what makes you feel better. But even then, if someone suspects food sensitivities as the culprit behind their bloating, digestive issues, fatigue or irritability, it may be best to try eliminating just one food at a time as this can be more effective in pinpointing what food you may be sensitive to.
For example, try ridding your diet of dairy for two weeks. If you feel better, great! Confirm the effect by eating a small amount of dairy: If your symptoms come back, maybe you should eliminate dairy for good. If nothing changes when you stop eating dairy for two weeks, then dairy probably isn’t the culprit. Move onto eggs, soy, corn, sugar, alcohol, caffeine, or other suspects.
If issues persist after a basic elimination diet, it may be time to see a registered dietitian or functional medicine practitioner.
It tells you not to step on the scale or take body measurements for the duration of the program.
This one doesn’t need much explaining. For the best results with any program, don’t obsess over your weight or inches (unless it’s medically necessary). It is only 30 days, and the stress of implementing a new program to follow is enough. Most weight management programs will recommend testing body composition about once every month as well. Although stressing over results is not beneficial, it is still beneficial to check up on your body composition about once a month to track progress and adjust programs if necessary.
Downfalls of Whole30
It is extremely strict and perpetuates the all-or-nothing mentality.
Whole30 holds the potential to push those at risk of an eating disorder over the edge. Because the program is so strict, it can cause people to develop fabricated lists of “right” and “wrong” foods — the hallmark of orthorexia nervosa. Additionally, such elimination diets in those who aren’t desperately trying to resolve a food allergy can perpetuate serious feelings of self-shame and guilt if you stray away from the guidelines.
To give the program some credit, though: The all-or-nothing mentality is almost unreal during the first 30 days, but after you successfully complete those 30 days, the program encourages you to add foods back in one-by-one.
It doesn’t allow you to deal with cravings.
One rule many strongly dislike about Whole30: “Do not consume baked goods, junk foods, or treats with “approved” ingredients.” Recreating your favorite treats with healthier, more satiating and more nutritious ingredients is an extremely smart way to deal with cravings.
It doesn’t offer long-term health benefits or a sustainable way of living.
Whole30’s only real potential benefit is for short-term weight loss, not long-term weight maintenance or general health because overall it isn’t a very sustainable way of living.
It makes living life hard. It makes going out to eat hard. It makes birthday parties, graduations, date nights, football games, and just about every other fun part of life difficult.
Sure, you could carry your own jars of condiments around and eat grilled chicken out of a Tupperware at potlucks. But why? Food is so much more than that. Half the fun in eating food is being able to enjoy it with the people around you and immerse yourself in a memory you’ll cherish forever.
What Is the Paleo Diet?
You might be wondering what the difference between Whole30 and the paleo diet. “Paleo” refers to the paleolithic (or caveman) era. It’s why the paleo diet is also referred to as the caveman diet. People who follow the paleo diet generally believe that we should eat the way our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate, i.e., unprocessed, whole foods. You are encouraged to eat lean proteins, fish, eggs, vegetables, and healthy fats and oils.
Paleo discourages consumption of grains, sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, dairy, some vegetable oils (soybean, sunflower, cottonseed, safflower, corn, and olive oil), beans and legumes, trans fats, artificial sweeteners, refined carbohydrates, and highly processed foods.
Whole30 discourages all of those foods and then some: alcohol, carrageenan, MSG, soy, sulfites, as well as most things that are packaged, even if they are “paleo-approved,” e.g., grain-free chips or crackers and RX bars.
The reasons to follow or not to follow paleo are essentially the same as those for Whole30: to alleviate chronic issues that may be associated with your current diet.
The biggest difference is that paleo allows you to recreate “junk” foods (like pancakes, muffins, chips and more) with approved ingredients, while Whole30 does not. You have to admit, the ability to eat “good foods” while still taking care of those cravings is pretty tempting when your alternative is to give up those foods entirely.
Do Experts Recommend Whole30 or Paleo?
Although it has endorsements from several health and medical professionals, it seems like the majority of experts do not support Whole30. U.S. News and World Report, one of the most trusted rankings publications in the country, keeps Whole30 near the bottom of their list for best diets. This year, the diet tied for 38th place out of 41 diets, with an overall score of 2.1 out of 5.
The report says, “The Whole30 diet landed near the bottom again this year. The diet has been docked for an absence of scientific support; its severely restrictive nature; its elimination of whole grains, legumes and dairy; and its short-term approach and long-term promises.”
The paleo diet doesn’t fare too well on the best diets rankings either: It falls at number 33 for best overall diets and is in the 30s (out of 41) for every other ranking, except for Best Fast Weight-Loss Diets, where it sits at number 26.
Paleo has an overall score of 2.4 out of 5 — not a whole lot better than Whole30’s 2.1. Experts gave much of the same reasoning — it’s not sustainable long-term, it’s restrictive, and there’s a potential risk for nutrient deficiencies.
Is Paleo Healthier than Whole30?
The truth is, there aren’t any scientific studies that compare Whole30 participants to a control group, so it’s hard to say exactly what program itself does to a person’s body. However, Whole30 is pretty close to the paleo diet, which has been studied extensively. Despite the expert rankings from U.S. News, there is a lot of science surrounding the benefits of paleo.
Health Benefits of Paleo
Research suggests that the paleo diet does deliver some of the promises of Whole30: Over a 3-month study period, diabetics who ate a paleo diet showed improved glycemic control and decreased cardiovascular risk factors.
Another study says the paleo diet has the potential to improve glucose tolerance independent of obtaining a smaller waist, meaning people don’t have to lose weight to reap the benefits of the diet.
Research shows that a paleo diet can result in short-term improvements in all five metabolic syndrome components (blood pressure, waist circumference, triglycerides, fasted HDL cholesterol, and serum glucose).
A 2013 study in the Journal of Internal Medicine looked at 10 overweight or obese postmenopausal women who followed a Paleo diet for five weeks. Among other improvements, researchers found a 50-percent reduction of triglycerides stored in the liver, which may result in a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease.
It seems that cutting out grains and living the paleo life can solve health problems and decrease health risk for heart disease and other related diseases. On the contrary, so can implementing whole grains. A 2010 study showed that people who ate three portions of whole-grain foods daily lowered their blood pressure and reduced their heart disease risk. A defining difference in this study is that although these individuals were at high risk for cardiovascular disease, they were still considered healthy at the time of the study — whereas participants in the other studies mentioned already had some chronic diseases.
What this means is: There is conflicting evidence on whether the paleo diet is a cure-all, and more research is needed on paleo as it relates to heart health.
Health Risks of Paleo
Individuals on the paleo diet may be missing out on fiber, vitamins, and minerals that come from a diet that includes healthy grains and dairy products — especially if they eat a paleo diet for an extended period of time. Grains are an important source of dietary fiber and several B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate) and minerals (iron, magnesium, selenium). Dairy foods are great sources of calcium, potassium and vitamin D when they’re fortified. Without recommended amounts of these nutrients issues with digestion, bone health, energy level, and regular bodily functioning may arise.
Which diet is better for improving body composition?
There are no studies on Whole30 specifically as it relates to fat loss, so it’s hard to say it’s good (or not good) for improving body composition. However, there are studies on the effects of paleo on body fat.
One study reports pretty significant decreased total fat mass in women, particularly with a decrease in abdominal obesity (the kind that is most likely to lead to increased risk factors for chronic disease) — however, long term benefits were not seen because the women didn’t stick to the diet.
In another study, 32 patients with type 2 diabetes followed the paleo diet for 12 weeks. At the end of those 12 weeks, the average fat loss in patients was 5.7 kilograms or 12.5 pounds. In patients who followed the paleo diet and participated in a supervised exercise program, the average fat loss was 6.7 kilograms or 14.7 pounds. The patients who exercised also experienced preservation of lean mass.
However, there is also evidence that low-fat diets (essentially the opposite of Whole30 and paleo) can lead to fat loss. In the end, it comes down to choosing a diet you can stick to.
Which diet is better for weight loss?
It’s important to remember that there is not much valid research that specifically looks at Whole30, so we can’t say for sure the extent to which Whole30 works for weight loss. But because Whole30 is similar in many ways to the paleo diet, we can potentially expect to see similar results.
Studies on paleo diets and weight loss show that weight usually does decrease in response to the diet, but more studies are needed to confirm the effect. Neither Whole30 nor paleo encourages calorie counting or restriction, which is worth noting if you struggle with those aspects of weight loss. The general rule for both is “eat real food.”
Again, it comes down to what works for you. As far as weight loss goes, research shows any diet will do if you stick to it: “Significant weight loss was observed with any low-carbohydrate or low-fat diet. Weight loss differences between individual named diets were small. This supports the practice of recommending any diet that a patient will adhere to in order to lose weight”.
How to Improve Body Composition: The Bottom Line
In short, there’s no proof that Whole30 is an effective way to improve body composition.
But, here’s what we do know:
- Whole30 provides a short term diet alternative to figure out what works for you. Maybe you learn your body doesn’t respond well to dairy or that you can’t live without carbs. Now you’re one step closer to finding what DOES work for your body and lifestyle.
- Whole30 can help you determine food sensitivities. If you do Whole30 and find out you’re sensitive to gluten, dairy, etc., removing those foods in the future could lead to a permanent decrease in bloat (which will feel like weight loss) and help you to feel more alert and less irritable.
- If you’re not at risk for disordered eating habits, Whole30 can teach you to make healthier food choices in the future, which can lead to sustainable fat loss. However, if you are at risk for disordered eating habits, Whole30 may lead to cyclic overeating.
There IS evidence that the paleo diet can help. There is also plenty of evidence that both high-carb and high-fat diets can lead to fat loss; choose what works for you.
A diet that works is one you can sustain ( and that can be Paleo-style, plant-based, no-carb, or whatever fits your lifestyle). Improving your body composition requires a constant effort in both eating habits and exercise, plus tracking changes to measure progress. Different people respond differently to exercise regimens and diets, and that’s ok. Finding the right balance of what works for you over the long-term will require some experimentation, so don’t beat yourself up if you don’t see results right away. The important thing is that you keep working toward your goals — commitment, dedication, and self-confidence will get you there no matter what diet (if any) you choose to try.
Amanda Capritto is a certified personal trainer and health coach who writes about nutrition, fitness, and healthcare. A journalism alumna of Louisiana State University, Amanda spends her free time adventuring outdoors, hitting the gym, and encouraging people to live balanced, healthy lifestyles.