Upcoming: An analysis of the Whole30

At the moment, I’m working on my internship research project, which is a critical analysis of a popular diet program, The Whole30.

Over the next week or so, I plan to post snippets of the themes I’m finding as I analyze some text that goes along with the program. Please come back if you’re interested in discussing this, and perhaps other bits of popular diet detritus.

As always, we’ll be wearing our critical thinking caps during the discussion. Though I’m not opposed to hearing both positive and negative stories, this won’t be a place to engage in uncritical diet evangelism. If you find diet stuff triggering, you may want to skip this series.

For now, I’ll leave you with a question: do you know anyone doing The Whole30? I’d love to hear your observations.


Stories in comments.






72 responses to “Upcoming: An analysis of the Whole30”

  1. Twistie Avatar

    I don’t think I’ve heard of this one. I’ll look forward to your critique of it, though.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Apparently it’s big in certain circles. It’s not one I’m super familiar with either, yet!

      1. Angelina Avatar

        From July 2, 2015 to July 31, 2015, I did the Whole30 with TOTAL COMPLIANCE to the program.

        I weighed and measured the day before and the day after the 30 days — 5 pounds down and 2″ off my waist and 2″ off my thighs.

        But the most significant thing I achieved was that the end of June I was having extreme trouble with my knees — even lying down they were on fire. I was terrified that I had triggered an auto-immune disease that had been gone for many years — Sarcoidosis with Lofgrens Syndrome that I had come down with in 1998 requiring 8 days in the hospital and 6 months on steroids.

        The other thing was that on Day 4 an annoying pain in my chest with heart palpitations that I had had for years and for which I had been cleared of any serious cause vanished — the first time in many years my chest and heart were pain free (and I was still on caffeine so it was not that).

        I didn’t find the meal prep as daunting as some folks as I am retired and cook healthy meals for myself all the time. This was just eliminating 5 categories of foods — NO SUGARS – -NO ALCOHOL — NO GRAINS — NO LEGUMES (OR PEANUTS) — NO DAIRY for 30 days.

        Also, around Day 2 I found my appetite totally quiet. Food didn’t “speak to me” — total Food Freedom, even in a restaurant seeing all these interesting plates go by — I had a neutral response and thought to myself “this must be what it’s like for naturally slim people — no cravings.”

        I am working on the Re-inroduction Period. My first Ice Cream Cone made me break out on my arm and feet with an allergic response — had Ice Cream twice since then with no response. Also re-introduced Wine with no ill effects.

        Have not yet gone back to Grains or Beans and I don’t know that I want to just yet or may be ever).

        I found the program very worthwhile, especially if you have any kind of recent health crisis — this program could help immensely — it certainly helped me return to having pain-free knees.

  2. Michi Avatar

    I have done the whole30. It is a lot, like a LOT of work. I was hoping it would help with my crushing fatigue, but it ended up making it worse, because I had an extra hour of food prep every day. I mean, there is nothing, not a single thing, that you can eat that is quick and satisfying. I have always been the kind of person who isn’t good at moderation, but I think there’s a big difference between not eating candy and sugary drinks and not eating ketchup because it has a molecule of sugar in it. That said, I don’t think it’s necessarily the worst thing in the world, and it did change my eating for the better for a while afterward. By better I mean that meals without vegetables started to feel really weird. I have pretty much reverted to my previous candy-filled life, but I eat easily twice as many vegetables now. So, I guess it was arguably a good thing, although it was pretty awful at the time.

    I am definitely looking forward to hearing what you have to say about it.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Thank you, Michi, I love hearing stories like this.

    2. Elly Avatar

      I’ve never done (or heard of) the Whole30, but this could totally be a description of my experience with (and post-) gestational diabetes.

  3. Elizabeth Avatar

    It’s big in paleo circles. It drives me a little nuts. I have a friend who is naturally thin who did it for health, but kept saying in the hour I saw him that he’d lost 4 pounds–that is still the marker of health in the paleo/Whole30 world. For me health wise it has been so important to include a lot more well sourced beef, butter, fat, and avoid veg oils, so it’s like I have a lot of common ground with these folks but in that world there is still so much emphasis on weight loss as proof that it is working. Plus a constant sense of going off the wagon and getting back on: ugh. A lot of paleo people love nutritional studies that debunk low fat and calories-in-calories-out but the paleo internet crew have expressed zero integration of HAES evidence so far as I’ve seen.

    I am so glad you’ll be writing about this!

  4. Andra Avatar

    When my sister and her wife did it they became totally evangelical about it and about “carb flu.” They also reported feeling awesome, but overnight they stopped drinking alcohol, slept more, drank more water, and ate probably four times as many vegetables, so that seems good. Blaming the effects of all those changes on not eating any sugar or processed carbs seems logically flawed.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Oooo, please tell me more about “carb flu” if you can!

      1. Andra Avatar

        The flu symptoms some people feel when going low carb. I know nothing about its basis in science, if any, but I imagine your body has to adjust to not having its usual mix of nutrients, right?

        1. Jessie Avatar

          I’m studying nutrition currently and just finished my biochemistry courses not too long ago. You’re mostly right, but I can try to explain the science behind it a bit.

          Your body, specifically your brain, needs glucose (and your brain is a very picky eater!). Typically we get easy access to plenty of glucose from carbs. When you first cut down on carbs, the body is scrambling for a fuel source and takes from wherever it can (eg muscles). This is not sustainable. If you continue to deny carbs for long enough then your body comes up with a new pathway: Ketogenesis.

          Without getting super into the mechanisms and what not, it’s basically about turning fat into a usable energy source called ketone bodies. But until ketogenesis is up and running smoothly, you get those “flu” symptoms they talk about.

          It’s also commonly associated with starvation and can sometimes result in “ketoacidosis” because ketogenesis produces more acids which can build up in the body.

          1. Michelle Avatar

            Yes. I find it interesting that the switch to ketogenesis and gluconeogenesis is framed as “carb flu” in this particular diet culture, and apparently there is some language around “carb flu” being a process of eliminating toxins from the body, if I’m understanding other commenters correctly. Fascinating, but not scientifically accurate.

      2. Heidi C. Heath Avatar
        Heidi C. Heath

        “Carb flu” is super common among folks who do Atkins, Whole30 etc. You feel like you have a low grade flu sometimes for up to about 10 days. Your body is cleansing itself of things that make you feel inflammatory etc. For me, I commonly get headaches, feel a little achy etc. It tends to clear up after I’ve been off of processed carbs and refined sugar for about 10-14 days. I’ve regularly heard it used as an argument as to why all carbs are bad/we shouldn’t eat them.

        1. Nebet Avatar

          That’s an interesting logic train, there, isn’t it? “Stopping eating this thing made me feel bad for two weeks, so clearly I should continue to avoid eating it” — I mean. Come again? *scratches head*

  5. Mary Avatar

    I made it through fifteen days of the Whole30. I am working on my recovery from BED, and this way of eating was super restrictive and sent me right into the customary I-broke-my-diet binge cycle that I have experienced after “failing” at other diets. I am interested to hear what you think. I find tracking of food and weighing myself pretty triggering, but I don’t have a problem with discussing food, so I plan to tune in.

  6. Amy Avatar

    Howdy! I do Whole30. It is a good fit for me. I had childhood allergies that turned into adult food intolerences that match with Whole30 pretty well. I like that I get to eat a lot. I even volunteer as a moderator on the Whole30 forums.

    The main thing I notice when talking to people, mostly to young adult white women from the U.S. and Canada, is that they are looking for some way to look like the photoshopped fitness and fashion models on magazines. Women are really really disordered in our thinking about eating.

    For many women who try Whole30, the instruction to eat what amounts to a whole lot more food than they’ve ever thought was morally right and proper is liberating. But for far too many, especially those who have years and years of eating disorders that they’ve been battling, there really is no eating program/diet/food plan that is going to do more than enable or reinforce their disorder. Telling people to stop Whole30 then becomes as important as (and sometimes more important than) encouraging people who are really pretty good candidates for it.

    I came to your blog in a roundabout way in part because of the experiences I describe above. The notions we have of fat, overweight, obese, etc. are so contrived and designed as a marketing tool. Women who have been harming themselves with food for years, sometimes decades, come to Whole30 and expect it to bring them to Cindy-Crawford-at-twenty-and-photoshopped in a few days, rather than letting the rather apparently radical notion of eating, well, FOOD, bring our bodies to health. And yes, health at ANY size.

    I’m really the example of the inverse (reverse? somethingverse) of this. I’m tiny, with genetics that make me very unlikely to gain weight no matter what I do. I look optimal on paper, when compared to our mainstream media’s ideals. Of course, I’m almost 50, so I’m dead already, but you know. Can’t have everything. But I have extremely, shockingly, high blood pressure which is extremely, shockingly resistant to treatment, regardless of what I eat. According to media, I am ancient of course, but that aside, I should be in perfect health. Well, guess what. Ain’t gonna happen.

    Meanwhile, some of my co-moderators over on the Whole30 forums are much larger in body and much less medicated than I am, and it is STILL difficult, and sometimes impossible to get through to women especially that you just really do have to eat actual food, if you’re going to do Whole30.

    Sorry for the length! I just got done with a long post in response to a woman on the forums who really doesn’t want to hear recommendations to eat actual full meals and get some sleep at night, because she “has” to eat no more than 1000 calories a day or she will never lose weight. That stuff makes me cry.

    I’m so glad you’re out there. Because I don’t think Whole30, or anything, is for everyone, and we really REALLY need folks like you who aren’t afraid to tell us to just for freak’s sake EAT.

    I’d be happy to talk more by email or here if you’d like. Thanks so much for all you do.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Thank you, Amy.

      1. Amy Avatar

        I would also say that all of this has to be put in context of what people are actually able to obtain. Example: people participating in the Baltimore Uprising weren’t fighting curfew, getting dragged off by the police, making horrendously high bails 48 hours later, and then going home to home-cooked meals of roasted sweet potatoes, ethically raised pork roast, and a nice arugula salad topped with a snazzy little vinaigrette. They live in a food desert. How to get food at all is a huge deal, and part of social justice is making ANY food available to these brave folks.

        There’s also the issue of what you have to cook and store your food. Whole30 presumes that food is readily available and that you have a kitchen and time to cook. Students who live in dorms, homeless people, folks who depend on food banks to get them through the month, and super busy people who eat in drive-through lanes, have bigger issues than whether or not to do a Whole30.

        Even for folks who are positioned to be decent candidates for 30 days of meat, vegetables, and fat (that’s basically what Whole30 is, 30 days of that), we are often terribly surprised at how much time it takes to make your own food. We just don’t live in a world where this is something people do.

        And I’d like to echo what I said and what several commenters have said about eating disorders. Folks with eating disorders can easily be triggered by Whole30, and any eating plan that restricts anything can lead to further disordered behavior. Telling people to stop Whole30 is as important as telling people to start.

        I like the plan enough that I moderate on the website! But dang, we have such bigger issues in food in this world, and I hope any critique of Whole30 will include the absolute essential nature of just simply providing food to people who need it (and I’m sure that will be the case, since you have inspired my thoughts on that subject here on this blog). There’s no room for blinders in the world of food. We all need to eat.

  7. maria Avatar

    Too many people do the program multiple times, which makes me think it’s not actually effective at recalibrating your taste buds and relationship to food, since most people “fall off the wagon” once it is over. It also encourages dieting mentality of black and white thinking – grains, sugar, dairy and legumes are not toxic and are fine for most people. It is a complete minefield for anyone w/ even a smidge of disordered eating.

  8. Shalla Avatar

    Whole30 is an interesting monster of a diet. I’ve done it three times and have learned something about how my body reacts to certain foods each time. I think as an elimination diet to figure out one’s food intolerances, it’s actually pretty great.

    Buuuuut, there’s a whole lot of bs that goes along with it. I’m also so-called “paleo” off and on. I, personally, feel fucking fantastic when I’m paleo. I think most of that has to do with autoimmune disorders I have and do actually think there are some paleo principles that can help with a lot of autoimmune disorders. But that’s all antadata.

    There’s a lot of rhetoric in the Whole30/Paleo communities about “real food” and how “everyone can do this” and all of that is bullshit. Food is anything you can put in your body that will fuel you through the day. Is less processed food better for you? Probably. Is that doable for everyone? Nope, not at all.

    Things that are blockers to eating all so-called “real food:”
    – Access: is unprocessed food even available in your area?
    – Money: can you even afford all this fresh stuff that might go bad before you can eat it?
    – Kitchen: do you have one? Is it big enough? Does everything work? Do you have pots/pans/storage for food?
    – Energy: do you even have the energy for the amount of work that goes into keeping up this type of diet?
    – Physical ability: can you stand up for an hour or more to cook? Can you exert the level of force needed for all the chopping & such?
    – Desire: Brownies are fucking delicious, why would you cut all the joy of that out of your life?

    I am very fortunate in that, for the most part, I can do all of those things. The ones I fall down on are energy & desire.

    I actually threw “It Starts With Food” (the book about the Whole30) across the room and didn’t finish it because they said that there was “no reason” people in modern day society shouldn’t be able to eat well. Talking about a country where at least 20% of children don’t even know where or when their next meal in coming from.

    Also, the “paleolithic” part of the paleo diet is such bad science I can’t even. Yo, paleolithic people ate grain, depending on where they lived. There is no such thing as one “paleolithic diet.”

    TL;DR I feel amazing when I’m doing Paleo/Whole30 but the religious fever around it is horrible.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Thank you, this is a wonderful and detailed analysis. I really appreciate it.

      1. Shalla Avatar

        You’re welcome :) It’s nice to discuss this with people who don’t have the religious fervor about it.

        I just thought of a few things I do really love about Whole30/paleo (when done correctly) – the emphasis that consuming fat is NOT bad for you and it is, in fact, important. If you eat the “proper” amount of fat with your meals, you do actually stay full longer, which is fascinating to me.

        That it’s important to eat enough food, there’s a lot of “you should eat more” on people’s food logs. And, surprising to many people, there is some emphasis on getting enough carbs via starchy veggies (sweet potatoes, squashes, etc).

        A lot of the “eating fat is good for you!” and “eat more food” is really hard for some people to get going on. On the other hand, they replace fat as the evil food with sugar, basically.

  9. Christina McPants Avatar
    Christina McPants

    I’m currently in a support group for women with low supply who are unable to feed their babies without supplementing. There are three big reasons for this: PCOS, insufficient glandular tissue and insulin resistance. Conventional wisdom there is the best way to treat the insulin resistance is to eat healthy, exercise and lose weight if you have a bmi that indicated you’re overweight. A lot of the women there are paleo and whole30 evangelists and eat that way full time. Of course, a lot of them are also stay at home moms, so they have more time to cook. Im planning on trying one in a few weeks to a) remind myself that vegetables are delicious and try to get into a better mindset about food. Since I’ve joined the group I’ve become incredibly aware of how many grains I eat… Though I haven’t done a thing to change my diet yet. I think in some ways thinking about it makes me feel like I’ve done something. But I also think a lot of my problem is having a six month old and getting up multiple times a night with her. Which leads to serious decision fatigue.

  10. Amylou Avatar

    Whole 30 is a part of the paleo arena that I can’t do. I do eat pretty much paleo or primal, but elimination diets for me are definitely triggering. I think it is exceedingly difficult to eliminate huge swaths of foods (legumes, dairy, grains, sugar) without ending up with a morally charged “good/bad” dichotomy thing. And my sense is that Whole 30 approaches this by embracing it. Yes those foods are bad, at least for 30 days. It is hard core zero exceptions. You commit 100% or you’re not actually doing it and thus not successful. That is a space I cannot be in. That said, I have found spaces in the paleosphere that are totally welcoming of defining your own wellness and success, where the “diet” is one of many strategies to embrace and incorporate however the individual wants to. My go-to people I trust as far as online sources are Stefani Rupert, Kate Callaghan, Noelle Tarr, Stacy Toth (who explicitly supports HAES), and Vanessa and Adam Lambert. These are people who inspire me and who I believe overlap with HAES, maybe not 100% but enough where I’ve found a comfy place in that virtual venn diagram. I will say that there continues to be a lack of analysis around food as a social justice issue throughout paleo world though…it’s still very “personal responsibility” in a lot of places.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Very interesting, thank you Amylou. Your mention of silence on social justice issues brings to mind, for me, food justice and sovereignty, as well as the sustainability of food production systems in general. I wonder what global agriculture and food production systems would be like if every person on the planet avoided grains, dairy, and legumes. I suspect it would not be sustainable.

  11. Gretchen Avatar

    I am SO EXCITED that you’re covering this topic!

    I’ve intermittently orbited the Crossfit community for going on 7 years now, and so I’ve been surrounded by people doing Paleo/Whole30 for several years now.

    In the local Crossfit communities, Whole30 often is paired with a weight-loss challenge (complete with body-fat measurement). I see people on social media (often the same people repeatedly) as they progress through a common pattern: last meal before the challenge, a rough first week or two, occasional progress posts and/or pictures of cheat meals, “after” shot, celebratory (non-Whole30) meal, then radio silence until the next challenge.

    The first week or two I see a lot of people talk about “carb flu” and/or being particularly cranky and prone to anger. Possibly some of that is related to not having alcohol as well – I see it most from folks I know to be heavy drinkers. There’s an aspect of commiseration that goes into it, and it’s hard to get a sense of whether people are really experiencing stronger emotions or just feel more free to express them.

    My own experience: I did Paleo for about a year (2010-2011). In a lot of ways, Paleo really worked for me. It felt more like being vegetarian (which I did for about 7 years, up until 2007) than being on a calorie-restricted diet – there was a whole subset of foods I didn’t eat, but I could almost always put together a meal from available ingredients. I bought food that was in-season and less processed. I ate a lot more fruits and vegetables and I cooked way more. I was doing Crossfit at the same time and my husband was also doing Paleo, so I felt like I had community support for the choices I was making.

    The combination of Crossfit and Paleo worked well for my body at the time – I lost about 50 pounds, down to what had been my reasonably active, non-dieting vegetarian setpoint in my early 20s. I noticed that my skin was more clear than it ever had been. By stepping outside the “standard American diet” I got a chance to re-examine my food assumptions and decide what was best for me, not just habit. For example, I switched from cereal to cooked breakfast, stopped keeping sandwich bread at home, and stopped drinking dairy milk. All of those changes I’ve kept up with because they worked well for me or I just preferred them.

    It’s worth noting that during the year I was doing Paleo/Crossfit, I’d also finally figured out what I wanted to do career-wise and had switched from a stressful security job to exciting engineering courses. I had more sense of purpose than I’d had for a long time. Also, my husband’s mental health was about the best it’s been in the whole time I’ve known him, so I wasn’t worrying about him.

    After that year was over, I switched from community college to 4-year school. I had an hour of public transit each way instead of a 10-minute drive. That meant I couldn’t do Crossfit anymore, so I was walking a lot but not getting exercise I enjoyed. The intense homework load meant that I wasn’t sleeping much and my stress was through the roof, particularly because my husband started having mental health issues again.

    Diet-wise, Paleo became impossible to keep up while doing engineering school. I was coming home exhausted every day and staying up late – there was no time or energy to plan meals or cook. I also noticed that I was constantly hungry during the couple of terms I tried packing a lunch. I needed to eat every couple of hours to avoid being distracted by hunger, despite having a large breakfast. I was bringing a huge amount of food with me, but it still wasn’t enough.

    Once I gave up on cooking for school, I switched over to buying lunch from the school cafeteria. Most commonly I got some sort of meat on top of rice, often with a side or dessert. I noticed that I stopped being hungry all the time once I added some carbs back in – to the extent that I could study late into the evening without anything else. I’ve noticed this trend has continued now that I’m working; I can have a big salad and a bunch of fruit for lunch, but I’ll be hungry all afternoon if it doesn’t add up to enough carbs.

    Long story short, the final 2 years of engineering school was essentially pure stress with no time for self-care, and I’m still recovering. There’s really no way to say if the 70+ pounds I gained are from stress, diet, lack of exercise, or just rebound. I graduated in June 2014 and I’m just now getting to the point of digging out my house and making small changes to diet and exercise that make me feel good. Some of those will probably look a bit like Paleo, but it’s not as compelling for me these days. I’m more interested in finding out what works for me specifically than in what should theoretically work for everyone.

  12. Jen Avatar

    I’ve never heard of Whole30, but I’m curious about “carb flu” too. Is that like the “health crisis?” When I used to try to eat less and exercise a lot more than my body could handle, I’d feel sick and fatigued. My lips also got sort of scaly around the edges. It was messed up. But some people told me it was a “health crisis,” like, my body was somehow not “used to being healthy and had to adjust.” (It might have been one of those “toxins leaving the body” things, too.) I don’t have proof, but I’m pretty sure that was bullshit and I was deficient in something. Might people need carbs, and might some people respond badly to cutting them out?

    p.s. Now I’m fine and eat enough food. I’m lucky.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      That’s what came to mind for me too, the concept of “healing crisis,” which is a buzzword in, uhm, certain circles.

    2. Mich Avatar

      I had the lip problem too, when I was dieting for 20+ yrs. They were peely, scaly, and chapped, plus they bled alot too. If I eat enough in the day now, they return to being chapped, unless I get more fat.

  13. inge Avatar

    This touches on the topic at hand: There have been some writings in Paelo/Fitness circles one or two years ago about how low carb or IF are very bad ideas for women. If you are interested, I can try to retrieve them, if you know something about the issue, I would love to read your take on it.

    (I am often confronted with women’s very strange eating habits and try to have some good lines of argument at hand why this is not safe and harmless.)

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Sure, I’d be interested in reading those things if you have access to them. This is all new to me, though I’ve had a low-grade peripheral awareness of the “grains are bad,” paleo, low-carb trend for a while. I haven’t looked very deeply into it before, so any additional links or resources are very welcome!

  14. Kate Avatar

    On the advice of a friend, a few years ago I tried the Whole30 elimination diet. I knew I wasn’t allergic/intolerant to wheat, gluten or dairy, but I looked at it as a cleanse and I was interested in learning more about it. I lasted 10 or 11 days and then I just couldn’t do it anymore. As a former low-fat vegetarian, my system simply could not handle the shear amount of meat, eggs, and fat this way of eating required. Towards the end, I dreaded meals and had to force myself to eat anything.

    As much as it didn’t work for me, I don’t want to dis it because I could see how this could be a life-saver for many who are struggling with food intolerances or health issues. Personally, it taught me that paleo is probably not the right diet for my system. It also taught me that fats are not the devil the 1990’s claimed they were, if you do them correctly. So, YAY AVOCADOS.

    I think as with so many other things in the modern world, the obsession with “there’s only one right way to eat” is what does us in. The reality is, every body is different and every person is going to need different things from their food. Some thrive on paleo, others thrive on vegetarian. As long as you are getting your needs adequately met and you feel good, you’re doing the right thing for *you*.

    1. Kathy Avatar

      Speaking of avocadoes, have you had avocado chocolate pudding? OMG it is to die for !!!!

  15. Jen R. Avatar
    Jen R.

    This should be interesting. I just started a Whole30 last week. I’m not even completely sure why….just to”see what happens” I think. I’ll be following everything you post, and the engaging conversation that always ensues.

  16. vanessa Avatar

    I am SO FREAKING GLAD you are going to tackle this subject!!!!!

    If I read/hear that the Whole30 is “NOT a diet” one more time, I’m gonna scream. I’ve done the Whole30, and it IS a diet. The Whole30’s creators claim that they don’t guarantee weight loss and that it shouldn’t be the most important factor. I, however, call bullshit. Who – even those who head in the program looking to heal from non-weight-related illness – has NOT been drawn in by the apparently-unspoken dangling carrot (pun intended) of weight loss or would NOT be pleased to notice the number on the scale dropping? No one – myself included.

    Honestly, one of the main reasons I did a Whole30 was to heal my disordered relationship with food. I had struggled with anorexia for about 15 years, only to find myself “recovered” but using food to relieve anxiety. My hope was that this program – in the way that it forbids “fun” and/or “addicting” foods like baked goods and even dried fruit – would help me to see food as fuel, to unchain it from my emotions. While it did do that – along with relieving some of the constant bloating I’ve had for my entire life, improving my skin, increasing my energy level, and eliminating allergens by default – I found that it appealed to my inner demons far too much to be sustainable.

    Speaking of which, the other reason for doing a Whole30 was…wait for it…WEIGHT LOSS. “Recovered”, my ass – all I knew is that I felt bigger than was comfortable for me, and I wanted that puffiness GONE. And I did lose a small amount of weight (I think – I haven’t weighed myself in years), as well as a good amount of inflammation. But the misery I was in for that month was arguably worth it.

    Obviously, for those of us with a predilection towards black-and-white thinking, this program is a minefield. While the strict rules certainly make the Whole30 incredibly satisfying to undertake, it can also cause undue stress because of the guilt that results from going off-track. And once again, we are slaves to food, but on the other end of the spectrum. For myself, I find it more conducive to recovery to practice food acceptance rather than demonization.

    I am very much looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this subject, and would be more than happy to contribute more of mine. Feel free to email me!

    1. mickey Avatar

      Very interesting perspective.

      This whole inflammation/gluten relationship intrigues me, but I can’t find much information I trust about it. I’m not trying to invalidate your experience! You feel better without certain foods, great! I’m glad you found that out. But I just don’t think that *everyone* has inflammation from gluten.

      1. vanessa Avatar

        Mickey – it wasn’t gluten that was causing me inflammation, as I had been avoiding it for a few years at that point (and still am). Likely it was a result of a combo of stress, stress eating, and eating too much sugar; not to mention that controlling my eating via the Whole30 = feeling more control of my life = less stress = less inflammation ;) That said, I am with you in that I don’t believe that gluten is inherently “evil”. As always, it depends on context!

        1. Michelle Avatar

          I’m also really interested in the concept of inflammation, as it’s often used in a paleo-ish context. I’m curious how one measures their level of inflammation, if it’s measurable at all, or if it’s based on certain feelings or symptoms. I know some people report joint pain, etc., but a lot of times the term inflammation is used without specifying what it means, and I’m curious about that.

          1. inge Avatar

            I wonder, might it be the effect that when you get your blood tested, the doctor sometimes tells you something about “inflammation markers” — leaving you to wonder what might cause it, and if that’s where your exhaustion and suspectability to infection comes from. You can spend *years* trying to identify the cause and location of that “inflammation”, and you probably won’t succeed. (If you do, in my limited experience, it’s the thyriod, or bad teeth.)

          2. vanessa Avatar

            For me, inflammation is more of an intuitive feeling, and also looking “puffy”. I notice it mostly after a period of extreme anxiety/stress. From what I understand, inflammation is the root of many (most? all?) illnesses and as such can manifest as something different in every person. But I’m curious as well if inflammation is something that has specific physical markers that can be tested – I hope you write something on here about that!

          3. Gretchen Avatar

            Here’s a post that explains one view of it, and offers C-reactive protein as a measurable marker. (Very not HAES site!)


          4. Cara Avatar

            I have inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s). My C-reactive protein, IgA, IgG, IgM, cortisol levels are all NORMAL.

            I’m the one tilting my head in wonder when a healthy person mournfully claims that a diet will “reduce inflammation”. What inflammation?! It’s the newest buzzword from diet evangelists and naturopaths.

          5. Michelle Avatar

            Agreed. “Inflammation” terminology 1) refers to an actually real thing in the world, and 2) is the new term being misused a lot in popular diet culture, similar to “toxins,” in my opinion. There definitely are markers of inflammation in the body that are measurable, but as you point out, there may be individual differences, and also I very much doubt that the average person who is embarking on one of the diets that uses a lot of “inflammation” terminology is actually getting any of them regularly tested.

          6. Jessie Avatar

            Related to an above commenter talking about CRP as a measure of inflammation:

            I had my CRP tested as part of a nutrient analysis for a class. It came back very high. I was also rather sick with a bad cough and the works. Concerned, I asked my doctor about the CRP test (this was my first dealing with it and all other tested indicators were in normal range).

            His response was basically that it marks inflammation somewhere in the body, and not really to any particular degree. Their main use for the test is if someone comes in with fatigue or similar, they use a CRP test to see if there might actually be something going on or if the person is just tired. But overall, it’s a rather non-specific test. Based on my understanding from recent experience and my doctor, it seems very out of place to me that a proponent of the paleo diet would bring it up at all.

          7. mickey Avatar

            Thanks everyone below for your comments! Very interesting. I think I need to read more. ;-)

          8. inge Avatar

            This inflammation thing reminds me… many people go on a not-for-weightloss-diet out of despair. They feel bad, they are tired or in pain, and and no doctor will or can help them, for years or decades.

            And “what I eat” is something a person can control, when so much about life and so many things messing it up are not. I wonder how much of the “makes me feel so much better” of a diet (the more complicated, the better) is re-claiming control of at least a part of one’s life.

          9. vanessa Avatar

            In response to inge’s comment: I often wonder the same thing (how much of “feeling better” is due to the sense of control, and therefore strength, that a person gets from following a strict diet. This is likely applicable in my case.) Not that this is always a negative thing or an illusion: often, dietary shift –> lifestyle shift –> improved health –> improved mood –> self-respect (or some such trajectory), and that last step is usually what keeps people living in their own best interest.

            I always notice how “success stories” of people who have kept weight off (or on); overcome illness; found joy in a partner, career, activity, etc.; always involves a newfound respect for oneself and taking charge and ownership of one’s shit ;) In these cases, the diet ends up being the trigger that starts what is, at its core, primarily an emotional revolution, and a physical one second.

          10. Michellers Avatar

            Jumping in on the topic of inflammation. I’m not a medical professional in any capacity, so forgive my layman’s interpretation of what my doctors are telling me.

            I have had asthma all my life which shows up as increased eosonophils in my blood tests as part of my yearly physicals–it’s basically a measure of white blood cells which can occur with inflammation. In the last couple of years I have developed eosinophilic esophagitis as well, which is difficulty swallowing due to inflammation in my throat. Apparently it’s very common with asthmatics and can be transmitted genetically as well (my grandmother had it, yay).

            But here’s the crazy part: even though I have done extensive food allergy testing in the past and came up completely clear, I have discovered by doing a long-term elimination diet (which looked incredibly similar to Whole30) that I am sensitive to gluten, dairy, all nightshades, and motherfucking chocolate. And get this, when I avoid those foods entirely, both my esophagitus and my asthma improve markedly.

            So I basically need to eat paleo but without any tomatoes or peppers. And when I do eat foods that I’m reactive too, I have a fairly immediate asthma response which indicates: inflammation.

          11. Michelle Avatar

            That is so interesting, Michelle! Thanks for sharing.

            PS Sorry about the chocolate :(

        2. mickey Avatar

          Thanks for your reply, Vanessa. I was worried you might think I was invalidating your experience, and I really wasn’t trying to.

          I have recently discovered an allergy/intolerance to garlic (not exactly sure which, and frankly don’t care). Elimination of it is the only thing that has stopped the “puffiness” and “bloating” that you describe (along with other painful and annoying GI symptoms). So, I really do believe that certain foods can cause issues for some people, but I think those certain foods vary depending on the individual.

  17. Christina McPants Avatar
    Christina McPants

    Hmm, looks like my previous comment didn’t make it up. I’m in an online support group for women with chronic low supply issues for breastfeeding their children. There are three big reasons for low supply – PCOS, insufficient glandular tissue and insulin resistance. They have a lot of advice for how to improve supply for all three, but for IR, they strongly encourage losing weight (if you’re overweight), exercising and doing low carb / paleo / Whole30. I’m also in their weight loss support group, which has a lot of Whole30 guides. There’s a lot of encouragement there about compliant meals. Women tend to do a whole30 and then reintroduce foods slowly or just eat Whole30ish permanently. A lot of them are stay at home moms, so they have more time to cook. They are all *very* anti-grains, since grains tend to spike blood sugar.

    I’ve been in the group for a few months. It’s very hard being there sometimes because the IR issues (which I probably have) and treatment seem to be opposed to a lot of HAES ideas. I’m probably going to try a Whole30 in a few weeks, once grad school’s over. I will say that being there has made me very conscious of just how many grains I eat. I haven’t made any real dietary changes yet (sleep deficit from a new baby leads to serious decision fatigue), but I can see where I need to shift things around.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Sorry, everything was caught in the moderation queue until I got around to checking it this morning. You should be good now!

      1. Christina McPants Avatar
        Christina McPants

        Ha, no worries! I just thought I forgot to hit “submit!”

        1. mickey Avatar

          And thyroid levels affect milk supply. If you haven’t, get your thyroid hormones/antibodies checked. It *might* help you with breastfeeding. (Been there.)

          1. Christina McPants Avatar
            Christina McPants

            Had it checked, a full panel (I thought that was the problem too). Everything was textbook normal. Thanks for the thought!

    2. Michellers Avatar

      Christina, just chiming in for some empathy with low milk supply, I struggled with my daughter too and it was exhausting. I ended up nursing her for 2 years and was so very happy when she was eating solid food and the nursing was just supplemental. I wish you the best of luck!

  18. Indywind Avatar

    I know several people who have done or are doing Whole30, usually off and on. Most of what I know about it I picked up from observing them, and skimming the blogs they referred to in evangelical moments. From this I gather that, except the 30-day thing, it’s simialr to the so-called Paleo food plan: all about veggies, veggies, meats (preferably pastured), and ‘healthy fats’; avoiding milk products, avoiding carbs including carby veggies (potatoes, earcorn), grains, legumes, and taking even fresh fruit in moderation (I’m confused about how they count fruit-veggies like tomatoes, zucchini/courgette, eggplant, capsicums). Raw or fresh-cooked OK, mass-processed not OK. Apparently you’re supposed to eat plentiful quantities under the above guidelines, preferably obtained fresh and prepared at home but restaurant fare that meats the guidelines is acceptable, all day every day for 30 days. And then you will have the taste for eating that way and can allow yourself occasional carbs or sweets or processed things because you will have been cleansed of the addiction, freed of the mindless reliance on convenience food, and born-again , sorry, I mean realized how much better your life when you eat eat ‘clean’ instead of your old unclean er sinful sorry, carby and processed way. (The intentional relaxation after the 30 day intro is the major difference between Whole30 and Paleo that I can see from outside; it seems to allow *some* Whole30 participants to avoid restrictive extremism and just eat an occasional cookie if they want one, with or without guilt, instead of Paleo-style swearing off cookies forever, or going to great lengths over ersatz nut-meal-and-agave ones that meet the letter if not the spirit of the diet.)

    Except most of the people I know who’ve done Whole30 took “cheat days” or “cheat meals” regularly so they ended up still eating the things Whole30 restricted, almost as much as other people who were not doing Whole30, they were just more self-righteous about it. “I’ve eaten clean all week so I can have this [ordinary food]. I don’t see how you can eat like this all the time.” (Leaving aside that they don’t know how anyone else eats; another person may eat just as many veggies without making a big deal about it, except the one time they dine out together and share a treat.)
    Or they would use Whole30 to justify doing something they might’ve liked to do anyway and didn’t feel “because I want to and it works for me” was sufficient justification for the time, effort, expense, inconvenience, or awkwardness of breaking a social norm, but “because it’s on this plan that allegedly makes me healthy” gave their choice (to dine out on steak and salad instead of burger and fries, to spend more time or money or positive attention on food than someone approves of, etc.) that aura of virtue and justification. But most popular diet participants do this if their diet doesn’t directly contraindicate it.

  19. Ž Avatar

    I haven’t done Whole30 but I looked at their website and one thing that jumped out to me was a reminder that pancakes — even if entirely made of allowed ingredients like eggs and bananas — were not allowed because it was the ~concept~ of pancakes that was the problem not the ingredients. what. also it is strange that they allow tomatoes when MSG is one of the things they are cutting out because tomatoes are a natural source of MSG and it’s weird that they make it about allergies and then they don’t cut out some of the most common allergens like tree nuts or shellfish.

    Also somewhat relatedly, or at least as a thing that i’m hoping maybe you’ll touch on in relation to this, I do seem to have some food intolerances. Some of it is really obvious: eat the thing, feel bad. don’t eat the thing for a while, feel better. eat the thing again, feel bad right away. But I’m also recovered from an eating disorder and it’s really hard because it seems like there’s more and more things that I can’t eat:

    gluten, dairy (not just lactose), eggs, citrus, legumes… and I was already an economic vegetarian. I can’t tell if this is just an eating disorder thing or real intolerances. i can’t afford a doctor or any of the workarounds like meat or egg replacers or almond milk or nice gluten free flours (i just use rice flour which is cheap). I mostly just eat potatoes and vegetables now but it doesn’t help. I still feel sick everytime I eat. If I try reintroducing any of the things I cut out, I feel worse. I’m not weighing myself or counting calories or anything like that; that would make it worse.

    Some people probably need to do something similar to Whole30 if they have real food intolerances. How do you recommend people who need to restrict their diets to keep from slipping back into eating disorders?

  20. ruth Avatar

    I have been a fan of yours for a long time, but not as long as I’ve been a disordered eater. I grew up a fat athletic kid, turned into a fat sedentary young adult, and have been an avid exerciser since I was about 18. I have not dieted seriously since childhood, but I cared enough about diets then that I remember them all (I did the food-group ww, the points ww, and numerous other diets, including a short-lived vegetarian phase–maybe 3 years?–that I think is common to young women).

    Now I don’t diet but I do keep kosher, and I was introduced to the whole30 by a friend who insists that it cured her of Crohn’s disease. I have been anti-diet and a HAES practitioner since my 20s and I am 44 now.

    I recently did a whole30 just to see if it made any difference in the way I felt (I have two school-age kids, I work full-time, and I work out 5-6 days a week, so I was sore and achy a lot of the time). I heard about “carb flu” or “induction flu” but can’t say I really experienced it, and overall it was a little more work to do a whole30 than it was to eat normally for me (I am still in charge of feeding the other people in our family and I did not invite any of them to participate). So some nights they had pasta and I had leftover meat and greens, some nights they ate whole30 compliant but added potatoes or rice.

    There was a judgmental tone to some of the books I read, like “it starts with food,” which called potato chips “food with no brakes” and paleo pancakes “sex with your pants on,” which seemed to imply that people who eat potato chips won’t ever stop (which is not my experience, I see people stop eating chips routinely, and not just because there aren’t any left) and people who willfully want to have a smoothie on the whole30 are, I don’t know, slutty? Block that metaphor. But still, I maintain that the tone was a weird mix of “we did it and so can you” and “but if you can’t you are a pansy.”

    I did enjoy the superiority I sometimes felt over other people, and the feeling of strength I got from turning down certain foods–I never have had this feeling while dieting before. I did lose inches when I did my whole30, but I did not weigh myself so I don’t know if I lost pounds, but it was hard to ignore how my clothes fit (I love clothes). I did not notice any food sensitivities or symptoms of inflammation, which I admit I think of as the “I feel fat” of women my age.

    I did also notice that I felt more energetic during workouts (I do walking, running, barre classes, and a bunch of fitness classes that are basically calisthenics to music. I also love to dance and take dance classes). Maybe it was because I was off everything “dairy, wheat, sugar, etc.” or maybe it was psychosomatic, I am not sure. Maybe I was not drinking and so slept better and therefore was more energetic–I don’t drink a lot but do have a glass or two of wine every couple weeks.

    I am thinking of doing another whole30 but should probably mention that I very much think of it as a diet for the rich–especially if you are going to make your whole family do it. Not only is the food expensive (avocadoes and free-range meat, not to mention the massive amounts of fruit and vegetables), it requires a lot of time to prepare and clean up. I would have a very hard time doing it without help.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      This is fascinating, ruth, thank you.

  21. Amber Karnes Avatar

    I’ve done the Whole 30 (in fact this is the last diet I did before I did the Learn to Eat program with you). I know a ton of other folks who have done it as well. I’ve also done nutritional consulting as a client with the folks who came up with it. I have thoughts, and I’m really excited to see your analysis.

    1. Amber Karnes Avatar

      I also should say that a lot of my web/marketing/project midwife clients are in the Paleo/functional fitness sphere, which these folks also occupy. So that’s interesting too.

    2. Michelle Avatar

      I’d love to hear your thoughts, Amber.

  22. Carrie Avatar

    I’m doing the Whole30 now for the second time. My day 30 is this Friday. I would be more than happy to share my experiences with you, as long as you can wait until next week, as my schedule is insane until then. If not, I hope you find enough people and good luck!

  23. closetpuritan Avatar

    I’ve been seeing references to “Whole30” online here and there when looking up recipes, so it does seem to be popular in certain subsectors.

    Lately I’ve been trying out some low-to-moderate-carb recipes because my A1C is now high enough that I should carb-count (or deal with carbs in some way, anyway). Paleo-type sites often have good low/moderate carb recipes. (Diabetic-oriented sites, at least the more official-type ones, follow very “conservative” dietary recommendations and are stuck in the 1990s low-fat paradigm.) My sister, similarly, does not follow a Paleo diet but finds Paleo recipe sites useful for recipes that use “weird” types of meat (heart, tongue, liver, etc.).

  24. Karen Avatar

    I agree with other commentators who have noted that the Whole30 protocol is dangerous for anyone with a history of eating disorders, I think this is a huge problem with diets like this and also super-strict raw vegan diets, basically the furthest two points on the possible-ways-to-eat spectrum!

    From my experience of the paleo world and the Whole30, it attracts far more than its fair share of those who do still have issues with disordered eating and are trying to use controlling their diet to assuage anxiety, increase self-esteem etc. Even those who go into it to genuinely help health problems seem to quickly link it to their identity and use it to feel morally superior to those eating less (in their opinion) ‘healthy’ diets.

    I suffered from anorexia and bulimia in my teens and 20s and ‘recovered’ in my 30s albeit with a somewhat obsessive, almost OCD ‘orthorexic’ attitude to what I ate and was ripe to be seduced by the paleo/Whole30 phenomenon. I started with the traditional foods movement which is a transition for many into stricter, paleo dieting (or lifestyle but I will never not see it as a ‘diet’ because for most that is what it is!) and in many ways traditional/unprocessed foods was great for me. I’m lucky enough not to have any food intolerances so gluten, dairy etc were fine, it allowed me to stop fearing fat for example and as a result I got a good balance of food groups, had enough calories, comprised of protein, carbs and fat to keep me satiated, focused on unprocessed, seasonal and local foods (which I am lucky enough to be able to afford and it also helped me feel I was contributing to my local food community rather than giving money to larger corporations).

    The problems started when I went down the rabbit hole of stricter and stricter paleo dieting which sent me spiralling back into disordered eating (obsessive thoughts, not being able to eat with friends, more and more foods restricted) which in turn has led me to acknowledge I (as someone who had an eating disorder) can never do these strict protocols, even though I cook mostly from scratch, I can’t restrict any food groups and have to make myself eat cake on occasion just to stop myself relapsing! I think lots of those with eating disorders feel paleo-dieting ‘cured’ them but in fact I just think it is their ED in another disguise as there is so much fear surrounding eating the forbidden foods and the strictness creates a nice sense of order and control.

    To be fair to the Whole30 lot I think they do even have a piece on their site about how a strict version might not be suitable for those who had suffered from eating disorders as they are prone to take it too far and the commentator above who moderates on the forums notes how she has had to dissuade those with a history of ED from going too far with the protocol. On the plus side it’s great they emphasise cooking from scratch, lots of fresh produce etc but apart from the fact it is hugely expensive and not an option for many cash or time-poor folks, or those with disabilities for example, I just think it is a far too overly-restricted way of eating for anyone and that it has a discomforting ring of the evangelical about it.

    Also for all those who had a wonderful experience there seem to be as many who screwed their thyroid by staying too low-carb or too low-calorie, or fell into disordered eating and their health suffered as a result of that. I just think for many of the population the current obsession with manipulating our diets in such an extreme way is a recipe for disaster, particularly when you realise eating disorders have a mortality rate higher than any other mental illness and they affect all ages, socio-economic groups, both sexes etc. More than anything it is born of a rabid fear of fat. The more extreme the hysteria over the ‘obesity epidemic’ becomes, the more radical dietary systems are promoted and attract followers.

    The best thing I read so far, which I think you linked to on Facebook, Michelle, is the recent publication of the book that likens dietary fanaticism to religious fanaticism and basically points out it’s all about moral superiority. This in itself puts me off these diets as the absolute ‘certainty’ that this IS THE RIGHT WAY TO EAT, all you other disbelievers be damned into hell, is a very dangerous, cult-like way to think! Phew, sorry for the rant, I’ve suffered a lot at the hands of these protocols and it’s only now that I am beginning to work my way out to a life of health, moderation and physical and emotional stability. Thanks for taking this on too!

  25. Kathy Avatar

    Never heard of the Whole30 but the website sounds like it’s pretty stringent and exactly something that a couple we know — esp. the wife — would undertake as a “cleanse”.

  26. Cory Avatar

    I’m so glad you are covering this subject. I have celiac so no wheat for me and GF breads etc taste like shit, soooo I am off most grains. I DO eat GF pasta and some GF pretzels when the mood strikes. You would think Whole30 would be fairly easy for me, wouldn’t you…. but no, made it 3 weeks! It’s just not reasonable for a busy household and I love, love, love to cook! Sometimes dinner from a box is the only way dinner is getting on the table. I felt like such a failure that I couldn’t keep up the Whole30 pace…. just what I need, more guilt.
    I look forward to reading your posts!

  27. Susan Avatar

    I have friends who have done it. One friend and her husband did it, loved it, and felt way better after the thirty days. They went back to eating the SAD diet and got sick with digestive issues. However, they didn’t go back to the Whole30 diet. Another friend is doing it right now and says she loves it. Time will tell if she sticks with it. I wouldn’t be able to sick with any diet for long, but I have a history with ED.

  28. Christina Avatar

    Love the article! Due to some health issues (insomnia, acid reflux) I asked to be sent to a specialist (gynecologist) that a friend of mine had had great success with – the acid reflux part.

    A huge battery of tests – like 12 vials of blood at one go, and I had a baseline – which was t good. Scary actually. 15 years of stress had done a number.

    The doctor recommended the elimination diet via JJ virgin, and then suggested I move right into the Paleo diet.

    I have found being on the paleo diet works for me. Yes I lost weight quickly which wasn’t my main goal- changing my test results and moving them in the right direction.

    I have been doing paleo for 5.5 months now. No exceptions, no falling off. Not that I haven’t had temptation or opportunity. But I really like the way my body feels and my brain feels. But I have to say, it is a First World Diet. You have to be able to source grass fed or pasture raised meat, organic vegetables and fruit, etc. if you are on a limited budget or live in an area without access to certain foods, it’s very difficult, not to mention expensive.

    Do I miss bread and pasta? Yes. I miss dairy as well. It’s next to impossible for me to eat out. But for now this is working for me, and the lab results are showing that, and I am in a position to be able to afford this.

    The paleo mom uses a LOT of scientific studies – like 1200 to back up the claims about paleo. She was the first blogger my specialist recommended. She might be worth checking out?

  29. […] yourself up). -The Fat Nutritionist has a series of posts analyzing the Whole30 diet program here, here, here, and […]