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Everything You Need to Know Before Trying Whole30

For starters, it's not a 'weight loss' diet.

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The Whole30 diet takes rules and restrictions to a whole new level. And according to co-founder Melissa Urban (formerly Hartwig), these rules aren’t just arbitrary. Whole30 was created to help people figure out how foods impact them both physically and mentally, whether it’s tied to cravings or feeling sluggish.

But although Urban is a personal trainer and nutrition coach, she is not a registered dietitian or medical doctor. And in fact, many health experts warn against the Whole30, regardless of your goals. In the 2022 U.S. News and World Report Diet Rankings, which are put together based on the most up-to-date research by both reporters and a panel of 27 prominent health experts, the Whole30 diet ranked 35 out of 40 diets. (One expert remarked, "This is a quack diet!" while another says, "This is the antithesis of a long-term healthy dietary pattern.") The panel took issue with the diet’s ban on grains, legumes, and dairy, saying that the rules are too restrictive and not based on scientific evidence.

Still, 13 years after its creation, the Whole30 has legions of devoted fans. The official Whole30 Instagram account boasts 901,000 followers, the #Whole30 tag has 4.5 millions posts, and there are eight books published under the Whole30 brand.

Clearly, there’s something about Whole30 that people find alluring, despite all the evidence and expert commentary to the contrary. Before you embark on your own Whole30 journey, here’s what you need to know about the diet and it’s supposed benefits.

What is the Whole30 diet?

Urban explains that Whole30 is designed as an elimination diet to help people identify food sensitivities, which is why so many things are restricted. You basically eliminate the "banned foods" for 30 days and carefully add them back in, she says.

"I think people misunderstand the program," Urban explains. "It’s a self experiment after which there is an entire outlined plan to take what you’ve learned and to make it into a sustainable lifestyle."

People might try an elimination diet if they frequently experience gas, bloating, digestion problems, or even skin rashes, and suspect a food allergy or intolerance.

However, Alyssa Ardolino, R.D. at the International Food Information Council, only recommends elimination diets for people with major gastrointestinal problems. Even then, she believes drastic measures aren’t necessary.

"Typically people who have GI issues notice which foods kind of bother them," she tells Men's Health. "Sometimes you can kind of just eliminate that one food instead of going so drastic."

Whether you do a full-on elimination diet or not, it’s best to develop an individualized approach with a doctor to determine if food could be causing health concerns, Ardolino explains. Doing an elimination diet on your own, without proper medical guidance and protocol, likely won’t give you the answers you’re looking for.

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What can I eat on the Whole30 diet?

This plan is not for the faint of heart. Meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, natural fats (seeds, avocado and olive oil), and fruit are allowed on the Whole30 diet.

But there’s a long list of foods that are off-limits during the diet:

Added, real and artificial sugars: this means no maple syrup, agave, honey, coconut sugar, stevia or date syrup

Alcohol: not even when cooking

Grains: including wheat, oats, corn, quinoa and buckwheat

Legumes: all beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils and peanuts are out. Yes, this means no peanut butter.

Soy: soy sauce, miso, tofu, tempeh, edamame are omitted

Dairy: cow, goat, or sheep’s milk products

Carrageenan, MSG, or sulfites

Baked goods, junk foods, or treats with "approved" Whole30 ingredients: recreating a cookie with Whole30 approved ingredients is not OK

There’s also an entire list of additives that aren’t allowed, which can be found on the Whole30 website.

So what can you eat? There are certain exceptions to the no dairy and soy rule. For example, clarified butter and coconut aminos are permitted.

Lists of banned and approved Whole30 foods can be found on their website.

What are the benefits of Whole30?

Whole30 doesn’t promise to fix all your health woes, but they do offer a very long list of benefits that dieters have experienced, which include:

  • Fewer blemishes
  • Thicker hair
  • Less bloating
  • Less constipation, gas, and bloating
  • Fewer cravings
  • Improved relationship with food
  • Better sleep
  • More energy

    "We’ve got legitimately hundreds of thousands of testimonials," Urban says. "We hear from people who report improvement of allergies and migraines and cravings."

    Of course, testimonials don’t count as legitimate science. "Anecdotal evidence and testimonials do not count as evidence as they are subjective information, are not scientific, and have the potential for bias," explains Lisa Young, Ph.D., R.D.N. a private practice dietitian, adjunct professor at New York University, and author of Finally Full, Finally Slim. Young warns that testimonials only tell positive experiences, whereas negative experience tend not to get reported or publicized.

    Ardolino also warns that there’s no telling whether the positive effects reported in these testimonials were due to food or something else. "Our health is not only based on what we eat. It’s also based on how stressed we are [and] how much sleep we’re getting,” she says.

    Ardolino says there is one positive aspect of the Whole30: its emphasis on whole foods over processed products.

    Still, the complete elimination of processed foods is unsustainable and unnecessary. “ I advocate for eating well most of the time, leaving some room for ‘less than perfect’ foods,” Young says. “This is a more sustainable way to live.”

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    Does Whole30 help with weight loss?

    Before getting into this, it’s important to stress that the Whole30 doesn’t market itself as a weight loss diet. In fact, one of the rules is that you can only weigh yourself the first and last day of the diet. That said, many people do claim to lose weight after following the plan.

    “If you really truly improve your health in a sustainable fashion, natural sustainable weight loss does follow,” Urban says.

    Cutting out processed foods—especially refined sugars—is the tenant of nearly all doctor-approved diets. According to research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health published in the New England Journal of Medicine, consuming high-quality foods—vegetables, whole grains, fruits, nuts, and natural yogurt—is good for your waistline, while eating processed, sugar-loaded foods tend to be one of the main factors contributing to weight gain.

    But following the Whole30 doesn’t mean you’ll magically shed pounds as you can still overdo it on caloric foods like avocados, nuts and dried fruit.

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    Is Whole30 healthy?

    According to Urban, one of the best things about Whole30 is that it forces you to cook.

    “They’re getting into the kitchen and buying real, whole food, and they’re cooking,” she says of Whole30 followers. “That’s the single most important thing that people can do if they want to start eating healthier.”

    Urban isn’t off base. Studies show that restaurant meals contain way more calories than a person needs in a single meal. Research published in April 2016 showed that the average restaurant dish has about 1,200 calories.

    Unfortunately, it’s impossible to say for sure what the health benefits and risks of Whole30 are, since there are no peer-reviewed scientific studies that look at its short-term or long-term effects.

    While Ardolino says Whole30 emphasizes nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables and healthy fats, she doesn’t like that it restricts food groups. Plus, the dietitian believes that thinking of food as good and bad can foster negative feelings in people who have disordered eating habits.

    “If somebody then caves and eats one of these foods that are off limits, that feeling of shame and guilt comes in,” she says.

    For people trying improve their health, Ardolino recommends something drastic: avoiding the scale.

    “I really believe that in order for somebody to improve their health they have to be able to set the goal of weight loss aside,” she asserts.

    Instead, building good habits should always be your primary goal. Start by adding just one more serving of fruits and vegetables into your day. Go for a walk, or increase your gym visits from two to three times a week.

    She also advises being mindful about whether or not you’re truly hungry before eating. "Take a second and say, ‘Am I trying to solve an issue by eating this food?’” she says.

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