Whole30 diet is all the rage: What you need to know

Among the health and fitness fads flooding social media pages is Whole30 — a food program that has people claiming weight loss, higher energy, better mental health and more.

Whole30 is an elimination diet, designed for detoxification in a month’s time. Meat, eggs, fruit and vegetables are part of the plan while dairy, grains, legumes, alcohol and sugar — including honey, maple syrup, agave and others — are eliminated.

Meal preparation and sitting down to eat is encouraged while snacking is discouraged.

Wendy Vess of Orlando saw friends posting on social media about the benefits of following the Whole30 plan for a month, so she decided to give it a try. She read the book and followed the plan’s suggestions to prep whole foods, and she avoided processed items.

“I learned that everything has sugar in it, even stuff you would never think would,” Vess said.

Vess said that the first three weeks were tough but then it became surprisingly easy to follow the plan.

“I was ready to do it forever. I felt amazing,” Vess said.

She continued the first round of Whole30 for six weeks and lost 16 pounds during that time.

“After the detox it’s amazing to experience how food really tastes. Sweet things become repulsive in flavor. And my energy was incredible,” Vess said.

While many people tout the weight-loss benefits of the program, that is not actually the intent, said Whole30 co-founder Melissa Hartwig, a certified sports nutritionist.

“We don't even talk about weight loss as a Whole30 benefit because our approach is 100 percent health-focused,” Hartwig said.

In 2009, Hartwig and a friend started following what would later be called Whole30.

“I had such a powerful, transformative experience. I decided to share my experience on my personal blog, and a few hundred people wanted to follow along with the ‘rules’ I had drafted,” Hartwig said. “On Whole30, I slept better, my mood was much improved, and I felt like for the first time in my life, I was off the scale and out of the mirror.”

That was the start of the first Whole30 group in July 2009. The popularity of the program encouraged Hartwig to write a book about those rules and how to incorporate the one-month reset.

The book “The Whole30” went on to become a New York Times best-seller. Today, the Whole30 website sees 2 million unique visitors each month from more than 100 countries. The Whole30 social media properties boast 2 million fans and followers.

“Participants almost universally report Whole30 helps them improve energy, sleep, attention span and focus, mood, self-confidence, cravings, digestion, athletic performance, and a whole host of lifestyle symptoms like migraines, allergies, asthma, skin conditions, and chronic pain,” Hartwig said.

Kimberly DelTorchio of Satellite Beach decided to try Whole30 after her sister saw an improvement of symptoms associated with an autoimmune disorder. DelTorchio wanted to use it to examine her eating habits, and more specifically, her snacking habits. A mom of three and a pescatarian, DelTorchio was drawn to the program’s use of whole foods and emphasis on meal prep and sitting down to eat.

“I didn’t do Whole30 to lose weight. I wanted to reset my eating habits,” DelTorchio said. “I’m always on the go and I usually snack or eat standing up as fast as I can. My snacks are often chocolate.”

The hardest item to give up on the plan was a morning smoothie that DelTorchio had been making for years.

“Once I got past that need for sugar in the morning, I was fine. The best part was eating some really good food, and not feeling guilty about anything I ate,” DelTorchio said. “I carved out the time for meals. I tried lots of things I hadn't eaten, including beets, and found some really good recipes.”

What’s the downside to Whole30?

U.S. News and World Report currently ranks Whole30 as 37 out of 40 diets, citing cons like time commitment and too little carbohydrates as reasons it ranks low on the list. Depending what participants choose, a Whole30 plan has potential to be high-fat and high-cholesterol, too.

A 2013 study in the journal Nutrients found that beans, yogurt and legumes are important foods for the immunity-boosting microbiome that line the intestine — all items Whole30 eliminates.

”Some people say that the program is too extreme or unhealthy for cutting out entire food groups but remember, it's the Whole30, not the Whole365,” Hartwig said. “The program is an elimination diet designed to follow for a short period of time, so you can learn how commonly problematic foods impact you. If, after the 30 days, you reintroduce these foods and find they work well for you, we encourage you to incorporate them into your life in a way that works for you.”

The time investment and access to the foods of the plan make it difficult to follow, some say.

“The hardest part is easy access to clean eating when food prep falls through,” Vess said. “You really have to make the time for food prep, and sometimes life gets in the way.”

“The worst part was meal prep. I tried to do a lot on Sundays, but it often involved me staying up late, roasting vegetables or making mayonnaise in my food processor. Since nothing was processed, nothing kept very long so I tried to eat it all quickly,” DelTorchio said.

Lack of snacking and finding the time to sit down and eat also proved problematic.

“I tried to stick to the rules of avoiding snacks but I found that was just not realistic. I tried not to eat many snacks, but often I could just not sit down and eat when I was hungry,” DelTorchio said.

Dr. Kasey Johnson is a Orlando-area chiropractor and the host of The Unlock Wellness Podcast. While she see the benefits of cutting processed foods and even dairy, she has hesitations when it comes to recommending Whole30 to clients.

"The main pitfalls that I see are with the increased meat products, the elimination of grains, and also the elimination of beans and legumes. Meat products are extremely acidic, which is important to understand because almost all diseases live in an acidic environment," Johnson said. "As a society, we are very deficient in fiber, which leads to countless amounts of lifestyle-caused diseases. By cutting out whole grains, beans and legumes, we are doing our bodies and overall health a disservice. This is also going to have a negative impact on an individual’s energy level when these foods are cut out."

But Johnson applauds taking a close look at your diet.

"Everyone is at a different place in his or her wellness journey and trying to figure what their body responds best to,” Johnson said. “Making positive changes and staying consistent with trying to improve will yield healthier results.”

And Whole30 advocates say with the right planning, the program was worth the end results.

“It really is a great reset and way to know how your body responds. The energy, the sleep and everything else, really. It was worth putting in the willpower to stick it out the 30 days,” Vess said.

How to incorporate Whole30

For people who are interested in giving the 30-day plan a try, the first step should be research.

“Read the book first. That’s the most important. You’ll understand why you are doing it and also find some tips,” Vess said.

Thinking ahead is the key to sticking it out, too.

“Plan out your meals for at least a week before you start. I bought the book and I found it a good resource but most of the recipes I made I got by Google search. There’s a lot out there but you have to get everything lined up first,” DelTorchio said.

Those 2 millions social media fans are a great resource, along with entire blogs, Pinterest boards and websites dedicated to eating in a Whole30 fashion.

“I think people think the hardest thing will be giving up this or that food, like bread, wine, cheese and chocolate. But because our program is so well supported and has such black-and-white rules, it usually proves easier than imagined,” Hartwig said. “We have so much research, support, and accountability built into the program and the community so that people don't feel completely lost, overwhelmed, or defeated.”

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