Nutritional “challenges” — detoxes, cleanses, juice fasts — are known for taking over offices, CrossFit boxes, and other communal spaces that thrive on both peer support and competition. The Whole30 Program is of that ilk. The 30-day, highly restrictive diet is less known for the foods it allows (small portions of meat and seafood, some fruit, vegetables, eggs, and natural fats) and more for what’s off the table: sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes, dairy, soy, and any “junk foods” made with approved ingredients (even Whole Foods’ fanciest plantain chips are a no-go).
It’s a tough plan to follow, which is at least part of the appeal. Jamey Rice, RD, LD, Nutrition Coach and Sports Dietitian at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, sees guys attempt diets like the Whole30 to measure their motivation and will power. Others hope to drop pounds or remedy skin and digestive issues. While the goals are valid, the approach, for most people, is misguided.
You’re unlikely to do any significant damage in 30 days, but Rice points out that slashing whole food groups can, over time, lead to nutrient deficiencies. “Without fortified grains,” she says, “you’re going to be missing some iron and a lot of those key minerals that are important for overall health, for blood flow, for wellness, for those healthy red blood cells.” And dairy is a key source of calcium and protein for many people. It’s true that those nutrients can be supplemented with the right combination of fruits and vegetables, but without the input of a dietitian, you may fall short of your recommended daily requirements.
And that’s the other thing that makes Rice wary of the Whole30: most dieters are doing it without the support and guidance of a medical professional. Elimination diets can pinpoint sensitivities and intolerances to certain foods, but they need to be managed by a doctor or dietitian who can provide supervision and run labs as needed.
Despite the red flags, Whole30 has a few positive attributes. Rice appreciates the month-long moratorium on weighing oneself and taking measurements, as constant assessment can be discouraging and cause people to lose sight of their long-term goals. She also likes the whole foods approach. “They’re really trying to focus on lean meats and fruits and vegetables, and going back to the basics, which is what most of us need to be doing,” she says. Still, the risks outweigh the benefits.
The better approach: Rice explains that it really depends on your goals and lifestyle, but she’s seen many athletes achieve long-term success with “flex dieting.” On this type of plan, dieters track their macronutrients, or “macros” — carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. The prescribed mix is tailored to the individual, their physical make-up, and their level and type of daily activity. And it allows for some real-life flexibility; as long as you account for the extra fat and carbs, you can have the occasional slice of birthday cake.
Apps like MyFitnessPal and My Macros simplify food logging, while commercial meal plans grounded in macro-tracking like Renaissance Periodization, Eat to Perform, and Designed to Fit Nutrition provide more personalization and, in some cases, one-on-one coaching with a credentialed expert, which Rice believes is crucial. “It comes down to if they’re able to accurately calculate their macros as well,” she says. “When I’m in a facility like this and I can help people do that, it’s a lot more effective than if they’re trying to assess their own needs and they aren’t really sure how to go about it.” Avoid cookie-cutter templates and work directly with a registered dietitian (R.D). Or, if you follow an intense training cycle, you may want to seek out a certified specialist in sports dietetics (C.S.S.D.).