Every year, U.S. News and World Report ranks diet plans, and the Whole30 has yet to receive rave reviews. This year, the diet clocked in at an unimpressive #33 — with experts claiming it "lacks scientific support and is severely restrictive." Yet, your social media feed was inundated with January Whole30ers posting photos of their #cleaneats, noting what day they're on and fighting the good fight against some mythical creature called a sugar dragon.
Why do people feel compelled to kick off their new year with a diet rated a measly 2.1 out of 5? As one of those Whole30 devotees you're probably pretty annoyed with by now, allow me to explain.
Three years ago, I dropped 30 pounds (and kept it off) by doing the Whole30 and continuing to eat well in the months that followed. During the 30 days on the program, I lost 11 pounds. And for me, completing it helped me form healthy habits (like reading labels and not smothering everything in cheese), taught me how to cook an arsenal of healthy recipes I actually enjoyed eating and most importantly (and the reason why I do it every January), showed me how incredible my body feels when I'm not pumping it full of sugar and alcohol. These lessons stuck with me well past the 30 days, allowing me to drop an additional 19 pounds by April of that year and finally reach my goal weight.
That being said, I wasn't surprised to see Whole30 so low on the list. In case you're not familiar with the program, you cut out all processed foods, grains, legumes, soy and dairy (that includes sugar and alcohol) for 30 days. You're left with meats, seafood, fruits, vegetables, nut butters and nut milks (as long as there's no added sugar — read your labels).
It's a restrictive plan that makes eating out a challenge and forces you to get creative in the kitchen (you should see my spice rack). In its defense, having these parameters in place can be beneficial for those of us who feel overwhelmed with the amount of food options out there.
"The Whole30 is great for teaching people how to eat real foods and cutting processed foods. It shows people that it does take some extra time and effort but it is possible and they find out how much better they can feel eating these foods," says Jennifer Smith, RD.
Sometimes we need to do a complete overhaul of something in order to change that habit.
And if you've really fallen off the bandwagon, a 30-day reset might be what you need. "Sometimes we need to do a complete overhaul of something in order to change that habit," Daniella Cohn, RD, explains. "Following a temporary diet that eliminates all of the junk that we tend to eat daily can be a great way to remind ourselves to pay attention to what we are eating and make healthy and informed food choices."
However, placing certain food groups on your "do not eat" list does have the potential to work against you. "When a person sees the foods as 'off limits,' and consuming them is somehow breaking a rule and therefore sees themselves as a 'bad person,' mental damage is what is going to ensue long term versus the 30-day health benefits that you will receive," Smith cautions.
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And she has a point: Many of the foods on the "no" list have nutritional benefits and can be a smart addition to a healthy diet. "Whole grains, beans and yogurt are really important for our gut health, yet on this diet, they are not allowed," says Brooke Zigler, RD. "By eliminating these food groups, people could be missing out on key nutrients in their diet."
I recognize these drawbacks. But I still kick off the first month of each year by waving goodbye to alcohol, sugar, and yes, the aforementioned healthy food groups. While I've kept the majority of the weight off, I'm still guilty of putting on those extra 4 to 5 pounds throughout the year. But while that would've caused me anxiety before, I'm now okay with it. I enjoy some frozen drinks by the pool during my summer vacation and loosen the reigns a bit during the holidays. Come January 1st, my body desperately wants a break from the late-night holiday parties that cram my calendar from Thanksgiving until New Year's Eve, which is why I do another round of the Whole30. Starting the new year this way helps to reset the habits that I tend to lose track of towards the end of year (moderation and meal-prepping) and it reminds me how good my body feels when I'm treating it right.
If you've been on the Whole30 and counting down the days until February 1st, step away from the cheese! Before you transition back to your normal diet, here are five solid lessons that I learned from the eating plan that I stuck with even after the 30 days were up. Not only did following them beyond the 30 days prevent me from rebounding back to my higher weight, but they also help keep me on the straight and narrow the rest of the year when I’m not following the program.
As someone who isn't a "sweets person," I was surprised at how much I craved sugar during my first Whole30 — until I started reading condiment labels. "So much of our food is filled with sugar and unknown chemicals and substances, and it falls on each person to find out what is in the food and make an informed decision on whether or not they want to consume those substances," says Cohn. "Read all food labels and ingredient labels, and look up any of the ingredients on a label that you have not heard of to find out what it is."
By the end of my first Whole30, I had an entire document full of recipes I still wanted to try, which motivated me to keep going. Yes, you can stay compliant by eating steamed chicken and lettuce every day, but why would you do that to yourself? "Find foods that are easy to make and that you enjoy eating," Cohn says. "If you eat foods that you don’t like just to follow the diet, you are not going to continue to eat those foods once you are done with the 30 days." Pro tip: Google the Whole30 version of your favorite meal, there's probably a recipe out there for it. (Unless that meal is cake.) This really helped reignite my love for cooking and encouraged me to continue preparing my own meals, instead of relying on Seamless delivery.
Looking back on my lifestyle before the Whole30, my personal recipe for making unhealthy food choices typically consisted of being hungry and on a time crunch, which meant I'd choose whatever was most convenient (read: something overly processed from the vending machine). "Whole30 requires you to plan ahead, mainly so you stay 'compliant' and don’t go hungry," explains Liz McMahon, RDN. "Planning out meals and batch cooking ensures you have healthier food available and won’t constantly be reaching for fast food options." Making pre-planning a habit — even when I'm dining out — helps keep me on track even when I'm not following the Whole30.
Ever start a diet and get immediately discouraged when the number on your scale hasn't budged after a week or two? Whole30 forbids weighing yourself — a practice which can help shift your mindset to how you're feeling as your success metric. "The scale shouldn’t drive your mood, food choices or overall mindset," says Amy Shapiro, RD. "Continue to live a healthy life and measure how you feel energy and clarity wise." Which means being honest with yourself about how your body feels after going to town on that cheese plate. One of the biggest realizations for me was how much clearer and more energetic I feel when my weekend diet doesn't consist of vodka-sodas and takeout food.
The idea behind cutting out certain food groups for 30 days is to reintroduce each one back in slowly to see how your body reacts. Even though it's tempting, Shapiro says the first one you start with shouldn't be sugar. "Sugar causes cravings and blood sugar spikes which we want to avoid," she explains.
Instead, introduce one new food every three days, since food sensitivities can take up to three days to show symptoms, and write down how you're feeling each day. "Keep portions small and enjoy new foods along with the old foods that were allowed," says Shapiro. "Remind yourself to start slow — you can now eat these foods regularly so there is no need to overindulge."
Trying to introduce dairy back into my diet hurt my stomach and would send me into a sneezing fit. In this way, the Whole30 worked as a type of elimination diet for me, without which I may have never realized that dairy isn't my friend. I'll still suffer the consequences if I cross paths with a cheese plate at a work event, but I've made the permanent switch to tofu cream cheese and coconut milk — alternatives I would've never touched before Whole30 that are actually delicious.