Urban says her she and her original co-founder “were doing some research into the inflammatory factors in certain foods and how certain foods might promote inflammation in the body, specific to conditions like rheumatoid arthritis. And we wondered whether giving up these foods as relatively healthy people would also have an impact on things like our athletic performance or recovery.”
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The pair worked up a strict elimination diet plan that they would follow for 30 days. “We did this as a 30-day, self-designed, self-experiment. And the results were so life changing and so tremendous, that I decided to write about it on my personal blog,” Urban recalls.
Before long, news of the protocol spread. Urban, who’s a certified sports nutritionist and well connected with the health and fitness community, began helping others implement the program. It eventually came to be known as Whole30 and has gained many devotees. Proponents of the Whole30 diet have found that it helps them reset their eating patterns and get more in tune with how their bodies function with and without certain potentially problematic foods.
What Is Whole30?
The concept is based on an elimination diet, which are often used by allergists and other health care practitioners “to help people identify food sensitives and change their habits and emotional relationship with food,” Urban explains. Because it’s based on an elimination diet, the protocol is strict. “Any elimination diet is strict because you can’t truly learn how these foods impact you unless you’re very rigid about the protocol,” she explains.
The rules of Whole30 state that you should eat real food, including:
- Meat, seafood and eggs.
- Vegetables and fruit.
- Natural fats.
- Herbs, spices and seasonings.
The rules also stipulate that you must not eat the following items for 30 days:
- Sugar. Remove all real or artificial sweeteners. This includes honey, maple syrup, table sugar, aspartame, xylitol, stevia and any other artificial sweeteners. Check labels for any added sugar or sugar-substitutes, and do not eat these products. (However, fruit juice can be used as a sweetener.)
- Alcohol. Don’t even cook with it. Ideally, you should not consume any tobacco, either.
- Grains. All grains are eliminated on the Whole30 program. That means wheat, rye, rice barley, oats, quinoa, corn, etc.
- Legumes. Peas, beans and lentils are to be eliminated. This includes peanut butter and all forms of soy. Lecithin is a soy product that turns up in a lot of places, so check your labels carefully. (Green beans and snow/snap peas are allowed. Peanuts are not. Other types of nuts, such as walnuts, almonds and cashews are permitted in moderate amounts.)
- Dairy. All milk, cream, regular butter, yogurt and related products are banned for 30 days. (Ghee or clarified butter is excepted.)
- Carrageenan, MSG and sulfites. Remove these processed food additives from your diet entirely.
- Baked goods, junk foods or treats. This includes products that contain “approved” ingredients, as these do not support the habit changes the Whole30 program aims to create. “A pancake is still a pancake, even if it’s made with coconut flour,” the program notes. Some of the Whole30-approved products offered by companies listed below appear to be “treats,” but they have been fully vetted by the Whole30 team and are “100% compliant” with the rules of the Whole30 program.
In addition to the food rules, the Whole30 program directs followers to avoid the temptation of stepping on the scale or taking any body measurements for 30 days, as the program is not about weight loss, but rather to help you better understand how your body reacts to certain foods.
“We don’t call it a diet. It’s not a weight loss program. There’s no caloric restriction. You’re not counting or weighing or measuring,” Urban explains, but rather removing potentially problematic foods for 30 days and noticing how you feel once you begin adding those items back in.
Urban says this reintroduction period is especially important. “Most people focus so much on the elimination – that you’re going to give these foods up for 30 days. But reintroduction is equally important. At the end, you’re going to bring those foods back in, one food group at a time, very carefully and systemically like a scientific experiment and see how they impact you.”
If soon after you start consuming dairy again, for example, you notice that your skin is breaking out or that you feel bloated, “that gives you really important information about how dairy works for you,” Urban says. “Going forward, it gives you this prescription that’s unique to you and your body about which foods work and which foods don’t. You get to take that information and truly create the perfect diet for you.”
Is It Healthy?
Liz Weinandy, a registered dietitian with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, says that the Whole30 protocol “sounds good in theory,” but “it’s really strict and cuts out some healthy foods like beans and dairy foods.”
Some registered dietitians are critical of the protocol because it’s not sustainable over the long term. They are concerned that following the strict protocol may cause followers to miss out on certain nutrients, such as calcium, because of the elimination of dairy. However, Urban says those are two of several common misconceptions about the program.
“I think one of the biggest misconceptions and criticisms about the Whole30 is that it’s not sustainable. I’m so confused by that because it’s not meant to be sustainable. It is a short-term, self-experiment.” Weight loss achieved while following Whole30 is also often criticized as being short lived, and again, Urban says that’s missing the point. “We aren’t a weight-loss program.”
Rather, Urban positions Whole30 as “a way for people to take their health in their own hands and experiment with what a whole-food, anti-inflammatory approach might do for their energy, for their sleep, for their mood, for their attention span.” Replacing processed foods and sugars with whole fruits and vegetables is the cornerstone of the plan. And she notes that if at the end of the 30 days, if reintroduction of dairy or grains works well or you, “then we encourage you to keep eating it. Absolutely.”
Because it’s only intended to be a 30-day program, Weinandy says that if you want to give it a go, “I think it’s OK,” but she warns that the strict nature of the plan can be difficult to follow and triggering for some people who have eating disorders, now or in the past. If you can stick with it, she says that it can make you aware of whether you’re eating too much sugar. “It might be good to realize how much sugar or processed foods you’ve been eating,” and if you can incorporate that knowledge in a more sustainable way going forward, then that’s great. “People can take what they learn about themselves and modify their diet” going forward, she says.
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