Whole30-style diets: The good, the bad and the healthy

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Restrictive, whole-foods diets like Whole30 are popular choices for those looking to reset their food choices, especially as New Year’s resolutions. It’s important, though, to recognize that highly restrictive diets can have more risks than benefits – and healthy compromises do exist.

The benefits of Whole30 and similar diets

The Whole30 program, designed to be used for just 30 days, requires dieters to cut out added sugar (real or artificial), alcohol, grains (including quinoa, corn and rice), legumes, dairy and carrageenan, MSG and sulfites, which are found in many processed foods.

Eating whole, unprocessed foods and making an effort to consume plenty of fruits and vegetables is a great goal for anyone. And sugar is a big problem with the average American’s diet, so cutting back is important. Programs like Whole30 can be helpful in showing you just how much sugar is in the food most of us eat every day.

Many people will lose weight on a diet like Whole30, but weight loss isn’t the only potential goal. It may be a good choice for someone with a weight issue or a person who has prediabetes. Elimination diets like Whole30 can help those with gastrointestinal problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome, figure out which foods may be triggering symptoms.

The risks of highly restrictive diets

There’s a high likelihood of regaining weight after 30 days of restrictive dieting if you don’t keep up with some of the diet’s rules. Sustaining weight loss after a diet like this can be done – it’s simply a matter of adding foods back into your diet with moderation and balance.

However, in my experience as a dietitian, most people have difficulty maintaining that balance when they go off  a restrictive diet. The restrictive phase is often so restrictive that rebound overeating occurs.

Diets like these aren’t recommended for people who have a history of an eating disorder or for women who are pregnant, or for frail persons (such as the elderly, or someone recovering from an extensive surgery).

How to pull it off successfully

Restrictive, whole-foods diets are ideal for those willing to put in the time to shop and cook. Of course, that’s what I’m always hoping – that people will put time and effort into their food choices.

The key to sustaining benefits after 30 days is to reintroduce foods one at a time and in small amounts. Don’t go crazy with sugar. Reintroduce it slowly, and keep it to minimal amounts. The World Health Organization’s recommendation is that no more than 5 percent of your total calories come from sugar. When I meet with someone to create a meal plan, we’ll turn that into an individualized number for their diet, such as 20 to 25 grams of added sugar per day.

When reintroducing grains, stick to whole grains. Don’t reintroduce white flour products to your diet, because these foods are nutrient-poor.

Reintroduce dairy slowly, with foods like unsweetened or plain yogurt. Keep cheese to a minimum – an ounce of cheese per day or less is optimal for most of us so that we don’t consume too much saturated fat.

Stick to CDC recommendations for alcohol (up to one drink a day for women, up to two drinks for men).

Definitely add legumes back to your usual diet – even if you didn’t eat them regularly before. Legumes are nutrient-dense and high in fiber. They should be consumed daily or at least in several servings per week. If you experience gas or bloating with beans or lentils, try small amounts daily to help your body get used to them.

How to compromise

Some aspects of Whole30 aren’t typically recommended by dietitians for long-term eating.

Cutting out refined grains like white flour is great, but whole grains offer plenty of nutrients that we need. Legumes (beans, lentils, peas, etc.) also offer health benefits, so there’s rarely a reason to cut back on them. Even unsweetened dairy can be a healthy component of our diets. Because of this, you could try a version of Whole30 that incorporates whole grains, legumes and small amounts of unsweetened dairy.

If you’re looking to “reset” to a diet that has defined rules but isn’t as restrictive, we routinely recommend the DASH diet, which is easier to continue long-term, has shown to lower blood pressure and LDL cholesterol, and is appropriate for most people regardless of health issues.

Even sticking to the relatively loose guidelines of the “plate method” can bring you many of the health benefits you might be seeking.

Every small step toward eating more vegetables and other whole foods – as well as fewer sugary and processed foods – is a step in the right direction.

 

Lori Chong is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator with Family Medicine & Integrative Medicine at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

 

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