Why Whole30 won’t help your relationship with food

By Alexandra Caspero on March 10, 2017

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, but never got around to actually penning my thoughts to paper blog. Then, this afternoon, after an Instagram rabbit-hole chase, I came across a post where someone shared that they were starting Whole 30 to help improve their relationship with food.

Wait, what? A diet program with rules and restrictions to improve your relationship with food? Seems like a giant oxymoron to me. But, a sentiment that I’ve heard time and time again from friends, clients and colleagues.

Inherently, I’ve got nothing against Whole30 (Ok, maybe I do. Here’s my analysis of it for Food Network’s blog) as a singular diet plan. I can applaud the idea that it’s helped many people cut down their sugar intake, increase vegetable intake and plan/cook more meals.

But, you don’t need a diet to do that. You especially don’t need a diet to help you improve your relationship with food. In fact, that’s likely the very opposite approach to a sustainable, healthy food relationship.

I opened with Whole30 because shockingly enough, the creator also has a book called Food Freedom Forever. (Again, my mouth is ajar in the hypocrisy.) You can’t have it both ways; you can’t improve your relationship with food and be boxed in by rules. Of course, it’s not just Whole30 that claims this. Fill in the blank with just about any traditional diet program.

A confined set of rules of what you are allowed and not allowed to eat will not help you have a healthy relationship with food. It will likely do the opposite.

When we set up parameters and food rules, they work until they don’t. We feel good about following the rules, until we can’t anymore. Then, we go off the plan, “cheat”, and usually feel fairly guilty, beat ourselves up for not being better, then go back on the plan tomorrow. And rinse and repeat.

I’ve talked about this diet cycle before, and it’s hard for most of us not to get on this train once we commit to a specific diet. It’s why I’ve got a big problem with Whole30 (or any other diet) claiming that trying it will improve your relationship with food. Clean-eating and detoxing cannot belong in the same sentence as healthy relationship with food.

Whole30, if you aren’t familiar with it, restricts against most processed foods, sugar, dairy, legumes and alcohol. I understand the premise that most of us eat too many processed foods and sugar, and I’m OK if we want to reduce those levels because they don’t make us feel that great. That’s intuitive eating at it’s most basic level; identifying which foods make you feel awesome (and those that don’t), then using that information to make your meal choices.

It doesn’t mean that if cake makes you feel less than steller that you can never have cake again. It just gives you the permission to eat it (or not eat it) if you want to. It’s choice that varies from day to day, hour to hour, based on your needs and wants. It’s not a hard and fast rule that you can’t not eat the cake, but instead an empowering decision that you get to make, if you want to make it, when you want to make it. That sounds more like freedom, doesn’t it?

Adding in more food rules cannot make you feel freedom from food. Only the exact opposite can. When we drop all labels (good, bad, unhealthy), when we tell ourselves that we can eat whatever we want, do we actually feel freedom from restriction. It’s only then can we begin the process of healing our relationship with food.

It’s the first, and often scariest, part of intuitive eating. Most of my clients think that they will never be able to stop eating previously off-limit foods like donuts, cookies, milkshakes and pizza. And, perhaps for a small amount of time, you’ll go there. Allowing yourself to taste all of the foods that were previously off-limits on other diets.

But, then the magic starts to happen. You start assessing hunger and fullness levels, you un-learn previous habits and rules, you start to notice how different foods make you feel, which becomes a more powerful motivator than calories, fat grams or allowable items.

Sure, you may have a slice of cake every now and then because it sounds amazing, but intuitive eaters allow themselves the permission to have as much as they need. So, instead of a giant piece of cake in secret/hiding because you are cheating on your diet, you allow yourself a bite or two, maybe a slice, depending on how much you need to fulfill the craving. You don’t need to overindulge because the cake will still be there tomorrow. Knowing that the food is always there can change everything.

As I was googling the name of Whole30’s books, I came across this article from Greatist. I think it’s supposed to reinforce the idea that Whole30 can improve your relationship with food, but instead, it proves my point.

Take this quote from the founder: Most diets are spent white-knuckling your way through deprivation, restriction, hunger, tuning out your body’s signals, and obsessing over tracking and weighing your food,” Hartwig says.

Sure, Whole30 doesn’t have any calorie restrictions, which is awesome, but let’s not pretend that not allowing beans and farro isn’t restriction in it’s own right. Cutting out whole food groups is the definition of restriction, especially when done in such an arbitrary way.

Also from the same article. ‘Hartwig, Whole30’s brainchild, emphasizes the importance of sticking to this plan with zero slip-ups, so you give your body the complete break (from not-so-healthy food) it deserves. If life happens and a glass of wine or a piece of bread gets in the way, Hartwig recommends starting over.’

What? Didn’t she just say how terrible traditional diets were because they tune our your body’s signals? What if it’s your birthday and you want to celebrate with a glass of wine? What if you are craving bread? Having the punishment to slipping up be starting all over again seems fairly diet-y and rule-based to me.

Lastly, these words of why Whole30 works, at least in Hartwigs mind. “The struggle is a normal, necessary part of the process. Changing your food is hard. Changing your habits is even harder. Changing your relationship with food is the hardest part of all. The process requires struggle—it’s how you know you’re growing.” 

She’s right. Most growth happens when we struggle. That’s true for just about every aspect of life; from careers, to relationships, to self-improvement. It’s the messiness that gives way to growth. But, that’s not true with how you nourish yourself. Deciding what to eat shouldn’t be a struggle. Telling someone that they need to struggle with following a plan to finally feel good about eating sounds pretty backwards.

And, changing your relationship with food is the hardest part of all. I agree whole-heartedly with that statement; it’s what I’ve dedicated most of my services to: helping others find peace with food. It doesn’t happen with restriction, it doesn’t happen with deprivation and it certainly doesn’t happen with guilt.

Changing your relationship with food happens when you start loving your body, listen to nourishment cues and dive deep into your emotional connection with food. 



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Meet Alex Caspero

Alex Caspero is a Registered Dietitian, New York Times Bestselling Plant-Based Chef and mom of two. She aims to cut through the nutrition noise by providing real-life, nourishing tips for body and mind. Learn more about Alex.

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    1. Ben
      November 27, 2017 AT 10:41 am


      We some times forget that food and nourishing our bodies needs to be balanced with pleasure.

      I believe eating healthy should be “fun” maybe even a challenge, give a ton of flexibility (esp when first starting)

      My wife did the AIP protocol which is a similar to whole 30.

      It made her dizzy, weak, and then… I took her to one of her favorite restaurants and she instantly felt better.

      She learned to add in foods that were good but allowed other things she enjoyed and at the end of a month she had far more energy and dropped almost 20lbs.

      The diet should not “feel” like a diet.

    2. Chris
      November 5, 2017 AT 2:17 pm

      I wholeheartedly agree with Amy. This is a cover for anorexia and other eating disorders. Rigid rules are a part of very ordered and restrictive eating. You bet, it’s a way of enabling anorexia while maintaining that a size 0 body is so worth it. Organized eaters eat the same foods, day in and day out but have convinced themselves that’s normal, too.

    3. Michael H
      March 23, 2017 AT 3:06 pm

      I’ve done a Whole30 in the past and soon after became curious about the scientific research provided in the book, It Starts With Food. I decided to review the citations the authors provide for each chapter of the book and see if the science matched up with the claims being made.

      Unfortunately, I found that a majority of the cited claims were very misleading or completely false – another reason to avoid this die. This book can substantially misguide people about what a proper healthy diet looks like due to this inaccurate information. You can read some of my chapter reviews of the book here:

    4. Carolyn
      March 11, 2017 AT 2:05 am

      I did the Whole30 for the first time about a year ago and for the second time now. The Whole30 isn’t meant to be continuously restrictive, rather it is a tool to help a person figure out what foods do/do not make them feel good, yes and to really identify the emotional relationship we have to food (which is perfectly fine, and a wonderful part of life!). I try to think of it as Lent in a way, yes there is a little hill to climb, but the benefits of it outweigh that initial challenge for many people. Your example about resisting cake is much of the reasoning behind why a person might undertake Whole30- maybe for you it is easy to resist the cake day to day if say, you usually have a sugar crash or get a stomachache after. However for many, seeing it there on the table, imagining the taste of cake, and wanting to participate in celebrating your co-workers’ birthday may overshadow other reasoning. I would love if I had the willpower to say, nah, I don’t need to eat a free donut in the break room after a stressful 12 hour shift (as an RN, this happens on a very regular basis!! ;). Pre-whole30, sometimes I did have the willpower, however most times I didn’t, and would be regretful later when feeling crummy and nauseous all for momentary satisfaction. That’s why Whole30 was helpful for me, I needed the hard and fast rules to give my body the chance. And after Whole30 my BODY and MIND know how good it feels to go without processed food for 30 days, and that is the difference. Whole30 gives people the opportunity to get exactly to the mindset you described “instead an empowering decision you get to make, if you want to make it, when you want to make it”. As a nutritionist and someone who is very educated on the health benefits of healthy eating, I’m sure this empowered decision making comes more naturally to you- or it is something you’ve gotten better at over time through your job. Your expertise is food and creating balanced meals, but most people don’t have that same mindset. That’s why Whole30 is so popular and it works.

      Over the past year since my first Whole30 I have eaten healthier overall, cook at home more, drink less alcohol, and have kept off 5 of the 8 pounds I initially lost, and have resolved my recurrent acne. Helpful to me in particular was realizing how easy it is to incorporate more fruits and veggies into every meal and working for as much balance in my diet as possible. Now after a few months of festivities and indulgence- getting married, travelling, and holidays (all part of life!), I’m ready for another re-set. I’m not back at square one and I don’t dread this Whole30 at all, I’m ready to take it a step further to challenge myself again, and I’m excited about how it is going to improve my daily life, having seen those benefits already. Yes it is restrictive, it is also meant to be temporary, and the thought is to incorporate foods that you want into your diet after.

      As far as disordered eating, I have never suffered from this. I imagine Whole30 would be a trigger for some who are recovering, and this is something Whole30 addresses and warns about on their website. Melissa Hartwig acknowledges that the restrictive rules of Whole30 were not written with eating disorders in mind.

      Hope this is helpful to some.

      1. Alex
        March 11, 2017 AT 8:05 am

        Hi Carolyn, thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. I understand that Whole30 is meant to be a short-term thing, and I’m glad that the creators mention that often. However, for most emotional eating, it’s not enough to just say you can’t have it, you have to go deeper into the why/the connections around that food. That’s often difficult to do alone, especially in a program with so many boundaries. It sounds like the plan really worked for you, and I’m happy for that. I think Whole30 has many benefits, but not the premise that it can help with emotional eating. In the cake example, someone on Whole30 wouldn’t have a choice not to eat the cake, it’s not on their plan, so they don’t entertain the idea. That’s a short term fix to me, especially when the creator herself says if you decide that you DO want the cake, you cheated and have to start all over again. I just can’t see how that’s helpful. Willpower is a diet term, made to make you feel either good or bad if you have it or don’t. The concept is about how “strong” you can be through the cravings and I’ve heard the creator speak several times about “toughing up” through the plan. You don’t need to focus on willpower if there aren’t rules in place to begin with.

        Again, thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment. I appreciate you and your point of view.

    5. Amy
      March 10, 2017 AT 5:31 pm

      As a person who has fought to recover from anorexia, I see Whole30 as just a way to disguise disordered eating. The guilt this diet induces by starting over if you eat a forbidden food is ridiculous. (And I understand cutting back on processed foods, but what’s wrong with legumes!!?) I agree wholeheartedly that in order to feel good about what we eat and how we relate to food, we must have no rules. I now eat whatever sounds good to me while maintaining a “healthy” diet and lifestyle. I hope I can teach my kids to listen to their bodies and to tune out all of the diets that our society obsesses over.

      1. Alex
        March 11, 2017 AT 7:55 am

        Hi Amy, I agree. I think that the creators understand the concept of intuitive/emotional eating and use some of the same language, but then give a set of rules as a way to get there. Love hearing where you are at now, thanks so much for your comment.