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Special Diets

How to Successfully Use Whole30 to Identify Food Sensitivities

Suspect you might be gluten- or dairy-intolerant? Have a chronic medical condition that medication hasn’t alleviated? A month-long nutrition reset may provide the answers you’re seeking.

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It’s justifiable to immediately roll your eyes when someone mentions what sounds like another fad diet — fortunately, Whole30 doesn’t belong in that category, despite what you may have heard from so-called weight-loss experts. In fact, Whole30 isn’t a diet at all because weight loss isn’t the goal. It’s actually a methodical approach to discovering your food intolerances, which could very well be the underlying cause of many common health issues.

For Melissa Urban, co-founder and CEO, her accidental invention of Whole30 began as a self-experiment in 2009. “My co-founder and I wondered what eliminating all of the potentially inflammatory foods from our diets for 30 days would do for our athletic performance and recovery,” she says, explaining that chronic inflammation is considered a major contributor to such diseases as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Rheumatoid arthritis and more. “My energy, sleep, mood, cravings, and my relationship with food were dramatically transformed during that 30-day period, in unexpected ways.” She shared her experience on her personal blog and the brand was born.

How Whole30 Works

With Whole30 you won’t count or restrict calories or step on the scale for the month. Yes, it’s a bit strict, but that’s only because it’s not meant to be sustainable long-term. It’s based on the framework of an elimination diet, which is a short-term, self-experiment designed to help identify food sensitivities.

“We don’t want you eating Whole30 forever,” says Urban. “The point of the program is to identify foods that do and don’t work for you in your unique context, so you can create your perfect sustainable diet going forward.”

The program has two parts: elimination, where participants eliminate potentially problematic foods for 30 days, and reintroduction, where those foods are reintroduced one at a time so you can analyze the response. By comparing each half of the experiment, you’ll discover the food groups that do and don’t work for you — and you can build your “forever” diet accordingly.

Who Whole30 Can Benefit (and who should avoid it)

While many medical doctors and registered dietitians use the Whole30 program to help their patients with a broad range of diseases and symptoms — from type 2 diabetes and migraines to high blood pressure and chronic pain — you don’t have to be sick to benefit. Anyone seeking increased or steadier energy throughout the day, more restful sleep, fewer cravings, improved digestion, or better mental health may find it helpful.

“In my clinical practice, I’ll use the Whole30 program in situations where individuals are experiencing digestive concerns like inflammatory bowel disease or skin irritations like eczema where there’s a probable link between what they’re consuming in their diet and the severity of their symptoms,” explains Whole30’s in-house dietitian Stephanie Greunke, RD, PMH-C.

“This is especially helpful when the treatment protocol they’ve been given from their other providers doesn’t seem to be resolving the issue. Some folks discover that their years of migraines are actually a symptom of gluten intolerance. Others find that their skin clears up once they say goodbye to dairy products. Many people experience relief from chronic pain or low mood once they eliminate certain foods.”

Similarly, individuals navigating high blood pressure and high cholesterol may see improvements in 30 days, and Greunke says in some cases are able to work with their providers to lower the dose of their medication or get off of it entirely.

If nothing else, the Whole30 program helps many people better understand the relationship between the food they’re eating and how they feel. This can create a sense of empowerment, which acts as a springboard for other lifestyle changes.

Still, it’s not for everyone. For instance, anyone with a history of disordered eating may find this restrictive program triggering and should first consult with their therapist or healthcare professional.

Following the Whole30 Plan

While many eating plans have a slew of rules to follow, Whole30 is almost shockingly simple. In a nutshell, you’ll consume the following real, whole foods for 30 days: meat, seafood, and eggs; vegetables and fruit; natural fats; and herbs, spices, and seasonings. And yes, it’s entirely possible to do a plant-based version, focusing on nutrient-dense and antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, avocado, seeds, nuts and olive oil.

Next, you’ll avoid added sugars (real or artificial), alcohol, grains, legumes (beans, peanuts and all forms of soy are out, but green beans and peas are OK), dairy, carrageenan, MSG, and sulfites. It’s important to note that these items weren’t chosen because they are “bad.”

“There is no morality when it comes to food and you are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based on what you eat,” Urban explains, noting that that kind of thinking only perpetuates guilt and shame around food. “We eliminate foods that are potentially problematic according to science and our clinical evidence, but not universally so.” Some of these food groups are common allergens, while others may negatively impact the digestive system or inflammation.

One word of caution: This isn’t a program you can follow half-heartedly with any level of success. “Any elimination protocol must be followed strictly, to make the most of your self-experiment,” says Urban. “During the 30-day elimination, we ask participants to eliminate 100% of the foods and beverages specified in the rules, with no “special occasions” or days off.”

Why? Because if you “cheat,” you’ll miss out on the full effects of seeing exactly what you’re sensitive to — remember, the goal is not to eliminate these foods forever, but to gather enough data to decide if eating them is helping or harming you. Only a 100% removal of the forbidden items for 30 days will allow your body enough time to eliminate potentially problematic components of the foods from your bloodstream.

“We know that even small amounts of gluten and dairy can be irritating and delay the healing process,” confirms Greunke. “By eliminating these foods entirely for 30 days, you are able to enter the reintroduction phase with a fresh baseline, feeling your best, and thus able to more easily identify how certain foods impact your skin, digestion, energy, mood, pain, sleep, and cravings.”

How to Reintroduce Foods

Now, here’s where the real magic happens — the reintroduction phase is arguably the most important step in your program because this is where you see all that hard work pay off. While you may be tempted to shove a slice of pizza in your pie-hole on day 31, resist the urge to combine dairy and gluten right off the bat.

“Reintroducing too many food groups at once will make it hard, if not impossible, to determine the impact these food groups have in your system,” says Urban, noting the entire Whole30 process takes 40-ish days, depending on how long you choose to stretch out reintroduction.

Instead, reintroduce foods that were eliminated one at a time, with at least two days in between food categories. This is because food sensitivities can cause delayed reactions, with symptoms occurring 24-72 hours after consumption. By going back to the Whole30 after you reintroduce a food group, like dairy, you allow enough time to determine whether or not that food, in that amount, contributes to symptoms.

“To get the most out of your reintroduction period, the goal is to go as slow as you need to make these connections and journal or reflect on your experience along the way,” advises Greunke. “If you reintroduce a combination food, like pizza, or rush through the process, it will cause confusion regarding which foods work well or don’t work well in your body. The reintroduction process is your playground and helps you learn how to create a plan that works for your unique needs.”

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