Since January, several of my friends and coworkers have decided to give Whole30 a try. Their reasons and goals are diverse: some are looking to jumpstart healthier eating patterns or want to drop a few pounds; others want to identify potential food intolerances; and for a handful, Instagram or the internet told them to.
As is the case with many people testing out fad diets, only a fraction of them are following Whole30 to a tee. Most others are either allowing themselves to cheat for special occasions or tailoring the diet to their own preferences—splurging when unique opportunities arise or limiting Whole30 to a more digestible “Whole30 9-5.” The question is—can you bend the rules of a strict elimination diet and still reap the benefits? Here are my pros and cons of cheating on Whole30.
A Case Against Cheating
At its core, Whole30 is an elimination diet—a short-term eating plan in which you eliminate all sources of added sugar, grains, corn, rice, legumes, beans, dairy, alcohol, and certain additives like MSG and sulfites for three to six weeks and then re-introduce each food back, individually, and monitor your symptoms or reactions to those foods. If you eat one of these forbidden foods, you must restart the 30-day process.
The primary purpose of Whole30 is not to lose weight or improve health markers. This popular elimination diet is designed to provide you with valuable, empowering information about how certain foods impact your health and wellbeing, and you won’t get that information if you haven’t eliminated those foods from your diet completely.
You might think that, if there are foods that are negatively impacting your health or wellbeing, you’d certainly know it. But if you’ve never existed without those foods in your system, that’s your “normal,” and you may not be aware of how great you can feel when you eliminate a potentially problematic food. Many people with celiac disease, for example, had no idea that their body couldn’t process wheat and are shocked to discover that living without chronic stomach pain and fatigue is possible. You may not have any intolerances or sensitivities, but that’s still valuable information.
From a purist perspective (and my perspective), Whole30 is all or nothing. By cheating, you’re getting the worst of both worlds—removing a lot of delicious foods from your diet without learning anything valuable about how these foods affect you. Eating healthy, whole foods and avoiding packaged foods for just one month, but cheating a little bit and then returning to your previous eating habits, probably won’t impact your health or weight in the long-term, nor will it give you information about how certain foods affect your wellbeing.
A Case For Cheating
It is possible, however, to change your eating behaviors for the better, despite cheating on Whole30. One of my coworkers undertook Whole30 and deviated from the diet several times. He did it mindfully, though—he chose to “cheat” for foods or experiences that either he can’t get every day or that he wouldn’t be able to recreate himself. On National Grilled Cheese Day, we had a grilled cheese bar fully stocked with a mouthwatering cornucopia of breads, cheeses, meats (think bacon, pulled pork, lobster), and spreads that he considered worth “cheating” for. He wouldn’t cheat for just anything, like the donuts or hot cheetos that he could otherwise have any other time.
Even though he only loosely followed the Whole30 guidelines, he gained valuable information about how food impacts him and has changed his eating behaviors for the better. He’s more aware of the foods that he’s putting into his body instead of mindlessly snacking on chips and pretzels. He feels empowered to make choices about the food he eats and to be able to say no, even in the face of temptation. And even though he may not have pinpointed any intolerances or sensitivities he has to certain foods, failure is knowledge too.
So What Should I Do?
If you’re interested in doing Whole30, it can be helpful to identify your reasons for trying the diet in the first place. Are you interested in losing weight, getting your cholesterol numbers under control, or minimizing your risk for diabetes? If so, an elimination diet might not be your best bet, and a less restrictive, more sustainable eating pattern based on whole foods might be a better option. But if you think you might have an intolerance to a specific food, a chronic health condition like irritable bowel syndrome, or are constantly low on energy, Whole30—or a similar elimination diet in which you follow the rules exactly—might be exactly what you’re looking for.