Whenever someone asks me if they should try Whole30, I always respond by with this question: What’s your goal?
The Whole30 Program is not designed for weight loss (as its creators have made clear). In fact, you're not supposed to step on a scale or take your body measurements at any point during the 30-day plan.
Whole30 is essentially a month-long journey to see how your body responds when you cut out sugar, dairy, grains, soy, alcohol, and pulses (beans, lentils, chickpeas).
It can be a helpful experiment for anyone who suspects they have a food sensitivity or intolerance. That said, many people tell me they are motivated to try Whole30 in order to lose weight. If shedding pounds is your only goal, you can still see results without going "all in” with the plan’s strict eliminations. Bonus: taking this less restrictive approach can make it easier to sustain your new healthy-eating strategies for more than 30 days, so you’ll be more likely to lose weight and keep it off.
Below are three dietary tactics that are (partly) inspired by Whole30, but modified to focus on weight loss, not food sensitivities.
Scale back on sugar and alcohol
One of the main rules of Whole30 is that you must commit to the plan 100%. If you “mess up,” you have to start over. In my experience with clients, there are pros and cons to going cold turkey with things like sugar and alcohol when your goal is weight loss. For many, eliminating these indulgences for 30 days drastically reduces cravings, so you have a diminished desire to nibble on candy at the office or pour a mid-week glass of wine.
However for other clients, putting certain foods off limits can trigger a sense of panic that leads to obsessive thinking about the forbidden goodies—followed by rebound binge eating or drinking. What's more, for many people, eliminating sugar and alcohol just isn’t practical, even for 30 days.
If you feel you regularly overindulge in either sugar or alcohol (or both) cutting back can definitely lead to weight loss results. But if swearing them off isn't doable try committing to a strategy of moderation. My go-to approach: Limit your sweets to a few squares of 70% dark chocolate a day (except on special occasions). And consider restricting your alcohol consumption to weekends only.
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Forget about processed foods
In my opinion, the best rule in Whole30 involves giving up processed foods, whether or not your personal goal is weight loss. Instead of eating foods that have been stripped of fiber and nutrients, and filled with artificial additives, focus on “real food." The swap can slash calories, lead to increased energy and improved digestive health, and seriously upgrade your nutrient intake, even if you don’t follow every other Whole30 restriction.
There are plenty of easy ways to trade processed foods for much healthier, clean options. For example, instead of a bagel or a muffin for breakfast, opt for Greek yogurt with fresh fruit and nuts or seeds. Rather than a sandwich or wrap for lunch, have fresh greens dressed with EVOO and balsamic vinegar, topped with wild salmon and a small scoop of quinoa. Ditch the frozen entree for dinner, and whip up a quick veggie, herb, and avocado omelet instead.
Choose your carbs wisely
One thing I don’t love about the Whole30 program for people who are motivated by weight loss is that it cuts out all grains and pulses. If an intolerance or sensitivity to either of these food groups isn’t the cause of your sluggishness (or other symptoms) eating healthy versions and amounts of these foods can boost your energy and help you slim down.
I’ve had clients who believed that all grains were a problem for them when, in reality, their bloating, fatigue, and failure to lose weight were the result of consuming excessive amounts of poor quality grains. In other words, they shed pounds and felt better after making changes like trading a large bowl of sugary cereal for a small portion of nut-topped whole oats; or replacing white pasta at dinner with spaghetti squash.
Bottom line: I’m not saying you shouldn't try Whole30. Even if you don't believe you suffer from food sensitivities, it may reveal valuable information about your body and your relationship to food. But before adopting any new eating plan, take some time to consider your motivations, as well as alternatives that may make more sense for you. In the long run, personalizing your approach, and moving at your own pace, will likely serve you best.
Cynthia Sass is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and consultant for the New York Yankees. See her full bio here.