Whole30 diet: more pseudoscience and quackery

amish paste
Amish Paste

Recently, someone sent me a link to the Whole30 program, yet another diet program to make you feel better in so many wildly unlikely ways. The program was hatched by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig, who have no scientific training but claim to be Certified Sports Nutritionists.  Let us be clear here: nutritionist is not a controlled title with a curriculum behind it. Anyone can call themselves a “nutritionist,” and many do. It’s whatever they want it to be. One of them is a physical therapist.

Now this program amounts to eating fewer things of various types for a month or so, and claims to be effective in here, type1 and type2 diabetes, high cholesterol, asthma, sinus infections, hives, endometriosis, migraines, depression, bipolar disorder…and on and on. Because obviously all of these have a simple root cause: and their special diet relieves them all. You believe all of this, don’t you?

So what is one way for guys to lose weight? For 30 days, you eat an extremely restrictive diet: no grains, no gluten, no alcohol, no sugar, no artificial sweeteners, no legumes, no dairy, no carrageenan, no MSG. The idea is that you will feel a lot better after starving yourself on this diet, and can then slowly add all these missing ingredients back in after the month is over.  If this sounds rather like the Paleo diet, it is, except for more crazy claims for all of its effects, although they make no claims for weight loss. They claim you will feel better after this month of this ridiculous diet, but it is really rather like hitting yourself over the head, because it feels so good when you stop.

The problem is that the Paleo diet has been debunked already as a naturalistic fallacy, both in Scientific American and by David Gorski in ScienceBased Medicine. The idea that we even know what primitive humans ate is in itself ridiculous, because their diet varied a lot based on where they lived. Yes, they ate grains and yes they ate gluten in some areas, but the main problem is that plants and humans have evolved a great deal since then. You cannot get the same plants they ate, and corn hadn’t even been bred yet from the Mexican teosinte plants. And humans evolved to tolerate lactose as adults in the last 7000 years as well.

The authors make all sorts of wild claims, such as reduction in inflammation, a sure marker of quackery. Somehow, some pseudoscience practitioners have latched onto the idea that foods cause inflammation and you will be better without them. This is complete nonsense. As Harriet Hall notes in Science Based Medicine, “inflammation is part of the body’s response to infection and tissue damage, and it is crucial to the healing process.”

The Hartwigs have essentially combined the Paleo diet with something approaching the completely discredited cleanse diets, where eating some foods “cleans out” your system. This is just as much nonsense in this diet as it is when purveyors of juice mixtures make the same claim.

And the idea of avoiding MSG is utter nonsense, because it occurs naturally in many vegetables, including broccoli, tomatoes and peas, as well as in cheeses and soy sauce. And it is a key component in cellular metabolism: the body synthesizes it all the time.

In essence, the Hartwigs have come up with a sort of fasting diet but no evidence whatever that it provides any benefits, nor any science to back up their ideas. There are no double blind experiments that have been carried out to show its benefits, nor any scientific publications. All they have is a few gushing testimonials showing that some people will buy into anything. This testimonial is typical, and comes from someone who also claims to have chronic Lyme Disease (which does not exist). She also blandly supports the discredited Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 nonsense published each year by the Environmental Working Group.

This is not to say that some of the recipes in their books aren’t good: they look delicious. But don’t count on curing every malady know to medicine using this simple minded diet scam.


8 thoughts on “Whole30 diet: more pseudoscience and quackery

  1. You don’t state your nutritionist credentials, I would be curious to know. This article doesn’t even show the author’s name that I can see, unless you are James Cooper. It is unclear. I’m not discounting your opinion. I just find it ironic that you are discrediting their credentials without stating your own personal point of view or how you came to that view. I stumbled on your site while researching Whole 30 – just wondering where you are coming from…


  2. Thanks James for your summary on this Whole30. I am an RDN trained in several health disciplines who also happens to be an informed consumer of science and a big fan of scientific evidence ! So my antennae has always gone up when I hear about gimmicky efforts such as this, paleo, false claims about veganism etc. etc. The “Whole 30” is basically a rigid elimination diet but the creators offer little to no information about the critical reintroduction period- more focus on the fanatical bootcamp-ish rah rah portion. I have actually been thinking about doing an elimination diet for some time simply to see if I actually would FEEL different if I were to eliminate gluten and dairy or to even see if there is a minimally decent reason to cut down on some of my FAVORITE FOODS ON EARTH. My question to you is about whether there is any evidence worth looking at that excessive gluten or dairy could cause sensitivity that would result in inflammation for “some” people. I’m clear on the difference between sensitivity and intolerance or full blown allergy- none of which I have. I know there are all kinds of claims being made about excessive inflammation cause by these foods and I personally know many people who tell me that they eliminated gluten and dairy and feel less sluggish, less joint pain, more energy etc. etc. Any scientifically informed comments appreciated !!

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  3. I just looked at this book, but it just doesn’t seem right. The ingredients are so minimal and the diet relies on sweet potatoes too much. I have friends who did it and have had great results, her skin looks great and his diverticulitus has really minimized, but still. I think what makes this diet work is the cutting out of processed foods and the cheating intolerance of those foods. People are nuts now days about gluten wheat and dairy and also allergies when there seem to be no symptoms, which I also think is a naturopath scam. The anti legume thing is weird, look at the whole world eating lentils and beans with no problems, and health. Beans and lentils are good for sperm count, so when I hear about diets getting mass publicity before the results have rolled in with advice like no beans, like the Gundry diet also, I think conspiracy to lower American sperm count. There’s nothing wrong with beans. Give me a break.


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