Whole30 and Your Gut Flora

Someone in your office is doing “Whole30” this January, and they’re likely telling everyone about it.

And if you haven’t heard anyone talking about it… then it might be you.

If you haven’t heard of it (and you weren’t listening while your coworker explained it), “Whole30” is a month-long exclusionary diet. For 30 days, you cut out soy, dairy, grains, alcohol, legumes, and added sugars. 

So… probably most of what your regular Western diet consists of. The idea is that after 30 days, a participant would slowly start to introduce food groups back into their diet, so that they can see which foods may have been secretly irritating them or causing discomfort. Sort of like the idea behind the FODMAP diet for those with bowel issues. 

People starting a Whole30 diet experience a range of bodily reactions during those 30 days….

Including sugar withdrawal, carb cravings, alcohol detox, deep sleep, and the absence of brain fog.

Whole30 participants who believe in it really throw their weight behind it, expounding on all kinds of benefits:

  • More energy
  • Weight loss
  • Feeling less bloated
  • Better sleep
  • Less frequent bouts of illness
  • Less hunger cravings
  • Clearer skin

And more.

But the gut’s microbiome, while certainly functioning better without unprocessed foods and alcohol, thrives on the diversity of our diets and activities. 

So what how does this diet affect the health of your gut flora?

Let’s investigate a bit…

What You CAN Eat

The “whole” bit of Whole30 signifies that everything allowed on the diet is exclusively unprocessed, natural, whole foods. 

So you’re left with vegetables, fruits, unprocessed meats (no added sugar or preservatives), seafood, eggs, nuts and seeds, some oils and ghee, and coffee. That’s it.

You’re cutting out dairy, grains, alcohol, legumes (beans, tofu, miso, edamame, soy, chickpeas, lentils, peas, and peanuts), added sugar, msg, sulfites, carrageenan, and junk food in general.

Now, greens and unprocessed foods are good for your gut flora. And focusing on only those foods can help to heal your gut by eating meals with only a few ingredients (so that your digestive system isn’t working overtime to process complex meals with lots of components.) 

Other Whole30 foods, like extra virgin coconut oil and pure coconut milk, are known for helping to fight stomach inflammation and ulcers. 

But some of the foods the Whole30 demands that you eliminate are powerful. 

Here’s how they help your microbiome flourish…

What You’re Missing 

It’s important to look at Whole30 from the macro-level, and then the micro-level.

The elimination of all those food groups all at the same time bodes badly for your gut, according to Dr. Mahmoud A. Ghannoum (the guy who started using the word “microbiome” in reference to your gut’s habitat.)

He breaks down the foods that Whole30 eliminates and explains why they’re necessary for flourishing gut flora. Grains can help decrease inflammation, so removing them from your diet may actually irritate the digestive tracts of those who suffer from inflammation. Dairy has loads of healthy proteins that feed good gut bacteria, although he agrees dairy should be consumed in moderation. 

Legumes and soy foods are consistently praised for their gut benefits, like beans, lentils, and dried peas. They are heavy in soluble and insoluble fiber, which not only keep the bowels running smoothly but also feed the positive bacteria in your intestines. 

Whole30-believers claim they cut out legumes because of their phytate content. Phytate is an element that blocks absorption of nutrients — but they’re contained in meat as well. Cutting out legumes doesn’t cut out phytates.

Now, Whole30’s elimination experiment isn’t a bad plan — but for the purposes of gut health, it’s flawed.

Cutting out legumes, grains, and dairy all at once, when they’re helpful and healthful for your gut bacteria, isn’t necessarily advisable.

Cutting out one group at a time, and charting your body’s reaction, would allow for a still-thriving digestive system and an informative hypothesis testing. 

If you already experience gut issues and you’re considering a restrictive diet, you should always consult your doctor first.

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NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.