Paleo vs. Whole30: Which Is Better?

The simple question of “what’s for dinner” isn’t so simple sometimes. Especially for those with food sensitivities or for those who are dieting to reshape their body, the simple act of choosing what to eat can become fraught.

Two restrictive ways of eating — one that’s intended as a longer-term diet and the other as a short-term experiment — can help guide your food choices and may help you identify which foods help your body feel and function best, and which you should avoid entirely.

Paleo Diet Overview

“The paleo diet is an elimination diet based on the research of Dr. Loren Cordain,” says Nina Young, wellness education specialist at Facey Medical Foundation in Mission Hill, California. “It eliminates foods that were not eaten by our paleolithic ancestors before farming began 10,000 years ago. The paleo philosophy is based on the ‘evolutionary discordance hypothesis,’ the idea that getting away from the eating and activity habits of our ancestors creates a mismatch between genes and lifestyle, contributing to the rise of chronic health problems we see today,” Young explains.

The paleo diet takes its name from the word Paleolithic, a reference to our hunter-gatherer ancestors who sometimes had limited access to food in a wild word long before microwave dinners. The theory goes that if those ancestors didn’t eat a food, we shouldn’t either because we haven’t yet evolved to appropriately digest modern foods. This means avoiding anything that requires intensive farming, such as beans and legumes, cultivated grains and dairy. Alcohol is also out, and refined sugars are also to be shunned.

What you can eat are whole foods, with a heavy emphasis on vegetables, some fruits and meat. If our paleolithic ancestors could hunt it down or forage it, it’s fair game.

[SEE: Paleo Diet Meal Delivery Services.]

Whole30 Overview

In 2009, Melissa Hartwig Urban, now CEO of Whole30, a company that supports and provides resources for people interested in following its popular 30-day eating plan of the same name, decided to get serious in figuring out which foods were causing her to feel less than her best. She and a friend devised a 30-day elimination diet that sought to remove foods that cause inflammation and anything else that could cause sensitivities. This self-experiment had astounding results for the two friends, and Urban wrote about it on her blog. A movement was born.

Like the paleo diet, Whole30 is a restrictive way of eating. It eliminates:

— Sugar and artificial sweeteners.

— Alcohol.

— Grains.

Legumes.

— Dairy.

— Food additives, including carrageenan, MSG and sulfites.

— Baked goods and other junk food.

Those following a Whole30 protocol are permitted to eat whole foods, including:

— Meat, seafood and eggs.

— Vegetables and fruit.

— Natural fats.

— Herbs, spices and seasonings.

Urban notes that it’s not a diet. “It’s not a weight-loss program. There’s no caloric restriction. You’re not counting or weighing or measuring,” rather you’re changing what foods you eat and noting how those changes impact how you feel. Followers are admonished to avoid stepping on the scale or taking any body measurements for the entire 30 days, as it’s not about weight loss. It’s about learning which foods are problematic for your body.

Once the 30-day trial period has concluded, you can begin adding back in some of the foods you’ve eliminated one at a time. The key is to add foods back in systematically while noting how their reintroduction changes the way you feel, as that can provide insight into how certain foods affect your sense of wellness.

The whole point of Whole30 is to be a short-term, information-providing, alternative eating pattern — not a way of life. Thus, a primary difference between the paleo diet and Whole30 is time. “The Whole 30 diet is a short-term elimination diet for 30 days with no cheat meals. The paleo diet is a long-term diet,” says Kaleigh Tjoelker, a registered dietitian nutritionist with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

[See: Health Issues That Are Sometimes Mistaken for Gluten Sensitivity.]

Health Benefits

Paleo Diet
Because the paleo diet strips out refined sugars and many carbohydrates, it can be a quick way to lose weight. If the focus is on eating whole, unprocessed foods and vegetables — rather than meat — it’s probably a better alternative to a standard American diet chock full of artificial ingredients and sugar. “By cutting down on refined carbohydrates and highly processed foods, these diets tend to lead to weight loss and better blood sugar control, without the feelings of deprivation and constant counting that usually come with traditional diets,” Young says.

“A small number of studies have shown the paleo diet to be effective in weight loss, improving insulin resistance and reducing some cardiovascular risk factors such as reducing waist circumference and increasing HDL cholesterol,” says Colette Micko, a registered dietitian nutritionist with Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center Torrance in Torrance, California. “However, these studies have been short in duration (less than one year) and conducted on a very small number of participants (less than 100).”

Whole30
While following the Whole30 protocol, you may find that you drop some weight because of the restrictive nature of the plan. But the program discourages tracking your weight or body measurements, as it’s not intended for weight loss. Rather, the key period for the Whole30 plan occurs after the 30 days of restrictive eating have concluded. This is when you’ll begin adding back foods you’d eliminated — one at a time so you can carefully observe and record how each reintroduced food interacts with your system. You may learn that certain foods don’t really agree with you. And thus, you may decide to exclude these foods from your diet going forward.

Some people who’ve tried Whole30 have found that it alters how they think about food and forces them to become more aware of what they’re eating and when. Because it emphasizes whole foods and fresh vegetables, this can pay some health dividends for individuals switching from a diet that relies more on heavily processed foods. Intended as a short-term experiment, at the conclusion of the protocol, you can move into a more sustainable, longer-term eating pattern that focuses on including a wider range of healthy foods.

All that said, “there have been no independent research studies conducted on the health outcomes of following the Whole30 diet,” Micko says.

Because both diets focus on nutrient-dense, fresh, whole foods,” that can mean a reduction in the among of sugar and sodium in the diet and an increase in fiber — all good things. And because both diets emphasize including wild-caught fatty fish, nuts and seeds, both eating patterns are typically higher in omega-3 fatty acids, reducing overall inflammation,” Micko says.

Health Risks

Tjoelker cautions that “both of these diets rely heavily on animal proteins for protein sources. Plant-based protein sources such as soy, legumes, nut butter and whole grains are restricted in these diets,” and as such, that can be problematic. “High intakes of meats, especially red meats, are associated with increased risk of chronic disease including cardiovascular disease and some cancers.”

Micko also cautions the excessive use of red meat in these eating plans. “Several studies have also shown an increased consumption of red meat to an increased risk of all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.” And she adds that “both diets highlight grass-fed beef, claiming it contains more omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally raised beef. While this is true, the amount of omega-3 varies greatly among grass-fed beef, depending on feed regimen of the animals and breed of cattle.” And, if the emphasis is on consuming meat products, that can lead to a reduction in fiber levels

In addition, “restricting intake of whole grains and legumes can greatly reduce fiber intake, which is essential for a healthy gut. It can also be difficult to meet daily calcium recommendations from non-dairy sources alone,” Tjoelker explains. “Both diets have the potential to be very low in calcium, which can increase risk of developing osteoporosis and bone fractures,” Micko notes.

In addition to these concerns, Micko adds that “neither the paleo diet nor Whole30 emphasize calorie intake or portion sizes. This could potentially result in overall excess caloric intake and weight gain.” And neither approach is considered sustainable over the long term.

And for certain individuals, such as those with certain medical conditions or a history of eating disorders, these diets could be a bad choice. “I would not recommend either diet for those with early stage chronic kidney disease or other conditions that could be worsened by high protein intake,” Micko says.

[See: The Best Plant-Based Diets.]

Cost

“Because both of these diets rely on animal proteins as protein sources, both of these diets may be expensive compared to a plant-based diet eating pattern that includes a variety of protein sources,” Tjoelker says. Typically, plant-based protein sources are “less expensive than animal-based proteins,” she says.

Micko agrees that these plans can get pricey. “Fresh meats, fish and produce (particularly organic and locally sourced, which are encouraged on both diets) tend to be pricier than their conventional alternatives.

Which One Is Better?

According to U.S. News’ 2020 Best Diets, the paleo diet is slightly better than Whole30. The paleo diet tied for 29th place in the Best Diets Overall listing (out of 35). It tied for 23rd place in the Best Fast Weight-Loss Diets category. Whole30 landed at the bottom of the Best Diets Overall ranking, claiming the 33rd spot, and it tied for 27th on the list of Best Fast Weight-Loss Diets.

A lack of research and evidence about both regimens plays into these lower rankings, and “there is no research to support that one diet is healthier than the other,” Micko says.

Paleo Diet

Whole30

Food

— Restrictive eating plan eliminates grains and other cultivated foods (potatoes, legumes, dairy).

— High consumption of meat and poultry.

— Focus on in-season fruits and vegetables.

— Preference for whole foods over processed foods.

— Restrictive eating plan eliminates several food groups and is intended to be followed as an elimination diet for 30 days.

— Focus on whole foods, fruits, vegetables and lean meats.

— Removes processed foods, sugar, alcohol, baked goods, grains and dairy.

Weight Loss

— A protein-heavy diet may be associated with rapid weight loss in some people, but these losses may be hard to maintain.

— Not intended as a weight-loss tool.

Health Risks

— Elimination of certain food groups such as dairy and whole grains, could reduce overall levels of fiber and calcium in the diet.

— Increased intake of red meat has been associated with increased risk of heart disease and certain cancers.

— Restrictive approach is difficult to maintain long term, but not intended to be a long-term diet.

— Eliminating grains and dairy could lead to reduced intake of fiber and calcium.

Health Benefits

— Eating whole, unprocessed foods offers many benefits.

— Could improve blood sugar control among diabetics.

— May show you which foods cause sensitivities or cause you to feel less than your best.

Tjoelker says that “as a registered dietitian nutritionist, I do not recommend either of these diets. These diets are not sustainable long term for most people and restrict several beneficial foods like whole grains and plant-based proteins. I encourage patients/clients to focus on adding in more vegetables, fruits, whole grains and plant-based protein foods. These foods are nutrient-dense and allow people to focus on beneficial foods rather than all of the foods they need to avoid.”

Further, Tjoelker calls both the paleo diet and Whole30 “fad diets. There will never be one specific diet that works for everyone, especially one which eliminates entire food groups.” Instead, she recommends “meeting with a registered dietitian who can provide personalized, evidence-based nutritional advice to meet your unique nutrition needs.”

Micko also isn’t a big fan of either approach. “I do not typically recommend either diet to patients/clients. When working with patients, I tend to focus on smaller changes they are ready to work on versus following a strict diet template.”

That said, there can be some room for experimentation Micko says. “The paleo diet or Whole30 can be a good starting point for many people trying to improve their diet as a whole. However, I usually encourage patients to add beans, lentils, whole grains and low-fat/nonfat dairy when they are ready to add variety.”