We’ve been running our Whole30® program for 3-1/2 years now, and have received thousands of glowing testimonials. (There are even more floating around on the internet, too—Google “Whole30” and you get hundreds of thousands of hits. Literally.) We’ve proven the program improves people’s health, and many report the Whole30 really did change their life.
But the Whole30 isn’t perfect (no diet is, universally), and we will be the first to admit it. The program is as good as we can make it, to have the most significant impact on as many people as we can reach. We’ve tweaked it, adjusted it, made it better as the years went on. But it’s not perfect, by any means, and it’s not a miracle—despite the miraculous results some people do experience.
That’s not to say that a strict 30-day Paleo elimination program isn’t a damn fine protocol. In fact, the Whole30 generally works really, really well for the vast majority of people. Which is why, when we hear from those who say the Whole30 (or some other form of short-term Paleo intervention) “didn’t work” for them, we pay attention. We read their stories, ask questions of these participants, and over the years, have gathered some data on why, for these folks, “the magic” just didn’t come. (At least, not in the way they hoped it would. More on this soon.)
In many cases, it’s not your fault if it didn’t work. And the one thing we want you to take away from this article is that if the Whole30 didn’t work for you, you are not a failure, and there is nothing wrong with you. It just is what it is… but there are reasons for it.
So today, here are six reasons (infused with a gentle dose of tough love) why your perfect Paleo elimination program just “didn’t work”… and what you can do about it.
You Didn’t Do It Right
This is the most common reason for the “failure” of elimination programs like the Whole30 to provide results. You followed the technical letter of the rules, but didn’t embrace the spirit or intention of the program. You “slipped” or “treated yourself,” because you had to/wanted to/figured it wouldn’t really matter. You adjusted the program to suit your cravings, your social life, your idea of “healthy.” You only gave it two weeks before deciding it wasn’t working.
And if you’re really, truly honest with yourself, you know that you didn’t really give the Whole30 your full efforts. And as we’ve mentioned before, mediocre efforts yield mediocre results.
Of course, this isn’t everyone’s situation. So for those of you who really felt like you gave the program the attention and dedication it deserves, then maybe…
Thirty Days Wasn’t Long Enough
While radical health improvements can take place in just 30 days during the program, when you put it into context, decades of less than healthy behavior often can’t compete with 30 days of Whole30. Fat adaptation (teaching your body to use fat as fuel) takes time.* Stubborn medical issues, like psoriasis, migraines, chronic pain conditions, or diabetes, can’t be fully resolved with just a month of healthy eating. And an unhealthy psychological relationship with food—and the cravings, habits, and emotional ties that go along—are often the toughest battle to win.
*This is especially true if you’re coming from a S.A.D. (Standard American Diet). It can take several weeks before you learn to trust the “hungry” and “full” signals your body is sending you—and you may not have been eating enough in the beginning, because you were afraid of all that fat.
Many Whole30’ers report that they didn’t feel or see “the magic” until day 45, 60, or beyond. Whether you choose to extend your Paleo elimination program or not is entirely up to you, but think about your results in terms of the context of your life, your health history, and your habits—and realize that maybe, you’ll need longer than just 30 days to see the ultimate results you were hoping for. But then again, you also have to make sure you’re measuring the right thing. Quite possibly…
You Aren’t Paying Attention To The Right Stuff
You really, really wanted to lose weight on your Whole30, and you read tons of testimonials about effortless weight loss when nothing else worked—so of course, you expected this would be your outcome too. But you didn’t lose weight, or you didn’t lose as much as you had hoped. So you deemed the program a failure, because the number on the scale didn’t budge, or your pants still fit the same. (You could apply this same concept to anything—you were hoping your skin would clear up and glow, your gym performance would skyrocket, or your chronic pain would completely disappear.)
But were you paying attention to what else happened during your program? Are you falling asleep easier, staying asleep longer, waking more refreshed? Is your energy more consistent, or have you lost your usual mid-day slump? Has your pain decreased, has your skin improved, have your allergies diminished, are your sugar cravings easier to battle?
As we’ve written about so many times, the scale (and your body) aren’t the only measure of Whole30 success—in fact, we’d venture to say it’s pretty far down the list of potential life-changing results. And being open to embracing all of the changes the program has to offer—both the expected and the unexpected, the large and the small—can open your eyes to the results you’ve actually achieved.
So if you didn’t lose weight (or change one particular health factor as much as you were hoping), take a different approach and focus on all of the positive changes you have seen. Of course… it’s entirely possible that you’re barking up the wrong tree altogether.
You’re Looking For a Nutrition Solution To a Lifestyle Problem
If you come from a S.A.D.—even the “healthy” kind, with whole grains and low-fat dairy—we’d be stunned if the Whole30 didn’t make a huge impact on how you look, how you feel, and your quality of life. Stunned. But if you’ve been eating pretty Paleo for a while, decide to tighten things up that last 20% in the hopes of seeing the results you’ve been missing, and just don’t see them, you know what that tells us?
Diet ain’t your problem.
And no amount of additional Paleo elimination, carb-gram tweaks, or fasting cycles is going to completely resolve your issues. If this is your story, it’s time to look at your other factors. If you’re only sleeping five hours a night, doing high-intensity activity six days a week, and eating a purposefully very low-carb diet, you’ve got bigger fish to fry than the occasional cream in your coffee. Check out the Whole9 Health Equation, and see what other factors you need to prioritize to get things moving in the right direction.
In addition, just maybe, and we say this gently…
Your Expectations Are Simply Too High
This is a difficult one to tell people, because we hear “miracle” Whole30 testimonials every day. “The Whole30 made my hot flashes disappear!” “The Whole30 fixed my adrenal fatigue!” “My rheumatoid arthritis was cured thanks to Paleo!” So If you are in menopause, suffering from cortisol resistance, or have an autoimmune condition, you’re wondering, why didn’t this happen to me?
We understand. And we can’t blame you for feeling disappointed when you see other people “just like you” experiencing the results you desperately hoped to see… but didn’t. But the thing you have to understand is that no one is just like you. Your history, current context, genetics, environment all meld together to form a unique situation: you. Which means the same protocol applied to two very “similar” people can yield dramatically different results.
Here’s the other thing we need to be clear about—the Whole30, while a powerful dietary intervention, isn’t always a miracle cure. (We’re probably not going to use that as our next tag line, but it’s the truth.) To be blunt, the impact of your hormones during menopause far exceeds the benefits of not adding milk and sugar to your coffee. The long-reaching effects of chronic stress aren’t usually fixable with dietary intervention alone—that’s the exception, rather than the rule. And, as far as medical research has demonstrated to date, autoimmune conditions aren’t normally fully reversible.
So while the Whole30 could help you improve some symptoms, maybe all it’s going to do for you (depending on your history and context) is help you maintain—or not make things worse. It may improve your skin, your energy, your sleep, but if you’re battling a serious condition or disease (or are going through massive hormonal changes, such as during pregnancy or menopause), it’s just not reasonable to believe that any dietary intervention will magically see you through. It’s wonderful if it does, but it’s simply not realistic to expect.
Which brings us to the final reason, which plays on the above…
Lifestyle Interventions Can’t Fix Everything
Many come to the Whole30 with long histories of yo-yo dieting, chronic stress, poor lifestyle choices, and longstanding illness. The effects of health history are far-reaching, causing changes to your metabolism, your inflammatory status, and how your body responds to stimulus like food, stress, and exercise for years—decades—to come. And some of you are still working through these issues when you come to Paleo nutrition or the Whole30.
This situation requires the toughest love of all.
Lifestyle interventions can’t fix everything. In fact, you could pile a Whole30 on top of sleeping ten hours a night on top of smart exercise on top of stress management… and that still might not totally “fix” you. Because some issues are so longstanding, and so disruptive long-term, that you need targeted intervention with a trained and experienced professional to fix your stuff. (And we’re not talking about “Are you stressed a lot? You probably have adrenal fatigue. You should take some adaptogens and only do strength work.” This information is basically useless at your stage of the game.)
We’re talking about connecting with a good functional medicine practitioner, doing some very specific (and probably costly) testing to figure out exactly what’s going on, and then supplementing with the appropriate stuff, at the appropriate dose, for the appropriate amount of time. Months, generally. Perhaps a year or more.
We told you, this part would be hard to hear. And we’re sorry if this is your context. But trust us when we say we understand. (Melissa spent two years recovering from her stress addiction and cortisol resistance, working with several functional medicine practitioners, doing lots of testing, and following a very specific supplementation schedule and radical lifestyle interventions to get her to the very healthy place she’s at today.)
Of course, this doesn’t mean diet, sleep, exercise, and stress management don’t matter. In fact, in this situation, rigorous attention to these details (and we mean rigorous—change-your-entire-life-around-to-improve-these-lifestyle-factors rigorous) is a prerequisite for the work you’ll do with your practitioner. So don’t give up on the Whole30, or your other healthy lifestyle protocols. But in this case, in your context, please don’t expect even this level of attention to the lifestyle stuff to fix everything for you. (Believe us, we wish they could.)
The Good News
After all this, there is good news. If you’ve done the Whole30 with not-so-stellar results, go back and reevaluate your efforts, and your outcome. Perhaps you’ll see your program in a new light—or be motivated to try again. (Our Whole30® Daily has a series of questionnaires to help you be more aware of the benefits, large and small, you may see along the way.)
If you’ve got a complicated health history, don’t be discouraged! You didn’t get to this place overnight, and you’ll not get out of it quickly—but armed with a healthy lifestyle (and perhaps the help of an experienced professional) you are already back on the road to recovery. Patience is key. Being kind to and forgiving of yourself is key. And focusing on the positive changes you are already seeing could have the biggest impact on your experience. How you view the situation is sometimes more important than the details of the situation itself.
We’ll be talking a lot more about these complicated issues, and the fact that lifestyle interventions can’t fix everything, in future articles. In the meantime, if you’re one of those people for whom a perfect Paleo protocol just didn’t work for you, take heart. You are not alone, and we’ll do our best to provide you with the information and support you need to continue to move forward with your health initiatives.