Chances are you know at least one person who has tried the paleo diet or the Whole30 diet. You might have even heard people talking about the amazing weight loss benefits of each, and maybe you’re wondering if you should give one (or both?) of them a try. While the two diets have a lot in common, it’s helpful to know the difference between paleo and Whole30 if you’re thinking about doing one or the other.
Both diets emphasize eating fewer processed foods and building healthier eating habits. Both diets also restrict grains, refined sugars, dairy, and legumes. But there are a few key differences between paleo and Whole30 that can help you decide which diet is best for you. Here’s what you need to know about paleo vs. Whole30.
What Is Whole30?
The Whole30 diet is an intense 30-day elimination diet that cuts out all processed foods, dairy, grains, alcohol, legumes, added sugars, carrageenan, MSG, and sulfites.
“The concept is that people eliminate various foods and additives to help jumpstart a healthier lifestyle,” says Courtney Schuchmann, M.S., R.D., L.D.N. at the University of Chicago Medicine. “After the 30 days, they are allowed to slowly add some of those prohibited foods back into their diet. The restrictive nature of the diet is temporary, and it teaches people which foods can be added back in moderation.”
But there’s no room for cheat meals or mistakes. If you slip up, you start over — back to day 1 of 30. And don’t bother pinning recipes for avocado brownies — even “healthy” desserts are banned on this diet. That’s because the creators believe “snack hacks” only make your cravings for sweets stronger, because they never quite match up to the real deal. (They have a pretty NSFW analogy for this.)
What You CAN Eat on Whole30
- veggies (yep, even potatoes)
- fruits (in moderation)
- unprocessed meats
- nuts (but not peanuts — they’re a legume!)
- olive oil and coconut oil
- black coffee
What You CAN’T Eat on Whole30
- added sugars
What Is the Paleo Diet?
The paleo diet takes a prehistoric approach to nutrition. If your Paleolithic-era ancestors could hunt it or gather it, then it’s a paleo-approved food. This makes the paleo guidelines pretty similar to the Whole30 guidelines: no dairy, no refined sugar, no legumes, no grains, and nothing processed or packaged.
And for serious paleo devotees, it’s not just about cutting out grains and eating more produce — it’s also about choosing locally-grown foods like farm-fresh eggs, grass-fed meats, and seasonal fruits and veggies whenever possible.
While it’s likely you’ll lose weight on the paleo diet — especially if your current diet is heavy in carbs and processed foods — the main focus is on getting back (waaaay back) to the basics with your eating habits and focusing on choosing whole foods. This is more of a lifestyle diet and is meant to be maintained for a long period of time.
What You CAN Eat on the Paleo Diet
- grass-fed meat
- fruits and veggies (ideally locally-grown and in-season)
- eggs (again, ideally from a local farm)
- nuts and seeds (except peanuts — those pesky legumes!)
- oils (olive, walnut, flaxseed, macadamia, avocado, and coconut)
What You CAN’T Eat on the Paleo Diet
- overly-salted foods
- processed foods
- refined sugar
Paleo vs. Whole30: Which Diet Is Better for You?
Because the guidelines for paleo and Whole30 are so similar, it’s no surprise they have a lot of the same benefits and drawbacks. Deciding which one is better for you depends on a few things.
The Pros: “Both diets focus on whole, unprocessed foods,” says Krista Maguire, RD, CSSD, and nutrition manager at Openfit. This is always a good approach when it comes to healthy, clean eating. Although this makes both diets pretty restrictive in nature, it can definitely be a plus for people who work better with a clear set of guidelines.
The Cons: With the elimination of all dairy, legumes, and whole grains, you may find that some of your favorite healthy recipes are suddenly forbidden. Since these food groups are restricted on both diets, you may also have a harder time getting your recommended intake of calcium and fiber. If you’re vegan or vegetarian, it can also be challenging to find vegetarian protein sources once you’ve eliminated soy, legumes, and grains.
Other than these pros and cons, there are a few other important factors to consider than can help you decide between paleo and Whole30:
“Your first question should be whether you’re looking for a temporary diet for weight loss or a long-term lifestyle change,” Maguire says. Whole30 has a clear start and end date, while paleo followers are in it for the long haul.
Because Whole30 is an elimination diet, one mistake can derail the whole plan. “This restrictive nature can be hard to maintain,” Schuchmann says. “We’re human and it’s normal to indulge on occasion.” Because paleo is a lifestyle diet, the occasional treat won’t make or break it, relieving some of the pressure of following a diet perfectly.
“Consider any plans you have for the next month,” Maguire says. If you’re traveling or you have a few brunch dates on the calendar, it’s probably not the best time to kick off a strict elimination diet like Whole30. Paleo is a bit more compatible with day-to-day life as it allows you to go off-book occasionally. However, if you can commit to a full month of strict eating, then that could be the perfect time to do Whole30.
Paleo vs. Whole30: The Verdict
Ultimately, it boils down to how long you’re looking to commit and which plan you’re most likely to stick to.
If you do better with strict guidelines and a clear finish line, you may prefer Whole30. Just keep in mind that you’ll need to tap into your willpower to stay on track after the 30 days are up.
If you’re looking to make a lifelong change and you prefer to have some flexibility in your eating plan, paleo may be a better bet.
And if you can’t imagine life without cheese, peanut butter, or beer (it’s a grain!), that’s okay too. The paleo and Whole30 diets aren’t for everyone. Ultimately, the key is to find a diet that works for you — whether it’s trending or not.