Whole30 vs. Paleo, Part II: A deeper dive.
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Whole30 vs. Paleo, Part II: A deeper dive.

By Mark J. Smith, Ph.D., Chief Science Officer
December 28, 2020
Pexels.com/ Photo by Mikhail Nilov
Pexels.com/ Photo by Mikhail Nilov

We recently wrote about the Whole30® diet and The Paleo Diet® and which diet might be the most effective for you, depending on your goals. But how do these diets compare from a scientific perspective?

In 2016, while speaking at the annual symposium for The Institute of Functional Medicine, I met one of the co-creators of Whole30, Dallas Hartwig. He told me how important the impact of a scientific paper authored by Dr. Cordain had on his sister’s health. [1]

Coincidently, I was a co-author on the paper, which examined immune function modulation by dietary lectins in rheumatoid arthritis. Finding myself in conversation about this paper was a rare occurrence, and I remember thinking that our diet philosophies would therefore likely be closely aligned.

The conversation made clear that the founders of Whole30 were well versed on the research regarding Paleolithic nutrition, in particular the work of Dr. Cordain. It turns out that Whole30 was born from a simple challenge, while at a CrossFit® gym, to eat clean for 30 days.

For those familiar with CrossFit gyms, they have long advocated for following a Paleolithic dietary template, and so it would not be surprising that “eating clean” might look very much like following The Paleo Diet.

Dr. Cordain’s investigation of ancestral nutrition has always been about helping humanity improve its health without agenda. Our mission at The Paleo Diet is to continue examining the nutritional science with that same goal. Any individual or organization that uses the fundamental principles of Paleolithic nutrition, and uses them to help people improve their health and vitality, gets our approval.

What the Science Says

A review of the scientific literature in PubMed shows zero results for “Whole30” but generates 54 publications for “Paleolithic Diet.” This does not mean that there isn’t any research supporting the dietary guidelines for Whole30, but it might suggest that being closely aligned with the principles of The Paleo Diet would be beneficial given the research behind it.

So let’s explore in a little more detail the similarities and differences between the two diets. Bear in mind, for most individuals looking for long-term success, we advocate following The Paleo Diet with an 85/15 premise (Paleo 85 percent of the time, and 15 percent non-Paleo). However, understanding what is and isn’t Paleo is extremely important, whether following the diet strictly or going with the 85/15 approach.

“The Whole30 Program Rules” can be found at whole30.com (https://whole30.com/whole30-program-rules/). The following table shows the Whole30 rules and The Paleo Diet’s congruence. Again, this congruence aligns with the 85-percent Paleo portion of our 85/15 approach.


The Paleo Diet®
Eat real food100%
Eat meat, seafood, and eggs; vegetables and fruit; natural fats; and herbs, spices, and seasonings. Eat foods with a simple or recognizable list of ingredients, or no ingredients at all because they’re whole and unprocessed.100%
Do not consume added sugar, real or artificial.100%
Do not consume alcohol, in any form, not even for cooking. (And ideally, no tobacco products of any sort, either.)85%
Do not eat grains.100%
Do not eat most forms of legumes.100%, but we’d add “no legumes” versus “Do not eat most forms of legumes”.
Do not eat dairy.100%
Do not consume carrageenan, MSG, or sulfites.100%, and we’d add “no additives”.
Do not consume baked goods, junk foods, or treats with “approved” ingredients.*100%. We’ve addressed this many times. We refer to these as substitutions and we do not consider them Paleo.
Do not step on the scale or take any body measurements for 30 days.This is not something we stipulate; however, we agree that the benefits of following a Paleo Diet are about far more than just body composition changes, which can easily be seen and felt without the need for objective measures.

Table 1. Whole30 Program Rules and The Paleo Diet’s Congruence.

So, while Whole30 is often considered to be a stricter version of The Paleo Diet, the above table actually demonstrates otherwise. It is simply thought of as being stricter because the first 30 days require a strict compliance. However, many Paleo practitioners have clients follow a strict Paleo diet when it is deemed appropriate to help ameliorate disease, particularly in cases of autoimmunity.

The diets diverge even more when one examines the Whole30 fine print—foods that are considered exceptions to the rules and are allowed during Whole30.

Whole30®The Paleo Diet®*

Ghee or Clarified butter

These are the only source of dairy allowed while doing Whole30. Plain butter is not allowed, as you may be sensitive to the milk proteins found in non-clarified butter.No dairy is allowed. We have written extensively about the negative consequences of dairy consumption, including ghee.
Fruit juiceSome products or recipes will include fruit juice as a stand-alone ingredient or natural sweetener, which is fine for the purposes of the Whole30. (We have to draw the line somewhere.)Since real food wouldn’t have anything added, fruit juice wouldn’t be included in real Paleo foods; however, a little natural juice from fruit would certainly be okay and so we agree that this position is more than reasonable. But fruit juices should certainly not be consumed in large quantities.
Certain legumesGreen beans and most peas (including sugar snap peas, snow peas, green peas, yellow peas, and split peas) are allowed.While all of these legumes are less acidic than legumes such as kidney beans, which have to be soaked before consumption, they are still legumes and have significant quantities of dietary anti-nutrients that can be problematic for some individuals. All legumes are eliminated on The Paleo Diet and provide limited nutritional value.
Vinegar and botanical extractsMost vinegar (including white, red wine, balsamic, apple cider, and rice) and alcohol-based botanical extracts (like vanilla, lemon, or lavender) are allowed during your Whole30 program. (However, malt-based vinegar or extracts are not, which will be clearly labeled as such, as they contain gluten.)For the most part, The Paleo Diet would concur with this recommendation, however, vinegars derived from non-Paleo foods would not be included.
Coconut aminosAll brands of coconut aminos (a brewed and naturally fermented soy sauce substitute) are acceptable, even if you see the words “coconut nectar” or “coconut syrup” in their ingredient list.Because of its lower sodium content, coconut aminos are definitely a better alternative to soy sauce, which is certainly not Paleo. However, it is still made with added sea salt and so is not part of The Paleo Diet.
SaltDid you know that all iodized table salt contains sugar? Sugar (often in the form of dextrose) is chemically essential to keep the potassium iodide from oxidizing and being lost. Because all restaurants and pre-packaged foods contain salt, salt is an exception to our “no added sugar” rule.The Paleo Diet is less concerned about the small amount of sugar consumed in added salt and more concerned about the salt itself.

Table 2. Whole30 Program “Fine Print” Allowances and The Paleo Diet’s Divergence.

Given that Whole30 has based the majority of its principles on The Paleo Diet, it is unlikely that a clinical trial examining the respective benefits of the two diets, upon metabolic integrity, for example, would show much of a difference. However, when dealing with more complex diseases such as autoimmune complications, some of the allowances on Whole30 could be problematic.

The Whole30 diet calls itself a “reset” diet, but “at its heart is an elimination diet.” But as an elimination diet, The Paleo Diet would clearly be more effective as demonstrated in Table 2.

This position is further supported by the fact that U.S. News & World Report ranks The Paleo Diet tied for 29th place out of 35 and Whole30 in 33rd place! Okay, that’s obviously a joke—these rankings are not based on the scientific record but more on commercial and corporate interests.

We’d obviously rank The Paleo Diet in first place, and based on how closely Whole30 resembles The Paleo Diet, we’d give them a close second.

*Click here for more information on The Paleo Diet's stance on dairy, ghee, legumes, vinegars, sea salt, and added salt.


1. Cordain L, Toohey L, Smith MJ and Hickey MS, Modulation of immune function by dietary lectins in rheumatoid arthritis. British Journal of Nutrition 83: 207-217, 2000.

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