A diet you probably haven’t heard of yet is the Wahl’s Protocol. Similar to Paleo, the Wahl’s Protocol is a diet and lifestyle developed by Dr. Terry Wahls, M.D. Her website, book and Facebook page are full of testimonials from people who’ve found the Wahls Protocol life-changing. A doctor friend suggested I try it, too. This post will give an overview and tell you about my experience with the Wahls Protocol.
What is the Wahls Protocol?
Dr. Wahls originally developed a diet protocol to address her own autoimmune disease, Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Her condition had deteriorated rapidly. A couple of years after being diagnosed, Wahls required a tilt/recline wheelchair.
She began researching online, talking with experts and learning about how functional medicine principles might complement her own conventional medicine practice. She described her journey in a TED talk called Minding Your Mitochondria.
Wahls’ experiments with her diet, plus other life changes, yielded incredible improvements in her health. After successive iterations, she began to walk without assistance and then ride her bike again.
Wahls teaches and collects data on the impact of her research as part of her practice in Iowa City. Clinical trials to validate Wahls Protocol results haven’t been completed yet. But in 2016 the National Multiple Sclerosis Society gave $1MM to underwrite a clinical trial that would test dietary approaches to treating fatigue in MS.
Many patients attest to the Wahls Protocol’s effectiveness. Wahls calls these people Wahls Warriors. She sprinkles their testimonials throughout her book, The Wahls Protocol: A Radical New Way to Treat All Chronic Autoimmune Conditions Using Paleo Principles.*
Why do it?
Although Wahls developed the diet to treat her own MS disease, she maintains it works for lots of chronic conditions. The key idea is akin to Paleo philosophy. That our modern Western diet has gotten away from the hunter/gatherer food of our ancestors and led to worsening health.
According to Wahls (and other Paleo advocates), Western diet evolution has increased human levels of chronic disease. Some of the conditions Dr. Wahls seeks to address are:
- Autoimmune diseases like MS, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis
- Chronic conditions such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease
- Other disorders like:
- depression, autism, schizophrenia
- migraines, allergies, arthritis
- chronic fatigue, leaky gut, irritable bowel syndrome
How does the Wahls Protocol differ from similar diets?
The Wahls Protocol, like the Paleo diet, is a whole lifestyle change. It is meant to be a return to the dietary habits of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Both diets focus on fresh food, meat-based protein and a big reduction in dietary sugar and sugar substitutes.
The Wahls Protocol bans eggs, in part because Terry Wahls herself has a severe egg allergy. Like Paleo, it is gluten-free and dairy-free. But a key feature of the Wahls diet is its requirement to eat 9 cups of vegetables every day:
- 3 cups green leafy vegetables
- 3 cups sulfer-rich vegetables (e.g. mushrooms, onions, cabbage)
- 3 cups bright color vegetables and fruit
In many ways, the Wahls Protocol also resembles diets like the Whole30 and the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP). However, these two programs are temporary elimination diets, where you severely restrict the types of food you eat for a certain period of time. Then you slowly add back foods, one at a time. This helps you determine what foods may be triggering adverse health reactions.
Each diet merits more study to tease out subtle variations, allowed and disallowed foods, and so on. But this chart summarizes key differences between the Wahls Protocol and other similar diets. For a pdf version, see the end of this post.
Wahls Protocol dos and don’ts
The Wahls Protocol has three versions: Wahls Diet, Wahls Paleo, and Wahls Paleo Plus. In essence, the levels are strict, stricter, and strictest.
Terry Wahls asserts that most people settle into one of the first two levels.
Level 1: pretty much like Paleo
Level 1, the Wahls Diet, is similar to Paleo in that you don’t eat gluten, dairy, processed foods or artificial sugars. The Wahls Diet doesn’t entirely ban legumes, soy or gluten-free grains the way many versions of the Paleo Diet do. It encourages you to work toward their elimination. But as mentioned above, it prohibits eggs entirely.
Like Paleo, all versions of the Wahls Protocol suggest that you consume wild or pasture-raised, grass-fed and organic food as much as possible. But the Wahls Diet’s key distinguishing feature is its push for you to eat huge amounts of vegetables. Nine cups of fruit and vegetables per day is essentially three dinner plates heaped with healthy food.
Level 2: reduce carbs further
Wahls Paleo, the second level, continues to emphasize 9 cups of vegetables per day as before. Additionally, it has you reduce carbs further by cutting down non-gluten grains, legumes and starchy vegetables to a maximum of two servings per week.
Dr. Wahls also urges vegetarians to reconsider their preferences, suggesting they consider eating animal protein every day for optimal nutrition. She details her thoughts on the dangers of vegetarianism in Chapter 6 of her book.
Seaweed and organ meat
On Wahls Paleo, you’re supposed to add seaweed and organ meat to your diet. The argument for seaweed is that it’s full of minerals, most importantly iodine. From a functional medicine perspective, iodine helps:
- the thyroid gland boost your metabolism and energy
- the white blood cells attack viruses, bacteria and cancer
- the body get rid of heavy metals like lead and mercury
Acknowledging that patients often resist incorporating organ meat into their diets, Wahls points to how your grandmother used all parts of the animal in her cooking: heart, liver and so on. She recommends 12 ounces of organ meat per week.
Raw, soaked and fermented foods
The last aspect of the Wahls Paleo diet is to add more raw, soaked and fermented foods. Kombucha fans, rejoice! Wahls recommends fermented foods like sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi and yes – kombucha – as beneficial to your digestive system.
She also wants you to increase your intake of raw vegetables. In a nod to our ancestors, such foods (popular in Paleo and Raw Food diets) provide even more nutrients than their cooked versions. Lastly, you generate more enzymes to benefit nutrient absorption by soaking and sprouting seeds, nuts and legumes.
My experience with the Wahls Protocol
Always open to complementary medical advice that might lead to better health, I was curious about the Wahls Protocol when a friend told me about it. I thought I qualified as a candidate with a few chronic health issues. For instance, I’ve struggled with migraines for years. For me, midlife has ushered in more inflammation in my knees, ongoing temporomandibular joint (TMJ) problems, as well as other issues from time to time.
So I figured I had nothing to lose. At this point, I’ve been following the Wahls Diet (the least strict level) for 9 weeks. Here are some notes on my experience with the Wahls Protocol to date.
First month was the hardest
While Dr. Wahls says you can slowly cut back on starchy carbs, legumes and sugar, she recommends going cold turkey on eggs, dairy and gluten. The rationale is that these foods are known to cause allergic reactions in many people.
But for me, it was a big change. Breakfast was particularly hard, as I like to eat eggs and/or egg whites almost every day. Plus I couldn’t have cereal with milk or even Greek yogurt. I tried coconut and almond yogurt, but I didn’t like them.
A green smoothie to start the day
I followed Wahls’ recommendation for a green smoothie that would provide at least two cups of leafy greens and colorful fruit. Gradually I’ve increased the ratio of greens to frozen fruit from 1:1 to 2:1. I’ve also added nuts, seeds, almond butter, and coconut or almond milk to make it taste better.
My green smoothies aren’t as beautiful as the ones you see in web photos. Friends have called them “green sludge.” They’re definitely something for which you have to acquire a taste.
While the green smoothie kickstarts your daily vegetable intake, it doesn’t have much protein. So in the first month of the diet, I would add some leftover meat from the night before. I even tried canned sardines a few times. They’re actually not bad if you mix them with other stuff. But still, sardines are not what I look forward to for breakfast – previously my favorite meal of the day.
Month 2: eggs, some dairy
After 4 weeks off eggs, I decided to try them again. And fortunately for me, I had no adverse reactions. Eating eggs again, plus my having become accustomed to the diet rules, helped improve my attitude and gave me resolve to stick with the Wahls Protocol a little longer.
In week 5, I decided to try dairy. I cautiously ate some Greek yogurt with a little fruit and honey. So far, so good. The next day I ate about an ounce of cheese. No problems. The next evening I indulged in a few bites of ice cream. Hmm.
The day after eating ice cream, my stomach felt kind of tight and was making strange noises. I decided it probably had to do with the richness of the ice cream plus its sugar. So in all, this experience gave me useful insight.
At present, I’m eating eggs almost every day and having small amounts of dairy a few times per week. I try to stay mostly dairy-free. I’m also continuing the gluten-free regime for now, although I’m not stressing about trace amounts of gluten in things like oatmeal, soy sauce or sauce thickeners.
Not for weight loss
My biggest disappointment so far has been the fact that, even with making these radical changes in my diet, I didn’t lose weight. I know the goal of the Wahls Protocol is better health, not weight loss. But in her book, Terry Wahls points out a common fringe benefit seen by many of her patients is that they slim down without counting calories.
That didn’t work for me. Once I started to track my calories, however, I lost a couple of pounds.
As a side note, the calorie tracking app I keep going back to is Lose It. Their free version helps you count the calories you take in and the ones you burn off via exercise, as well as your progress toward weight loss goals. It’s a drag to fill out the food log every day, but it does cut down on cheating!
Bottom line: good, not earth-shattering
After more than two months on the diet, I feel pretty good. My energy level is probably better. My husband thinks my skin looks clearer. I haven’t experienced an increase in migraines or TMJ symptoms. But they haven’t gone away, either.
Thus, so far my experience with the Wahls Protocol has been OK, but not one of dramatic health improvement. It could be the case that I haven’t seen big results because my diet already was good. I ate very few processed foods and lots of vegetables even before starting the Wahls Protocol. Maybe people who make bigger dietary changes are the ones to realize better results.
There’s another thing, however. And it makes me wonder whether this diet has yielded any health improvements. It’s springtime. Days are getting longer and sunnier. As described in this post, I feel better when there’s more sunlight. I’d probably see improvement in my mood and energy at this point in the year anyway – diet or no diet.
Does this mean my experience with the Wahls Protocol hasn’t amounted to anything? No, it’s been a worthwhile experiment. I’ve been observing and learning, and I plan to continue.
Insights from my experience with the Wahls Protocol
I’ve noticed a few things in my first 9 weeks on the Wahls Diet:
- I’m starting to crave vegetables. I’m learning to plan vegetable-centric meals.
- I don’t miss bread as much as I thought I would. Don’t get me wrong – I really love a good piece of bread. But giving up gluten has helped me not to fill up on the bread they bring you while you wait for your meal at a restaurant. Instead, I get to order more vegetables!
- By reducing sugar and starchy vegetables, I’ve evened out my blood sugar levels. This is helping me sustain my energy and lower sugar cravings.
- It’s good to know that, although I won’t get sick if I eat a rich dairy dessert like ice cream, doing so will make me feel a little worse the next day. The main thing is that I get to choose.
- Dining in restaurants can be challenging on the Wahls Protocol, but kitchens will try to adjust menus if you ask. Especially in California, you can find lots of Wahls Protocol options when dining out.
I’m sticking with the Wahls Protocol for now
In conclusion, I think the Wahls Protocol is worth a try. It’s not bad for you: it emphasizes real food, plenty of vegetables, and getting your nutrients from what you eat rather than supplements.
I’ll admit that I felt a bit discouraged that I didn’t see the kind of results you can read about in testimonials from Wahls Warriors. But testimonials are just that: each one represents someone’s personal story. None predicts results for the average individual. Anecdotes are not the same as empirical evidence.
I’m continuing the Wahls Protocol for now. Now that I’ve adjusted to Level 1, I’m trying to incorporate some of the Wahls Paleo (Level 2) principles. Just not organ meats, not yet.
So if you’re looking for a diet change that might produce a health improvement, the Wahls Protocol is one to consider. Your results may be better than mine. Or they may not. You won’t know until you try it for yourself.