In April 2009, Melissa Hartwig Urban was feeling sluggish and unsatisfied by her diet. So she, along with her then-husband Dallas Hartwig, set out to eat squeaky-clean Paleo for 30 days. The results? So good that they created the Whole 30 Program you’ve been seeing all over your Facebook feed. Find out if the monthlong clean-eating streak is right for you.
What Is Whole 30, Exactly?
The basic guidelines: Cut out “hormone-unbalancing, gut-disrupting, inflammatory food groups,” including sugar, dairy, alcohol, grains, and legumes (sorry, no hummus or peanut butter!). You should also read the nutrition labels on all foods and avoid carrageenan, MSG, and sulfites.
One key difference between the Whole 30 and similar eating plans like the Paleo diet (Whole 30 is technically based on a Paleo framework) or an Atkins plan (which is more focused on cutting carbs): You can’t recreate your favorite foods by modifying the ingredients. So no making yourself pizza with a cauliflower crust. In the words of Hartwig Urban, “The fake version is never as good and usually leaves you craving the real thing even more.” Womp womp. (Related: The Real Differences Between Keto and Atkins)
Whole 30 also excludes Paleo-approved sugars like honey and baked goods made with almond or coconut flour. You’re basically committing to eating nothing processed and no treats of any kind, even the “healthy” versions, for 30 days. Things that *are* allowed on your quest to enjoy all of the benefits of Whole 30: all the fruit, veggies, and meat that you want. (Get inspired by these 20 meals and snacks that fit the criteria.)
“Whole 30 isn’t just a ‘harder’ or more ‘extreme’ version of Paleo,” Hartwig Urban says. “It’s a short-term intervention designed to teach people how the food they are eating impacts them, and ultimately help them create their own perfect diet.”
The Benefits of Whole 30
Hartwig Urban says the program improves energy, sleep, digestive issues (gas, bloating, pain, constipation, or diarrhea), skin, joint pain/swelling, asthma, migraines, and biomarkers like blood pressure, cholesterol, and fasting blood sugar. She also that you’ll likely see a benefit of Whole 30 on the scale. About 96 percent of participants lose weight on the program, without counting calories, or weighing or measuring their food.
“Limiting your intake of most processed foods, especially the simple processed sugars and excess processed fats, will help change your habits,” says nutritionist Linda Raynes Mahony. “Habits are formed over a thirteen-week period, so the four-week period of changing your normal routine is a good start.”
Another benefit of Whole 30: You’ll be able to identify potential allergies to grains and dairy after you introduce them back into your diet. (BTW, here’s how to spot an allergy vs. an intolerance.) Once your body has had a chance to reset, you’ll be able to easily see if any of these things make you feel tired, bloated, or foggy.
The Downsides to Whole 30
You mean, besides potentially being cranky? If you take a high-protein, low-carb approach (you don’t need to though: potatoes are technically allowed, but grains—even whole ones—are not), your body can enter a ketotic state. When you don’t have enough carbs to burn for energy, the body breaks down fat to use, which releases ketones. When it has to break down too much fat, ketone levels can get too high and the kidneys can malfunction.
If you’re doing the Whole 30 for a medical reason, talk to your doc first. If you’re just looking for a structured way to clean up your diet and cut processed foods, the extreme nature of the plan could take a toll. Example: If you break just one rule, you’ll need to start all over—yes, even on day 29. (Related: Reset Your Diet With This 30-Day Clean-ish Eating Challenge)
“People often feel like they’ve lost all they’ve worked so hard for, leading to self-loathing and giving up entirely,” says certified nutritionist Franci Cohen. “Eating healthy, whole foods does not need to be this extreme.”
That said, if you respond to structure and are an otherwise healthy person, go for it (and keep the above note on carbs in mind).
5 Tips to Make It Through Whole 30
Here, some additional advice to get you through the month so you can score all of the benefits of Whole 30 throughout the program:
- Plan ahead. Make a meal plan, clean out your pantry, stock up on emergency food for the office or travel, and create a strategy for handling stressful situations like a family dinner or birthday party. Whole 30 doesn’t mean the end of your social life. You can still go out and enjoy brunch or dinner with friends. Just look at the menu ahead of time and find a meat/veggie option or maybe a nice omelet stuffed with veggies. You will be tested and tempted. The key is to be prepared.
- Seek support. Join one of the Whole 30’s free, online communities for accountability, advice, and resources. Thirty days is a long time, and some days a pepperoni pizza just sounds way better than whipping up something in the kitchen. If you can find a friend or partner to take on the challenge with you, sign them up! It’ll certainly mean more options at your next potluck brunch.
- Meal prep. You’ll need to think about your meals in advance, and grocery shopping is a must. If your fridge is stocked with a variety of fruits, veggies, and easy-to-prep meats, you’ll be much less likely to go off track.
- Don’t skip dessert. Get creative with nature’s candy: fruit. There’s so much you can do with it, and it can totally satisfy my sweet tooth. Grilled pineapple with a sprinkle of cinnamon and a dash of cayenne is a delicious dessert option that fits within the diet criteria. Or try an upgraded fruit salad with almond slivers and coconut flakes.
- Don’t weigh yourself during the challenge. While, yes, you’ll probably drop pounds by the end of the month, save the scale comparisons for the finale. It’ll distract from the real point—to eat healthy, whole foods.