Everything You Need to Know About the Whole30 Diet
Here’s the whole truth about the elimination diet, from the Whole30 rules to its potential health benefits.
In April 2009, Melissa Hartwig Urban was feeling sluggish and unsatisfied with 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 Whole30 Program you've been seeing all over your Facebook feed. Find out what the month-long clean-eating streak entails, the exact Whole30 rules, and if the diet's right for you.
What Is Whole30, 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 Whole30 and similar eating plans like the Paleo diet (Whole30 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)
Whole30 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 Whole30: all the fruit, veggies, and meat that you want. (Get inspired by these 20 meals and snacks that fit the criteria.)
"Whole30 isn't just a 'harder' or more 'extreme' version of Paleo," says Hartwig Urban. "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."
What Are the Whole30 Rules?
While you’re on the elimination diet, the Whole30 rules state that you’ll need to keep these foods off your fork.
- Natural or artificial sugars and sweeteners, including maple syrup, honey, agave nectar, coconut sugar, date syrup, monk fruit extract, stevia, Splenda, xylitol, and others.
- Alcohol in any form, even if you’re using it in your cooking.
- Grains, including wheat, rye, barley, oats, corn, rice, millet, bulgur, sorghum, sprouted grains, quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat. Any additives derived from these foods, like brans, germs, and starches, are a no-no too.
- Legumes, including all beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils, and all forms of soy. FYI, peanuts are also a legume, so you’ll have to hold off on peanut butter.
- Dairy, including all cow, goat, and sheep’s milk products.
- Additives like carrageenan, MSG, or sulfites
- Sweet treats, and other not-so-healthy goodies made with compliant ingredients. Since most people wolf down these foods without, satisfying your hankering with Whole30-friendly versions “won’t lead to habit change,” according to the program’s website. That means you’ll have to pass on cauliflower-crust pizza and “nice” cream for now.
Along with animal proteins like meat, seafood, and eggs (that aren’t commercially raised and processed); fiber-filled fruits and veggies; natural fats; and flavorful herbs, spices, and seasonings, the Whole30 rules explain that there are a few processed foods you can add to your plate.
- Ghee or clarified butter
- Fruit juice as a sweetener
- Green beans, sugar snap peas, and snow peas
- Vinegar, including white, red wine, balsamic, apple cider, and rice, and botanical extracts, like vanilla, lemon, or lavender.
- Coconut aminos, even ones listed as coconut nectar or coconut syrup
- Iodized salt
Among all the Whole30 rules, there is one that's not related to food at all: Don’t weigh yourself or take any body measurements throughout the challenge. The goal is to focus on the changes in how you feel, not on the scale.
The Benefits of Whole30
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 Whole30 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 Whole30: 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 Whole30
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 Whole30 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 Whole30
Here, some additional advice to get you through the month so you can score all of the benefits of Whole30 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. Whole30 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 Whole30’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.