Whole30 Rules: How to Succeed at 30 Days of Real, Whole Foods

Whole30 is an elimination diet with a simple premise: remove certain food groups from your diet for 30 days to determine if they are causing inflammation or other symptoms such as bloating, gut discomfort, headaches, muscle/joint aches, low energy, or inability to focus.

Instead of thinking of Whole30 as a diet, consider it a way to learn about how nutritious foods fuel your body and how other foods may be responsible for triggering negative symptoms. The Whole30 program works for anyone trying to improve their healthy eating habits, especially if they’re experiencing a symptom that could be food-related.

Those who have completed Whole30 describe it as life-changing in terms of how much better they feel and their improved relationship to food. The most common benefits of a successful Whole30 program include more energy, better digestion, improved sleep, stable blood sugar, and reduced cravings.

The concept of Whole30 has the best chance of success if you are able to commit to the full 30 days. The 30 days is important because it allows your body to detox from the processed foods, added sugars, and “trigger’ foods” you may have been consuming. Thirty full days allows your body to reset. If you do fall off the wagon before the 30th day, you must restart the program at Day 1 again because your body is no longer in detox mode.

Keep in mind that as you get started that it may be challenging to give up the foods you’re used to eating regularly. Also remember the program is only for 30 days which is a manageable period of time to commit to this change.

The Rules

Whole30 is not the type of diet that works if you only do part of it or allow yourself to go off course throughout the 30 days. Following the rules of Whole30 are crucial to your success with the program. The elimination of certain food groups is meant to detox your body from those foods, so it is counterproductive to break a Whole30 rule. It’s also important to remember that the Whole30 diet only works if all rules are followed– the program is a cumulative process.. At the same time, the program requires that you stay off the scale in order to focus on how you feel rather than your weight. All of these rules build upon each other to create a successful Whole30 program.

Official Whole30 Rules:

  1. Eat real food.
  2. Do not consume added sugar.
  3. Do not consume alcohol.
  4. Do not eat added grains.
  5. Do not eat dairy.
  6. Do not eat legumes.
  7. Do not consume preservatives.
  8. Do not consume baked goods (or even “treats” made with approved ingredients)
  9. Do not step on the scale.

In addition to these rules, the Whole30 program also makes some important recommendations. Although these recommendations are not mandatory like the rules, their purpose is to maximize the effectiveness of the program. The recommendations are listed below, and we’ll dive into these further later on in the article.

Whole30 Recommendations

  1. Follow the Whole30 meal template.
  2. No snacking.
  3. Limit fruit intake.
  4. Limit dried fruit and nut bars.
  5. Choose organic and grass-fed.
  6. Eliminate (or highly limit) smoothies.
  7. Limit vegetable oils.
  8. Modify your exercise program.

In this article, we will cover these rules and recommendations in more depth, as well as what to eat on Whole30, what to consider when starting Whole30, what foods to avoid while doing Whole30, and how to incorporate the principles of Whole30 into your lifestyle beyond the 30 days of the program.

What to Eat

The most common question asked of the Whole30 program is, “what can I eat?” The foods you eat on the Whole30 program will come from six main food groups. They include:

The foods in these main groups create meals with a balance of protein, nutrient-rich carbohydrates, and healthy fats to fuel your body with the macronutrients it needs for optimal performance. The Whole30 program actually provides a meal template that can help guide you in creating Whole30 compliant meals to keep you on track.

When looking at these food groups, you may notice some similarities to other popular diets such as paleo. (You can learn more about the specifics of the paleo diet with this article.) When comparing Whole30 to paleo, the main difference is that the concept of Whole30 is a temporary diet. There are lifelong principles that can apply to how you continue to eat beyond the 30 days, but the program itself is short-term. The concept of paleo is based on eating only the foods that were available in the Paleolithic era, so paleo is a bit more strict regarding the types of meats, vegetables, and fruits you can eat,. Both diets are similar in how they encourage you to pay attention to the way food makes you feel, and the way they eliminate foods that cause inflammation or digestive discomfort.

What if I’m vegan or vegetarian?

A common question that comes up with Whole30 is whether or not you can do the program as a vegetarian or vegan. While not impossible, it is difficult to be a vegetarian or vegan and do Whole30.

For vegetarians full Whole30 is difficult without animal protein. However, by consuming eggs as a primary source of protein, vegetarians can still complete a successful Whole30 program.

If you follow a vegan diet, Whole30 is difficult because your primary sources of protein (beans, legumes, soy products) are not allowed. By incorporating these protein sources you would not be following the true Whole30 program due to breaking the legumes rule.

Whole30 encourages eating a significant amount of animal protein as a staple in your diet so attempting a true Whole30 as vegan or vegetarian would be difficult unless you’re willing to either eat meat for the 30 days.

You can still follow the principles of Whole30 as a vegan or vegetarian, but you will need to make the above modifications to make sure you are still getting accurate macronutrients in your diet and as a result you would not be completing the full Whole30 program.

What should I know before getting started?

Although the list of rules and foods you’re allowed to eat on Whole30 may seem straightforward, there are some key principles you should consider before starting a Whole30 program. As you begin, you should have a clear understanding of the program’s purpose so you know exactly what to eat, what to avoid, and also why you’re eating this way.

Think about what is motivating you to complete a successful Whole30, and tap into that motivation if you reach a point of weakness during the program. (And make no mistake, these points of weakness, such as a sugar crash or intense craving, will happen). Are you trying to improve a health issue? Would you like more energy? Are you trying to lose weight? Are you trying to get healthy for your family or children? Find ways to remind yourself of these motivators throughout the 30 days to keep yourself on track.

Consider preparing a meal plan before starting Whole30. This way, you have an idea of the meals you’ll be eating and you won’t be left with the temptation of stopping for a quick fast-food meal or non-compliant snack. You should also eliminate temptation by removing any foods on the Whole30 “avoid” list from your kitchen; this is a key factor in helping you stay on track. If the food is not within reach, chances are you won’t eat it! If you need recipe ideas, these are a few websites with great resources full of Whole30 compliant meals to try:

Other resources that can help as you begin your Whole30 journey include local Facebook groups, influencers who do Whole30, and the Whole30 website including the following sites:

When planning a shopping list for your Whole30 diet, here are some staples you can use to make multiple recipes. It can be difficult to stock up on many of these ingredients like fresh, organic produce so make time to grocery shop more frequently during your Whole30.

Protein

Produce

Pantry

With these ingredients, you can make a delicious breakfast hash, spicy chicken fajitas, or a shrimp spaghetti squash. Remember that buying organic products and grass-fed meats is not a requirement of Whole30, but it is strongly encouraged. You can find the full Whole30 shopping checklist on the program website. When considering places to shop for the best Whole30 food, stores with great organic and Whole30 compliant options include:

Also consider shopping at your local farmer’s markets for the freshest farm-to-table ingredients. For items you can stock up on and freeze, Costco is a great option for bulk foods.

What to Avoid

The Whole30 program is characterized by the foods that are not allowed for the 30 days you are completing the program. These food groups are not chosen randomly. There has been extensive research done on how our bodies react to these foods and the long-term side effects that could be caused by eating them. The following section outlines each of the food groups banned on the Whole30 program, why they’re not allowed, and the specific foods within them to avoid.

Dairy

The Whole30 program understands that dairy is one of those foods that not everyone can tolerate well. Dairy products are a great source of calcium and Vitamin D, and are most important for infants and toddlers due to the protein and nutrients they provide a growing body. Once you reach adulthood, dairy is no longer a necessary source of nutrition, and our bodies actually become less capable of processing the lactose found in milk. This intolerance has been known to cause a wide range of issues including gut irritation, irritable bowel syndrome, lactose intolerance, acne, bloating, and diarrhea.

Studies that support consuming dairy argue that there are nutritional benefits found in milk-based products no matter your age [1] — however these benefits are outweighed by their negative side effects in adults. Studies have shown that up to 65% of adults have some level of lactose intolerance after infancy so consuming dairy products can lead to digestive issues [2] Because of these potential negative side effects, dairy is removed from your diet on the Whole30 program. Specific foods not allowed include:

Alcohol

Whole30 founder Melissa Hartwig explains the reason for banning alcohol on Whole30 this way: “Drinking alcohol can cause hormonal disruptions, have a negative impact on sleep, impaired gut permeability, and our tendency to make poor food-related choices after a drink or three.”

When you also consider that alcoholic beverages are high in calories and low in nutritional value, it is clear why they are banned on Whole30. Hartwig goes on to explain that the only two reasons to ever indulge in one drink is “for an occasion so special that it’s worth it to commemorate it with an alcoholic beverage, or the drink is just so delicious you decide to indulge.” In either situation, however, you must make the deliberate decision to have that drink, rather than mindlessly grab one without thinking.

Alcoholic drinks banned on Whole30 include:

Grains

The Whole30 program bans grains from the diet largely due to protein structures found in grains that can increase gut permeability and cause a wide range of issues stemming from the damaged gut. The way wheat is grown and processed has changed significantly over the years making it a vastly different food than it was decades ago, which has accelerated the advancement of these problematic proteins.

Modern day wheat plants have a higher gluten content that is wreaking havoc on our digestive and immune systems. This is one of the main factors causing more frequent inflammation and diseases that weren’t as prevalent 40 years ago. Inflammation is the body’s natural reaction to an injury or foreign substance, but when there is a continuous trigger entering your body (such as genetically modified gluten) it can cause much more serious problems.

The Whole30 program also recognizes the issue of chemicals used to grow wheat plants and how they can affect our bodies. With the development of modern farming technologies, there has been a consequential increase in chemicals and fertilizers used on crops to control insects and regulate a plant’s growth. When large agriculture companies noticed the effects these chemicals had on producing a better crop, their use became widespread in the agricultural industry. The FDA has deemed these chemicals safe for human consumption, but studies show the negative side effects they can have, especially in children. [2]

Whole30 removes these foods from your diet to reduce inflammatory triggers and allow your body to heal:

Legumes

While legumes may be a good source of vegetarian protein and key vitamins, the Whole30 program points out that they’re high in carbohydrates and contain some specific chemicals that make them less healthy than they may seem. Legumes contain phytic acid, which binds to nutrients in the foods you’re eating preventing your body from fully absorbing them.

From a Whole30 perspective, this essentially makes all other healthy foods you’re eating less healthy because the phytic acid is stripping them of their nutrient content. They also contain a type of protein called lectin that is also found in dairy and grains. Not all types of lectins are problematic but these potentially toxic lectins can damage your digestive system, specifically the intestinal wall, leading to digestive and autoimmune problems such as gut irritation, gut permeability, and leaky gut syndrome.

Types of legumes that are banned on Whole30 include:

Sugar

Sugar is high in calories but low in nutrients; it doesn’t just provide empty calories, it also doesn’t leave room for other nutrients to be absorbed from your food. Whole30 studies show too much sugar in your diet can cause an abundance of issues including weight gain, obesity, heart disease, acne, and tooth decay. Sugar has no nutritional value and creates an addictive chemical reaction in your brain.

The Whole30 program makes it clear that the problem isn’t with naturally occurring sugars in fruits and vegetables, but with manufactured sugar added to almost all packaged foods during processing. This added sugar is made from damaging chemicals that are a far cry from sugars that are naturally occurring in many foods. Studies have shown that increased sugar consumption in adults can lead to serious issues like cardiovascular disease. [3] Another risk of too much sugar is its effect on your body’s insulin production. A diet high in sugar and simple carbohydrates can cause your body to have a steady release of insulin which can lead to insulin resistance, eventually causing type 2 diabetes.

There are many different names for sugar that sneak their way into our foods, so be sure to avoid foods with any of the following names for sugar:

The types of sugar not allowed on Whole30 include:

Preservatives

Many preservatives are banned on Whole30 because they’re derived from non-compliant ingredients such as grain or soy, or they’re known to be inflammatory and can cause sensitivity. While preservatives play an important role in modern-day food manufacturing, the goal of Whole30 is to stay away from those processed foods. This also means avoiding the preservatives they’re made with. Specific preservatives to avoid include:

Refined Grains

The Whole30 program is based on research that explores the causes of common inflammatory symptoms and how they’re linked to the foods we’re eating. Through their research, Whole30 investigated the refining process for many popular grain-based foods and what they found is a big reason why refined grains are banned on the program.

Processed vs. Whole Grains

When grains go through the refining process, the bran and germ parts of the seed are removed, which also removes much of the fiber, vitamins, and minerals. What’s left over is used to make many of the packaged foods on our grocery store shelves, but with a fraction of the nutritional value. With the removal of fiber and vitamins, it’s easy to over consume these foods and not get full, resulting in overeating leading to obesity. These foods made of refined grains also break down easily in our bloodstream causing them to spike blood sugar levels.

Refined grains to avoid on Whole30 include:

Whole grains, on the other hand, do leave bran and germ in tact, but are much higher in added sugars and sodium. You are better off sticking to fruits, vegetables, and meats to get those nutrients.

Exceptions to the Whole30 Rules

The purpose of the Whole30 program rules are to remove inflammatory food groups from your diet to allow your body to reset and change the way your body reacts to the foods you eat. The rules are hard and fast, and must be followed for a successful Whole30 program although there are a few foods that fall into a gray area and have been determined exceptions to the rule. These exceptions include:

Other Rules and Recommendations

In addition to rules and recommendations for your diet, the Whole30 program also advocates for an overall mindset shift when it comes to your relationship with food, healthy eating, and a healthy lifestyle. One of the main concepts of Whole30 is to focus more on how you feel rather than tangible results such as weight loss. For example, rather than focusing on how much weight you are losing while doing Whole30, focus more on the changes you’re noticing in how your clothes fit, how much energy you have, if you’re less bloated, sleeping better, etc. These other results are better indicators of overall health than losing weight. To ensure you keep the right mentality, Whole30 requires you to stay off the scale for the duration of your Whole30 program. This is more of a mental shift than a physical one, but it is just as important to get the life changing results you’re looking for. Whole30 aims to improve your relationship with food and how it fuels your body, and the best way to do that is to focus on the internal effects of the foods you’re eating rather than the external results.

To help you get the most from Whole30, the program also has some important recommendations to consider. Although these are not program rules, they each play a role in the success of your program.

1. Follow the Whole30 meal template

This meal template was created by the founders of Whole30 and is meant to help you plan to get enough protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats in each of your meals throughout the Whole30 program. You do not have to model your meals off this exactly but it is useful if you’re ensure you’re getting adequate macronutrients.

2. No snacking

Whole30 recommends no snacking during the 30 days, and this recommendation is rooted in the goal of learning to eat more mindfully. By eliminating snacking throughout the day, you’re training your brain to think more about food as fuel during your meals, and not something to turn to when you’re bored or not truly hungry. This recommendation is highly variable so kids and nursing mothers should definitely still snack (within reason!) on Whole30. Since this is a recommendation and not a strict rule, use your best judgement on whether you need a snack to get you to mealtime so you avoid getting too hungry and bingeing on an unhealthy alternative.

3. Limit fruit intake

Fruit is healthy, yes, but since it is loaded with natural sugars the program recommends looking at how you’re using fruit in your diet and evaluate if you’re eating it to satisfy a sugar craving or if it’s a regular part of your meals. If you feel like you aren’t reaching for a banana or some berries when you’re craving a sugary snack, it’s probably okay to keep 1-2 servings of fruit in your daily diet.

4. Limit dried fruit and nut bars

Some flavors of snacks like Larabars and RX Bars are technically Whole30 compliant so you are allowed to eat them, but Whole30 recommends limiting these snacks only to situations when you need something on-the-go or in a pinch. It’s best to keep these types of bars out of your daily meal plan on Whole30 because you may find they are unconsciously feeding your sugar cravings which is the opposite of the goal of Whole30.

5. Choose organic and grass-fed

Whenever possible, the Whole30 program recommends choosing organic produce and grass-fed meats to incorporate in your diet. Sure, Whole30 can be done without organic and grass-fed food products but these foods ensure you’re getting the best quality nutrition throughout your Whole30 program.

6. Eliminate (or highly limit) smoothies

Smoothies can make an excellent meal when you’re in a hurry or need to get more micronutrients in your diet but when doing Whole30, it’s best to eat real foods that you can chew to help with satiety and keep you from wanting to snack later on. Since you can easily create a smoothie with Whole30 compliant ingredients it is not officially banned on the Whole30 program but you’re encouraged to eat real food whenever possible.

7. Limit vegetable oils

In a perfect Whole30 world you would not consume any form of vegetable oils throughout the program (but that would make it virtually impossible to eat outside of your own home). Because of this, it is recommended you do not use vegetable oils to cook your meals when at home but they are not officially banned so that you are still able to grab a compliant meal when eating out.

8. Modify your exercise program while on Whole30

If you’re normally very active and workout daily, consider taking a week off or switching to lower intensity for the first 1-2 weeks of your Whole30 program while your body adjusts to the changes in calories and nutrition. After the first two weeks, you should notice a boost in energy so you can increase intensity back to normal. Also keep in mind that your body is adjusting to this new nutrition plan so avoid starting a brand new workout program the same time you start Whole30. According to Whole30 Founder Melissa Hartwig, “the brain can only successfully prioritize one big-picture goal at a time, and I’ve found working on your health, habits, and relationship with food offers the most bang for your buck.”

Rules of Reintroduction

After the 30 days, Whole30 recommends utilizing the next 10 days as a reintroduction period where you slowly reintroduce the foods you eliminated back into your diet one by one. The purpose of this is to evaluate how your body reacts to these foods now that it’s had a break from them for 30 days. Taking the time to reintroduce foods one at a time gives you the opportunity to learn specifically which foods are causing your symptoms.

The reintroduction phase is not a rule of the program, but is very strongly encouraged. It seems like a waste of time to eliminate those foods for 30 days and not take the time to learn which ones cause your negative symptoms.

Whole30 Results

As you make your way through the 30 days of clean eating, there are common results you may begin to experience. These symptoms occur at different times in the program for different people, but by the end of the 30 days you can expect to experience one or more of the following:

The Whole30 program is not something you should start on a whim; it takes effort and dedication to complete the program successfully.

If at all possible, try to plan your meals ahead of time and take time to prep your foods to ensure you always have Whole30 compliant food ready to eat. Having these foods on hand will help you keep from reaching for a non-compliant snack if you get overly hungry and will help you avoid last-minute food situations if they come up.

Lastly, make sure you are in the right mindset before starting the Whole30 program. Much of the program is a shift in your mental approach to nutrition, so determine what is motivating you start Whole30 and keep that motivation top of mind throughout the 30 days.

Before you begin, it’s also helpful to familiarize yourself with the detox process and the phases your body will go through during the 30 days of cleaner eating. In the first week of the program, you may feel lighter and more energized but as your body adjusts to no sugar and refined carbs you may start to feel sluggish. This part of the program is sometimes referred to as the ‘carb flu’ and can be an uncomfortable couple of days as your body detoxes from the processed foods it is used to. Once your body adjusts to the different types of nutrients it’s receiving, your energy levels will pick back up and usually exceed what they were before. It’s important to be aware of these phases you’ll experience beforehand so you can mentally prepare yourself to deal with them and not be tempted to throw in the towel.

We recommend reading through these other Whole30 articles as you prepare for your own Whole30 journey.

Beyond Whole30

Unlike many diets, the Whole30 program is an intense nutrition program completed for only 30 days. Although it will change the way you eat and your relationship with food, it is not the same kind of lifestyle change as paleo or vegan ways of eating. The goal of Whole30 is to identify ‘trigger’ foods you are eating by cutting all inflammatory food groups from your diet for 30 days to help cure common symptoms caused by inflammation. Once you’ve completed the 30 day program and identified those trigger foods, many people ask what they should do next. That is where the Whole9 comes in.

The Whole9 was created by the founders of Whole30, and is a list of 9 factors believed to be the optimal foundation of health and wellness. The core of the foundation is built on the nutritional principles embodied in the Whole30 program, and it layers on other lifestyle factors including sleep, healthy movement, fun and play, stress management, socialization, natural environment, personal growth, and temperance. When purposefully implemented, these foundational elements help create a healthy lifestyle beyond nutrition and exercise, and will create an environment that sets you on a path towards optimal health.

To learn more, a great place to start is the Whole9 website where founder Dallas Hartwig shares resources about nutritional supplements, work-life balance, lifestyle choices, and other helpful blogs.

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