The Whole30 Diet: Everything You Should Know About This 30-Day Program
In case you’re not familiar with the Whole30, it’s a popular thirty-day “reset” program. On Whole30, you cut out certain foods for thirty days and eat from a limited list of whole foods.
As critics are quick to point out, Whole30 can make your life more complicated. It certainly requires creativity and planning ahead.
But as many followers of the plan will tell you, the payoffs can include long-term changes in dietary preferences, a healthier relationship with food, and the identification of food sensitivities and allergies. And with any diet, it comes with its pluses and minuses, so for Whole30 I wrote up a handy guide for you to read about the Pros and Cons of Whole30.
Read on to learn more about Whole30: what you can and can’t eat, how to prepare, what to expect, and more.
What is Whole30?
Whole30, sometimes called “the Whole30,” is a nutrition plan invented by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig in 2009. Whole30 gets its name because participants eat nothing but whole foods for 30 days.
The plan requires a thirty-day commitment from participants. Unlike many other diets, which involve permanent lifestyle changes, it is designed to help people feel better quickly, understand how specific foods affect their health, and encourage them to change their long-term dietary habits in a way that works for them as individuals.
You can think of Whole30 as a nutritional reset, an elimination diet to detect food sensitivities and food allergies, and an experiment to learn how the food you usually eat impacts your quality of life.
The Hartwigs, who founded the plan, say that your normal food choices could explain fatigue, pain, or other symptoms you experience. By removing all potentially problematic foods for thirty days and focusing on nutritious whole foods instead, your body gets a break from potential allergens. It’s also a time to correct micronutrient deficiencies.
After the thirty-day period, participants are encouraged to gradually add back the foods not on the Whole30 “approved” list into their diet, and pay attention to how they feel with each addition.
Is It Actually a Diet?
Is Whole30 a diet, or not? It depends on how you define diet.
The closest comparison to Whole30 is called the elimination diet. Doctors and dietitians use the elimination diet to detect food allergies and sensitivities. During an elimination diet, you eliminate all potential problem foods, then add them back in slowly to detect which ones may cause symptoms.
But unlike most elimination diets, Whole30 strongly emphasizes a limited list of healthy, nutritious whole foods. It also differs from conventional “diets” in that users don’t count calories or macronutrients.
In fact, if you adhere to the Whole30 protocol strictly, you aren’t even allowed to weigh or measure yourself for the full thirty days! That’s because the whole purpose is to pay attention to how you feel without obsessing over numbers (like your macros, calories, body weight or clothing size).
So while technically you can refer to Whole30 as a diet, it might be better to consider it a physical and psychological experiment designed to change your habits, attitude, and relationship to food and dieting.
What Can You Eat On Whole30?
At the core of the Whole30 are two lists: what you can eat, and what you can’t eat.
Compared to conventional or long-term diets, Whole30 is an extremely strict. If you as much as eat one food on the “don’t eat” list, you have to go back to day one of the program.
According to the founders, eating even a small amount of inflammatory or sweet-tasting food disrupts your immune system, triggers cravings, and can allow your symptoms to re-emerge.
Here’s what you can eat:
- Moderate amounts of meat, seafood, poultry, and eggs
- Large quantities of vegetables for their micronutrient, mineral, and fiber content.
- Large quantities of natural, healthy fats like clarified butter (ghee–the only exception to the “no dairy” rule), avocados, coconut oil, avocado oil, olive oil, beef tallow, bone broth, and lard.
- Moderate amounts of fruits (because fruits have sugar, if you consume too much fruit, your results won’t be ideal).
- Moderate amounts of nuts and seeds without sugar or artificial flavoring added.
- Green beans, snow peas, and snap peas are fine (and are the only exception to the “no legumes” rule).
- Coffee in moderation, without added sweetener or dairy (milk substitutes like almond milk are fine, as long as they don’t contain sweeteners).
- Vinegar for seasoning or cooking, as long as it doesn’t contain alcohol or added sugar.
- Spices and seasonings without sugar or preservatives.
- Limited quantities of fruit juices as a sweetener are acceptable (be sure it doesn’t have added sugar).
People on Whole30 are also encouraged to obtain their whole foods from grass-fed, organic, pastured, free-range, sustainable, and local sources whenever possible.
Here’s what you have to avoid during Whole30:
- No processed or “junk food,” even if it’s technically Whole30 compliant.
- No Paleo-style desserts (even if they’re made with allowed Whole30 ingredients) or other “substitute” foods (like cauliflower pizza crust) are allowed.
- Dairy is prohibited, even cultured dairy like yogurt. (Ghee is the one and only dairy item allowed because it doesn’t contain any lactose.)
- Any added sweetener (other than limited quantities of fruit juice) or sugar is prohibited, in any amount.
- Grains like rice, quinoa, oats, or wheat are prohibited.
- Gluten is out.
- Alcohol is prohibited, even for cooking.
- Legumes, which includes most beans as well as peanuts, are not allowed.
- No soy.
- Sulfites aren’t allowed.
- Monosodium glutamate is a big no-no.
- Avoid carrageenan.
In a nutshell, you’ll eat fruits, vegetables, meat, seafood, eggs, healthy fats, nuts, and seeds as the primary components of your meals. You’ll exclude sugar, dairy, alcohol, grains, legumes, desserts and dessert substitutes, most additives, and all processed foods.
One more thing to remember: When you begin Whole30, it’s vital that you check labels ahead of time. If you don’t, you may get an unwelcome surprise several weeks in when you realize that an item you assumed was okay turned out to include sugar, alcohol, soy, or gluten. For other Whole30 pointers when starting out, we recommend reading our 10 Mistakes You Should Avoid On Whole30 article.
Whole30: What To Expect?
If you decide to start Whole30, the biggest shock to your system might be hunger. Especially during the first one to two weeks of the program, your body will crave what you’ve cut out of your diet, even if you’re eating plenty of protein and fiber. When you cut out sugar and refined carbs, your body has to take some time to adjust its response to what makes you feel hungry and full. But since you aren’t counting calories and can eat as much as you need to satisfy your hunger (as long as you’re actually hungry and not snacking out of boredom), it’s likely that your hunger will diminish as your body gets used to the new eating pattern.
On the Whole30, healthy fats and whole food sources of protein and fiber tend to eliminate your cravings after the initial adjustment period. This is a tremendous benefit, because it can reset your entire relationship with eating.
Similarly, initially you may feel fatigued or lethargic as you get used to relying on whole foods rather than processed and refined carbohydrates. But ultimately, most people notice their energy levels increasing during the thirty days.
The creators of Whole30 say that people also commonly report improvements in blood pressure, better mood, more stable energy levels, and increased self-esteem.
The biggest challenge on Whole30 is usually staying compliant. When it comes to sticking with the program, you need to hope for the best and plan for the worst.
If you deviate even a tiny bit, it’s back to day one of the plan. Situations like date nights, business meetings, office parties, or long-distance travel can test your resolve and planning ability, so be sure to account for these possibilities.
Print out the list of which foods are allowed and which ones aren’t and bring it with you everywhere. Research restaurants ahead of time, or eat at home before going out.
What to Expect During the Reintroduction Phase
Once you make it through your thirty day journey, it’s time to reintroduce foods. This phase can really make or break your Whole30 results; remember that the point is to develop a healthy relationship to food and understand how you feel, not to binge or make up for lost time.
Try reintroducing foods one at a time, waiting several days to notice what happens. You can ease the transition by going slowly, noticing which foods affect your mood and energy levels, and retaining a strong emphasis on the healthy foods you ate for the past thirty days, going forward.
If you’re doing it correctly, you’ll feel just as good as you did at your peak during the Whole30 program. If you don’t feel great, you probably went too quickly or allowed problem foods back into your diet.
What’s the Difference Between Whole30 and Paleo?
While Whole30 and the Paleolithic diet are not the same diet, they do have many features in common.
Here’s what’s similar between the two:
- Both eating methods include whole foods only.
- They also exclude similar foods (processed foods, grains, and preservatives).
- Similar to Whole30, most paleo dieters choose to focus on health over body weight, and don’t count calories.
And here’s where Whole30 and paleo differ:
- Whole30 is more restrictive than paleo, both in terms of foods and behaviors (unlike Whole30, you can use natural sweeteners or paleo-friendly dessert substitutes on paleo, and you can weigh in on paleo)
- You can reintroduce other foods at the end of Whole30, but not on paleo.
- Paleo is a lifestyle, not a thirty-day eating strategy.
Whole30 is a short-term experiment that’s effective for resetting your body, changing your preferences, and identifying which foods adversely affect your energy levels, mood, and health.
Paleo, on the other hand, is a long-term commitment that eliminates all processed foods, and most products of modern agriculture–forever. The purpose is to simplify your life and increase your lifespan and health by adhering to an ancestral diet.
Ultimately, while Whole30 and paleo appear to be quite similar, they have different purposes and are not interchangeable.