Even if you haven’t tried Whole30 yourself, chances are it’s entered your orbit at some point—raise your hand if you’ve been to at least one dinner party where someone couldn’t partake in the chips and margaritas because of the popular elimination diet. No, your friend wasn’t trying to be a buzz-kill. She’s just one of the many brave souls who decided to give up a few food groups for 30 days to improve their health and eating habits.
You might say that the program, developed by certified sports nutritionist Melissa Hartwig, helped launch Paleo-style eating back into mainstream territory. (Like Paleo, refined sugar, grains, legumes, and dairy are just a few of Whole30’s no-go ingredients.) And your mom, your aunt, and your best friend’s sister aren’t the only ones on board—stars like Busy Philipps and Emmy Rossum are also fans.
As someone who’s personally taken on the 30-day challenge, I know that all the accompanying rules and information can be a bit overwhelming. I mean, there were only two Whole30 books when I did it, and now there are six. To help spare you the huge pile of reading, I’m here to break down everything you need to know about the dos and don’ts of Whole30—with tips straight from its creator herself.
Keep reading for a beginner’s crash course on the rules of Whole30.
What is Whole30?
Essentially, Whole30 requires you to remove things from your diet that are commonly linked with food sensitivities, cravings, disrupted hormones, poor sleep, and a host of other issues. “The Whole30 is a reset for your health, your habits, and your relationship with food,” Hartwig explains. “It’s a 30-day experiment designed to teach you how the foods you’ve been eating are impacting how you feel, how you look, and your quality of life.”
According to Hartwig, your food choices could be behind that sluggishness you feel throughout the day, or even those low-key aches or pains you can’t explain. And one way to find out which food could be the culprit is to completely remove the potentially problematic ones for 30 days to see if you feel better. After the 30 days, you slowly introduce them back into to your diet to see how they affect you.
So is it a diet?
Here’s where things can get a bit confusing. Technically, the Whole30 is an elimination diet—basically, a diet designed to remove certain food groups and then reintroduce them after a period to determine possible food sensitivities. Yet Hartwig thinks “diet” is a dirty word, and she prefers not to use it.
“In essence, it is about your diet, in terms of the way you eat,” she says. “[But] I describe it as a self-experiment rather than a diet. It really is just an experiment designed to help you figure out what works for you.”
There’s no counting macros, calories, or anything else on Whole30, and while you’re encouraged to eat until you’re full, there are no restrictions on how much you can eat. That said, there’s a Whole30 meal template to follow with suggested portion and serving sizes, which can vary based on your size and activity levels.
What can you eat on Whole30?
You’ll mainly be eating vegetables and fruits, with a moderate amount of organic, sustainably and ethically raised meat, eggs, fish, and nuts—and hardly anything from a package. It’s pretty difficult to find a ready-to-eat, take-out, or restaurant meal that is 100 percent Whole30 compliant, so you’ll want to cook as much as you can. If there was ever a time to up your meal-prep game, now would be the time.
And yes, you can still do the Whole30 if you’re vegan or vegetarian, but the guidelines are a bit different. (FYI: A 30-day program free from eggs, meat, or fish—where you get your protein from beans or grains—is not technically considered Whole30. Instead, this is dubbed a vegetarian or vegan “reset,” depending on what you eat.) For all produce you buy, organic is best whenever you can afford it. If you’re trying to save money on groceries, your best bet is to shop organic from the dirty dozen list, and go conventional for the other items. Also, eating fruits and veggies in season will give you the best bang for your nutritional buck.
What’s not on the menu? Sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes, dairy, certain additives, and desserts are all banned for the 30 days. You’re also not allowed to weigh yourself or take measurements during the experience, to keep the focus on how you feel (as opposed to the numbers on the scale.)
Here’s a more in-depth guide to what you can and can’t eat on Whole30—and why.
What’s a typical day of eating look like on Whole30?
You might start your morning with a veggie omelet and coffee—black or with sugar-free, dairy-free, additive-free creamer like Nutpods. You’re encouraged not to snack between meals, but if you’re really hungry, you could munch on blueberries and raw nuts.
Lunch may be a big salad with organic, high-quality protein like grass-finished beef or organic chicken. For your p.m. pick-me-up, you might have a matcha latte (with approved alt-milk) or coffee with a scoop of grass-fed collagen peptides.
Dinner will look similar to lunch—veggies with avocado and a moderate amount of protein, perhaps. And again, to help you overcome sugar cravings, no dessert is encouraged in any form. (Not even one made from Whole30-approved ingredients).
Why you really can’t cheat on Whole30
Whole30 is notorious for being super strict. There’s a tough-love approach to cheating on the program, which means you can’t cheat. Like, ever. And if you do, you have to start the 30-day process all over.
“The elimination has to be 100 percent. If it’s not 100 percent, you won’t have an accurate comparison of what your life looks like without the potentially problematic trigger,” Hartwig explains. “It’s not that we’re trying to be a boot camp, or trying to play like the toughest nutrition challenge out there.”
And it’s not just about the elimination process. According to Hartwig, the program is built in this way to enforce healthier habits. “Habit research shows that black-and-white rules are actually easier for the brain to follow,” Hartwig explains. So, basically, not cheating will make it easier to stick to Whole30 for the entire term.
How will you feel while doing Whole30?
Short answer: It’s complicated. Everyone’s individual experience depends on a lot of factors, including how you ate before the program. Luckily, Hartwig gets asked this question so much that the Whole30 team created a timeline and a calendar that can give you an idea of what to expect. (In short, you’ll likely feel all the feels, from energized and optimistic to sick and tired. And it’s all considered totally normal.)
What results can you expect from Whole30?
Some of the benefits reported from Whole30 devotees include weight loss, better energy levels throughout the day, improved focus, and better sleep. Oh, and if you’re looking to super-charge your workouts, that reportedly happens, too.
Another number of people report a significant reduction or elimination of intense food cravings. Besides these benefits, the Whole30 is known for helping spark larger lifestyle changes—or, at the very least, it can point someone in the direction of a food that could be problematic. (For me, it was dairy, gluten, and sweetened coffee creamers, which I still avoid years after completing the program.)
And what do you do when it’s over?
Once the elimination part of Whole30’s donezo and you feel amazing, it’s time for the reintroduction phase. This is one of the most important parts of the plan, since it’s where all of your hard works pays off and you get to learn more about yourself and what foods work for you.
You’re encouraged to add back the foods you took out—not all at once, but one at a time to see if anything triggers unwanted symptoms. It all might sound tedious, but if it works out in your favor, consider the freedom of never having to worry about which foods might make you feel bad again. And when you do go for that red wine and cheese plate on girl’s night out, at least you’ll know exactly what that means for you and your health.
Originally published on August 16, 2018; updated on September 4, 2018.
This is how to optimize your workouts when doing Whole30, according to a top trainer. And if you want to get started right now, check out these Whole30-approved recipes perfect for this weekend’s BBQs.
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