What Is Whole30? Is It A Diet? Is It Healthy?
It’s all over the internet, everybody’s trying it, and it’s changing their lives—but what is Whole30? Well, it’s a kind of ‘clean eating’ program, and it’s sort of similar to Paleo. But, really, Whole30 is pretty unique as far as ‘diets’ go. Yes, it’s a program that tells you what you can and can’t eat. But, there’s no counting calories and no weight check-ins…? And, the goal is to change how you eat AND how you think about food!? Hmmm…
The program is majorly trendy right now, in part because it’s pretty new. In 2009, Melissa Hartwig, a Certified Sports Nutritionist, co-created the Whole30 just by trying it out herself. Pretty much, she decided to do this 30-day dietary experiment, blogged about it, and saw some incredible changes in her health and mindset towards food. And now, YOU can try the same dietary experiment—the Whole30—on yourself.
So, what is Whole30? And is it for you?
Let's walk through the Whole30 basics, then I've got some tasty Whole30 recipes for your inspiration! Also, check out the FAQs section at the very end of this post for some more detailed info! Learn about the criticisms of Whole30, why certain foods are restricted, as well as food allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities.
Learn about all things Whole30, the program rules, & delicious recipes on the Whole30 website!
DEFINITION: What Is Whole30?
Short answer: a short-term diet and lifestyle change, focused on eating real, whole foods while eliminating processed foods and potentially problematic foods.
Basically, Whole30 embraces clean eating and the power of nutrition to heal the body and mind. There are lots of similarities between Whole30 and the Paleo diet in terms of the permitted foods. BUT, Whole30 is a bit more restrictive than Paleo, and it is NOT designed to be a long-term diet. More on that in a moment…
Really, the best definition comes from the Whole30 folks themselves:
“Think of it as a short-term nutrition reset, designed to help you put an end to unhealthy cravings and habits, restore a healthy metabolism, heal your digestive tract, and balance your immune system.”
PHILOSOPHY: What Is Whole30 All About?
- Food shapes our health. Every aspect of our physical and mental health starts with food—our body composition, our energy, our moods. And, the foods we eat can contribute to health issues ranging from acne to depression.
- Eliminate and identify. The only way to know which foods cause problems is to cut them out and let the body recover. Then, reintroduce those foods and notice their connection to your symptoms.
- Quality over quantity. Rather than how much you eat, Whole30 focuses on what you eat. Food is the fuel that makes our bodies and minds run! And, Whole30 values balance and nutrition as far more important than calorie-counting.
- Take charge of your health. On Whole30, there’s an emphasis on eating when hungry, eating mindfully, and eating Rather than snacking mindlessly for comfort, the idea is to see that the food we put in our bodies matters. And, perhaps most importantly, the foods we eat are our choice. Whole30 is an opportunity to take control of your eating and your health.
- Free for everyone. Because the Whole30 creators want the program to be able to help as many people as possible, it’s entirely free. All of the information and loads of helpful resources are available on the Whole30 website.
The Whole30 website has TONS of helpful information. But, I highly recommend ordering The Whole30 Guide and The Whole30 Day By Day!
Is Whole30 A Diet?
Short answer: NO.
Let’s be clear here—the Whole30 is NOT:
- a conventional diet. Most diets restrict the amount of food or certain macronutrients that you can eat. But, Whole30 restricts specific foods and food groups.
- a weight-loss diet. While the large majority of Whole30 participants do lose weight, it‘s NOT a primary aim of the program. In fact, Whole30 encourages shifting our focus away from the number on the scale and not counting calories.
- a long-term diet. Unlike Paleo, Whole30 isn’t a lifelong eating plan—it’s only for 30 days. Many people criticize or question trying Whole30 because it’s so restrictive, but that’s why it’s short-term. (And, as we’ll get into, that short-term restriction serves a specific purpose.)
- a “quick fix.” Yes, Whole30 is a short-term program. But, it’s NOT a 30-day ‘cure-all,’ ‘fat-blasting’ fad diet. And, it won’t instantly reverse unhealthy eating habits. The Whole30 is the beginning of a transformation
At its core, the Whole30 is a lifestyle change that involves short-term dietary restriction. Whole30 focuses on mindful, clean eating with the goal of overall HEALTH. That’s why the short answer to ‘what is Whole30’ is NOT a diet. Because, generally, what we call ‘diets’ focus on calorie restriction and weight loss goals.
Keep this in mind as you decide if Whole30 is right for you! It’s NOT a weight-loss diet, like Atkins or Jenny Craig. And it’s NOT a long-term eating plan, like a Paleo or vegan lifestyle. But, Whole30 is technically a diet…but a very specific type of diet: an elimination diet.
Thanks to Dr. Jockers for this awesome graphic!
What Is Whole30: An Elimination Diet
Elimination diets eliminate certain foods that might be causing health problems, but only for a short period of time. Those health problems can range from allergies or digestive issues, to low energy or fatigue, to migraines or skin problems like eczema and acne. Then, you slowly reintroduce those potentially problematic foods, one-by-one, and notice any symptoms that arise. Ideally, symptoms should improve or disappear during the elimination phase. That way, you can pinpoint the most problematic foods for YOUR body during the reintroduction phase.
Pretty much, you’re doing a scientific experiment on your own body to see how different foods affect you. Because, if symptoms haven’t improved with medication or other treatments, certain foods may be contributing to the problem. (And, many of those symptoms can be signs of chronic inflammation, which can also be affected or worsened by certain foods!) Doctors and nutritionists most often recommend elimination diets to identify food allergies and intolerances. But, there are also other elimination diets that target specific conditions, like the Low FODMAP Diet for people with IBS.
Whole30 is just one of the elimination diets out there. But don’t let the word ‘diet’ confuse you! Remember, Whole30 and other elimination diets are NOT meant to be long-term eating plans. They’re highly-restrictive, short-term changes in diet. And, the purpose of those restrictions is NOT to make you lose weight. Elimination diets serve a different purpose: to give you information about your body and which foods it can/can’t tolerate. With that information, you gain the power to make better decisions and find YOUR perfect diet.
BENEFITS: Why's Everyone Trying Whole30?
Short answer: Reset your body, identify food sensitivities and intolerances, and change your relationship with food.
Unlike most diets out there today, Whole30 actually isn’t about counting calories and losing weight. It’s about improving your overall health, wellness, and relationship with food. And, unlike most conventional diets, the Whole30 is very restrictive, but for a purpose:
- Reset your body (& mind). Whole30 gives your body a break from processed junk foods, as well as potentially problematic foods that you might be sensitive to. Instead, you’re eating real, whole foods and giving your body a chance to heal! And, that focus on real foods can help tame cravings and change how we think about food.
- Identify foods that disagree with your body. Many people already try to eat a healthy diet, but still battle uncomfortable symptoms and unresolved health issues. Often, this is because of food sensitivities, and elimination diets like Whole30 are the best way to identify them.
- Treat some medical conditions, or alleviate symptoms. For some, it may be food allergies or intolerances. For others, it might be IBS, leaky gut, chronic inflammation, or autoimmune diseases. Whole30 has the potential to ease symptoms or even treat serious health conditions like these, and more!
- Change your relationship with food and the way that you eat. By focusing on whole, unprocessed foods, we start to shift our mindset. Rather than munching mindlessly, you’re eating foods that provide quality fuel to your body. It’s an opportunity to reevaluate our emotional attachment to food and preoccupation with body image. And, taking an extended break from processed foods actually can reduce cravings, and help change unhealthy habits.
Now, even though Whole30 is NOT about calorie-counting or weight loss, most participants DO lose some weight. In a survey of 1,600 Whole30 participants, 96% lost weight—between 6 and 15 pounds. It’s an added bonus of ditching processed foods for real food! BUT, if you’re really looking for a weight loss diet of some kind, you may want to rethink trying Whole30.
Physical Health Benefits:
- Identify food sensitivities and intolerances, so you can create YOUR perfect diet.
- Bring your immune system back into balance.
- Heal your digestive tract, and improve conditions like leaky gut syndrome or IBS.
- Restore a healthy metabolism and rebalance hormones.
- Reduce or even eliminate inflammation.
- Boost energy levels.
- Change how you think about food, and how you eat for the rest of your life.
- Break unhealthy habits with food, like mindless eating or eating for comfort.
- Change your tastes and tame food cravings, especially for sugar, refined carbs, processed foods, etc.
- Transform your emotional relationship with food and body image.
Is The Whole30 for Me?
Short answer: Yes, if you deal with ongoing health problems that don’t improve with medication or other treatments. And, if you’re willing to commit to a highly-restrictive eating plan for 30 days, to pinpoint potentially problematic foods. NO, if you’re looking for a long-term eating plan or weight loss diet.
I can’t emphasize this enough: Whole30 is a very specific type of diet with specific goals. So, it really isn’t a diet that’s meant for EVERYONE. But, it is a program that many people can benefit from, if you’re willing to commit.
Whole30 might be for you if you live with:
- Unexplained body aches and pains, often caused by chronic inflammation.
- Skin irritations, blemishes, acne, or mild rashes.
- Digestive problems, like bloating, gas, abdominal pain, diarrhea, or constipation.
- Low or inconsistent energy levels, despite eating a healthy diet.
- Seasonal allergies that don’t respond to medication.
- Fertility problems.
- Difficulty losing weight, despite eating well and exercising.
- An autoimmune disease or metabolic syndrome.
Whole30 can help alleviate chronic health problems and give you information about foods your body tolerates well. And, it can give you both a physical and mental reset. But, Whole30 is NOT for you if you’re specifically looking for weight loss. Most importantly, you have to be prepared to fully commit to the Whole30 rules and philosophy!
Thanks to Fitness HQ for this nifty Whole30 food chart!
What Happens During The Whole30?
Short answer: For 30 days, eat super clean, eliminating potentially problematic foods from your diet. Then, reintroduce those foods to figure out which are causing problems for your body.
What Can I Eat During Whole30?
30 days of WHOLE, UNPROCESSED FOODS, like:
- Vegetables (lots of ‘em!)
- Grass Fed Meat
- Nuts & seeds
- Foods with few ingredients, pronounceable ingredients, or NO ingredients!
What Can't I Eat?
AVOID these foods for 30 days:
- NO added sugars, sweeteners, or sugar alcohols (real or artificial). That means cane sugar, coconut sugar, maple syrup, honey (including raw), Splenda, xylitol, you name it—including natural sweeteners, like
- NO alcohol. This includes alcohol used in cooking! (Ideally, no tobacco either.)
- NO grains. Now, this doesn’t just mean grains that contain gluten (like wheat). On Whole30, you eliminate ALL grains, including quinoa, oats, rice, sprouted grains, or anything made from grains.
- NO beans or legumes. That includes all kinds of beans (black, red, garbanzo/chickpeas, etc.), lentils, soy (tofu, tempeh, soy sauce), peas, and peanuts (yes, *sigh* peanut butter, too). BUT, green beans, sugar snap peas, and snow peas are exceptions and allowed on Whole30.
- NO dairy. Any cow’s, goat’s, or sheep’s milk products, like cheese, yogurt, etc. BUT, ghee (or clarified butter) is the exception to this rule.
- NO artificial additives. Ingredients like MSG, carrageenan, sulfites, or pretty much anything artificial that you can’t pronounce. READ ANY/ALL NUTRITION LABELS CAREFULLY!
- NO baked goods, junk food, or treats. And, this includes ‘healthified’ treats (like pancakes, bread, pizza, ice cream) made with all Whole30-approved ingredients.
- Eat real foods. Stick to Whole30-approved foods only for 30 consecutive days.
- Don’t cheat. Remember, Whole30 is an elimination diet. Eliminating ALL potentially problematic foods is an essential piece of the process. If you slip up once, whether it’s a chewing a piece of gum or a splash of milk in your coffee, you go back to Day 1.
- No ‘healthified’ treats. A major aim of the Whole30 is to change your relationship with food. It’s not just about what you eat, but how you think about food. And, even treats with Whole30-approved ingredients feed into the mindset of overindulging or looking for comfort food.
- Only eat when you’re hungry. Again, part of transforming our relationship with food is treating food as FUEL for our bodies. If you’re not hungry to eat an apple or some veggies, you probably aren’t all that hungry! And, in the same vein, Whole30 recommends not snacking unless you’re truly hungry.
- No stepping on the scale, taking body measurements, or counting calories. For 30 days, don’t focus on weight or body image or calories. Whole30 wants the focus to be on the food and how we fuel our bodies—not on how we look. And, weight loss tends to distract us from noticing other healthy changes, like increased energy or relief from usual aches and pains. But, Whole 30 does encourage you to weigh yourself or take measurements before and after the 30 days. Just not during!
Off-Limits & Acceptable Additives:
Sneaky Sugars to Watch Out For:
Are There Any Risks?
- Nutrient Deficiencies: Because Whole30 cuts out all dairy, grains, and legumes, some doctors and nutritionists warn that deficiencies in nutrients like calcium or vitamin D are possible. So, it’s especially important to plan out balanced, nutritious meals on Whole30! But, the elimination phase is only short-term, and it’s hard to become seriously nutrient deficient in just 30 days. (However, kids and people following specific dietary lifestyles may be at a greater risk for deficiencies.)
- Highly Restrictive: By design, Whole30 is very restrictive, which may be challenging for some people. Often, highly-restrictive diets can burn people out and they give up. But, the 30 day elimination phase IS doable! It’s important to get informed and prepare yourself before starting your Whole30. And, remember, those strict rules are only for 30 days—NOT long-term!
- Not For Everyone: As we’ve talked about, Whole30 isn’t like other ‘diets.’ The purpose is to learn about your body and the foods that it can tolerate. And, part of the process is changing how you think about food. So, for people who aren’t experiencing ongoing symptoms of food intolerances or sensitivities, Whole30 may not be ideal.
Whole30 Might Not Be Ideal For:
- Kids, teens, and people with certain existing health conditions. These groups are at a higher risk for possible nutrient deficiencies. But, Whole30 doesn’t discourage people of any particular age or health condition from trying the program. It’s SO important to get informed before starting Whole30, and consider talking to your doctor or a nutritionist for guidance.
- Strict vegans and vegetarians. Without grains, legumes, and soy, it will be more difficult to get enough protein on Whole30. Luckily, Whole30 offers resources on their website to help people on specific lifestyles like these.
- People with a history of eating disorders and/or food addiction. Because Whole30 is so restrictive, the program may be more challenging for people with existing food issues. Of course, Whole30 also has the potential to improve our relationships with food. Ultimately, YOU have to decide what is best for your physical and mental wellness.
- Anyone looking for fast weight loss. Once again: Whole30 is NOT meant for weight loss! Yes, most Whole30 participants do lose weight. But, the whole program aims to stop focusing on weight and body image. Instead, Whole30 is about health goals and taking care of our bodies properly.
- People who aren’t willing to commit 100% and dedicate time to planning and food prep. The reality is, eating all real, whole foods requires some effort on our part—planning meals, shopping cooking. And, you have to be prepared and willing to tackle the elimination phase without ‘cheating.’ If you don’t want to spend the time or invest the energy in Whole30, it’s not the program for you.
Will You Take The Whole30 Challenge??
Yes, Whole30 IS challenging! But, a challenge is often the best motivator. As you see that you can resist temptation and that you keep making one healthy choice after another, you’re empowering yourself to do the same even after Whole30 ends. Really, what would you give to find “food freedom” (as they say in Whole30)? To stop snacking mindlessly, to stop giving into junk food cravings, to look at food and your own body in a new, healthier way? See what can happen in 30 days!
If you are ready to give Whole30 a shot, here are some strategies for your success:
- Make meal planning and cooking a priority! It can be tough to find Whole30-approved options when eating out or ordering in.
- If you do plan to go out to eat, scope out the menu options beforehand. Or, even call the restaurant to see if you’ll be able to find a suitable meal. There are restaurants that will have Whole30 options, or will accommodate you if you ask.
- Limit or eliminate packaged foods and foods with an ingredients list. Whole, unprocessed foods don’t need an ingredients list! But, if you do choose to eat packaged foods, ALWAYS check the ingredients lists thoroughly.
- Seek out and build a support system. Ask family and friends if they’re interested in trying Whole30 with you! Or, let them know how they can help you during your Whole30. And, Whole30 has an entire online community of support that you can access in their forums and on social media!
— Whole30 Meal Prep —
Whole30 Chia Pudding
Sausage Stuffed Sweet Potatoes
Grain Free Breakfast Porridge
Whole30 Cauliflower Fried Rice Bowl
Homemade Avocado Oil Mayo
Baked Chicken Skewers
Whole30 Cauliflower Rice Stir Fry
Whole30 "Butter" Chicken
Whole30 Slow Cooker Pineapple Turkey
Want More Whole30 Recipes?
For more Whole30 recipes, check out these eBooks!
Slow-Cooker & Sheet Pan Meals
Meal Prep Recipes: Low-Carb Edition
— Frequently Asked Questions about Whole30 —
CRITICISMS: Is Whole30 Healthy?
Short answer: Yes, many people report drastic improvements in their health after completing Whole30! But, Whole30 still isn’t for everyone. And, many doctors and nutritionists criticize Whole30 because it challenges traditional approaches to nutrition.
If you’ve done any research online about Whole30, you’ve probably seen people call it “one of the worst diets.” That’s because of the U.S. News & World Report ‘Best Diet’ rankings, which placed Whole30 as #37 out of 40. And, one expert on the ranking panel actually called Whole30 a “quack diet!” But, there are SO many conflicting opinions among nutrition experts. And, although many judge what’s ‘healthy’ based on government guidelines, those guidelines aren’t perfect. Especially in recent years, new research emerges ALL of the time that challenges our long-held beliefs about health.
Because Whole30 is very new, there aren’t yet scientific studies to back up the health claims. Many nutrition experts think this makes Whole30 a joke, but there are thousands of Whole30 participants who will tell you otherwise! Plus, Whole30 ranked so low because experts deemed it wasn’t a good weight-loss diet. But, as we already know, Whole30 isn’t about weight loss! On top of that, Whole30 eliminates whole grains, legumes, and dairy—3 food groups that U.S. Dietary Guidelines say are crucial for a healthy diet. And, experts who stand by those guidelines criticize Whole30 for “lacking in nutritional value.” But, there are other sides to this story.
First and foremost, there’s research supporting those Dietary Guidelines AND research findings that contradict them. Because our understanding of nutrition is still so incomplete, new, alternative approaches can be a good thing. Plus, every body is different—‘healthy’ can mean something different for your body than it does for mine! Ultimately, Whole30 is a program focused on eating real, whole foods that provide our bodies with quality fuel. Is it really less nutritious than calorie-restricting diets that rely on processed foods and supplement shakes, like Jenny Craig and Slim Fast? (Both of which ranked at the TOP of those ‘Best Diet’ rankings…)
Get informed and decide for yourself!
WHY: No Milk Or Beans Or Quinoa??
If you’re a bit confused, you’re not alone. One of the biggest criticisms of Whole30 is the fact that it eliminates entire food groups. And, food groups like whole grains, dairy, and legumes are traditionally considered ‘healthy!’ So why are they eliminated on Whole30? Remember, elimination diets eliminate foods that cause problems for many people much of the time.
In fact, Whole30 restricts foods that most elimination diets restrict! We know that there are 8 major food allergens* which are responsible for almost 90% of all food allergies. Obviously, elimination diets that test for food allergies eliminate these foods! But, even if you’re not allergic to any of these foods, you might still be intolerant or sensitive to some of them. And, there are several other common foods that can also contribute to symptoms for many people, ranging from skin problems to digestive issues to inflammation.
So, most elimination diets restrict the commonly-problematic foods listed below. And, you’ll see many of them (the foods that are italicized) overlap with Whole30 restrictions:
- Eggs* (sometimes)
- Tree nuts*
- Refined & added sugars
- Usually packaged, processed, fast foods
But, other foods that Whole30 eliminates (like grains and legumes) aren’t common allergens. So what gives? These food groups actually pose a different problem to some of our bodies: they can be very hard to digest. So, eating them often puts a strain on our bodies that we may not even realize, but it can have long-term consequences. In the coming weeks, we’ll dive into the specifics about why these foods can be problematic for some people!
Food Allergies, Intolerances, Sensitivities: What's The Difference?
In the U.S., around 1 in 25 adults and 1 in 12 children have food allergies. But, there are MANY more people with food intolerances and sensitivities. Food allergies cause the immune system to release specific antibodies, which allergy tests can measure. But, the only way to recognize food intolerances and sensitivities is to observe symptoms in your own body. So, that’s where elimination diets—like Whole30—come into play. Remember, it’s like doing an experiment on your own body to find which foods cause problems for you.
While an allergic response can be life-threatening, intolerances and sensitivities are So most people can still eat small amounts of problematic foods without major problems. BUT, food intolerances and sensitivities can strain the digestive system and the body’s defenses. And, if we continue eating those foods, that chronic strain can cause more serious damage and problems down the road. Often, chronic digestive problems or leaky gut syndrome result. But, that strain can also contribute to chronic inflammation and even autoimmune diseases.
If you want to dive deeper into common food sensitivities, check out our 5 Common Food Sensitivities post! For now, here’s a quick breakdown of the differences between a food allergy, intolerance, and sensitivity.
- An overreaction of the immune system to a specific food protein. In response, the body releases specific antibodies to fight off the allergen.
- Involve a serious and often life-threatening reaction in the body. And, the reaction is immediate—usually within 2 hours.
- An allergic reaction can be mild, with symptoms like an itchy mouth, skin rashes, or nausea. But, reactions are often severe, with symptoms like hives, chest pain, fainting, or a closing airway.
- Not only can allergic foods can cause a reaction if ingested, but some also can if touched.
- An inability of the digestive system to properly break down certain foods. This can be due to a lack of digestive enzymes, sensitivities to food additives, or conditions like IBS or Celiac.
- Reactions can be very uncomfortable, but generally are not life-threatening. And, the reaction is delayed—sometimes 3 to 4 days after eating.
- Food intolerances produce digestive symptoms, like bloating, gas, or stool irregularities. But, they can also produce symptoms like skin rashes, low energy levels, or mood swings.
- Intolerant foods produce a reaction only when eaten and digested.
- A combination of a much more mild immune system reaction to a specific food protein AND poor digestion.
- Involves a smaller scale reaction in the body, but also is not life-threatening. And, the reaction is often delayed, as with food intolerances.
- Food sensitivities can produce a range of symptoms. Some are similar to food allergies, like rashes, hives, or trouble breathing. Or, there can be digestive symptoms, like with food intolerances.