The Whole30: A 30-Day Paleo Eating Plan That Just Might Change Your Life

it starts with food

If you’re a healthy eating nut like me, chances are you’ve heard lots of buzz recently about the Whole30. But what exactly is it? The Whole 30 is a difficult (but doable, if you’re disciplined) eating plan that’s based on the principles of a paleo diet. Melissa and Dallas Hartwig, a married couple, came up with the idea for the Whole30 in 2009 and it’s since taken off, spawning a popular online community and now, a New York Times bestselling book, It Starts With Food.

Devotees of the program are enthusiastic, to say the least. People who’ve done the Whole30 rave about the improvements it’s made in their health and bodies. “Life-changing” is a phrase I frequently see associated with the Whole30. But does all that rhetoric ring true? Holly Woodcock, a blogger who recently completed it, thinks so:

Specifically, I was flabbergasted by the stabilization of my energy levels, and for me personally it really helped propel me through a weight loss plateau. Without counting calories or monitoring my carb intake or working out any more than usual, I ended up losing 12 lbs over the 30 days, which was pretty phenomenal.

Dr. Ernie Garcia, a Louisiana doctor who tried a Whole30, said he’d easily recommend it to his patients, especially considering the sad state of the American diet:

As far as nutritional standards, it absolutely lacks nothing from the standards department.  The Standard American Diet (SAD) recommended by the government is very different from what the Whole30 recommends.  The truth is, the SAD has done several things over the last 25-30 years: obesity rates have skyrocketed (in adults and children), diabetes is rising at epidemic proportions, and the health of America is failing to the cost of billions of dollars a year.

To learn more about the Whole30 and its benefits, I talked to Melissa Hartwig about the paleo backlash, what happens when the 30 days are over, and her new book, It Starts With Food.

How did you and your husband come up with the idea for the Whole30®?

The idea for the Whole30 came from our friend Robb Wolf, author of The Paleo Solution. We had just attended another one of his seminars, where he outlined the benefits of a 30-day Paleo elimination program. We decided to try it for ourselves, and the results were life-changing, especially for me. (I recount my experience in detail in our book, It Starts With Food.) We realized the plan had the potential to change people’s relationships with food, but we needed to provide additional guidelines designed to help people break unhealthy habits and cravings, and take their focus off the scale and put it back on health. We offered our version of an elimination program on our blog in July 2009, and the Whole30 was born.

What is a “nutritional reset?” Is the Whole30 like a cleanse?

The Whole30 is not a “cleanse” in the traditional sense, although the program is greatly detoxifying. The Whole30 is more of a “reset” to get your body (your digestive tract, metabolism, and immune system) back to a place of balance, and help you break an unhealthy psychological attachment to certain foods. You eat plenty of real food on the plan, and there are no special “phases” or periods of caloric restriction. In fact, if you wanted to, you could continue the Whole30 exactly as written every day for the rest of your life—and be optimally nourished, satisfied, and happy!

How does the Whole30 fit into (or complement) a Paleo lifestyle?

The Whole30 is based on Paleo diet principles—eat meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruits, and healthy fats. But “Paleo” is defined differently based on who you ask, and some Paleo foods (like honey, dried fruit, or “Paleo” versions of desserts or treats) may not be helping you reach your health or weight loss goals. The Whole30 is the perfect tool to both introduce people to a Paleo-style diet in the healthiest way possible, and help those who already follow a Paleo plan fine-tune their eating habits and break any lingering unhealthy cravings. We often see folks who describe themselves as “80/20” Paleo or Primal using the Whole30 to help them get back on track when their overall diet starts to slip to a less healthy ratio due to vacation, the holiday season, or stress.

It seems like there’s been quite a bit of backlash lately against the Paleo lifestyle. What do you say to the critics?

If people started looking at the actual recommendations of ours and other Paleo programs—if we just told you what we ate, without sticking a label on it—I don’t think anyone would even blink. We eat a modest amount of high-quality meat, seafood, and eggs. We pay attention to where our food comes from, choosing animals responsibly raised in their natural environment and fed their natural diet. We eat lots of vegetables. Everyone knows vegetables are healthy! We eat fruit, especially when it’s fresh and in season. And we eat healthy fats, like avocado and olive oil. None of that sounds so crazy, does it?

We think it also comes down to education. Despite the fact that scientific research has proven that dietary intake of saturated fat does not cause heart disease, people are still afraid of a little bit of butter or a few eggs. This is changing, but slowly. It Starts With Food promotes these healthy eating concepts in a way that isn’t radical or threatening.

What comes after the Whole30? How do you recommend people incorporate what they’ve learned into their lives?

We’ll make one thing clear—it’s the Whole30, not the Whole365! We want people to use the program as an awareness tool, to help them identify for themselves how the foods they’ve been eating are affecting how they feel, their disease or condition, their quality of life, and their body composition. Once you’re through the program, you’ll know for yourself which “less healthy” foods are special or delicious enough to include back into your diet once in a while—and which affect you so negatively, they’re just not worth it, even if they are tasty. Armed with this knowledge (and a newfound control over your food) you’ll be able to make conscious, deliberate decisions about eating less healthy foods in a way that feels balancedand satisfying—and in a way that no longer brings about guilt, shame, or remorse. Ultimately, life after your Whole30 is food freedom!

The Whole9 and Whole30 are thriving online communities—what made you decide to expand into a book?

Writing It Starts With Food was the next logical step to share our Good Food word with the world. Our community continues to grow by leaps and bounds, but there were huge populations—family members, community centers, gyms—that we weren’t reaching through our website. Plus, we just had so much to say about healthy eating—and that much material wouldn’t fit into blog posts, or even our full-day nutrition seminars. So we decided to write a book—the book that you’d give to your mother, your best friend, your co-worker, to help them understand that they have the power to change their lives just by changing the food they put on their plates. We sought to wrote the book that would make people say, “This is the first nutrition plan that really makes sense to me, the one that I think will actually work long-term.”

What advice do you have for people wanting to try the Whole30 program?

Planning and preparation are key. We have a free Quick-Start Guide on our site to help you get started, but the first step is cleaning out your pantry, loading up on healthy food, and writing down any potentially stressful or difficult situations coming up in the next 30 days (family dinners, business meetings, nights out with the girls) and how you’ll deal with them.

It’s also critical to gather support for your 30 days, whether it’s your family and friends, or an online community like our Whole30 forum. You need the accountability, motivation, and support of people who know what you’re going through, and who have been there too. Finally, start now! Right now. This very minute. Don’t put it off, because you’ll always come up with a reason to start tomorrow/next week/next month. And in 30 days, you’re going to wish you had started today.

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about the Whole30?

This program has the potential to change your life. I know that sounds like a bold claim, but we’ve seen thousands of people experience exactly that after their 30 days are over—and sometimes before! If nothing else has worked for you, if you’ve tried everything, if you’re finally ready to take charge of your health—give us 30 days. It’s just 30 days, but it has the power to change the way you eat, and your relationship with food, for the rest of your life.

As Melissa mentioned, the Whole30 isn’t easy. Sticking to the program sounds super challenging, but the glowing health benefits that people report may well make the 30 days of strict eating worth it.  Holly, who told me “Not going to lie: not having wine for 30 days was hard!” stresses how much she learned:

You will learn so much about yourself, your psychological relationship with food, how food works in your body, and how you can tweak your food choices. It is not a quick fix and it will definitely have its challenges, but if you make a plan and a commitment, it will change your life.

Holly has some awesome advice for would-be Whole 30ers on her blog, as well.

To learn more, visit the Whole9 website, which details how nutrition and the Whole30 fit into optimum health as a whole (the Whole9 is Melissa and Dallas’ company, which also emphasizes other healthy behaviors like exercise, sleep, and stress management). Free downloadable guides to the Whole30, including meat-buying, dining out and label-reading, are available, as well.

Photo: Whole9

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    • jc

      If the Paleo Diet fad is so healthy and responsible for brain growth, then why didn’t the Neanderthals survive and thrive? They had 300,000 years in Europe following the diet to make themselves into “Einsteins!” Speaking of Albert Einstein, this is what he had to say on the subject of health and survival: “Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” http://www.veganfitness.net/viewtopic.php?t=723 & http://nutritionfacts.org/.

      • Loume

        Firstly to compare today’s environment with that of our ancestors seems a bit narrow minded. Unlike today, our ancestors did not have cushy homes for shelter, supermarkets for constant food supply, doctors, hospitals and medication to treat illness and injuries or roads and pathways to get from point a to point b in the easiest and quickest manner. Today the majority of us have the ability to not only survive and thrive, and with more and more information becoming available about food we have the option to learn and then to choose what works best for us. Which was not the case hundreds of years ago and more. I’ve found that what works the best for me is following a Paleo diet, and the whole30 definately cemented that belief as I still struggled with a sugar addiction. But at the end of the day it’s about educating ourselves on all the facts, AND being open to new ideas.

    • Lauren

      I did it this August, and I am not sure about life changing, but it certainly helped me shed some weight. Granted, I probably did not honor the spirit of the program. For example I drank jamba juice on it, and it is technically allowed, but not enouraged due to the blood sugar response It was a good experience, though and I recommend anyone try it.

    • Melissa

      I saw this program promoted on a popular blog. People had questions in the comments section and Dallas answered them flippantly and talked down to people asking questions about his program like they were idiots. Turned me off immediately when I was actually interested. I’ll never buy anything from people who would treat potential customers in such a rude manner.

      • Jan

        I know Dallas and Melissa can seem flippant and sarcastic sometimes, but their knowledge and this program are very sound. Don’t “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” here. I have improved my sleep and energy cycles and have recovered from an autoimmune disease since finding Whole 9 and Whole 30. As for buying something from rude people–I think it’s a testament to their characters and to their dedication to helping people that everything you need to follow Whole 30 is available at their website for free. Yes, you can buy the new book if you love to read about the science behind what you are doing, but you don’t need to in order to be helped.

      • Meghan

        I know what you’re talking about (I read that blog too) and you’re way off base. Someone who hadn’t read their book or the research questioned their integrity, calling them “irresponsible” for their recommendations. Dallas gave the research to back it up and yes, took issue with their use of the strong word “irresponsible.” Justifiable in my eyes.

        Paleo and the Whole30 can bring out some strong emotional opposition. Dallas and Melissa do “tough love” but they also dedicate alot of time and passion to answering questions and helping those who do their program. To dismiss the whole Paleo diet, and the life-changing many (including me) have experienced from the Whole30, because of one comment on one blog is short-sighted.

      • Melissa

        Meghan, I never said I would dismiss the Paleo lifestyle. I said I wouldn’t be interested in their program. There are other programs out there that don’t treat people like that and then also brag about it on their company Facebook page which they also did.

    • Nancy

      I’ve done the Whole30 and read the book. I’ve lost a total of 22lbs since spring. I sleep better, I am less hungry. I have more energy. It really is worth it.

    • Kelly

      I think that there are people out there who have a difficult time handling tough love approaches. Totally fine, that’s their thing. But it might note bode well for success in weight loss. Attitude is key, and if you’re so easily offended, it smacks of a victim-mentality that isn’t conducive to positive changes.

    • Stephanie

      I used to follow paleo diet…until I realized how ridiculous it was.
      Watch the “Primitive Nutrition Series” on youtube.

    • Annie

      This chick should be ashamed of herself- advising people to stay away from whole grains and legumes for fear of “leaky gut syndrome”? Is she an idiot? The only person you should EVER take diet advice from is a REGISTERED DIETITIAN. Not some self-taught personal trainer who once had a tummyache and decided to tell the world that eating beans is bad for you. There is so much bad advice out there, it makes my head spin.