How Whole30 Really Works — and How to Get Started

The Whole30 diet includes only whole, unprocessed foods like meat and vegetables.

Perhaps you've heard of the Whole30 diet, a month-long eating program intended to help you reframe your relationship with food and identify which food groups work best with your body. But what is Whole30, exactly?

For context, 36 percent of Americans follow a diet of some form, with 5 percent choosing to follow Whole30, according to the International Food Information Council Foundation. And that group includes some illustrious colleagues: Celebrities like Busy Phillips have been open about trying Whole30 for weight loss.

Melissa Hartwig Urban, Whole30 co-founder and CEO, gives LIVESTRONG.com the inside scoop on the diet plan she created in 2009. After eliminating certain foods for 30 days as an experiment, Urban saw dramatic improvements in her energy, sleep, mood and digestion, as well as her emotional relationship with food.

"It was the first time in my life I was able to get off the scale and out of the mirror," she says. "The experiment brought about a profound and permanent shift in how I thought about food and my body."

Urban shared her experience on her blog, and several hundred people decided to follow along with the "rules" she drafted. "That was the start of the first-ever Whole30 group, in July 2009," Urban says.

Below, learn about the diet, what foods to eat and avoid and the pros and cons of Whole 30.

So, What Is Whole30?

Unlike longer-term approaches that focus more on weight loss (like the keto diet or paleo plan), Whole30 is a 30-day dietary program that aims to help you better understand which foods work best for your body and wellness goals.

"Think of Whole30 like pushing the reset button with your health, habits and relationship with food," Urban says. "For 30 days, you'll eliminate foods that are commonly problematic (to varying degrees) in one of four areas — your cravings and emotional relationship with food, your blood sugar regulation and hormonal balance, your digestion and your immune system."

Samantha Cassetty, RD, a New York City-based nutrition and weight-loss expert, says she likes how Whole30 focuses on whole, real foods from quality sources. "Filling up on whole foods — notably, lots of veggies, as well as lean meats and healthful fats — over processed ones is a good way to nourish your body and mind," she says.

How Does It Work?

In addition to eliminating certain food groups for 30 days, Urban says during that time, you should make a point to notice your body's reactions.

"You'll pay attention to what happens to your cravings, energy, sleep, mood, attention span, digestion, aches and pains, anxiety, skin, allergies, asthma, migraines and other symptoms in the absence of these potentially problematic foods," she says.

Then, at the end of the 30 days, you'll reintroduce those foods one at a time — like a science experiment — and compare that experience to how you felt while following Whole30. "You'll then take what you've learned about how these specific foods work for your body and brain and use that information to create the perfect, sustainable diet for you, because there is no one-size-fits-all," Urban says.

Whole30-Friendly Foods

Prioritize eating lots of veggies and moderate portions of protein-rich foods like meat while following Whole30.

According to the Whole30 website, program rules include eating:

  • Moderate portions of meat, seafood and eggs
  • Lots of vegetables
  • Some fruit
  • Natural fats like those in fish or nuts
  • Herbs, spices and seasonings

"Eat foods with very few ingredients, all pronounceable ingredients, or better yet, no ingredients listed at all because they're whole and unprocessed," the website states.

Foods to Avoid

If you're wondering which foods to skip, first consider the Whole30 mantra: "When in doubt, leave it out. It's only 30 days."

Whole30 foods to avoid include:

  • Sugar (real and processed)
  • Grains (wheat, rye, barley, oats, corn, rice, millet, bulgur, sorghum, sprouted grains, bran and germ)
  • Gluten-free grains like quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat
  • Legumes like beans, peas, lentils and peanuts
  • All versions of soy, like tofu or soy sauce
  • All dairy products
  • Carrageenan
  • MSG and sulfites
  • Baked goods
  • Junk food

Proposed Benefits of Whole30

So, does Whole30 work? Well, that depends on your goals.

While you may lose weight (the average weight loss on Whole30 is between six and 15 pounds, Urban says), it isn't a weight-loss program specifically. Urban instead measures success with NSVs (non-scale victories).

"Diet culture has us so conditioned to use body weight as our primary measurement of health, but there are a million other factors that truly point to better health and quality of life in a way that doesn't make us neurotic or anxious," she says.

Urban says potential NSVs you may experience on Whole30 can include:

  • Fewer cravings
  • Higher energy levels
  • Better sleep quality
  • Improved mood
  • Better focus and productivity
  • Improved self-confidence
  • Clearer skin
  • Less swollen joints
  • Increased mobility
  • Less bloating
  • Improvements in allergy symptoms
  • Fewer migraines
  • Less anxiety
  • Lower blood pressure

Potential Risks of Whole30

When it comes to preparing for the obstacles of committing to Whole30, Urban says it all comes down to planning and preparation. "Whole30 is different from anything you've ever done, even if you're already eating healthfully," she says.

Here are some of the challenges and risks associated with this eating style:

  • It's strict — there's not much room for flexibility in what you eat, Cassetty says, which may not be sustainable over longer periods of time.
  • It requires lots of planning — you need to read the labels on all of your food, down to condiments, to make sure everything is Whole30-friendly.
  • It may trigger disordered eating.
  • It's not safe or recommended for people who are pregnant, older adults and people with frailty (like those recovering from major surgery), per the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Tip

Talk to a doctor or dietitian before attempting Whole30 or any other restrictive diet to make sure it's safe for you, especially if you have an underlying medical condition.

Sample Whole30 Meal Plan

If you're sick of eggs, change it up with this Whole30-compliant baked sweet potato stuffed with guacamole.
Image Credit: LIVESTRONG.com Creative

Wondering how to start the Whole30 diet? Try these recipes to kick off the first days of your program.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5

Day 6

Day 7

The Best Whole30 Snacks

Snacking isn't encouraged on the diet, because recognizing if you are really hungry or just bored is part of the Whole30 process.

But the program does recognize that it's sometimes necessary to eat between meals, per the Whole30 website. If you find yourself needing a snack, aim to eat a food or mini meal that contains protein, fat and carbs, such as:

  • A hard-boiled egg
  • Carrots dipped in Primal Kitchen Ranch dressing
  • A small portion of Whole30 leftovers from last night's dinner
  • An egg and veggie muffin
  • Tuna mixed with homemade mayo and a pickle
  • A hot dog and an orange
  • Jerky with a handful of chopped veggies and a handful of cashews