How Whole30 Really Works — and How to Get Started

The Whole30 diet includes only whole, unprocessed foods like meat and vegetables. (Image: Claudia Totir)

According to the International Food Information Council Foundation's latest food and health survey, 36 percent of Americans follow a diet of some form, with 5 percent choosing to follow Whole30.

What's more: That 5 percent group has some illustrious colleagues. Celebrities like Busy Phillips have been open about trying Whole30 for weight loss.

But what is it, exactly?

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," says Urban.

So, What Is Whole30?

Unlike longer-term approaches that focus more on weight loss, like the low-carb, high-fat keto diet and paleo, which encourages followers to eat like hunter-gatherers, 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," says Urban. "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.

Bonus: Cassetty says these types of foods offer protective compounds that support your overall health, enable better sleep and promote concentration and mood regulation.

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 scientific experiment, and compare your experience. "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 is a dietary program that aims to help you better understand how certain foods affect you and your wellness goals. (Image: Claudia Totir)

Whole30-Friendly Foods

According to the Whole30 website, program rules include eating:

  • Moderate portions of meat, seafood and eggs
  • Lots of vegetables
  • Some fruit
  • Plenty of natural fats
  • 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 Steer Clear Of

The Whole30 mantra? "When in doubt, leave it out. It's only 30 days."

So, on Whole30, you'll avoid:

  • Sugar (real and processed)
  • Grains (wheat, rye, barley, oats, corn, rice, millet, bulgur, sorghum, sprouted grains)
  • Gluten-free grains like quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat
  • Forms of bran, germ and starch
  • Legumes (even peanuts and all versions of soy)
  • Dairy
  • Carrageenan
  • MSG and sulfites
  • Baked goods
  • Junk food

How Do You Measure Success on Whole30?

Urban says that Whole30 isn't a weight-loss program, and 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.

Those that follow Whole30 should look at everything from cravings, energy levels, sleep quality, mood, focus and productivity, self-confidence and self-advocacy to physical improvements like clearer skin, less swollen joints, increased mobility and less bloating.

"While Whole30 isn't a medical elimination diet, we routinely hear of improvements in all sorts of conditions, like allergies, migraines, anxiety and high blood pressure," Urban says. "We aren't a weight-loss program, but people do report losing weight without counting or restricting calories — on average between six and 15 pounds in 30 days."

What's the Hardest Part of Following 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.

And it's integral to make sure some meals are planned; that you've read the labels on all your condiments, herbal teas and convenience foods and that you have plenty of "emergency food" stocked for busy days, she says.

And last but not least, Urban stresses the importance of a support system. "If you don't have people at home doing the program with you, seek that out online or via social media," she says.

Who Should Avoid Doing Whole30?

As with any diet or new eating habits, check with your doctor before committing to Whole30, to make sure it's the right move for you.

Cassetty notes that while some people may like a rigid diet like Whole30 — because it eliminates some decision-making and provides some structure to eating that may otherwise feel hard to control — it has the potential to trigger an unhealthy food obsession for some people. "Anyone who has ever experienced disordered eating would be better off finding a more flexible, mindful approach," she says.

If that sounds like you, seek the counsel of a trained healthcare provider before attempting Whole30 or any other restrictive diet.

Change up the usual go-to breakfast with this Whole30-compliant baked sweet potato stuffed with guacamole. (Image: LIVESTRONG.com Creative)

The Best Whole30 Foods for Breakfast

Some say that breakfast is the toughest meal to conquer when it comes to Whole30 because, hey, you can burn out when it comes to eggs. But with a little creativity, you'll quickly find that breakfast can be just as fun, and enjoyable, as lunch and dinner.

If you have grown tired of egg-based dishes, try making sweet potato toasts and load them with your favorite proteins, like salmon or sausage. Of course, you can always add avocado to your toasts or really upgrade your breakfast routine with a baked sweet potato stuffed with guacamole.

The Best Whole30 Foods for Lunch

Salads packed with healthy fats and protein are a good choice when it comes to your midday meal. Some of our favorites? An arugula, salmon and avocado concoction by chef and author Seamus Mullen, for starters.

As for dressing, if you don't make your own, check out Whole30-compliant dressing from Mark Sisson's Primal Kitchen, available at Whole Foods.

This sweet and smoky chili is Whole30-compliant and comes together in just one pot. (Image: Ghazalle Badiozamani)

The Best Whole30 Foods for Dinner

Whole30 dinners can be a breeze, thanks to helpful appliances like the slow-cooker and Instant Pot that practically cook dinner for you.

"Right now, my whole family is very into the Smoky Sweet Potato Chili from the new Whole30 Slow Cooker cookbook. It's one-pot cooking, which makes clean-up a snap, and the hearty flavors of beef, sweet potato and poblano peppers and smoked paprika make for a delicious-smelling kitchen at the end of my workday. I also love reheating it for breakfast with a fried egg on top, and will often sub butternut squash for sweet potato, or ground chicken for the beef."

And that's perhaps the best part of making stews and chilis for dinner: Not only can they easily feed a crowd, but the meals keep for days and freeze well, so you can always have a healthy meal on hand.

Of course, zoodles topped with meatballs and a Whole30-compliant marinara sauce like Rao's is a satisfying go-to. Or make dinner a straightforward affair with a steak or burger with a side of sauteed spinach and roasted sweet potatoes.

The Best Whole30 Snacks

While snacking isn't encouraged on Whole30, the program does recognize that sometimes it's necessary to eat between meals. If you find yourself needing a snack, aim to eat something satisfying that contains protein, fat and carbs.

Try a hard-boiled egg plus carrots dipped in Primal Kitchen Ranch dressing, or make a mini meal out of last night's dinner. Of course recognizing if you are really hungry or just bored is part of the Whole30 process.

PARTNER & LICENSEE OF THE LIVESTRONG FOUNDATION

Copyright © 2019 Leaf Group Ltd. Use of this web site constitutes acceptance of the LIVESTRONG.COM Terms of Use , Privacy Policy and Copyright Policy . The material appearing on LIVESTRONG.COM is for educational use only. It should not be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. LIVESTRONG is a registered trademark of the LIVESTRONG Foundation. The LIVESTRONG Foundation and LIVESTRONG.COM do not endorse any of the products or services that are advertised on the web site. Moreover, we do not select every advertiser or advertisement that appears on the web site-many of the advertisements are served by third party advertising companies.