In this post I’ll talk about what the Whole30 is all about, go over my experience with my first Whole30, provide some resources for if you’re interested in doing one, and talk about why I’m doing another one.
I mentioned in my last post that this year I am focusing more on monthly goals than annual goals. The idea is that this condensed time frame will help me to focus more on one thing at a time and make real progress. We’ll see how it plays out in practice.
My goal for January is to complete a Whole30. I did one maybe four years ago and it really helped me out a lot, but it was definitely time for another.
What the Whole30 is (and isn’t)
The NO List
Sometimes it seems like the quick description of the Whole30 is just a list of NOs.
- NO sugar or sweeteners (artificial, natural or other)
- NO grains
- NO dairy
- NO legumes (beans, peanuts, soybeans to name a few.) I don’t know the correct pronunciation of the word legume.
- NO sulfites, carrageenan, or MSG
- NO recreations of junk foods using approved ingredients
- NO getting on the scale
The first time I heard about the Whole30 from my friend M, I just thought, “Yeah, NO thanks, wacko!” (And then a week or two later, I ended up jumping right on.)
While that list of NOs is accurate, I feel like the real meaning of the Whole30 has more to do with the YES list. There are rules to the Whole30, but there are also recommendations about what to eat. In my experience, these recommendations are what make for a successful Whole30.
The YES List
- YES meat, eggs, & seafood of all kinds. Preferably natural, organic, grass-fed, and/or sustainably sourced.
- YES vegetables.
- YES fruit (in moderation).
- YES healthy fats like coconut, avocado, olives, coconut oil, avocado oil, olive oil, ghee and coconut oil.
- YES eating lots of good, filling, tasty meals.
- YES carbs. Some people mistake this for a low carb diet because of the prohibition on grains, but carbs are fine in the form of fruits and vegetables (think sweet potatoes- a Whole30 staple).
- YES eating enough to be satiated.
Oh, and two more NOs that aren’t part of the official rules: NO going hungry. NO counting calories.
The goal of the Whole30 is NOT to be a diet. The purpose is NOT about losing weight (at least it’s not supposed to be about losing weight), although most people do lose at least a few pounds when they do it. Certainly many of us DO undertake it hoping to lose weight, but that’s not what the program was designed for.
So what is the purpose of the Whole30?
Everything is based on the idea that healthy foods should meet four standards. 1. Promote a healthy psychological response. 2. Promote a healthy hormonal response. 3. Support a healthy gut. 4. Support immune function and minimize inflammation.
The foods that are NOs on the Whole30 commonly fail at least one of those four standards for many people. So the Whole30 plan is about eliminating all of those foods for 30 days to get a baseline of feeling good from clean eating and then slowly testing them one at a time to see if you have bad reactions.
It’s about running an experiment to learn what your personal reactions are to foods that commonly cause problems for people. Many people discover that certain symptoms or issues they have had for years disappear on the Whole30 and they previously had no idea that it was food related.
It’s also about some other things like getting hormones involved with eating and blood sugar reset to a healthy pattern. It’s about developing a new relationship with food- eating for health and nourishment rather than because you’re craving sugar or another unhealthy food.
It’s about what the program terms NSVs or Non Scale Victories – paying attention to how you feel when you change your diet. Looking for results like more energy, better sleep, more consistent mood, etc.
The Meal Template
One of the things that I found most helpful on my first Whole30 was the meal template. It provides a guideline for how much protein, fat and vegetables to include with each meal. It’s not a rule. It’s a tool to help people as they are switching over to this type of eating.
The goal is to get to where you’re eating three solid meals a day and not snacking much, but snacks are not prohibited if one is really hungry. The idea is that if you can’t make it between meals without needing a snack, you should eat more at each meal. It does take some time to figure out how much is enough. (There’s an additional pre-workout meal and post-workout meal for people that are working out.)
Technically, you could eat nothing but fruit smoothies and fruit and nut bars and you would be doing a Whole30, but you would entirely miss the essence of what it’s supposed to be about. I feel like including at least some protein, fat and vegetables in each meal should be a Whole30 rule. I certainly try to treat it as one, although some of my meals definitely include more or less of each category than others.
It Starts with Food
It Starts with Food is the name of the first book published by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig about the Whole30. It goes in depth outlining the science behind why some foods are prohibited on a Whole30 and why others aren’t.
Maybe it’s just my personality type wanting to know the sciency details, but I thought it was a great read. I think understanding the why behind something is important and adds motivation and conviction when the going gets tough.
It made a lot of things about the less-than-optimal state of my health make sense. I read it once before my first Whole30 and I’m in the process of reading it again. So much that I had forgotten!
At the time of my first Whole30, it was the only book they had out. In the mean time, they’ve published several other Whole30 books, but It Starts with Food is still the one I’d recommend to anybody looking for in depth information on the program.
That said, you don’t need to buy anything to do the program (other than food, of course). Plenty of information for it is freely available online.
Free Whole30 Resources
The master resource is the official Whole30 Website*. Of particular interest there are the Whole30 Program Rules, the downloads page where you can find a meal template, shopping lists, a guide to common preservatives and more, and the forum where you can get support or just browse the posts.
Notes on products and marketing
*I have to note that the official website seems like it has so many things on it to try to get you to buy something now. You don’t need any of those things to do a Whole30. Some of them may be useful or helpful, but others almost seem like they detract from the program to me. Like the meal planning. If you don’t know how to make a shopping list and do a little meal planning, now is the perfect time to learn. Don’t pay for their plan.
Part of the experience of a Whole30 should be trying new foods, getting hands on, picking fruits and vegetables, using a knife and a pan in the kitchen, starting with whole foods and turning them into a meal.
They now have Whole30 approved Walmart brand frozen TV dinners. Which mostly I just feel is completely wrong. Throwing some tasteless meal out of a cardboard box into the microwave and then chowing down is not the goal here. It’s crazy to see how this has taken off and become a marketed, money-making thing.
On the flip side, some little bitty piece of me feels like it’s progress. If you’re going to be eating a frozen meal anyway, at least pick one without a bunch of nasty crap in it. And it goes to show just how many people have made this effort to improve their health is cool.
Plus, I do understand that whatever one’s best intentions, it’s sometimes really hard to plan and cook for every meal. Maybe a backup for traveling or some catastrophic day is OK. On the flip side, by the time you’re shopping at Walmart, you could just buy say a bag of almonds and a few bananas to tide you over.
The good news is that one can just ignore all of that stuff and do a Whole30 old-school style. Which brings me to some memories from my first Whole30.
My First Whole30
I’ve been thinking back to what I remember about my first Whole30. I learned so much for it. I really had no idea how to cook any type of meat before then, so I had a learning curve there. But I pushed myself to be adventurous. With a bit of help from the internet, I learned how to cook shrimp, chicken, ground beef, steak, and salmon.
This is embarrassing to admit, but I wasn’t even really sure what sweet potatoes looked like the first time I went looking for them in the produce aisle. I was only familiar with the type that come out of a can.
My first Whole30 was at a time when there were just starting to be brands that were putting out products aimed at being OK to have on a Whole30. So making your own mayo or ranch dressing or ghee was just a part of the program for many people.
I remember making my own mayonnaise for the first time and how cool it was. Also, I had a few fails where it didn’t work right and was a gross mess. I tried my hand at making my own pickles. Although since I don’t remember eating them, I suspect something went wrong with that experiment. I made my own ghee too.
Then I found specialty avocado oil mayonnaise with only approved ingredients and this amazing ghee on Amazon and now I don’t make them anymore. But it’s still important to me that I went through the process of learning how.
I also remember people complementing me on how I looked, saying that I looked like I was glowing or that I looked good. That’s always a nice thing to hear.
Also, I lost 8 pounds while eating huge meals and not working out at all.
Things changed for me after that. I kept eating mostly Whole30 stuff for a long time. I read ingredients on the stuff I bought a lot more often. I cooked more. I ate eggs and vegetables for breakfast every morning.
Eventually, I did start to slide back to old habits a bit. Then when I got pregnant and felt sick all the time, there were so few foods that I could tolerate and none of them were that healthy. B was born and my sleep was so messed up and my hormones and my eating habits weren’t the best. Now, I want to get back to what worked so well for me.
My Second Whole30
Today I am almost done with day 9 of my second Whole30. That means I’m 30% through it. First and foremost, I can’t wait to see what the scale reads in 22 days. Which, of course, is not supposed to be the point. I’m not actually normally obsessed about weighing myself, but I’m just curious to see what the results are.
This time around, it’s easier in some ways. I already have a repertoire of recipes that I like and know how to make. I know what sort of ingredients I’m looking for. I know of products I like that have approved ingredients. Despite my long absence, it feels like returning to a town I’m familiar with or putting on a favorite sweater.
In other ways, it’s been an adjustment. Coming off of sugar and flour and all that other stuff is not entirely easy. Day 2 I had awful headaches. Sometimes I’ve felt sleepy. I am maybe only now getting to where I can do just 3 meals a day instead of needing a snack in there somewhere. I felt very jealous yesterday when S poured Parmesan cheese on top of his zoodles (zucchini noodles).
But I’m noticing improvements too. Maybe my pants are a little looser, I have a little more energy, my skin is a bit clearer. Also, for the longest time, I’ve had this irritated spot on one of my fingers where it was like the skin just wasn’t thick enough and it is suddenly better in the last few days. Which is one of those things that one might wonder if it’s really due to the dietary changes, but I’m fairly certain that it is.
Whole30 and the family
The first thing recommended on the Whole30 site is to clear out everything that’s not approved from your fridge and pantry. My first go around, I mostly did that. This time around, I haven’t done that at all. S can still eat whatever he wants. He’s an adult. Some couples jump in and do the Whole30 together, but that’s not really our style.
And for B? I have enough on my plate with making sure that my Whole30 is successful, I’m not aiming at a Whole30 for him. Plus, he likes to drink his milk. By default though since I’m cooking a bunch of Whole30 stuff, he’s eating a lot more of it too. In fact, S eats a lot of it too.
My decisions for my health also end up affecting the health of the people around me. Pretty powerful stuff.
It turns out B likes scrambled eggs with sweet potatoes. He likes zoodles too, just not for eating.
Are you thinking about doing a Whole30, but also think it sounds a little crazy?
As I mentioned above, the first time I heard about the Whole30 I thought it was crazy too. My friend M had so many good things to say about it though. I am so glad that I gave it a shot. It really was an amazing experience. (It must have been, I’m doing it again!)
I read something in Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project. One of the best ways to predict how happy you will be if you do something is to see how happy somebody else who has done it is. Does your friend gush about the new workout class they go to? Give it a try. Does some random blogger gush about this life-changing diet? Give it a try. It’s only 30 days. You have nothing to lose and perhaps quite a lot to gain.