Influencers and celebrities often seem to be “doing a Whole30” – a process that, based only on Instagram stories, might seem to consist mostly of looking sad in restaurants and complaining about avoiding candy and Starbucks.
If you’ve been wondering what Whole30 really involves, a friend or practitioner has recommended you try it, or you just feel like you need to reset your relationship with food to improve your health, you’re in the right place. Let’s break it down.
Whole30 is a month-long nutritional reset. For 30 days, you commit to eliminating foods that have been shown to negatively affect:
- cravings and habits
- blood sugar regulation and hormones
- inflammation and the immune system
Whole30 doesn’t involve counting macros or calories, exercise, weighing and measuring yourself, or portion control. It’s also not designed to help you lose weight – although many people do. It’s more like a traditional elimination diet. It's designed to help you identify how what you’re eating affects your health by switching to a healthy whole foods diet and eliminating foods that may cause reactions, inflammation, fatigue or other symptoms.
During your Whole30 reset, you might find you’re sleeping more deeply and focusing more easily, digestive and gut issues are improved, and your mood and athletic performance are better. If you’re living with chronic health issues like eczema, autoimmune conditions, migraines or allergies, Whole30 may help you understand how your body reacts to certain foods, and potentially help you find ways of eating that ease your symptoms.[*][*][*]
At the end of the 30 days, you’ll reintroduce the foods you’ve eliminated one at a time, keeping track of how you feel after each.
The catch is that to be effective, you need to stick to the plan exactly for 30 straight days. If you cheat or slip up, you have to start again from day 1. This fits with the science behind an elimination diet – to evaluate the effect of a food on your health or mood, you must eliminate it completely for long enough to clear its effects from your body.
When to Consider Doing a Whole30
Whole30 could be for you if:
- You have issues with chronic inflammation or an autoimmune disease[*][*][*]
- You’re tired all the time, suffering from digestive issues or just plain don’t feel good – and you suspect your diet may be playing a role
- You feel like you need a nutritional reset to break bad habits and kick-start some healthier ones.
Safety check: If you have a medical condition, a history of disordered eating or are on prescription medication, remember to check with your doctor before you begin.
Do: Eat Real, Whole Foods – That’s All
You can eat as much as you want of any foods on the following list – there’s no calorie or portion restriction and no macronutrient ratio to follow.
The rule is simple: eat foods that are whole and unprocessed, or with a simple list of ingredients that are all recognizable as food.
You can eat:
- All vegetables and fruit, including potatoes
- Meat (except for processed meat with preservatives or nitrates, like most commercial bacon and salami)
- Nuts and seeds
- Healthy fats (for example, olive and coconut oil)
- Herbs, spices and seasonings.
Don’t: Eat Grains, Dairy, Legumes, Sugar and Processed Food
During the Whole30, you must completely avoid:
- Added sugar in any form – including maple syrup, honey, agave, coconut sugar, date syrup, monk fruit extract, stevia, erythritol and all artificial sweeteners.
- Alcohol – including in cooking.
- Cigarettes and vaping
- All grains – including wheat, rye, barley, oats, corn, rice, millet, and all gluten-free pseudo-grains like buckwheat, quinoa and amaranth. You’ll need to check ingredients carefully as grains and starches hide under names like “maltodextrin” and “maize starch.”
- Most legumes – including beans (eg black, kidney, pinto, navy, garbanzo), peanuts (including peanut butter and peanut oil) and all forms of soy (including soy sauce, tofu, miso, soy milk and soy lecithin).
- Dairy – including cow, goat and sheep’s milk products.
- Carrageenan – carrageenan is a food additive used to thicken, emulsify and preserve packaged foods. It’s manufactured from red seaweed so is technically “natural,” but there is evidence that it may contribute to inflammation, digestive issues and even cancer.[*][*]
- Sulfites – sulfites are salt compounds that are added to packaged foods as a preservative. Sulfites are one of the top 9 allergens, and can cause reactions in many people, especially those with asthma.
You’re also not permitted to recreate or buy baked goods or treats with Whole30 compatible ingredients – including pancakes, tortillas, breads, sweet treats, pizza crusts, pasta, chips or deep fried french fries.
This rule might seem severe, but the idea behind a Whole30 diet is not just to identify problematic foods. The creators of Whole30 also want you to spend 30 days changing your habits and breaking unhealthy emotional eating patterns. If you keep doing the same things with different ingredients, you’re likely to end your Whole30 and go straight back to your usual habits.
The creators also suggest you add to your “avoid” list any foods that are technically allowed but that you already know lead to cravings or over-consumption when you eat them. Common examples include very sweet fruit like bananas, nut butter or roast potatoes.
The Fine Print
During a Whole30, you’re also allowed:
- Black coffee
- Ghee or clarified butter – this is the only source of dairy permitted, as the milk proteins that cause sensitivities have been removed.
- 100% fruit juice – if it’s an ingredient in a product that’s otherwise allowed.
- Green beans and peas (including sugar snap, snow peas, green peas, yellow peas and split peas) – all other legumes are not permitted.
- Vinegar, including white, red wine, balsamic, apple cider vinegar and rice wine vinegar – but not malt vinegar as this contains gluten.
- Alcohol-based extracts, for example, vanilla, lemon or almond.
- Coconut aminos (a naturally-fermented soy sauce substitute) – even if the ingredients contain “coconut nectar” or “coconut syrup”, which would usually fall under added sugars.
- Iodized table salt – iodized salt contains sugar to keep the potassium iodide from oxidizing, so this is an exception to the “no added sugar” rule.
Finally, one last thing you’re not allowed: you must avoid weighing or measuring yourself during your 30 days. The focus of Whole30 is your health and the way you feel, so the plan allows you to weigh and/or take photos and measurements on day 1, and then asks you to put away the scales and measuring tape until you’ve completed your 30 days.
What’s the Catch?
Whole30 fans report benefits ranging from better sleep to improved autoimmune symptoms, as well as the chance to reset your relationship with food and build better habits – but the Whole30 itself isn’t always easy.
Sticking to the rules for 30 days takes planning and commitment – especially if you eat out a lot, are used to eating a lot of convenience food, or have social engagements like birthdays or weddings during your Whole30 month. Remember, if you fall off the wagon, you’ll need to start your month again from day one.
You may also find that your grocery bills are higher because you’re eating more meat, seafood, fresh vegetables and nuts.
The biggest catch, though, is probably the part that seems the hardest upfront – it’s only 30 days. To change habits you’ve built up over a lifetime, you’ll need to keep up the good work after your Whole30 finishes.
Get Set Up for Whole30 Success
Before you start, set yourself up for success.
Sort out your pantry
If you don’t want to be tempted, don’t leave temptation lying around. Go through your cupboards and throw out or donate (or box up and leave with a friend) all the food you won’t be able to eat.
This can be hard if you have a family, but if they’re not willing to do the Whole30 with you, try packing up their snacks and treats and asking them to put them somewhere you don’t know about – and eat them when you’re not looking.
Get friends and family on board
Support is key, especially if you’ve got social events happening during your 30 days. Let your friends and family know what you’re planning, and ask them to help you stay on track. Remind them that you won’t be drinking or having a piece of cake, and let them know that you’re counting on their support.
Plan your meals
The fastest way to fall off the wagon is to find yourself hungry and without a plan for what you’re going to eat. Whole30 compliant foods can be very hard to find in a convenience store or even a cafe, so the best way to stay on track is to know in advance what you’re planning to eat each day.
Think about what you like to eat, and what your days look like. If you never have time for breakfast, could you prepare a smoothie the night before to grab out of the fridge as you leave for work? Could you batch cook trays of roasted veggies and chicken breasts on the weekend to pack for lunch each day?
If you have family members who won’t be on the Whole30 plan with you, are there meals you could adapt to please everyone? For example, you might want to prepare all your favorite fixings and have them as a burrito bowl – served with tortillas and cheese for the kids.
Search the Carb Manager app or website for our 'healthy whole food' recipes, for a range of Whole30 compliant dishes. Carb Manager Premium users can add recipes directly to their daily log – making planning and tracking one easy step!
Track your progress
You don’t count calories or macros on Whole30, but using Carb Manager to track what you’re eating will help ensure your Whole30 diet is a success. Keeping a log of what you ate and how you felt will help you build good habits across your 30 days – and make it easier to see what you want to keep doing once you’ve finished.
Carb Manager can also help you ensure your body is getting all the vitamins and minerals (also known as micronutrients) it needs to thrive – which can be a risk when you’re cutting out a lot of food groups at once. If you have Carb Manager Premium, you can check your daily micronutrient intake against the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) by going to Settings > Goal Settings > Micronutrients and selecting “Enable DRI”.
Select “In-Depth Details” – your micronutrient intakes are under “Supplemental” in “My Nutritional Facts.”
Note: To get accurate results, try to stick to Common Foods when logging your meals – Member Foods will not usually have micronutrient quantities listed.
Building Healthy Habits That Last
A program as restrictive as the Whole30 isn’t sustainable in the long term, so once your 30 days are up, you’ll need to transition back into your regular life – without losing your hard-won healthy habits.
Perhaps you missed having a glass of wine with dinner, and find you have no negative reactions to dairy – but you felt full and energized after eating eggs for breakfast and enjoyed a chopped chicken salad for lunch. You could choose to add these things to your routine going forward – with some cheese on the salad and a glass of wine on the side – and then your Whole30 has set you up for lasting change.
Depending on how you felt and what you like to eat, you might want to consider transitioning from Whole30 to a less-restrictive way of healthy eating. If your goal is to lose weight or you need help controlling your blood sugar, check out Keto. If you want to continue to eat real, whole foods and limit processed grains and treats, try Paleo.
Whatever you do, plan to make changes that you can commit to. Tell yourself before you begin your Whole30 that you’re never going back to the way you used to eat, and use your Whole30 as an experiment to find tricks and habits to replace – permanently – the things you know you need to change.
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