What the heck is a Whole 30, anyway?
(Want to know how I meal plan a month in minutes? Here's how!)
At it’s simplest, a Whole 30 is 30 days where you commit to eating only real, unprocessed food and is based on the New York Times’ Bestselling book It Starts With Food. But it’s not just avoiding the junk and losing some weight (in fact a key and often overlooked part of a Whole 30 is NOT weighing yourself!). It’s about taking all of the things in your diet that may be affecting your health negatively OUT so that you can begin to heal your gut from the inside out. And to do that, you must avoid all grains, added sugars, soy, dairy, beans, legumes or treats.
Are you still with me? Or did I just scare you off completely? Yep, I can still hear some screams echoing in the distance.
So why would you WANT to cut all of those things out of your diet as part of a Whole 30? Well, even if you’re not convinced that you want to be permanently Paleo, it is a fantastic place to start! The Whole 30 is in fact what made me realize that eating Paleo made me feel the best and healthiest than I ever had. But it can also be used as a kind of reset for your body, as the beginning of an elimination diet to identify and deal with food allergies or intolerances, or for a whole other bunch of reasons like managing autoimmune issues like my Hashimoto’s Disease. I’ll delve more into those reasons a little more later.
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(If you’ve not yet convinced, check out Melissa Joulwan’s 30 Reasons To Do A Whole 30 post here!)
So, what if you’ve already read the New York Times’ Bestselling book? What if you’ve already read about or seen plenty of people have success following the Whole 30 program and you think that it’s something you want to do? Now what?
Commit Yourself to the Whole 30 Program
Maybe 30 days sound easy peasy. Maybe you’re freaking terrified. Me? I was what is probably typical: a mixture of both. I was desperate to see if changing how I ate would really change how I felt – especially when it came to managing my thyroid issues. But I was also hesitant to start. Like many people, I have a history of disordered eating. I was terrified of both ends of the spectrum: that I wouldn’t be able to manage 30 days of a Whole 30 at all (thus trapping myself in another cycle of food “failure” and the resulting body image negativity that would ensue) OR that I wouldn’t be able to let go of all these food “rules” afterwards, thus launching me yet again into the food weighing “everything is bad for me” mode of existence that I had spent years fighting to drag myself away from.
Luckily, neither of those two fears were founded on anything other than my own anxiety. But before you commit to your first Whole 30, I think it’s a good idea to face any worries or concerns you might have. They may seem small or insignificant, but be honest with yourself: does the idea of going “without” your favorite glass of red / dark chocolate / paleo pancakes or similar bring out an emotional response in you? If it does, it’s ok! Maybe you’re just scared eating this way will be boring and you won’t be able to stick to it. Maybe you depend on your treat foods more than you thought. Taking on your first Whole 30 under those circumstances is scary: you’re letting go of your food habits and in some cases emotional food crutches or connections you maybe didn’t realize you even had. That’s not easy.
But, when you’re ready, take a moment to think about what will change for you (and your habits) on your first Whole 30. Write things down if you need to. Think about what your potential worries or difficulties might be and – now I’m really getting hippy-ish on you – realize that whatever they are, you WILL be able to work your way through them. And then you will be ready: time to commit to 30 days of real food eating and living.
You can do it!
Prepare yourself for the Whole 30 mentally
You’ve already done a lot of this preparation if you followed my advice above. If you know what scares you, or where you may be vulnerable to sliding off the edge of the Whole 30 program, then you’re already miles ahead of the game! Next, I really recommend that you spend some time thinking about what you want to achieve through your Whole 30. And, no, weight loss on its own is NOT a good answer!
- Are you trying to break your sugar habit?
- Do you want to improve specific health concerns like joint pain or thyroid issues?
- Are you trying to figure out how good your body can feel?
- Do you suspect that you have food allergies or intolerances that you can narrow down in the reintroduction phase?
Those are just some ideas about things you might be motivated by. Everybody’s “why” is going to be different, so spend time figuring out what YOU want to know, find out or achieve through these 30 days. They are YOUR days! Make them work for you.
What attracted me to the Whole 30 wasn’t just the more quantifiable benefits I mentioned earlier. What I personally wanted to get from it was a better understanding of my own body. To teach myself what the difference was between truly being hungry and just emotionally “hungry”. I wanted to learn to trust my body: to know that I could eat nutrient dense food without having to worry all the time about what was “right” or “healthy”. I wanted to prove that my body could manage itself far better than my overly stressed out mind could! I wanted to see if “just eating real food” could break the final barrier between “healthy eating” and NATURAL eating.
That was my motivation for starting a Whole 30 and I relied on that motivation heavily at some points! What is your motivation? What do you want to achieve?
Know what you can eat on the Whole 30
Obviously, this is crucial. At first the list of things you can’t have on a Whole 30 program may seem overwhelming. People seem to spend more time worrying about this than anything else. But in many ways, it’s very simple! You can eat real, unprocessed food of any kind: meat, fish, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruit, good fats and oils, plus small amounts of nuts and seeds. So far, so good! The chart below was created by Diane Sanfilippo of Balanced Bites, but it’s a handy summary that applies to the Whole 30, too. Read the rest of her awesome post on the US Food Pyramid here!
But, to clarify, here is a list of things that are not permitted on the Whole 30 program:
- Sugar: none whatsoever, of any kind. This includes natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup and agave nectar as well as chemical / processed versions.
- Processed Foods: this might seem obvious, but some processed foods are sneaky. Protein bars or powders are included in this!
- Grains: this includes corn, which is not a vegetable, as well as so-called “pseudo-grains” like quinoa.
- Dairy: the exception is clarified butter, or ghee – everything else is out.
- Beans or Legumes: no peanuts, soy products or derivatives, peas or lentils, either! An exception: green beans, sugar snap peas and snow peas are a-ok as they are more pod than “bean”.
- Potatoes: sweet potatoes are fine, though.
- Vegetable oils: canola, sunflower and soybean oils are no go. Stick to coconut oil for cooking and olive oil for salads or dressings.
- Any kind of “Paleo-fied” treats, goodies or recreations: no paleo pancakes, baking or versions of junk food.
There are some non-food items to be avoided, too: alcohol, drugs and tobacco are no bueno! Lastly: do NOT weigh yourself throughout the 30 days. That’s kind of missing the point in the same way as making “Paleo” pancakes. Here is a more detailed description of foods you need to avoid if you have any questions.
If you really want to understand WHY all of the above list need to be avoided, I highly recommend that you read (and re-read!) the Whole 30 creators’ book It Starts With Food. Seriously, the Kindle version of it is less than $10. It is the best foundation on which to start a Whole 30 and will show you how to take what you have learned from your own Whole 30 and apply it to your life long after your 30 days are over. You can also find plenty of starter information on their website, Whole 9 Life. If you still have questions about whether or not specific foods are allowed on the Whole 30 or not, you should check out this page, the official “Can I have…” page!
Know what to expect on the Whole 30
The first week is not the most fun you will ever have, to be honest. At various times you will be tired, grumpy and maybe even a little bored. It’s at these challenging times that you’ll want to look back at what you did to prepare yourself for your Whole 30 mentally. Yep, hippie-me is back. But she’s right, too! All of that thinking and preparing time will really help you in those moments when you’re not feeling quite so positive about this Whole 30 thing as you were before you started! Check out the Whole 9 timeline here.
There are going to be times when the Whole 30 program seems amazingly easy. There are going to be other times when it seems like the hardest thing in the world. You can get through those rough patches, though. Remembering WHY I wanted to do this in the first place kept me on track at some times when I really, honestly, just wanted to have a damn glass of wine. And then I reluctantly made myself some tea instead and felt glad that I hadn’t reached for the booze like I usually would.
You know what else kept me on track? Being prepared: stocking my kitchen with everything I needed, having a food plan and batch cooking so I was never without easy Whole 30 compliant eats.
More on all of those things are to follow in Part 2 and beyond!