In 2009, Melissa Hartwig Urban and a friend decided to get serious about improving their relationships with food by learning more about how the foods they were eating might be impacting their health. A year later she became co-founder and CEO of Whole30, a company that supports and provides resources for people interested in following its popular 30-day eating plan.
Urban says her she and her original co-founder “were doing some research into the inflammatory factors in certain foods and how certain foods might promote inflammation in the body, specific to conditions like rheumatoid arthritis. And we wondered whether giving up these foods as relatively healthy people would also have an impact on things like our athletic performance or recovery.”
The pair worked up a strict elimination diet plan that they would follow for 30 days. “We did this as a 30-day, self-designed, self-experiment. And the results were so life changing and so tremendous, that I decided to write about it on my personal blog,” Urban recalls.
Before long, news of the protocol spread. Urban, who’s a certified sports nutritionist and well connected with the health and fitness community, began helping others implement the program. It eventually came to be known as Whole30 and has gained many devotees. Proponents of the Whole30 diet have found that it helps them reset their eating patterns and get more in tune with how their bodies function with and without certain potentially problematic foods.
What Is Whole30?
The concept is based on an elimination diet, which are often used by allergists and other health care practitioners “to help people identify food sensitives and change their habits and emotional relationship with food,” Urban explains. Because it’s based on an elimination diet, the protocol is strict. “Any elimination diet is strict because you can’t truly learn how these foods impact you unless you’re very rigid about the protocol,” she explains.
The rules of Whole30 state that you should eat real food, including:
— Meat, seafood and eggs.
— Vegetables and fruit.
— Natural fats.
— Herbs, spices and seasonings.
The rules also stipulate that you must not eat the following items for 30 days:
— Sugar. Remove all real or artificial sweeteners. This includes honey, maple syrup, table sugar, aspartame, xylitol, stevia and any other artificial sweeteners. Check labels for any added sugar or sugar-substitutes, and do not eat these products. (However, fruit juice can be used as a sweetener.)
— Alcohol. Don’t even cook with it. Ideally, you should not consume any tobacco, either.
— Grains. All grains are eliminated on the Whole30 program. That means wheat, rye, rice barley, oats, quinoa, corn, etc.
— Legumes. Peas, beans and lentils are to be eliminated. This includes peanut butter and all forms of soy. Lecithin is a soy product that turns up in a lot of places, so check your labels carefully. (Green beans and snow/snap peas are allowed. Peanuts are not. Other types of nuts, such as walnuts, almonds and cashews are permitted in moderate amounts.)
— Dairy. All milk, cream, regular butter, yogurt and related products are banned for 30 days. (Ghee or clarified butter is excepted.)
— Carrageenan, MSG and sulfites. Remove these processed food additives from your diet entirely.
— Baked goods, junk foods or treats. This includes products that contain “approved” ingredients, as these do not support the habit changes the Whole30 program aims to create. “A pancake is still a pancake, even if it’s made with coconut flour,” the program notes. Some of the Whole30-approved products offered by companies listed below appear to be “treats,” but they have been fully vetted by the Whole30 team and are “100% compliant” with the rules of the Whole30 program.
In addition to the food rules, the Whole30 program directs followers to avoid the temptation of stepping on the scale or taking any body measurements for 30 days, as the program is not about weight loss, but rather to help you better understand how your body reacts to certain foods.
“We don’t call it a diet. It’s not a weight loss program. There’s no caloric restriction. You’re not counting or weighing or measuring,” Urban explains, but rather removing potentially problematic foods for 30 days and noticing how you feel once you begin adding those items back in.
Urban says this reintroduction period is especially important. “Most people focus so much on the elimination — that you’re going to give these foods up for 30 days. But reintroduction is equally important. At the end, you’re going to bring those foods back in, one food group at a time, very carefully and systemically like a scientific experiment and see how they impact you.”
If soon after you start consuming dairy again, for example, you notice that your skin is breaking out or that you feel bloated, “that gives you really important information about how dairy works for you,” Urban says. “Going forward, it gives you this prescription that’s unique to you and your body about which foods work and which foods don’t. You get to take that information and truly create the perfect diet for you.”
[Read: Foods for Ulcerative Colitis.]
Is It Healthy?
Liz Weinandy, a registered dietitian with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, says that the Whole30 protocol “sounds good in theory,” but “it’s really strict and cuts out some healthy foods like beans and dairy foods.”
Some registered dietitians are critical of the protocol because it’s not sustainable over the long term. They are concerned that following the strict protocol may cause followers to miss out on certain nutrients, such as calcium, because of the elimination of dairy. However, Urban says those are two of several common misconceptions about the program.
“I think one of the biggest misconceptions and criticisms about the Whole30 is that it’s not sustainable. I’m so confused by that because it’s not meant to be sustainable. It is a short-term, self-experiment.” Weight loss achieved while following Whole30 is also often criticized as being short lived, and again, Urban says that’s missing the point. “We aren’t a weight-loss program.”
Rather, Urban positions Whole30 as “a way for people to take their health in their own hands and experiment with what a whole-food, anti-inflammatory approach might do for their energy, for their sleep, for their mood, for their attention span.” Replacing processed foods and sugars with whole fruits and vegetables is the cornerstone of the plan. And she notes that if at the end of the 30 days, if reintroduction of dairy or grains works well or you, “then we encourage you to keep eating it. Absolutely.”
Because it’s only intended to be a 30-day program, Weinandy says that if you want to give it a go, “I think it’s OK,” but she warns that the strict nature of the plan can be difficult to follow and triggering for some people who have eating disorders, now or in the past. If you can stick with it, she says that it can make you aware of whether you’re eating too much sugar. “It might be good to realize how much sugar or processed foods you’ve been eating,” and if you can incorporate that knowledge in a more sustainable way going forward, then that’s great. “People can take what they learn about themselves and modify their diet” going forward, she says.
For some of her patients who have used the Whole30 to reset or take a closer look at what they’re eating, Weinandy say she often will discuss with them what foods they most missed during the elimination period and help them figure out a way to include them in healthy ways after that 30-day period is over.
For others, following the Whole30 plan may help them identify triggering foods that lead to migraines, allergies, asthma or exacerbation of an autoimmune condition such as rheumatoid arthritis. Being able to identify and then avoid known triggers “can be enormously powerful to your quality of life,” Urban says.
That said, she notes that the plan isn’t universally recommended. “I acknowledge that this program is not for everyone.” Especially those with a history of eating disorders or disordered eating should avoid this approach. She also notes that if you’re interested in trying Whole30, you should talk with your health care practitioner or a licensed counselor before getting started.
[READ: Avoid These Cancer-Causing Foods]
Top Whole30 Meal Delivery Plans
If you’re looking to adopt the Whole30 plan, getting set up with a meal delivery service might help you orient yourself around what’s considered in bounds during that 30-day period. However, relying on someone else to do the meal planning or prep may not help you build the skills you need to make lasting changes to your eating habits.
The Whole30 company has partnerships with various meal delivery services and restaurants around the country. Many of these are focused on a local market, rather than national delivery areas. Below is a sampling of the available options. Look for a “Whole30 Approved” seal on websites of any delivery services you’re considering to ensure they have partnered with the Whole30 company to provide compliant meals.
— Heat and eat.
— Sustainable and ethically-sourced ingredients.
— Whole30 approved.
The Good Kitchen is a subscription membership service that’s Whole30 approved. The company offers several different plans that range $11 to $14 per meal:
— The Convenience Plan. 10 meals per week for one person or five meals per person for a couple. $130 total or $13 each.
— The Anti-Cook Plan. 14 meals per week — lunch and dinner every day for one person or lunch for two people. $182 total or $13 each.
— The All-In Plan. 21 meals per week — breakfast, lunch and dinner every day for one or one meal per day for a busy family. $231 total or $11 each.
All meals are 100% gluten-, soy- and peanut-free. The Good Kitchen ships to all 50 states, and shipping is free to the lower 48 states.
Sample meal: Citrus and herb chicken with roasted red pepper pesto, cauliflower and kale.
— Calories: 368.
— Protein 34 grams.
— Carbohydrates: 11 grams (5 grams dietary fiber, 3 grams sugars).
— Total fat: 21 grams.
— Cholesterol: 99 milligrams.
— Sodium: 891 milligrams.
— Heat and eat.
— Many ingredients are organic.
— Whole30 approved.
— Subscription or a la carte ordering options.
Paleo On the Go delivers to all 50 states, and shipping is included in the price of meals.The company offers a Whole30-approved sampler bundle for $145, which includes several entrees, soups, vegetable sides and broths. Ordering meal bundles as a subscription cuts 10% off your first order and 5% off every subsequent order.
Sample meal: Spinach and mushroom beef lasagna.
— Price: $22.25.
— Calories: 450.
— Total fat: 30 grams.
— Carbohydrates: 20 grams (5 grams dietary fiber, 4 grams sugars).
— Protein: 29 grams.
— Cholesterol: 90 milligrams.
— Sodium: 490 milligrams.
— Heat and eat.
— Whole30 approved.
— Preservative- and gluten-free.
— Grass-fed beef.
— Weekly, bi-weekly or monthly subscription options.
Embracing the ethos of eating high-quality healthy foods at least 80% of the time, Eat the 80 offers meal delivery in all 50 states. The company offers three plans, which are available weekly, bi-weekly or monthly:
— 7 Meal Plan. Get seven meals for $106.95 or $15/meal plus shipping.
— 14 Meal Plan. Get 14 meals for $199.95 or $14/meal plus shipping.
— 28 Meal Plan. Get 28 meals for $379.95 or $13/meal plus shipping.
Sample meal: Chicken and dumplings.
— Calories: 398.
— Protein: 29.1 grams.
— Total fat: 5.4 grams.
— Cholesterol: 68.4 milligrams.
— Sodium: 70.1 milligrams.
— Carbohydrates: 62.2 grams (12.3 grams dietary fiber, 8.8 grams sugars).
— Subscription and a la carte ordering options.
— Choose from up to 10 meals per week.
— Paleo and Whole30-compliant meals.
— Heat and eat.
Caveman Chefs is based in Colorado, but the company delivers nationwide. Shipping costs $25 for in-state delivery and $60 outside of Colorado. Designed mainly to cater to paleo diets, the meals can also suit a number of dietary needs and preferences, including Whole30. Each regular-sized meal contains about 550 calories, and family-style meals average about 650 calories per person.
Sample meal: Thai lamb curry. (No nutritional info available.)
— 30-day risk free trial available.
— Whole30 approved.
— Emphasis on organic and sustainable products.
— Add your own fresh fruits, vegetables and proteins.
Thrive Market is a web-based grocery delivery service that offers products that are compliant with several different eating plans or dietary approaches. Thrive Market boasts 6,000 products that include organic, non-GMO, non-toxic and sustainable brands. Prices are 25% to 50% off retail for members, who save an average of $30 on each order.
The company offers a Whole30 starter kit that contains 10 products to overhaul your pantry in a Whole30-friendly way for $69.99:
— Avocado oil mayo.
— Organic virgin coconut oil.
— Wild albacore tuna three-pack.
— Grass-fed beef bone broth.
— Beef apple and uncured bacon bar.
— Greek vinaigrette with avocado oil.
— Classic marinade and cooking sauce.
— Nutpods French vanilla unsweetened non-dairy creamer.
— Choose from more than 150 Whole30-approved products.
— Groceries shipped to your door.
— Free shipping on orders over $75.
Similar to Thrive Market, Barefoot Provisions is an online grocery service that caters specifically to the needs of Whole30 program followers. The company offers a variety of kits that help you get started and keep going with the Whole30 program. The classic kit costs $54.75 and includes 14 Whole30-compliant snacks such as:
— Sweet potato pecan beef bar by DNX.
— Grass-fed beef snack sticks by Nick’s Sticks.
— Olive Oil and Sea Salt SeaSnax by SeaSnax.
— Wild Red Traditional Canned Sockeye Salmon by Vital Choice.
— Coconut Jerky, Original by Cocoburg.
Other Products and Services
All other Whole30-approved companies are listed on the Whole30 site under the header Whole30 Approved.
The Whole30 plan is not designed nor intended to be the way you eat forever. Urban underscores that it’s a finite eating program, but that means you’ll need to think about how you integrate what you learned on the program when that month ends. How can you adjust your normal eating patterns when you begin adding back foods on day 31 to maintain a healthier approach and a better relationship with eating? Urban says there are resources available on the Whole30 website to make this transition easier and to help you figure out what’s for dinner from day 31 onward.
Weinandy notes that the key with any approach to eating, whether it’s a strict, short-term elimination program like Whole30 or another diet, is to take care that you’re covering your nutritional bases. If you replace heavily-processed junk foods and sugary items with whole fruits, vegetables and lean proteins, you’ll probably be in pretty good shape. Taking a multivitamin is a good idea too, but we shouldn’t rely on a pill to get the needed nutrition, she adds.
Thinking longer term, Weinandy recommends looking to healthy eating plans that are designed to be adopted as a lifestyle, such as the Mediterranean, DASH or vegetarian diets. These are widely recommended by registered dietitians and doctors as being good options to meet all your nutritional needs for the rest of your life, not just the next month. “We know these diets promote longevity and have been shown time and again to reduce incidence of multiple diseases,” she says.
More from U.S. News