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Whole30 co-founder Melissa Hartwig Urban doesn’t claim her program can cure disease or even that it’s a medically prescriptive diet, but the thousands of success stories that pour in are truly staggering, with participants often seeing life-changing results such as weight loss, improved health conditions and increased energy and focus.
Meant as a way to hit the reset button, the Whole30 challenges participants to remove sugar, alcohol, dairy, legumes and grains while enjoying foods like veggies, fruit, meat, seafood, healthy fats and spices (very much in line with our own Clean Eating guidelines!). The program also encourages a commitment to its code. Perhaps that’s why Hartwig Urban is often referred to as the headmistress – she strictly enforces a no backsliding or excuses policy for the duration of the 30 days. We sat down with Hartwig Urban to walk us through the origins and benefits of the program, help clear up a common misconception and dish on how to successfully complete the program without a single cheat.
How the Whole30 Was Born
In April 2009, the Whole30 began as a sort of self-experiment for Hartwig Urban. After a grueling CrossFit workout, she and the original co-founder were chatting about the ways in which they might improve their performance and recovery times by removing certain inflammatory foods. While noshing on some Thin Mints, the challenge was put forward: Would she be willing to get rid of those foods at that very moment? While it was created from that initial desire for better athletic performance, Hartwig Urban found that the overall benefits were so much greater than simply that, driving her to share her story on her fitness blog. About 200 people initially joined the challenge through her blog, and it spread from there — mostly through word of mouth — into a program whose title book The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) has sold more than 1 million copies worldwide, reaching number one on the New York Times best-seller list, and it has remained on the list for more than 120 weeks.
What the Whole30 Is Not
There’s no question that the program is strict, but let’s get one thing straight: This is not a diet. Program rules dictate that participants refrain from weighing themselves, and there’s a good reason. “Going into the Whole30 thinking that it’s like any other diet is a major misconception. Thinking solely about weight loss or from the perspective of restriction or deprivation is wrong,” explains Hartwig Urban. “You’re not paying attention to what’s happening during the program, you’re only wondering what that number on the scale is going to look like. And at the end, you think you’re just going to go back to your old habits and magically everything will be fixed. The Whole30 is not meant to be taken on as a diet.”
No Treats for 30 Days?
A topic of heated debate in the Whole30 community is the idea of “sex with your pants on,” aka SWYPO, or making desserts using compliant ingredients (for example, a coconut flour pancake or ice cream made from coconut milk). This is verboten, according to Hartwig Urban. She explains: “It became very apparent to me that you could do the Whole30 eating nothing but pancakes, tortillas, bread and cookies, and it wouldn’t change a thing. Your brain doesn’t know the difference between an almond flour cookie and a plain flour chocolate chip cookie. If you go through your Whole30 eating these SWYPO foods that have been holding you emotionally hostage, you’re not going to change your habits. So right from the get-go, I wrote that stuff out – you’re not allowed to eat junk food or treats on the Whole30. I honestly think that’s the one rule that differentiates us from every other program out there. If you don’t have access to the foods you would otherwise reward yourself or show yourself love with, you’re forced to find other, healthier ways to show yourself self- care. And it’s an enormous learning opportunity that stays with you after your Whole30 is over.”
The Impact of Your Food Choices
Benefits abound on the program, from eliminating brain fog, promoting clear and glowing skin, increasing energy levels, improving digestion and encouraging weight loss, just to name a few — though the true purpose of the plan is to act as a reset, fully connecting the mind and the body to your food choices and their impact. It’s especially popular in January for that reason. “I do think during the holidays, people turn off the idea of conscientiousness because all of a sudden your office is full of cookies and cakes,” says Hartwig Urban. “In general, the holidays are a time of overconsumption, so the idea of a mindset reset for January 1 is very appealing to a lot of people in order to get grounded again. Let’s get back to being connected to ourselves, our families and our goals, and I think the Whole30 is a really good way to anchor that.”
Discovering this article after January? Give it a try anyway. The Whole30 is popular year-round and any time is a great time to reset your health.
Hack the Whole30
Thinking of giving the Whole30 a shot in January? Hartwig Urban says there are three things you can do to increase your chances of success.
1. Get (doomsday-level) prepared. Taking on this challenge is going to take some prep work, even for those of us who consider that we eat healthfully or even closely to the Whole30 guidelines. Recognize that the Whole30 is a whole other ballgame. Meal prep is your new best friend. Prepare more food than you imagine you could need and keep it on hand for those unexpected late nights or hangry moments. Some easy suggestions? Hartwig Urban recommends hard boiling a dozen eggs, making a frittata, browning ground meat, pre-roasting two trays of vegetables and having a couple dressings or sauces on hand. While you might feel like this is overkill, she assures us that it is necessary.
2. Grab a cheerleader. “You 100% need support – from your spouse, your partner, your roommate, your kids – to get through something as challenging as the Whole30. It’s mission critical, so be very specific as to the kind of support you need. For example, I need my mom to be my cheerleader to tell me I’m doing a good job. I need my best friend to remind me why I’m doing this when I complain about not being able to have the pizza,” says Hartwig Urban. Remember how we said the rules are strict? Changing or removing what can be some really essential and comforting foods is going to take some work. There will be moments of struggle, of questioning. Hartwig Urban recommends connecting with the Whole30 online community daily to share, comment or read about other participants. This online social space offers accountability, support and inspiration for those dark, cheese- and-bread-craving nights. For an even greater chance at success, find a buddy – either in real life or on the Whole30 social platforms – who will check in on your progress and be that extra assurance against taking a misstep.
3. Educate yourself. While the program isn’t complex, it does need to be understood and considered in its entirety. Learning what foods are allowed and those which are not, how to talk to colleagues, friends and family about the program, and ways to handle stress and eating out are all a few spots that Hartwig Urban has noticed people fail to think through. Hartwig Urban says, “I find people get really excited about the program and want to jump right in without those first steps and immediately are faced with a situation in which they’ve got a stressful event or they’re not sure about the rules or they don’t know what to order at a restaurant, and then they fall off their game and feel like a failure.” In order to prevent that, take time to familiarize yourself fully with the program, read through The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom and connect to the various Whole30 social media channels.
And keep in mind that it’s only 30 days. As Hartwig Urban reminds us: “The Whole30 is not meant to be done forever, it’s not meant for you to come back to over and over and it’s certainly not a yo-yo diet. Ideally, the Whole30 is meant to lead you to a place of food freedom, where you don’t need to reset again because you are living your healthy balance.” Learning how to live in balance is something we all should aspire to. If you haven’t given the Whole30 a try, now just might be the time.
Everything You Need to Know about the Program
In this issue, we’re arming you with loads of information and recipes for any time of day to keep you full and satisfied. Check out these resources:
BY CLEAN EATING TEAM WITH EXCERPTS FROM THE WHOLE30: THE 30-DAY GUIDE TO TOTAL HEALTH AND FOOD FREEDOM (HOUGHTON MIFFLIN HARCOURT)