8 Questions for Whole30 Cofounder Melissa Hartwig

updated May 30, 2019
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(Image credit: @melissa_hartwig)

If you’ve been following along with our Whole30 coverage, you might have noticed a couple names popping up over and over again. We’ve mentioned the founders of the Whole30 program — Melissa Hartwig and Dallas Hartwig — numerous times, and we thought it was about time we sat down with one of them to get some more inspiration.

I caught up with Melissa over the phone to dive deeper into the spirit of Whole30 and learn more about what she eats on a daily basis. Read on for the self-proclaimed “Whole30 headmistress” on everything from common Whole30 misconceptions to the wonders of spiralizing.

1. Why did you and Dallas create Whole30?

It started off as just a self-experiment. We were both into Crossfit at the time and really into our performance, and Dallas had this experience where he changed his diet and was able to relieve some shoulder pain that he had been battling with for months.

We had gone to a seminar put on by our friend Rob Wolf, who was talking about the inflammatory properties of certain foods, and at the end of the seminar he suggested we try this eating experiment to improve our athletic performance. I didn’t have any weight to lose, and I felt like I was really healthy. The idea of having a dysfunctional relationship with food never even occurred to me. Food was fuel and I was very active. So I said yes.

We did this 30-day experiment — what would turn out to be the very first Whole30 — in July 2009, and it had an incredible, profound, and permanent impact on my relationship with food. It highlighted all of the ways in which I was using food for comfort or reward or punishment, or to self-soothe. It got me off the scale and out of the mirror for the first time in my whole life.

It was such an incredible experience that I decided I wanted to share it with my blog audience, so I posted this outline of what I had done on my personal blog and a bunch of people joined in and said they wanted to try it too.

2. What do your meals look like on a daily basis?

All my meals are usually pretty darn close to Whole30. I relax on the no-added-sugar rule when it comes to things like sugar in my maple chicken sausage, and I also include white rice here and there because I figured out that doesn’t have an impact on me. I use what I learned on the Whole30, but almost all my meals day to day are Whole30-ish.

For example, my breakfast today was this big vegetable omelet. So it was just scrambled eggs (no dairy), mixed in with peppers, mushrooms, spinach, and tomatoes. Then I had a side of potatoes and fresh fruit, and a little bit of some tomato ranchero sauce.

Lunch is usually some kind of big grilled chicken salad of some sort, or chicken sausage over greens doused in some kind of homemade dressing. And then for dinner it’s almost always a chunk of protein, a bunch of vegetables, some good healthy fats, and maybe a dressing or sauce.

3. What are a couple misconceptions you think people have about Whole30?

First, I think people think Whole30 is something you’re supposed to follow forever. People think that we’re also saying, “these foods are bad and you’re not supposed to ever eat them again,” when in fact it’s just designed to be a 30-day experiment to help you figure out how these foods are impacting you. It’s not meant to be the Whole365; it’s not meant to be the way you live forever.

Whole30 is not meant to single out any one food as good or bad — it’s a program designed to help you figure this out for yourself.

The second misconception is that people think that Whole30 is too extreme. People tend to look at the list of food they can eat on Whole30 and think it’s rigid. But when you really look at the foods we’re asking you to eat — rich, nutrient-dense foods including meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruit, healthy fats, herbs, and spices — it’s really not that extreme. I want to show people that cooking, shopping, and preparing food is sustainable.

Whole30 is not meant to single out any one food as good or bad — it’s a program designed to help you figure this out for yourself.

4. What common mistakes do you wish people knew to avoid?

The biggest mistake people make on Whole30 is going into it unprepared. Especially if this is someone’s second or third Whole30, they’ll go into it thinking, “Oh I’ve done this before, I know how to do it. I’ve been kind of eating like this, I don’t need to grocery shop. I can just wing it.” This is a bad idea.

The rules are different than a standard Paleo diet, and being prepared for your meals goes a long way toward reducing stress, especially in your first week. You’ve got to plan some meals, prepare emergency food, and take the stuff that you may be tempted by out of the house because even if you’re feeling strong now, cravings will set in at some point.

The second biggest mistake, probably, is when people focus on the technicality of the rules instead of the spirit of the program. There are ways that you can continue to eat treats and desserts on the Whole30. You can stuff some dates with almond butter, or you can have a bowl of berries with toasted coconut and almond milk every single night as your dessert. You can eat nothing but bacon, dried cranberries, and almond butter, and still be 100 percent Whole30-compliant. Except, you are missing the forest for the trees if that is your approach.

The goal of the program is to not only change your health, but also your habits and your relationship with food. You have to ask yourself going into it, “Is this going to help me break my reliance on sugar for energy? Is it going to help me curb my dessert habit?” Pay attention to the spirit of the program and practice some brutal self-awareness when it comes to some of these habits you’re trying to change.

5. Social support is important on Whole30. What should people look for in a support circle, and where do you think are the best places to look?

Ideally, you’re getting in-person social support, because it’s really a huge mediator of stress. Think about asking for support from different people in different ways. Maybe your mom doesn’t understand what you’re doing, but she’s always going to be there to say, “Good job, keep it up, I’m so proud of you.” And maybe your best friend is the one who can give you tough love you when you’re thinking about quitting. Think about how people can support you and then ask for what you need.

If you don’t have the in-person social support, then you have to get it online. The Whole30 online community is a positive, welcoming, and encouraging community, plus there’s the benefit of knowing that all of the information you get on our site and social media feeds is 100 percent accurate. But there are plenty of Facebook groups out there and some forums that are devoted to helping people go through the Whole30.

The key is finding the community that has the right tone for you. Jumping into a community that’s full of tough love might not be right for you. You may want one that’s way more supportive, loving, and encouraging. Don’t be afraid to test a few out until you find one that’s right for you.

6. What do you see as the next big challenge for people who, say, have done the Whole30 multiple times and are looking to continuously improve upon their health and wellness?

This is the biggest challenge of the program. The rules of Whole30 are clearly outlined, and it’s almost comforting for some people just to let me tell them what to do for 30 days. It’s when the program is over and you’ve got these new healthy habits that things get tricky. You’re making your own rules.

This question is exactly what my book Food Freedom Forever is about: How to take any short-term dietary intervention and turn it into a lifetime of healthy habits. It’s all about using what you learn on the program to identify which foods are worth it for you, and trying to find a balance. This is not easy, and you have to work for it.

7. What do you say to people who fear that their social lives will disappear when they stop drinking for Whole30?

I think you just really have to reframe. The whole point of socializing is not about the food or the drink — it’s about connecting with people you care about, blowing off steam, sharing struggles, and supporting each other. You can be just as festive and just as social with sparkling water and lime in your glass as you can with a margarita.

There’s something to be said for the self-confidence that comes from taking on something as challenging as the Whole30, even amongst internal pressure or peer pressure. A lot of people get through the Whole30 and say to me, “I thought no alcohol would be the hardest part, but by the end of my Whole30 I realized I didn’t miss it and it didn’t really hurt my social life, and it definitely helped my budget.” So again, I think it’s a reframing.

8. You cook a lot on Whole30. What ingredients or techniques has Whole30 helped you discover or appreciate?

The cooking techniques and ingredients that I’ve used in the last seven years have been amazing. For example, spiralizing is such a game-changer. You can spiralize almost anything and turn it into a noodle base and that’s really awesome.

I also play around a lot more with fresh herbs than I used to. It makes a huge difference. My chicken salads used to be just chicken, mayonnaise, and maybe some grapes and some celery, but now I’m adding in fresh parsley, sage, or cilantro. Fresh herbs make a huge difference.

Not all the meals I make are absolutely delicious, and I play around with flavor combinations that I sometimes get wrong, but sometimes I play around with stuff and get it so right. Like the day that I put fresh strawberries covered in hot sauce over my salad. Sounds weird, but it was magical. Sometimes you just have to not be afraid of that stuff.

30 Days of Whole30: We kicked 2017 off with 30 days of Whole30. Why Whole30? It’s not a permanent diet; it’s not a prescription for eating. It’s just 30 days of eating whole foods and exploring a more purposeful, mindful approach to food. Read more here on what Whole30 is and how to follow along.