What Is Whole30, and Why Does It Continue to Be One of the Most Popular Diets?

updated Jan 13, 2020
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Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: CC Buckley/Kitchn

At Kitchn, we tend to be skeptical of the word “diet.” But after the joyful feasts of the holidays, we’re also ready to quiet down and focus on whole foods, simple meals, and making sure we are eating to feel our best. That’s where Whole30 offers to help. It’s not a typical diet, or about being “good” after you were “bad” for the holidays. And while most find that they lose a little weight, the focus of Whole30 isn’t weight loss. In fact, you’re not even supposed to step on the scale during the program. 

So, if it’s not a diet, what is Whole30, exactly? And why does it endure as one of the most popular eating choices, especially during this January season? 

What Is Whole30? 

The Whole30 program is a short-term food “reset,” where you focus on eating whole, minimally-processed foods for 30 days. The concept is based on the premise that today’s highly-processed diet is full of negative compounds that may be irritating the body. These include added sugars, artificial sweeteners, alcohol, dairy, most processed foods, and foods containing carrageenan, MSG, and sulfites. The program focuses on eliminating all of those for 30 days to help you evaluate, as an individual, how you feel while off these foods.

The program’s reasoning is that, over time, these food irritants can trigger inflammation and hormone imbalances. Research suggests both can help set the stage for a variety of health issues and also amplify appetite and cravings. Eliminating the entire list of irritants for 30 days allows inflammation in the body to subside. After 30 days, you slowly add back individual foods, watching to see if any trigger subtle reactions in your body, appetite, and lifestyle. 

(It’s important to note that there are various perspectives on these claims and not all claims have wholehearted support from the broad medical establishment.)

What Can You Eat on Whole30? 

Although until now we’ve only talked about what you can’t eat, the program’s emphasis is really on what you can eat. During the 30 days, you’re encouraged to load up on most vegetables; protein-rich foods including meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs; some fruit; healthy fats from food nuts, seeds, oils, avocados, and olives; and herbs, spices, and most seasonings. 

Our Favorite Whole30 Recipes & Resources

Cooking on Whole30 requires a little thinking outside the box, particularly if you’re used to cooking with ingredients that contain dairy or gluten. And what may not have jumped out at you yet is that grains, both refined and whole, are also off-limits for at least 30 days. However, most find is that once they get into the Whole30 mindset, cooking becomes easier, and meals are good and filling. There are also numerous Whole30-compliant recipes online, including Whole30 books with recipes. 

Why Do People Love Whole30? 

Founders Melissa Hartwig and Dallas Hartwig created Whole30 with the intent of changing tour emotional and physical relationship with food. In fact, in the preface of their first book, Melissa and Dallas Hartwig write, “The Whole30 is designed to change your life.” 

That might seem a little radical, even a bit dramatic, but when you consider the sustained popularity, there may be something to it. Maybe this is because Whole30 is not about prescribing a “right” way to eat, but rather giving you the structure and tools to find out what makes you feel good. 

Does dairy make you tired? Does gluten give you indigestion? By eliminating potential trigger foods for 30 days, then slowly reinstating them, you have a chance to find out. And you’ll have the knowledge to make smarter decisions going forward.

Is Whole30 Right for You?

Each individual has to find an eating approach that’s realistic for them and works with their lifestyle and health goals. But if you’re interested in learning more about your body and how it is affected by what you eat, then Whole30 might be something to consider. 

Get the Books

Whole30 can be done without buying books; there are zillions of resources and guides online. But if you find the program helpful or want to go beyond a simple reset and hear more of the founders’ philosophy, here’s where all that can be found.

Note: The original article, written by Ariel Knutson, has been updated by Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD. Carolyn Williams is a 2017 James Beard award-winning dietitian who has contributed to sites such as Cooking Light, EatingWell, Real Simple, Parents, Health, AllRecipes and Prevention. She has written three cookbooks, including Meals That Heal: 100+ Everyday Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less. You can find more about her on her own site as well as follow on her Instagram and Facebook.