What is the Whole30 Diet and How Does it Work?

What is the Whole30 diet? How does it work? And who should do it? Get answers to your Whole30 diet questions below.

  • By Taylor Isaac
  • April 18, 2018

With so many people paying attention to what they eat and their health, it’s no wonder why diets like the Whole30 have become so popular. But what is the Whole30 diet exactly? And does it offer any real benefits?

We answer your Whole30 diet questions below, plus show you an easy formula to make our Paleo meal plans Whole30-friendly.

What is the Whole30 Diet?

The Whole30 program is essentially an elimination diet that removes certain foods from your diet for 30 days. During the 30 days, you avoid sugar, alcohol, legumes, grains, dairy, and other foods which are considered inflammatory in order to “reset” your body.

So what are inflammatory foods?

Inflammatory foods are those which trigger an immune response within your body. When your body doesn’t recognize or know how to process a food, it sees it as a “harmful substance” that must be eliminated. So to protect itself, your body switches on its immune system in order to fight the invader. But if the “invader” is actually a food you continuously eat, your body can enter into a state of chronic inflammation, which can lead to all kinds of other health issues.

But not all foods that are considered inflammatory are “unhealthy” to all people. This is why some people can thrive on a high carbohydrate diet while others can’t. So there’s no one-size-fits-all diet. However, since the Whole30 diet is an elimination diet, it can give you some insight into which foods may be causing negative responses within your unique body.

“How do you know if (and how) these foods are affecting you? Strip them from your diet completely. Let your body heal and recover from whatever effects those foods may be causing.”

— From the Whole30 website

Elimination diets aren’t a new concept. In fact, they’ve been used in clinical settings to treat food sensitivities and allergies for decades. However, Whole30 takes a slightly different approach to an elimination diet in that the goal isn’t only to cut out certain foods, it’s also to change your relationship to what and how you eat — in 30 days.

Whole30 Rules: The Basic Guidelines

Now that we’ve covered what the Whole30 diet is, it’s time to look at the ground rules. Here are the Whole30 rules that must be followed:

Eat Real Foods

Your daily food breakdown should include: lots of vegetables and plenty of natural fats (olive oil, macadamia nuts, etc.), a moderate amount of protein (seafood, eggs, and meat), some fruit, and a variety of spices and herbs. The most important part, though, is that each food is as close to its original form as possible, which means it should have minimal ingredients.

The rules don’t state specific macronutrient — fat, protein, and carb — ratios and there’s no calorie counting. Your food also doesn’t need to be organic, local, or grass-fed. According to Whole30, it’s much more important that the food is “real.”

Commit 100 Percent for 30 Days

For the program to work, it must be strictly followed for 30 days. According to Whole30, a simple slip up “could break the healing cycle” and send you back to day one. So to get any realistic results, it’s a full 30 days of complete unwavering commitment to the diet.

Just a small amount of [ … ] inflammatory foods could break the healing cycle; promoting cravings, messing with blood sugar, disrupting the integrity of your digestive tract, and (most important) firing up the immune system.”

From the Whole30 website

Stay off the Scale

The final rule (before we get into the Whole30 food list) is to not weigh or measure yourself during the 30 days. It is, however, encouraged that you weigh yourself before and after the program so that you can see tangible results.

“Whole30 is about so much more than weight loss, and to focus only on body composition means you’ll overlook all of the other dramatic and lifelong benefits this plan has to offer.”

From the Whole30 website

For a complete list of the rules, check out this Whole30 PDF.

Whole30 Food List: What to Eat and What Not to Eat

Foods Not to Eat on Whole30

Since Whole30 is an elimination diet, you need to have a clear understanding of the foods which are and aren’t compliant. This means you need to get comfortable with reading food labels and eating more foods that don’t have labels since that means they’re unprocessed and whole. In general, here are the foods you can’t eat on the Whole30 diet:

  • Sugar. All forms of added sugar (real or artificial) like honey, maple syrup, agave nectar, stevia, xylitol, etc. are eliminated.
  • Grains. Wheat, rice, corn, and sprouted grains as well as gluten-free options like quinoa and buckwheat are all eliminated. This includes rice bran, cornstarch, and wheat germs.
  • Dairy. Milk, cheese, ice cream, sour cream, and fermented dairy products like yogurt and kefir are all eliminated.
  • Alcohol. All forms of alcohol including alcohol used in cooking.
  • Legumes. No beans, peas, lentils, peanuts (or peanut butter), chickpeas, or soybean products like soy sauce, tofu, edamame, miso, and tempeh.
  • Preservatives and food enhancers. Avoid MSG, sulfites, and carrageenan.
  • Baked goods. Waffles, pancakes, tortillas, muffins, breads, cookies, ice cream, pizza crust, etc. — even those made with Whole30 compliant ingredients — are eliminated. Commercially-produced snacks like chips (plantain, sweet potato, etc.) and French fries are also off limits. According to the Whole30 rules, a waffle, even one made of coconut flour, is still against the rules because it is “psychologically unhealthy” and defeats the point of the program.

Foods to Eat on Whole30

Once you have an understanding of what you can’t eat on the Whole30 diet, knowing what you can eat becomes a lot easier. Here are the foods you can eat on the Whole30 diet:

  • Proteins. Seafood, beef, pork, chicken, and eggs are all Whole30 compliant. However, overly processed meats or those with lots of additives like hot dogs are avoided.
  • Fats. Olive oil, coconut oil, and other healthy fats are allowed. Ghee (clarified butter) is also allowed and is the only source of dairy permitted.
  • Fruits and vegetables. All whole, unprocessed fruits and vegetables (including potatoes) are Whole30 compliant. According to the Whole30 rules, fruit juice may be used as a sweetener or standalone ingredient.
  • Vinegar. Most types of vinegar (apple cider, white, red wine, balsamic, and rice) are allowed. However, malt vinegar, which may contain gluten, is not.
  • Spices, seasonings, and herbs. All herbs and spices are allowed, just check the labels to make sure no unwanted ingredients have been added.
  • Legume exceptions. Green beans, snow peas, and sugar snap peas are allowed.
  • Coconut aminos. Coconut aminos is allowed and can be used as a soy sauce substitute.

How is the Whole30 Diet Different From Paleo?

Both the Whole30 and the Paleo diet focus on eating whole, unprocessed foods. However, each diet has totally different premises and end-goals.

The Whole30 diet is based on the premise that if you remove inflammatory foods from your diet for a certain amount of time your body will naturally reset itself, and in the process, you’ll learn which foods work and don’t work for you. The diet also focuses on the psychological aspects of food and encourages people to change how they think and relate to what’s on their plate, which is why it’s off limits to eat a pancake even if it’s made of coconut flour.

The Paleo diet, on the other hand, is based on the premise that if your ancient ancestors ate it, you can (and should) too. So the goal of Paleo is to eat in a way that predates agricultural and industrial influences upon our diets. In other words, to eat the whole, unprocessed foods that our ancestors would have been able to hunt or gather.

Another big difference between the two diets is that Whole30 is a lot more restrictive than Paleo. For example, on the Whole30 diet, you can’t eat any added sugar, including natural alternatives like honey and stevia, both of which are permitted on the Paleo diet.

What are the Benefits of the Whole30 Diet?

According to the Whole30 website, the benefits of the program include:

  • Eliminate cravings
  • Balance hormones
  • Heal the digestive tract
  • Restore a healthy metabolism
  • Reduce systemic inflammation
  • Discover how certain foods impact how you look and feel

Although it makes sense that swapping out refined sugar and snack foods with healthy foods would bring about positive changes, there’s no scientific evidence to back up the health claims of the Whole30 diet specifically. Like with any big dietary changes, we recommend researching any available studies yourself and always consulting a health professional before you start.

Who Should and Shouldn’t Do the Whole30 Diet?

People who are healthy are generally better suited for the restrictiveness of the Whole30 diet; however, people who are healthy may not need such a diet. The best way to know for sure is to check in with your doctor or nutritionist to see if you’re a good candidate for the diet and to make sure there are no underlying issues that could be affected by the food restrictions. According to the Whole30 website, the diet is beneficial for individuals with health issues like:

  • Difficulty losing weight
  • Inconsistent or low energy levels
  • Aches and pains that aren’t related to overuse or injury
  • Conditions such as skin issues, digestive issues, seasonal allergies, or chronic pain

How to Use Cook Smarts’ Meal Plans on the Whole30 Diet

Now that we’ve covered what the Whole30 diet is, the types of foods to eat, and who is a good candidate for it, it’s time to move onto the fun food stuff — how to use Cook Smarts weekly meal plans on a Whole30 diet!

While we don’t offer Whole30 meal plans, we do offer Paleo meal plans, which contain similar ingredients. By starting with a Paleo meal plan, all you have to do is double check that the ingredients are Whole30 compliant and eliminate those which aren’t. The good news about this method is that it makes the Whole30 meal planning process so much easier and ensures you end up with a delicious result — no flavorless dishes here!

Here’s a Whole30-friendly Cook Smarts formula to follow:

  1. Start with our Paleo meal plan recipes (the ingredients are the closest to Whole30).
  2. Examine the ingredient list and look for any “no-nos” that you can swap out for Whole30 compliant ingredients or eliminate altogether. For example, if a recipe calls for butter, use ghee (clarified butter) instead. Or if a recipe calls for fish sauce, check the label on the bottle to make sure it doesn’t have any added sugars or use a compliant substitution like coconut aminos instead.

If you need support through the process, we have lots of meal plan members in our Cook Smarts Facebook community who have completed the Whole30 and love to encourage others about it! You can join them, here!

Use our handy Paleo Substitutions Guide to point you in the right direction when you aren’t sure how to replace non-compliant foods. If you still have difficulty securing compliant ingredients, companies like Thrive Market offer Whole30 starter kits that include salad dressings, bone broth, avocado mayonnaise and other Whole30-approved foods.


Guide to Paleo Substitutes

This Paleo ingredient substitutions guide shows you what to use when you need delicious Paleo-friendly foods.

Pretty easy, right? Keep a Whole30 food list handy to help you in your swapping process. And have fun with it! Dietary restrictions don’t have to limit your creativity in the kitchen!

Have you tried the Whole30 diet? Any Whole30 recipes you want to share? Let us know in the comments!

As always, we’re here to help you live your best life in the kitchen and provide delicious memories for you and your family. For more cooking tips and resources sent straight to your inbox, sign up for our newsletter below, and we’ll help you raise your kitchen IQ and cook with confidence!

Note: This isn’t a sponsored post, but if you do end up signing up for an annual membership at Thrive Market, we’ll make a small affiliate commission. This helps us continue our mission of delivering lots of smart cooking info to you, all for free.


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