What is the Whole30?
The Whole30 is an innovative month long elimination diet and supportive online community. During the thirty day program, you ditch physically and psychologically unhealthy foods in order to focus on enjoying clean and healthy foods. Afterwards, you reintroduce the potential stressors into your diet, evaluating each food group’s effect on your body and role in your future nourishment. The Whole30 is an opportunity to learn how the foods you eat affect your body and your life. People have incredible results using this program in every aspect of their lives – energy levels soar, health conditions improve, and excess weight simply falls off. The Whole30 online community has abundant information on any topic you could ever wonder about, numerous success stories, and tons of support. One thing is abundantly clear: the Whole30 changes lives.
Whole30 creator Melissa Hartwig has written two bestselling books on nutrition, and has two more coming out in October and December! My favorite book so far is It Starts with Food. I love the way it details how food should function for us, contrasted with the effects of processed food. When I started reading the book, I didn’t think the Whole30 was going to be as useful for me, since I thought I already ate pretty healthy on the daily. However, by the time I finished reading the book, I couldn’t wait to start the healing process and learn more about my body by participating in the program! A few paragraphs below, I’ll recap some of the important points to show how transformative the Whole30 is.
The Official Whole30 Program Rules
No cheats, no slips, no excuses. For thirty days.
YES: Eat foods that make you more healthy – meat, seafood and eggs, lots of vegetables, some fruit, and plenty of healthy fats.
NO: Do not consume any added sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes or dairy.
NO: Do not attempt to recreate junk foods or desserts by using “approved” ingredients.
NO: Do not step on the scale for the entirety of your program.
Why Do the Whole30?
It Starts with Food has all the answers:
1) Processed foods psychologically exploit our brains’ pleasure and reward systems. Scientifically designed sweet, fatty, and salty foods are overwhelmingly stimulating without containing any nutrition. Without nutrition these foods have “no brakes.” Your body doesn’t understand when to stop eating, which leads to a pattern of over-consuming. Rediscovering delicious whole foods will enable you to listen to your body again.
2) Hormones control our bodies’ responses to external factors. Chronically over-consuming carbohydrates causes your hormones to malfunction. Due to the hormones, your body relies on blood sugar for fuel rather than fat stores, causing blood sugar spikes and blocking weight loss. Imbalanced carbohydrate consumption wreaks havoc on the body, and over time it can lead to serious health problems.
3) Preserving a healthy gut barrier protects your immune system and minimizes digestive problems. Sugar, dairy and other potential allergens can disrupt the balance and cause intestinal permeability, which may lead to chronic and autoimmune diseases.
4) Inflammation is your body’s immune response to actual or perceived damage. Acute inflammation is a good thing, while chronic inflammation is exhausting and problematic. Managing chronic inflammation through choosing whole foods can greatly increase quality of life, including lowering risk of metabolic syndrome.
More on Hormonal Responses
I have to quote straight from the book on this one because it was the most amazing realization for me. It Starts with Food lays out a day in the life of someone with healthy hormonal responses, contrasted with someone who has unhealthy hormonal responses. Though I previously thought of myself as a healthy eater, I identified so much with the unhealthy responses – even some of food choices matched up. Check it out to see which category you fit into, and how our bodies are supposed to function.
A Bad Day – The rollercoaster of unhealthy hormonal responses
Your alarm goes off at 7 a.m., and again at 7:09, and 7:18, at which point you head straight to the kitchen, ready for that first cup of coffee. Your cortisol levels are abnormally low in the morning (a dysfunctional situation created by an overly stressful life and worsened by unhealthy eating habits), which means you’re not feeling very bright or perky. You grab a lowfat blueberry muffin, a banana, and some orange juice on your way out the door, and stop at your favorite coffee shop for a large soy latte.
Since your breakfast is almost exclusively fast-digesting carbohydrate (and sugar!), it quickly raises your blood sugar and insulin, aggressively driving energy into your liver and muscles. The high levels of blood sugar give you a kick-start, but by 10 a.m. lots of insulin has pulled too much sugar out of your bloodstream—which means you’re now experiencing the crash that often follows a sugar spike when you’re insulin resistant. This stressful blood sugar crash prompts a cortisol response, which uses glucagon to get your blood sugar back to normal. Glucagon breaks down liver glycogen and increases blood sugar, but since you’re metabolically overreliant on glucose for energy, you can’t use fat efficiently for fuel.
Your brain translates these events as, “Need energy now!”—so you have another cup of coffee, plus half a bagel with peanut butter. Since you’re generally sedentary, your liver and muscles are still full. Some of the carbohydrate from the bagel is used for fuel, but the excess fuel is stored (or remains circulating in the bloodstream).
At noon, you grab a small turkey sub (whole-wheat bread, turkey, low-fat cheese, and mustard), a small bag of baked potato chips, and a diet soda from the deli next door. Again, your carb-dense meal drives blood sugar and insulin levels up, and the caffeine in your soda also prompts a cortisol (stress) response, both of which serve to give you a short burst of energy. Even though there is some protein in the turkey, glucagon’s attempt to releasing stored energy is overshadowed by elevated insulin levels, so once again the sugar is used as fuel, while fat is stored and blood (and liver) triglycerides accumulate.
A few hours later, all of that insulin has driven blood sugar levels too low—again—which means that by 3 p.m. you’ve hit the midafternoon trifecta: you’re tired, hungry, and mentally foggy. Luckily, you’ve stashed some healthy snacks for just such occasions and come up with a granola bar and a low-fat strawberry yogurt. Once again, your carbohydrate-rich snack serves to temporarily prop up your energy levels and mostly stave off your hunger.
Work is busy, and you’re totally brain-dead by 4:00, so you grab a small iced coffee (with skim milk and a teaspoon of sugar) to get you through the rest of the day. The caffeine in the coffee provokes another cortisol response, which increases blood sugar to give you some energy. That works for a while, but by the time you head home at 5:30, you’re stressed, exhausted, and cranky.
You resist the urge to call for pizza delivery and make chicken parmigiana, with low-fat cheese and whole-wheat pasta, and a side salad. To help you deal with the stress of your day, you also have a glass of red wine. Thanks to leptin resistance, you eat more than you really need, feeling stuffed when you finally put down your fork.
Just two hours later, however, you find yourself craving something sweet. You forage for a pint of frozen yogurt in the freezer and settle in front of the television. By 9, half the pint is gone.
You’re exhausted from your day, but because of your blood sugar volatility and caffeine intake (all provoking a stress response), as well as your poor sleep habits, your cortisol is higher than it should be. You can’t seem to wind down, so you stay up until 11:30, watching the news and sending a few emails. You don’t sleep well, tossing and turning for hours, until your alarm blasts you awake again the next morning.
A Good Day – The effect of healthy hormonal responses
Around 6 a.m., cortisol levels (which were very low throughout the night) rise dramatically, helping you wake up a half-hour later feeling like one of those “morning people.” Thanks in part to appropriately low leptin levels, you also wake up hungry. By 7, you’re sitting down to a simple meal—three eggs scrambled with onion, peppers, and spinach, half an avocado, some fresh blueberries, and a cup of coffee.
There’s not a lot of carbohydrate in this meal, so your blood sugar rises modestly. Your pancreas secretes a proportional amount of insulin in response to the rise in blood sugar, which sends a gentle message to your liver and muscles to take up the circulating blood glucose and store it as glycogen. Because you exercise regularly, there’s some room in your glycogen “tanks,” and because you’re insulin sensitive, the glucose, amino acids, and fats are efficiently transported into cells to start doing their respective jobs.
Over the next few hours, your blood glucose gradually declines, which triggers your pancreas to secrete some glucagon. Glucagon tells your liver to release some glucose back into the blood, keeping your blood sugar in a normal, healthy range. This give-and-take balance is constantly monitored and adjusted, keeping your energy levels and mental focus consistent throughout the day.
Around noon, your declining blood sugar and rising “hunger hormones” remind you it’s time for lunch. You enjoy a hearty salad (mixed greens, roasted beets, sliced apples, grilled chicken breast, and walnuts) with an olive oil and balsamic dressing. Though you have only 30 minutes for lunch, you relax and enjoy your meal. The digestive and hormonal response to lunch is similar to that of breakfast—a modest, gradual rise in blood sugar, modest insulin response, and a gradual decline in blood sugar over the next few hours. Glucagon continues to allow you to tap into your glycogen and fat stores to keep you on an even keel.
As your afternoon progresses, things start to get crazy at work, and it suddenly looks like this is going to be a long day.
By 5 p.m., your blood sugar has dipped a little too low, which signals cortisol to use glucagon to release some stored energy, keeping blood sugar and energy levels pretty constant. Because you can use dietary fats (and body fat) as primary fuel and your insulin levels aren’t elevated, you are able to access your fat stores to keep your energy up.
You finally arrive home at 6:30. You’re hungry, but not cranky, light-headed, or lethargic. You dig into the stew (grass-fed beef with chunks of carrot, onion, and tomato) that’s been in your slow cooker all day. This nutritious meal triggers the secretion of satiety hormones like leptin and insulin, leaving you full and satisfied after dinner. The moderate insulin response, as well as a glucagon response stimulated by the protein from the beef, ensure stable energy levels over the coming hours.
By 7:30, your cortisol levels are quite low (even though they were temporarily elevated earlier because of your stressful afternoon). Multiple satiety hormones (including leptin) are elevated, which help you remain satisfied after dinner.
At 8, you prepare your lunch for the next day, grab a good book and a cup of herbal tea and start to wind down before you head to bed around 9:30. You fall asleep quickly and sleep well through the night, facilitated by appropriately low cortisol and stable blood sugar levels.
Food can make you either more or less healthy
It Starts with Food divides all the different food groups into Less Healthy or More Healthy, depending on if they meet the Good Food Standards above.
Meat, Seafood, & Eggs offer satiation to avoid overconsumption, meaning they signal to your brain that you are full and well nourished. Each meal should contain one or two palm sized servings of protein.
Vegetables are anti-inflammatory and nutrient dense carbohydrates. Many people simply “don’t like” vegetables – I used to be one of them! After trying new recipes and cooking techniques, I love eating my veggies and am always finding new ways to enjoy them. It Starts with Food recommends having two or more servings of vegetables with each meal, for variety’s sake. After adding your protein to your plate, the rest of your meal should be vegetables.
Fruits are also nutrient rich carbohydrates that reduce the risk of chronic inflammation. However, It Starts with Food cautions readers not to skimp on servings of vegetables in favor of fruit, since fruits are not quite as nutritious as veggies. The book also presents two other great points on fruit: eating fruit in response to sugar cravings is a psychologically unhealthy solution, and skip the juices and smoothies since they don’t contain as much satiating fiber and thus have “no brakes”.
Good fats make a great energy source. Eating fat and ditching carbohydrates enables your body to relearn how to burn fat as fuel rather than just glucose (sugar). This means that rather than having to snack every few hours, you will burn your body’s fat stores for energy. Some examples of healthy foods containing these fats are meat, avocados, coconut, nuts and olives. It Starts with Food recommends the following serving sizes for each of your meals: 1-2 tablespoons oils or butters, 1-2 heaping handfuls olives or coconut, one closed handful nuts or seeds, ½ to 1 avocado, 4-7 oz coconut milk.
Sugar & Sweeteners (such as Aspartame, Sucralose, Saccharin & Stevia) fail all four of the Good Food Standards. Even maple syrup, molasses, honey, agave syrup and any other “natural” sweeteners are excluded from the Whole30. Read your labels, because sugar is snuck into everything! After enjoying whole foods without added sweetener, your palate will change and those artificially sweetened “treats” will taste fake and over-sweet.
Alcohol has nothing healthy about it. In addition to being an addictive substance, its impairment of your judgment can also cause future poor food choices. The Whole30 program forbids alcohol even for cooking.
Seed Oils such as Canola, Corn, Cottonseed, Flax, Palm, Peanut, Sesame, Soybean & Sunflower oils promote inflammation. They are also unstable against oxidation, leading to many oils being oxidized before they are even purchased.
Grains & Legumes also fail the Good Food Standards. This was shocking to me at first and may be to you as well. However, after reading about hormone responses to carbohydrates (rule #2 above), that was reason enough for me to want to kick grains and beans off my diet plan. It Starts with Food goes even more in depth on why these food groups aren’t included in the Whole30.
Turns out, our commercially produced grains (even many so called whole grains) are stripped of their original vitamins and minerals. In addition, grains and legumes contain phytic acid, which makes their nutrients inaccessible to the body. For these reasons, all grains, beans, soy and peanuts are excluded for thirty days.
Dairy violates Good Food Standard # 2, containing growth hormones ideal for an infant or calf. Many people are sensitive to dairy sugars and proteins, while there are other better sources of calcium. Temporarily eliminating this food group is a great opportunity to evaluate their effect on your body.
Minimally processed foods are acceptable on the program, but there are three additives to avoid in particular: MSG, sulfites, and carrageenan. These additives have unpleasant side effects such as inflammation, digestive upset and unhealthy hormonal response.
Trust your Body – Recommendations
The processed foods we eat tend to confuse our bodies and make us feel like we cannot trust the signals we’re getting. However, the Whole30 trains you to trust your body. As part of your new lifestyle, there is no need for measuring or tracking your intake. It Starts with Food does provide estimated recommendations, as a starting point.
Eating three meals a day ensures your body has time in between eating for ideal hormonal response. Rather than thinking of these three meals as breakfast lunch and dinner, Meal 1 2 and 3 may be more flexible, since you want to break out of the box as much as possible on the Whole30. Trust me; you will get tired of eating eggs every morning before you hit thirty days. Even if you don’t feel hungry in the morning, It Starts with Food suggests eating Meal 1 by an hour after you wake up, even if you’re not hungry. This is to sync up your hormones.
Snacking is okay if you’re really hungry, but make sure you’re not just craving something. Grazing throughout the day can disrupt hormonal response. Melissa has a great test to see if she is actually hungry – she asks herself “Am I hungry enough to eat steamed fish and broccoli?” Works every time for me. If you’re not hungry enough for a healthy meal, you just have a craving, so do something to distract yourself for a little while. If yes, definitely have a meal or snack. You will definitely have to get used to this new way of eating, including increasing your meal sizes if needed. Dessert or any eating after dinner isn’t recommended either. Eating before bed often results in blood sugar crashes, affecting melatonin and interrupting sleep cycles.
Are you in?
Are you feeling undesirably tired after sleeping? Has your stomach been bothering you after eating meals for some unknown reason? Do you have the desire to get in sync with your body and work with it to promote better health? Whole30 is designed for those of us looking to get a better idea of how the foods we eat impact our bodies, health, and lifestyle. After learning the impact of less healthy foods on our bodies and how to heal from their damage, hopefully you’re interested in participating in the Whole30. After all, we are what we eat! If you have any questions at all, definitely let me know! DJ & I have already started to prepare for our next Whole30 (August 28th to September 26th), and we are looking forward to updating you with our progress in preparing and completing the program.