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The Whole30: 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Freedom

A colorful calendar with measuring tape.

This book review originally written for US News Health Eat+Run

By now, anybody who has heard anything about the Whole30 Diet has probably read or heard these unforgettable words by Melissa Hartwig and Dallas Hartwig from their book “It Starts With Food.” “It is not hard. Don’t you dare tell us this is hard. Quitting heroin is hard. Beating cancer is hard. Drinking your coffee black. Is. Not. Hard.”

With that brief slap of perspective, many people since 2009 have taken the 30-day food challenge and found themselves in new clothes, new physical changes and new paths toward health. However, many started a 30-day round of the Whole30 Diet and never completed it. Why?

Dallas and Melissa have some news for us.


From their 2015 instant New York Times Bestseller, “The Whole30®: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom,” the Hartwigs give some further insight on just how hard this can be. They readily stand by their statement that completing the Whole30 program is not as physically or emotionally challenging as terminal illness, addiction or personal loss. When you compare such things, nobody is saying that drinking black coffee and choking down zucchini noodles and meatballs is harder than many things we face in life. What they are saying is changing your emotional addiction to food is a very powerful journey and IT IS HARD.

Thinking about the next 30 days, we can most likely count up many “events” that are centered around food. Friday Pizza day at the college cafeteria, church potluck, all the July weddings and baby showers, anniversaries, Taco Tuesday, backyard BBQ. The list goes on and on. Thinking about going to these events with your pre-planned bowl of vegetables and beef and ignoring the desserts and cocktails is extremely daunting. Any plan designed to change your life is going to be difficult.

That is the purpose of the the Whole30 Diet. It’s not a detox-then-back-to-junk plan. It’s not even technically a weight-loss program, although a vast majority of people experience fat loss. It’s a 30-day journey of getting real with the foods we eat. While there is plenty of science and research in their first book, “It Starts With Food,” this book is all about getting down to the brass tacks. It is a no-holds-barred, no holding back, stop with excuses, take control of your life, 30 days of introspection. You can’t follow this program without asking the important questions about sustainability, quality of life, eating seasonally, the relationship between food addictions and health, the undeniable value of sleep, the family dinner table and the validity of hormonal balance. To put it simply, change is hard.

What’s in the book? This book is laid out in plain and simple terms. The authors leave a lot of the science studies in their first book and approach this one as a user’s manual. The beginning outlines the basic rules, brief explanations for the rules, a famed timeline (hint: “kill all the things” is a must-read) and reintroduction.

The second part of the book is what I call the “Can I?” and “What If?” section. It outlines the reasons why the plan does not include all the Paleo pancakes, muffins, donuts, ice cream, waffles and bread. This part helps with dining out and traveling. It also gives special instructions for special situations such as pregnancy, breast-feeding, endurance athletes (emphasis on endurance), kids and vegetarians.

Now that you’re mentally ready to take this journey, part three is your tool belt. In order to be successful, you have to use the kitchen. There are no pre-packaged Whole30 meals. Taking time to cook a meal, making dinner time a habit and spending time with your family are all crucial parts of the plan. The chapter on kitchen basics outline the minimums, the “nice-to-haves” and the fundamentals of a Whole30 kitchen.

If you’re hesitant about the whole thing because you just aren’t sure what you’ll eat, part four is for you. The doubters and skeptics can turn to the recipe section and see exactly what you’ll be eating for the next 30 days. Meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruit and natural fats are on the list. Focus on that list. You won’t be eating sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes or dairy for the next 30 days.

The last few pages of the “Now What?” section are extremely refreshing. This program was never designed to be a Whole365. Real life is meant to be savored and enjoyed with health and vitality. Throughout the book, personal stories, success stories, social media resources, special situations and tips for success and truths about derailment add to the density of Whole30 information.

What are some criticisms? The most common criticism of this plan is the absence of whole food groups, such as dairy, grains and legumes. The book clearly explains the reasons and brief science behind restricting those groups. The restrictiveness is also a common criticism. A rule of the program is if you slip up, you start 30 days over. Nobody is perfect, so some people can find themselves in a perpetual state of starting, failing and starting again. The Hartwigs explain their reasons behind this rule, and note that it’s not hard and fast. Going to a buffet and eating all the pancakes, biscuits and ice cream you can is a definite no. Start over. Finding out the server accidentally used oil instead of butter is not a deal-breaker.

What are some praises? The next 30 days will initiate a healthy chain reaction throughout your entire life, imparting a sense of control, freedom, stability and confidence that will inspire you to take on other personal development goals, big and small.” Take a look at #whole30 on Instagram, and see the praises. Read the personal stories splashed across blogs and Facebook comments. Take a peek into the community of the Whole30, and see what people are talking about. It starts with food, but many claim it continues with physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health.