Skeptical of diet plans? Whole30 may just be the month-long reset your body needs.

No one who likes food likes the notion of eating boring, squeaky clean meals in order to achieve their goal physique, which is probably why today’s most popular diets are based on biohacking our way to a fit body — whether with prescribed times for eating (intermittent fasting), or tricking your body to burn energy in specific ways by eating only certain food groups (Keto). How else can you lose weight but continue to eat your weight in cheese? Yet on the flip side, how could that ever be sustainable, or even good for you in the long term?

Health and fitness expert Andrea Marcellus, who founded wellness app And/Life, says that the popular mode of intermittent fasting is clearly not a sustainable way to diet, and may even result in rapid weight gain after the programme.

She says, “the biggest issue with intermittent fasting is that … any results achieved will most likely be unsustainable as a person resumes their usual lifestyle. Worse, recent studies show that people who choose intermittent fasting as a means to lose weight have a tendency to gain back even more weight due to hormonal responses to changes in the circadian rhythms of their metabolism.”

In search of the most rounded, safe, sustainable and health benefit-packed diet possible, we stumbled on Whole30, a programme created in 2009 that’s been quickly finding a resurgence in the past two years.

Whole30
(Image credit: Adam Smigielski/Unsplash)

It’s advocated by A-listers such as Megan Fox, Miley Cyrus, Jessica Biel and Busy Philipps, and Drunk Elephant founder Tiffany Masterson even quipped that her skincare was like “Whole30 for the face.” At its core, Whole30 aims to give your body a month-long digestive reset and a way to counter chaotic eating habits.

Trying this programme recently for a month, I found remarkable success in terms of health and fitness where the benefits not only stay with you long after your reset, but it also teaches you important applications and insights for how best to eat for your body. We weigh the pros and cons — and chat with professionals about how it can be adapted for a long-term healthy eating plan.

What is Whole30?

Founded by Melissa Urban and her ex-husband Dallas Hartwig in 2009, Whole30 is a month-long elimination diet that cuts out a number of inflammatory foods that induce cravings, throw your hormones in a bender, ravage the gut and cause overall inflammation in the body — yes, you give them up cold-turkey.

Previously struggling with imbalanced hormones and experiencing a difficulty in losing excess weight with just exercise alone, I was intrigued. This was kind of my ‘hail mary pass.’ It also got me to test that old adage where 70 percent of weight loss happened in the kitchen, rather than at the gym.

The rules of Whole30 can be succinctly summed up with the following:

  1. You’re eating whole foods, and staying away from processed goods. Think: fruits and vegetables, meat, eggs and seafood are all a-go.
  2. Salt, pepper, herbs and approved seasonings are allowed.
  3. Foods that are not allowed include: grains (even gluten-free), dairy and legumes (which includes any soy products, peanuts and beans).
  4. No added sugar, real or artificial.
  5. No alcohol in any form, even for cooking.
  6. No MSG, sulfites or carrageenan (a thickener and stabiliser extracted from red seaweed).
  7. Do not consume baked goods, junk foods, or treats, even if they have been recreated with Whole30-compliant ingredients. This is what Melissa Urban once dubbed, ‘having sex with your pants on’ — even if you’re eating coconut flour pancakes, they still perpetuate cravings for snacks and desserts, which is likely what got you into trouble, health-wise, in the first place.
  8. No body measurements or weigh-ins for the entire 30 days.

Pros

Whole30 is also perhaps known for its rigidity — there is just simply no possible room for setbacks. In fact, if you let yourself ‘cheat’ or slip even by one morsel, you have to restart your 30 days all over again. It’s hardcore, but it definitely deters you from steering off-track at all costs. But it also hands you back your power: ultimately, you are an adult who should be able to choose what you consume, and your willpower should not falter down to a single cookie (or whatever is your vice).

Founder Melissa Urban saw it as a month-long reset, bringing your body to a healthy baseline before spending the next 30 days as a critical period of food reintroduction, which was just as, if not more important: you can systematically discover whether certain foods cause an assortment of ailments — from stubborn inability to lose weight to poor energy levels, IBS to bloat, brain fog to emotional rollercoasters; and hence, know to avoid them later on if you didn’t want the consequences.

For myself, I learned that whenever I had carbs derived from grains or cheeses and dairy, I was instantly susceptible to an energy slump, or food coma. I also found mild headaches hours after I consumed sugar.

Rather than worrying about the foods I couldn’t eat on Whole30, I decided to focus on the ones I could: I designed meals around good quality meats and vegetables. Dishes such as chicken soup, no-bean chili con carne, grilled fish, steak or roast chicken on beds of cooked veggies became my staples for lunch and dinner, while my breakfasts typically consisted of sweet potato and almond butter, or whole fruit and coffee with almond milk (oat milk and dairy milk were banned for the month). Rarely did I find myself needing to reach for a bite of anything between meals, simply because I kept myself full with adequate portions, but any snacking would consist of natural roasted almonds or walnuts and fruit.

Whole30
(Image credit: Element5/Unsplash)

I found myself enjoying the routine of spending less time choosing where and what to eat, and meal prepping on weekends was therapeutic for me. I had more time to spend on other hobbies, and I felt like I was more attuned to my body’s needs and signals for things like fullness, energy, thirst and sleep.

I never felt deprived or hungry while on Whole30. If you’re regularly imbibing on alcohol, eating rich foods or eating out at restaurants most days of the week, when you clean up your act with a programme like Whole30, results are practically guaranteed.

For me, I lost (and kept) about six kilograms, a lot of which I know was bloat and water weight. My clothes fit way better, my jawline got sharper, the compliments rolled in. But doing an elimination diet also resulted in some non-apparent wins: Exercise felt better. My skin looked better. My concentration and focus improved. When I once gave a withering look at my tired self in the mirror, I now was able to lock my gaze with positive energy and confidence. Perhaps most importantly, the month-long journey taught me to stop seeing guilty eating as guilty eating; ‘setbacks’ were not setbacks, and balance was being able to say I’ve had enough food now — or that I still needed more healthy foods. My relationship with food has definitely changed for the better.

Cons

The programme is indeed notorious for its strict, and at times, perplexing rules for what you can and cannot eat, seemingly without properly backed literature. For example, there are numerous pieces of evidence suggesting that legumes are some of the most nutritious foods you can eat, yet these were strictly barred while on Whole 30. You can also eat a hefty tomahawk steak if you wanted to — just skip the butter — but you can’t pop a pod of blanched edamame into your mouth because it’s soy.

On that note, a lot of success derived from the Whole30 programme is also due in no small way to unwritten common sense. Technically, you’re allowed to go the full 30 days on steak and potatoes, too. But if you’re really trying to improve your health, you’ll aim to be as nutritionally diverse as possible by eating a variety of foods and to eat just until you’re full.

As with anything, my first week was the most challenging in terms of fighting cravings for salty chips, after work tipples or even soy sauce on my food. While on Whole30, you’ll definitely have to cook at home for the majority of it, which may make it less accessible than most diets for most people.

On days I missed Asian food, I made do by treating myself to sashimi. I did miss eating rice or slurping down noodles, but once I ate my pre-planned meal, I soon forgot about them. I never bought any special ingredients, or even the Whole30 cookbooks, but I caved to stock a bottle of Coconut Aminos just so I could get my Chinese fried (cauliflower) rice fix.

Then came the challenges of eating out — it was hard, but not undoable. I was not a recluse for the whole month, though my social calendar definitely calmed down a lot. I had signed up to a sushi-making class prior to my decision to do Whole30, and in the end I went — and made my partner eat all of my creations (I kept the slices of fish). For birthdays and celebrations, grapefruit and soda water became a favourite of mine. Being out with the buzz that came with alcohol was strange, for sure, but I came to enjoy observing other people’s drunkenness with hilarity.

Ways to adapt Whole30

Wowed by my results after a month, I was inspired to adapt to a way of eating that was predominantly Whole30-based, while still making room to be able to enjoy dessert or a glass of wine occasionally. It’s what Hong Kong health coach Mayuri Punjabi has been doing for her clients for over a year and a half.

Punjabi founded her own company MyEureka after successfully completing Whole30 herself and coaching numerous friends and family through the process to astounding results — suggesting that all health problems can really be traced back to the gut.

She says, “elimination diets such as the Whole30 are absolutely amazing tools to get to what the obstacles are to optimal performance of your body. If you look at the whole picture, you will see your gut: Getting a healthy and diverse gut microbiome is probably one of the most important things you can do for your health and vitality, as your gut literally affects your entire body, from your mood to your ability to fight infections.”

One of her success stories is a 37-year-old male client who suffered from chronic acid reflux and relied on antacids on a daily basis. His doctor had told him he had ulcers in his stomach lining and extremely high cholesterol. After reaching out to Punjabi, the man was put on a strict 30-day elimination diet based on Whole30. By day two, he no longer needed to be propped up by three pillows to fight the agonising pain of the reflux — it had disappeared. Three months later, he went back to the same doctor, who was astonished to find that all his cholesterol levels were back in the normal range and he no longer needed to take any medicine.

“What did I do? Address his gut. We eliminated foods such as gluten and sugar, we replaced and optimised his levels of digestive enzymes and HCL [stomach acid]. We then added gut healing foods, such as bone broths and collagen into his diet, and then we got down to reinoculating his gut bacteria,” she says.

“70 percent of your immunity is determined by your gut. And incredibly, a whopping 95 percent of serotonin, that marvelous feel-good hormone, is produced by your gut too!”

As diets go, any drastic change will likely create results, especially if you are allowing a calorie deficit to happen. But whether or not they stick long term? That depends on whether you’re willing to continue the detective work and get to the root cause, and as we’ve seen, it can only be done with a digestive reset such as with the likes of Whole30. For a happier gut and overall health, you may want to do the same.

Evelyn Lok
Managing Editor
When not trying out the latest beauty and wellness trends, Evelyn is likely enjoying a perfectly balanced negroni or exploring some of Hong Kong's best new places to eat and drink. At Lifestyle Asia she covers everything from the biggest events in town to interviews with Hong Kong specialists, with topics spanning art, food and drink, health, tech, and travel.