Whole30's Real Food Expert Reveals Secrets to Diet Success

Melissa Hartwig ate her way through Portland and chatted with us about paleo desserts, her favorite cookbooks, and the 30 day plan that could change your life.

By Allison Jones May 14, 2015

If you haven't heard about the Whole30—the paleo-style diet reboot that challenges eaters to eat exclusively fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, poultry, and healthy fats for 30 days—get ready to be inspired.

The real food diet jumpstart has changed lives around the world (this writer's included) by eliminating processed food, gut-irritating grains, alcohol, added sugar, and common allergens like dairy to allow every eater to dial in their ideal bespoke eating plan, eliminating an incredible array of symptoms along the way. The plan is simple: for 30 days, eaters prioritize home-cooked meals made with real, satisfying ingredients, avoid "replacement" foods like paleo desserts and gluten-free bread, and stay off the scale. (You can find the full rules—for free!—on the Whole30 website.)

If you have heard of the plan, you can join me as we collectively jump around in giddy excitement about the release of the new Whole30 book—and the authors' recent visit to Portland. Melissa and Dallas Hartwig's The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom, hit bookstore shelves on April 21, and Melissa hit Portland on May 8 to chow down at Laurelhurst Market and Departure and to meet up with fans of the plan at Powell's. We caught up with the real-food activist to chat about how the program has changed since it was launched in 2009, and some tips for completing the Whole30 without losing your mind.

What’s more important about a successful Whole 30—the elimination process or the reintroduction process after the 30 days are over?

That’s like a riddle with no answer, because both are critical, and they work together. Without elimination, you’ll never experience what life could be like without any of these potentially problematic triggers. Without reintroduction, you’ll not know which foods specifically tank your energy, fire up your cravings, aggravate your medical condition, or start a war in your intestines. You need both, which is why strategies for choosing the right start date to allow for both elimination and proper reintroduction are so important.

Which part of the program do people struggle with the most? The sugar? The booze? The staying off the scale?

It varies from person to person, but the Whole30 is an experience that brings challenges outside of typical “diet” stressors. Yes, people often have a hard time with the no sugar or “treats” rule, or wonder how to recover from a hard day at work without alcohol. But the Whole30 is about so much more than just food restrictions, and the experience often identifies (and helps people overcome) obstacles that have been getting in the way of making significant long-term change. You have to cook on the Whole30, which means planning, shopping for, and preparing real food, three meals a day. Initially, this can feel like a struggle, although this often becomes something people love about the program—feeling more connected to their food, more in charge of their own health. And yes, not relying on the scale to measure progress or provide validation is hard for those with a history of dieting. However, we know these challenges will come up, and we’ve provided all the support you need to succeed with these and other common obstacles in the new Whole30 book.

Tell me a bit about what it takes to bring updates or changes to the program (ie white potatoes). As experts in the field, there must be a huge amount of pressure to get things right—even though it feels like things change and evolve very quickly in the rest of the Paleo community.

The Whole30 rules are solidly grounded in science, but we also work really hard to make sure they are logical and easy to follow; if you have to consult a thick guide book every time you make a food choice, that’s not very practical. We also consult a team with a broad range of experience (like MDs and RDs) to help us make big decisions about the program. Omitting white potatoes in the original program was a rather arbitrary move on our part, based on people’s predisposition to eat them in the form of fries or chips. When we were evaluating the rules a few years ago (as we do often), we knew we needed to correct that, and just remind people that fries and chips aren’t in the spirit of the Whole30. Potatoes are a whole, nutrient-dense food, and to varying degrees based on your health context, can play a healthy role in a Whole30 diet.

So many Paleo cookbooks these days are chock full of desserts, grain-free breads, cauliflower-crust pizzas…you know the drill. Which cookbooks do you think do a good job of truly delivering on the real food goals of Whole 30-style cooking? 

Besides The Whole30, three other cookbook authors immediately come to mind: Melissa Joulwan (author of the Well Fed series), Michelle Tam (author of Nom Nom Paleo), and Stephanie Gaudreau (author of The Performance Paleo Cookbook). These talented chefs truly embrace the spirit and intention of the Whole30, and know the rules as well as we do. They focus on creating everyday meals for their readers, and save the treats for special occasions.

Was the vegan/vegetarian modification a part of the original launch of the Whole 30 or did that come later?

To be clear, our recommendations for vegetarians or vegans aren’t a modification to the program—it’s not actually the Whole30 if you’re including any dairy or plant-based protein sources. However, at some point a few years ago, we realized that we actually had quite a bit in common with a general vegetarian or vegan approach. (Ideally, we both focus on whole, nutrient-dense foods, we eat a lot of plants, and we pay attention to where our food comes from.) We created a general framework to allow vegetarians and vegans to embrace portions of the Whole30 (eliminating sugar, alcohol, and treats, focusing on nutrient-dense plants, and eating healthy, natural fats) while still holding to their self-imposed dietary restrictions. We’ve had many a success story from vegetarians and vegans participating in our community, even if they aren’t experiencing the full benefits the Whole30 has to offer. We’re just happy they feel comfortable enough to participate, and hope their experience inspires others to take a look at the commonalities in our two approaches.

What are your three favorite recipes in the new book?

Just three? Fine. First, the Thai Cucumber Cups (see recipe below). It’s a Latin-style ground turkey mixture with a lime juice and jalapeno dressing, served in cute cucumber cups, or just as tasty served in lettuce leaves. Everyone I’ve shared this with says it’s a winner, and it only takes about 20 minutes start to finish (if you skip the cucumber cups). I also love the Pesto. It’s got a secret ingredient that both ramps up the nutrition and adds a delicious taste to the sauce. I put it on everything—eggs, burgers, shrimp, veggies. It’s that good. Finally, I love Dallas’s Watermelon Salad. He came up with this recipe after tasting a similar dish in Seattle. It’s fresh, juicy, perfect for a hot summer day, and only takes about 10 minutes to whip up—no cooking required. Is it watermelon season yet?

Do you feel like people new to paleo-style eating should start with a book like the Whole30 or get a foundation of the science behind eating real foods first (a la your first book, It Starts with Food)?

I’d always recommend people buy the books together and read (or listen to) It Starts With Food first, because we think it’s important to understand the science behind our recommendations, and know why you’re doing what you’re doing on the program. Knowing the “why” makes it easier to stick with the program if things get tough, and can provide the extra motivation to actually get started. But if you’re the kind of person who’s already sold and just wants to jump right in, start with all of the practical application in The Whole30, and catch up on the science when you’re ready.

Thai Cucumber Cups

Recipes and Photo from The Whole30 by Melissa and Dallas Hartwig. Copyright © 2015 by Whole9 Life, LLC. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Serves 2
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 35 minutes

  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
  • 1/2 jalapeño chile pepper, seeded and minced
  • Grated zest and juice of 2 limes
  • 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/2 cup cashews
  • 1 cup roughly chopped button, cremini, or portabella mushrooms
  • 1/4 cup finely diced red, yellow, or orange bell pepper
  • 2 tablespoons thinly sliced green onion
  • 1 pound ground turkey
  • 4 cucumbers, hollowed into cups (see below)
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

To prepare the sauce, whisk together the garlic, ginger, jalapeño, and lime zest and juice in a medium non-reactive mixing bowl. Whisking, drizzle in 3/4 cup of the olive oil. Whisk in the salt and pepper. Set aside.

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. When the fat is hot, add the cashews and toast, shaking the pan to keep them from burning, until lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a cutting board, roughly chop, and let cool.

In the same skillet over medium-high heat, heat the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring, for 3 to 5 minutes. Add the bell pepper, green onion, and turkey. Cook, breaking up the turkey with a spatula or wooden spoon and mixing it into the vegetables, until the turkey is thoroughly browned, 7 to 10 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat, add the sauce, and mix well. Sprinkle the chopped cashews into the turkey mixture. Spoon the turkey mixture into the cucumber cups and top with the chopped cilantro. 

Pro Tip: Cucumber Cups

To make the cucumber cups, cut each cucumber into 3 logs (approximately 2 inches long). Scoop out the inner flesh using a small spoon or small melon baller, but don’t scoop out all the way through to the bottom, as the cups need to hold the meat mixture. Lightly salt the cucumber rounds and place on paper towels to drain.

Filed under
Show Comments