The Whole30 Diet: Can Vegans & Vegetarians Do It?

mbg Associate Movement & Wellness Editor By Ray Bass, NASM-CPT
mbg Associate Movement & Wellness Editor

Ray Bass is the associate movement and wellness editor at mindbodygreen and a NASM-Certified Personal Trainer. She holds a degree in creative writing from the University of Pennsylvania, with honors in nonfiction.

Image by Cameron Whitman / Stocksy

If you know anything about the Whole30 diet, you know that meat is a large part of the equation (as are other animal products). The list of Whole30-compliant foods, after all, only includes meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruits, and fats. 

Considering the fact that the majority of Americans still eat some type of meat in some capacity, the limitations of the Whole30 prove less of an issue for the average omnivore. But what if you're a vegetarian or vegan and still want to have skin (or rather, no skin) in the game? Can you partake in the phenomenon that is Whole30, or are you doomed to be on the outside always looking in? 

Let's find out. 

Can I do the Whole30 Diet as a vegetarian or vegan? 

The short answer is yes, you can—but it's a malleable yes. In theory, you could do any diet as a vegetarian or vegan, but you'll almost always have to make adjustments. As with the paleo diet, the barriers to entry for the Whole30 diet involve cutting out major food groups—including grains, legumes, beans, and dairy. It also requires that a person limit their fruit intake. You understand, now, why this would make Whole30 a little more challenging for meat-free folks. If you followed the Whole30 rules to a tee as a vegetarian or vegan, you'd be able to eat limitless vegetables, moderate amounts of healthy fat, and a piece of fruit here and there. The Whole30 diet rules as they're written remove foods that are staples of the typical vegetarian and vegan diets—and when you do that, there isn't much left. 

That said, vegetarian and vegan diets tend to be primarily plant-based—and if you're a pescatarian, you'd be able to eat seafood—so there's a chance that your Whole30 experience wouldn't be that far off from your day-to-day diet. (Probably a slim chance, but a chance nonetheless!)

The good news is that like most diets, Whole30 can be tailored to fit your preferences. Here's what we see as your options.

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Why it's worth trying Whole30, even if you're a vegetarian or vegan

While the Whole30 diet does indeed cut out several beloved food groups, but it does so, it claims, for good reason.

According to Whole30 founder Melissa Hartwig Urban, almost everyone who completes the Whole30 diet says that they have more energy. Many also report better mood, focus, productivity, as well as a higher quantity and quality of sleep. The idea is that by doing Whole30, you rid your body of any foods that could be causing you trouble (whether that's obvious trouble, like brain fog, bloating, and exhaustion, or underlying trouble, like inflammation), and after 30 days, you reintroduce these foods one at a time in order to bust the culprit. That way, you know the cause, and it's in your control—the Whole30 diet puts how you feel back in your hands. 

Sounds like a dream, right? Even if you're a vegetarian or vegan, or you eat what you consider a "clean" diet, your body could reap substantial benefits by abstaining from sugar, alcohol, and processed foods. And while we can't speak for you—if eating whole foods for 30 days means potentially kicking unpleasant ailments to the curb, that's a trade we're willing to make.

How to do a vegetarian or vegan Whole30

If you decide to embark on a vegetarian or vegan Whole30, there are two possible paths you can take (there are probably more, but these are the clearest ones).

1. You follow the diet exactly as it's outlined

2. You cut out fewer food groups than the diet requires

The way we see it, there are benefits to either path. Should you choose the first path, it's worth noting that your diet will look a little sparse, especially in the protein department. The highest sources of plant-based protein—beans, legumes, soy, wheat—aren't permitted, according to the Whole30 rules. Your diet will consist of healthy fats, vegetables, and fruit. Everyone has different protein needs—you need more if you're active, for example—so this may or may not be a cause for concern for you. On the flip side, if you're someone who has trouble getting enough vegetables in, this path gives you an excuse to do so (a sort of friendly ultimatum): Vegetables are considered bottomless on the Whole30 diet, and if they're one of your only options, odds are you'll add them to your plate. We recommend doing your research before choosing this path, or even speaking to a doctor or an R.D. about how much protein you should consume every day.

Alternatively, you could choose the second path, which offers a more flexible approach that you may find more appealing. (We imagine that the majority of vegetarians and vegans interested in Whole30 walk this path.) Instead of ousting all the prohibited food groups, you retain a portion of them. If you're a vegan, you could keep plant-based proteins like beans, legumes, and soy in your diet and eliminate gluten and sugar from your diet, and see how you feel. If you're a vegetarian, you could exclude dairy and soy (and even gluten, too, if you wanted). Foods in these groups often clue us in to sensitivities or intolerances we might have by triggering allergic or inflammatory responses. If sugar is what's causing your headaches, for example, you'll know that after cutting it out for 30 days, seeing how you feel, and then reintroducing it. Should the headaches persist after 30 days, or upon reintroduction, then it's possible sugar wasn't the cause—though, many would argue you should limit your intake anyway.

Simply put, you can pick and choose what foods you avoid to essentially create your own elimination diet. Whole30 overall is well-intentioned with its diet inclusions and exclusions—we shouldn't be eating junk food, carrageenan, or artificial sugar anyway—so there's definitely reason to adopt at least a few of its rules. Some would argue that this isn't a "true" Whole30, but that's the kind of negativity Melissa Hartwig Urban, Whole30 founder and mbg Collective member, tries to discourage.

"Despite the fact that these [vegan and vegetarian] lifestyle choices seem in conflict with our healthy eating recommendations (which requires a moderate amount of animal protein every day), please don't rule our program out," she says. "We actually have quite a few things in common and believe the Whole30 has a lot to offer you, even if you choose to limit the inclusion of animal products in your diet."

If you're still skeptical, take comfort in the fact that there are vegans and vegetarians who have made it work (check the forum if you're not convinced). That said, there's no guarantee that you'll achieve the same benefits and results that the Whole30 advertises—but really, is anything in life guaranteed? Just a thought. You do you.

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Related Class

The Ultimate Guide To Plant-Based Nutrition
The Ultimate Guide To Plant-Based Nutrition

Vegan, Whole30 recipes + products

Should you opt to try a vegan or vegetarian Whole30, there are resources, and even recipes, at your disposal—including our complete guide to the Whole30 diet and extensive Whole 30 Q&A with Melissa Hartwig Urban. 

Looking to get started ASAP? These vegan, Whole30-friendly recipes and grocery store finds are a lovely place to start. After that, the journey is yours, friend. Best of luck.

Ready to learn more about how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE web class with nutrition expert Kelly LeVeque.

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