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I Tried The New Plant-Based Whole30 Program — Here's What I Learned

Kristine Thomason
Author:
March 1, 2022
Kristine Thomason
mbg Health & Fitness Director
By Kristine Thomason
mbg Health & Fitness Director

Kristine Thomason is the health and fitness director at mindbodygreen.

Image by Nataša Mandić / Stocksy
March 1, 2022
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"Have you heard of Whole30? It's not a diet, more of a monthlong self-experiment," I tell my friend as she eyes me skeptically, holding a slice of pizza in one hand and a craft beer in the other. I've just turned down both of these tasty options, instead piling my plate high with veggies and a healthy dousing of olive oil. I'm five days into my Whole30 journey, and it's the first time I'm attempting to socialize with my newfound food limitations. I won't sugarcoat it (after all, sugar isn't part of the program)—it isn't easy, and I very much so feel the food FOMO as my friends nosh on hot, cheesy slices of 'za, followed by fudgy brownies for dessert. 

But this ultra-popular elimination protocol is something I've wanted to try for a very long time, ever since I first heard about Whole30 years ago. So when their team approached me about testing out the brand-new plant-based Whole30 program—I jumped at the opportunity. 

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Curious about this new program? Allow me to share the rundown, plus what the experience was like for me—the challenges, the revelations, and everything in between.

What is Plant-Based Whole30? 

The original Whole30 program was started by founder Melissa Urban back in April 2009. The concept: For a full 30 days, participants eliminate foods that research suggests may be triggering (think sugar, alcohol, processed food) and take note of how the body feels (any improvements in energy, sleep, digestion, mood, focus?). This becomes a new "baseline" for the body.

Then comes the reintegration phase, which involves slowly introducing those food groups one by one while taking notice of any potential mental or physical impacts. In other words, this isn't a weight loss diet (in fact, one of the "rules" is no scales or body measurements during the experience); it's about getting reacquainted with your body and its natural signals.

OK, so that's the gist of the original plan—but what's the deal with the new version? On February 7, the folks at Whole30 launched a brand-new protocol designed to give vegans, vegetarians, and plant-curious eaters the opportunity to give the popular Whole30 reset a try. Here's what the food guidelines look like (and check out a more detailed breakdown here):

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Foods to include:

  • Legumes, lentils, and peas
  • Whole or minimally processed forms of soy
  • Whole forms of plant-based protein powders
  • Minimally processed plant-based meats
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Natural plant-based fats
  • Vegetables and fruit
  • Herbs, spices, and seasonings

Foods to eliminate:

  • Animal protein
  • Animal fats
  • Highly processed forms of soy
  • Added sugar, real or artificial
  • Alcohol, in any form, not even for cooking
  • Grains
  • Animal-sourced dairy
  • Carrageenan or added sulfites
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How is this different from the classic? While the original Whole30 also eliminates similar food groups, it does still permit animal protein and fats. This new program nixes all animal products—so you're essentially following a vegan eating style, just without any grains, added sugars, or processed ingredients.

Who exactly is this program for? First off, vegans or vegetarians who want to give the Whole30 protocol a try. Or individuals who eat meat but are curious to test out a plant-based lifestyle. 

As for the reintegration phase, there are a couple of different schedules the Whole30 team outlines (more on that here). The one I chose involves reintroducing one food group at a time, then going back to the elimination phase for two days. Since I personally don't eat meat and only occasionally have dairy in my daily diet, I used a hybrid reintroduction schedule, as follows:

  • Day 1: Non-gluten grains
  • Days 2 & 3: Elimination
  • Day 4: Gluten-containing grains
  • Days 5 & 6: Elimination
  • Day 7: Animal-sourced dairy

My experience with Plant-Based Whole30.

As a health and fitness editor, I prioritize eating to nourish both my mental and physical health. But it's not always easy to maintain that balance, for two major reasons. The first is that, yes, I'm a health editor—which means I'm constantly bombarded by info on the latest "it" food, cutting-edge nutrition research, and new insights from experts on the healthiest strategies. 

Secondly, I'm only human, and I have a busy schedule—which means sometimes reaching for the easy-to-grab thing in my pantry for lunch or ordering takeout on nights neither my partner nor I can muster the energy to cook up a meal. 

There's nothing inherently "wrong" or "bad" with either of the scenarios I just listed—but it has taken most of my adult life to let go of obsessions over eating the "healthiest" or "best" foods, and the guilt I feel when I don't. Now, I try to prioritize eating in a way that minimizes stress, isn't overly complicated, and feeds my unique body according to its individual needs.

That's why I was so intrigued by the new Plant-Based Whole30 protocol. The whole concept centers around the idea of eliminating potential triggering foods and really tuning into what affects your body. Even though I already follow a mainly vegetarian diet, with occasional seafood, I was very curious how a full month of no processed foods, no added sugar, and a little extra mindfulness could help me check in with what's really serving my body.

Don't worry, I'll spare you the 30-plus-day journal and instead give you a few of my personal takeaways from this experience: 

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1.

Mindful eating can also mean being less complacent.

By its nature, the Whole30 experience requires you to be more mindful about your meals—and that includes being wary of sneaky ingredients. While I often check labels for ingredients I don't love, I've found it's a lot easier to be complacent about the ingredients in takeout food or restaurant meals, especially if it's a "healthy" establishment. That is, until my 30 days on this program.

Dear reader, let me offer you some not-so-fun info: There is added sugar in just about everything when you dine out or order in. I'm talking dressings, sauces, the works. I was shocked when I tried to order from one of my favorite local vegan restaurants, only to find there was literally one thing on the menu that didn't involve sugar (spoiler, it was a salad, sans-dressing).

Does this mean I'm giving up takeout forevermore? Absolutely not. But it was a healthy reminder that simply ordering a plant-based entree doesn't guarantee I'm serving my body exactly what it needs to thrive.

2.

Meal timing is more powerful than I realized.

One of the very cool things about eliminating common triggering foods for an entire month is that you remove so many layers of variables, which makes it easier to zero in on factors you may not have considered.

Let me offer an example: One Saturday morning, mid-Whole30, I woke up with a nasty headache. It was the kind of headache that I'd normally blame on red wine or a sugar-laden dessert. But on this morning, neither of those things were factors—which meant I had to think about what else might be affecting my body. In this particular instance, I ate dinner a couple of hours later in the evening than my normal schedule.

I tested out this theory another night the following week, and I had the same experience. So while that wine or dessert may indeed have an impact, I also learned that eating too close to slumber messes with my system, as well.

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3.

Bodies change over time, and it never hurts to check in.

We are ever-changing beings—so why should we be stagnant with our eating habits? I haven't made any major dietary shifts since I cut most meat out of my diet back in 2013, so it was great to get reacquainted with my body during the Whole30 experience. This was particularly true during the reintegration phase.

For example, grains make up a major part of my diet—I love a warm bowl of oatmeal for breakfast or a grain bowl at night—and I've never questioned whether they love me back. During the reintegration phase, I paid careful attention to how I felt after eating both non-gluten and gluten grains. While I personally didn't detect anything too dramatic, I did notice that my energy levels and focus waned a bit quicker after my morning bowl of oatmeal, compared to a veggies-packed green smoothie.

A couple of tips to make the experience even better:

  • Find a compliant meal service. As I mentioned, ordering takeout or buying prepared meals becomes nearly impossible during Whole30. While I fully embraced more at-home meals during this month (more on that in a second), sometimes it's nice to have a quick, convenient option at your disposal. That's where Daily Harvest was an absolute lifesaver. They have a wide array of Whole30-compliant options (in fact, they just partnered up to create a Plant-Based Whole30® Edit box) including smoothies, harvest bowls, soups, and more. 
  • Get intentional about meals. Whole30 isn't about portion restriction or cutting calories—in other words, you should spend your days feeling nourished, not ravenous. One strategy to keep you satiated: Be mindful about your meal contents. According to the Whole30 resources, they recommend that each meal contains at least two of the three macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbs) and is large enough to make you feel satisfied. More specifically, they advise at least 15 grams of plant-based protein (such as one-half to 1 cup cooked beans or lentils), a serving of fat (nuts, seeds, avocados), and plenty of produce. To get a complete protein in your meal, try to combine legumes along with nuts or seeds. If you're trying out a plant-based eating style for the first time, I can't emphasize this enough. 
  • Scheduling time to cook as self-care. When I get busy, one of the first things I drop from my schedule is cooking. But the thing is, I actually love whipping up healthy dishes! During this Whole30 experience, where meals at home became even more essential, I tried to reframe my mindset. Instead of categorizing it as a "chore," I factored cooking into my schedule as time to mindfully reset and recharge. And hey, I even tried out some fun new recipes. Here's one from the Whole30 library that I particularly enjoyed:

White Bean-Mushroom Meatballs With Pesto-Butternut Squash Noodles

Serves 4 

Prep: 15 minutes

Cook: 5 minutes

Bake: 25 minutes

Total: 45 minutes 

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil 
  • 1 cup quartered mushrooms 
  • 1 cup lightly packed fresh spinach 
  • 1 (15-ounce) can Great Northern beans, rinsed and drained 
  • 2 flax eggs (see Tip) 
  • ½ cup chopped walnuts 
  • ½ cup almond flour 
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste 
  • 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast 
  • 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning 
  • 1 teaspoon coarse salt 
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest 
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper 
  • ½ teaspoon onion powder 
  • ¼ teaspoon garlic powder 
  • ⅓ cup almond flour 
  • 1 (10-ounce) package butternut squash noodles 
  • Whole30 Pesto (recipe below) 

Method

  1. In a medium skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring often, until the water has been released, about 5 minutes. Transfer mushrooms to a food processor. Add the spinach, beans, flax eggs, walnuts, almond flour, tomato paste, nutritional yeast, Italian seasoning, salt, lemon zest, black pepper, onion powder, and garlic powder. Pulse until well combined yet retains structure. Transfer to a bowl. Cover and chill for 30 minutes. 
  2. Preheat oven to 400°F. Line a large rimmed baking pan with parchment paper. Shape bean mixture into 12 meatballs. Roll meatballs in almond flour. Place meatballs on the baking pan. Bake until browned and heated through, 25 to 30 minutes. 
  3. Meanwhile, make the pesto. In a large skillet, cook the noodles until just tender, 4 to 5 minutes, tossing occasionally. Pour the pesto over the noodles and toss to coat. Serve the meatballs with the pesto noodles. 
  4. Flax Eggs: In a small bowl, whisk together 1 tablespoon ground flaxseed and two tablespoons water. Let stand 15 minutes to thicken. 
  5. Whole30 Pesto: In a food processor, combine 1 cup lightly packed fresh basil leaves, ¼ cup roasted almonds, 1 tablespoon nutritional yeast, ¼ teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon black pepper, and 1 clove garlic. Cover and pulse until finely chopped. With the food processor running, add ⅓ cup olive oil and process until well combined and nearly smooth.

The takeaway.

This is just a small glimpse into my 30-plus-day experience—but I can assure you, it was both valuable and eye-opening. Eating even more fresh, whole, nourishing food on a daily basis helped me get acquainted with my body's natural cues, triggers, and rhythms. (I also want to acknowledge that it is a privilege to live with enough food security that I can embark on a journey like this one.)

Whole30 has a list of affirmations that coincide with the program, and one really stuck with me throughout the month: "No foods are good or bad, just like I am not good or bad based on what I eat. There is no morality attached to food, and my worthiness is not related to the food on my plate."

After this experience, I absolutely won't stress about going to dinner with friends and enjoying that occasional slice of pizza. But I also won't feel guilty about setting boundaries regarding my food choices (particularly if I know they won't agree with my body). Ultimately, my Plant-Based Whole30 journey was a kind reminder that taking time to tune in to my body and listen to what it needs is truly an act of self-love—and, at the risk of sounding cheesy, that's the sweetest dessert of all.

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Kristine Thomason
Kristine Thomason
mbg Health & Fitness Director

Kristine Thomason is the health and fitness director at mindbodygreen. Kristine is a New York University graduate with a degree in journalism and psychology, and also a NASM-certified personal trainer. She has spent her editorial career focused on health and well-being, and formerly worked for Women’s Health and Health. Her byline has also appeared in Men’s Health, Greatist, Refinery29, HGTV, and more. In her current role she oversees, edits, and writes for the health, food, and movement sections of mindbodygreen.