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January 19, 2015

Whole30 101: Rules vs Recommendations


There is no such thing as the perfect Whole30.  We know that, and we hope you know that too. We do encourage you to follow the program 100% by the rules, because any elimination diet needs to be done strictly to be maximally successful. We’re known for being sticklers on this, because following the program exactly has paved the way for thousands of glowing, life-changing testimonials from program alumni. But sometimes, there’s so much focus put on getting it “right” that the line between the official program rules and our best-practice recommendations get a bit blurry.

In this article, we’ll address the most commonly confused rules and recommendations related to the Whole30 program, so you’ll know exactly what to focus on with 100% dedication, and where you’ll need to use your own best judgment.

Want to know more about the Whole30 program? Check out our flagship book. The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom.

The Rules

These are the parts of the Whole30 program that apply to every participant, always.* These rules are your port in the storm, and the place to turn to when what you see on Pinterest or hear from your fitness trainer leaves you feeling confused.

Basic program guidelines

Our Whole30 Program Rules are always your best source for what is (and isn’t) compatible during the elimination phase of the Whole30. They are the pillars of the Whole30 program, specifically designed to help you achieve the life-changing results you’ve been reading about.  Yes, we know that sometimes they seem really, really specific. But trust us: the specificity of the program is what makes it so effective.

  • No added sugar or artificial sweeteners
  • No alcohol
  • No grains
  • No legumes
  • No dairy

See the official rules for a more detailed explanation of the foods and beverages that fall under each category, and any exceptions we might make.

*Unless your health care provider tells you otherwise. Your provider’s instructions always trump Whole30 rules, and we always encourage you to consult them before taking on any new dietary or lifestyle change.

No recreating baked goods, “foods with no brakes,” or treats (AKA The Pancake Rule)

We’ve discussed this extensively on the website and in a special chapter in our flagship book The Whole30. While this rule isn’t as black-and-white as the other foods we list as off-limits (see the “A little of both” section for more details), there are some items we specifically call out as off-limits, whether you think you have an issue with these foods or not.

  • Bread-like products:  bread, tortillas, biscuits, pizza crust, crepes, etc. made with alternative flours
  • Breakfast treats: pancakes, muffins, bagels, waffles, cereal or granola
  • Baked treats: cake, cupcakes, cookies, brownies
  • Snacks: ice cream, commercially-prepared chips (potato, tortilla, plantain, etc.), or deep-fried French fries

Stay off the scale (and no measurements, either)

One of the most unexpected (and often the most challenging) rules of our program asks to you stay off the scale for the full 30 days. Completely off. As in, don’t weigh yourself or take measurements during your program. This is not a suggestion, this is one of the official Whole30 program rules.  Why?

Because we know that there’s more to your health than the number registering on the $20 hunk of plastic you bought at the local value store. And because very few people have a healthy relationship with the scale, and we really want to help you redefine your measures for success when it comes to health initiatives. So for 30 days, we want  you to focus on the changes in your health, in your mood, and in your relationship with food rather than how much you weigh.

The Whole30 is designed to showcase all of the incredible non-scale victories the next 30+ days can bring into your life. You know the fastest way to short-circuit all of those I’m-doing-it, proud-of-myself, this-is-really-working feelings? Getting on the scale. That number has the power to rob you of the real progress you’ve been making, do a number on your self-esteem, and generally steal your joy. So trust us on this one… leave that evil plastic overlord out of your life for the next 30 days. We’d be shocked if your self-confidence, mental health, and happiness didn’t dramatically improve as a result.

The Recommendations

The following are NOT official rules of the Whole30 program. If you snack, buy non-organic eggs, or eat six servings of fruit in a day, that has no bearing on whether you are still staying true to the Whole30. We make these recommendations because we believe they will maximize your results with the program. These practices are the most likely to lead to greater health, an improved relationship with food, and overall awesomeness.

In summary, you are free to eat seven meals a day of RXBARS and sugar-free bacon with a side of non-organic blueberry/strawberry/banana smoothie and you’d still be doing the Whole30 with 100% compatibility. However, we would not recommend this.

Meal template

Our free meal template details our recommendation for building a balanced Whole30 plate, especially when you’re new to the program and your natural regulatory signals (hungry/full) haven’t kicked in yet. Our template ensures you get enough protein, fat, and veggies while still giving you some flexibility to accommodate for your activity levels, age, muscle mass, and other factors that influence your individual calorie needs. However, your plate doesn’t have to look like our template, and for many who need to eat way more (professional athletes) or way less (kids), remember that as long as the ingredients in your meal are 100% compatible, then it’s a Whole30 meal.

Don’t rely on snacking

As we explain in detail in It Starts With Food, eating three meals each day (instead of grazing like an antelope all day) helps to keep your hormones in a healthy rhythm and teaches you to focus on eating mindfully. However, it’s really okay if you find you have to eat between meals, and for some, a mini-meal is just the ticket to fueling yourself in a way that suits your schedule.

For folks who are used to eating six small meals, it might take some time to get used to eating just three big ones, so try three established meals and a snack or two to start off. For those who work really long days, you might find that four full meals are in order. For kids and pregnant/nursing mothers, this recommendation goes right out the window! Snack away (just make sure you’re leaving a few hours between eating sessions, and not grazing ALL day). Sometimes, the way your day goes, you find you’re always a little hungry between lunch and dinner, and a mini-meal of some hard-boiled eggs, carrot sticks, and guacamole can see you through perfectly. The success of your Whole30 likely isn’t riding on whether or not you eat a snack, so use your hunger as your guide.

Fruit intake

Our meal template recommends around two servings of fruit per day, eaten with your meals (and not on their own as “dessert” or a snack). However, that’s just a starting point, not a hard and fast mandate. We’re really not concerned with the amount of sugar in whole foods, in the context of your Whole30 meals. It also makes sense to eat more fruit in summer when it’s in season (and less in winter, when it’s less fresh and more expensive), so your intake in August may look like five servings a day, and just one or two in January.

We recommend not eating it on its own as a snack because carbohydrates aren’t as satiating on their own, which means your snack may not see you through until the next meal. Try pairing fruit with either protein or fat (or both) for a more satisfying mini-meal. And if you’re trying to break your “I must have something sweet to finish the meal” craving, try incorporating fruit with the meal instead of eating it afterward.

Dried fruit and nut bars

There are plenty of no added sugar dried-fruit-and-nut bars compatible with our Whole30 rules, like certain flavors or RXBARS and Larabars. Every time we talk about these fruit-and-nut bars, we say the same thing: “They’re on-the-go emergency food, perfect for long hikes, business travel, or unexpected late nights at the office.” We caution you not to use these convenience foods in place of real food, or to use them in place of candy, because they’re about as close as you can get on the Whole30. But that’s just a very strong recommendation.

Overuse these or lean on them too hard when you’re craving sweets and you’ll find yourself on Day 31 with the same roaring Sugar Dragon that led you to us in the first place… but that’s your business. As long as the ingredients are all compatible, you’re still 100% doing the Whole30, no matter how you choose to use these in your program.

Organic and grass-fed

No, you don’t have to buy almonds shelled by Spanish virgins and roasted in unicorn fat to be Whole30 compatible. If you have access to and can afford naturally raised and fed animal proteins, organic or pesticide/herbicide-free produce, and organic pantry staples (all locally sourced, where available), good for you, and feel free to incorporate those into your Whole30.

Also, if you’re buying canned and frozen veggies, meat cuts on special at your local grocery store, spices in bulk, and frozen seafood, good for you! Those are equally Whole30, and you go with your nutrient density. Long story short, labels like “grass-fed” or “organic” are never part of the Whole30 rules, and we have plenty of resources for making your grocery budget work for you during the program.

Homemade everything

When we created the Whole30 program back in 2009, it was incredibly difficult to find compatible products like almond milk, salad dressing, and mayonnaise, even in health food stores. But now, alternative eating styles (and the products to suit them) are becoming more prevalent, and products that were once only available locally are available nation (or world) wide.  If the ingredients on your favorite pre-prepared almond milk/ketchup/mayonnaise are in line with the Whole30 guidelines, then feel free to enjoy. That’s what our our Whole30 Approved program is all about! However, if you can’t find these products or they aren’t in your budget, feel free to make your own condiments or pantry staples using any number of recipes you can find online. (Here, we’ll get you started.)


We’ve covered this ground before, but it bears repeating.  There is no official Whole30 ban on smoothies. This is just a recommendation, based on the science and our experience. First, we would much rather see you eat a meal you have to chew instead of drinking your calories, because the satiety factors of food you have to chew are higher than foods you drink. (Meaning, a meal will keep you more full and satisfied than a smoothie, even if they’re the same calories and macros.)

Also, smoothies are usually super heavy on the fruit and light on fat and protein, which doesn’t make them very balanced. Plus drinking a huge whackload of fruit first thing in the morning can set you up for more volatile energy, hunger, and cravings throughout your day.

However, if you do want to enjoy a smoothie, here are our best practices (but still just recommendations): Include healthy fats from coconut milk, avocado, chia, or other fat sources. Include a scoop or two of unsweetened protein powder. Include fruit lightly, along with greens and other ingredients. And eat it as a side with some real food (like a few eggs and sweet potatoes, or a big veggie hash with avocado.)

A Little of Both

This is the place where the rules and the recommendations overlap, and a little of each apply. Yes, we’re talking about pancakes again.

The Pancake Rule

The recreation of baked goods, treats, and “foods with no brakes” using technically compatible ingredients is one of the most important rules when it comes to your Whole30 success. It’s also the only rule that has some grey area, where we’ll ask you to shoulder some of the responsibility for making choices that align with the experience you want to have in your Whole30 journey. While we do call out specific foods like pancakes or tortilla chips in the program rules (and these exclusions apply to everyone), there may be other foods not specifically mentioned (like dried fruit and nut bars) that are not a good fit for the goals YOU want to achieve.

Think critically about whether the food choices you are making during your Whole30 fit the spirit and intention of the program, not just the technicality of the rules. Is this food going to trigger unhealthy behaviors or cravings for you? Are you using it to prop up sugar cravings, or to fill the urge to snack mindlessly? Is it going to leave you with the same habits you were hoping to shake going into the program? rule of thumb we like to use: when in doubt, leave it out. It’s only 30 days.

Vegetable Oils (a mixed bag)

In Chapter 9 of It Starts With Food, we discuss all the reasons that seed (vegetable) oils like soybean, peanut, canola, or corn violate our Good Food standards and would be best kept off your everyday plate. However, if we eliminated all vegetable oils from the Whole30 program, you’d never be able to dine outside of your own home. All restaurants use some form of vegetable oil in their cooking. A ban on all oils during the program would mean you could never have a business lunch, grab a compatible burger at the airport, or enjoy a date night at your favorite bistro, and that’s just unreasonable.

So, we ban the seed oils specifically off-limits according to the Whole30 “no grains, no legumes” rules (corn oil, rice bran oil, soybean oil, and peanut oil), and encourage you use healthier oils like extra-virgin olive oil, avocado oil, high-oleic sunflower or safflower oils, coconut oils, or ghee at home and for cooking. (See our shopping list.) But don’t stress about using light olive oil in your homemade mayo, or eating eggs fried in canola while out to brunch with your friends–we sure don’t.


The Whole30 program guidelines are very clear:  Any off-plan choices during your Whole30 calls for a restart. But we still get the question every day from folks who missed an ingredient on a label, made an off-plan choice, stepped on the scale, or made yourself some pancakes/cookies/muffins/pudding. So do you have to start over? We’d want you to, yes, but also, you’re an adult who can make your own best decision.

The Whole30 is a structured elimination and reintroduction protocol, and it is strict for a reason. It often takes at least 30 days of consistently eliminating potentially problematic foods to understand if they’re causing symptoms. This isn’t us trying to make it more challenging, it’s designed to provide you with the information you’re looking for. And that takes 30 days of consistent elimination.

We understand that no one’s Whole30 is perfect, but we really want you to have 30 full days, start to finish, with 100% devotion to the rules, spirit, and intention of the program. Why? Aside from the potential physiological impacts of your off-plan food choice, because you made a commitment to yourself, and giving into temptation sends the message from you to you that you are not important enough to honor that commitment.

However, sometimes things happen. The restaurant assures you there was no sugar in the salsa–but there was. Your mom didn’t remember “no cheese” in your salad, and you’ve already taken a bite. You thought you read the label, but you missed an ingredient. The Whole30 is designed to promote better physical and mental health, and we want you to commit to the program 100%. But if starting over for an error you had nothing to do with would set you back mentally or make finishing the program impossible, we trust you to make the right decision for you.

And there you have it–our best practice recommendations versus the Whole30 program rules. So take the time to read that label twice, ask all the right questions when you go out to eat, stay off the scale (it’s not worth it), and maybe cool it on the breakfast smoothies for a month? (Your call.) Give this Whole30 your very best and reap the most reward you possibly can from this month. With few exceptions, you’ll get back as much as you put into it