The History, Philosophy, and Revisions of the Whole30 Rule Inspired by Our Most-Asked-About Food

Since the creation of the Whole30 in April 2009, we’ve always had a rule that eliminates baked goods, chips, and other specific comfort foods even if they’re made with Whole30 compatible ingredients. We call it the Pancake Rule. Believe it or not, pancakes are the one “treat” food we get asked about the most. This concept has always been a cornerstone of the program, and remains one of the most crucial factors in your Whole30 success. Here’s why you can’t recreate certain foods with compatible ingredients during your Whole30 elimination—the full explainer on the Pancake Rule.

History of the Pancake Rule

This rule came about in the middle of my first Whole30 in April 2009, when I noticed myself scheming a way to recreate the sugary hit of my usual Dunkin Donuts Iced Caramel Latte. (Turbo-sized. Don’t judge.)

One of the benefits of my Whole30 thus far was that my energy was better and my sugar cravings were on the rapid decline. Not wanting to mess up a good thing, I decided to skip the recreation and try to love my beloved iced coffee black. It was deeply unsatisfying (but only at first), and I did successfully break my morning sugar habit, never again returning to my Iced Caramel Latte.

Pancake Rule: A Simple Premise

From this experience, the Whole30 “pancake rule” was born. The premise is simple: If you want to change your habits, you have to actually change your habits. If you spend all 30 days trying to recreate the same baked goods, sweets, and treats you came into the program eating, what are the chances you’ll come out of the program with new healthy habits and tools for navigating stress or discomfort? (Spoiler: zero.) The Whole30 was designed specifically to facilitate true habit change. If you really want to lose your uncontrollable sugar cravings, learn how to navigate stress without needing chocolate and wine, and feel empowered to make the right food choices for you, the next 30 days can be a magical experience! But one of the fastest ways to negate the potential benefits of your Whole30 is to try to recreate your old “trigger” or comfort foods with technically compatible ingredients. When it comes to the psychological hold certain foods have over us, the whole (pancake) is far more than just the sum of the parts (ingredients).

The Pancake Rule: An Exact Definition 

Here’s how the rule reads: Do not recreate or purchase baked goods, “foods with no brakes,” or treats with Whole30 compatible ingredients. Some specific foods that fall under this rule include: pancakes, crepes, waffles, bread, tortillas, biscuits, muffins, cupcakes, cookies, brownies, alternative flour pizza crust or pastas, granola, cereal, ice cream, commercially-prepared chips (potato, tortilla, plantain, etc.), or deep-fried French fries.

Basically, we’re calling out the foods you gravitate to in times of stress, the stuff you can’t stop eating once you start, and anything that offers sugary, carby comfort (while probably pushing more nutrient-dense food off your plate). You’ll be eliminating all of that stuff as part of your Whole30.

Back in 2009, this list was a LOT shorter. There were no Siete tortillas, coconut milk ice creams, or coconut oil-fried potato chips back then. Today, the list is updated regularly based on the latest, greatest food inventions (who could have predicted cauliflower could become pizza crust or gnocchi?) and watching millions of people do the Whole30 over the last 12 years.

I could stop there. You committed to the Whole30 because you’ve seen our glowing testimonials and you want those results, too. These are the Whole30 program rules. Don’t eat these foods during your Whole30 elimination. 

But I won’t stop there, because I really want this rule to make sense, and I need to emphasize how vitally important it is for your Whole30 success. Spoiler: it’s not really about the pancake.

How Food Behaviors Become Habits

Habits are behaviors wired so deeply into our brain that we perform them automatically. Here’s an example: there was a period of time after my divorce when I started eating a Justin’s peanut butter cup in bed as I read. I’d never eaten in bed before, and it felt like a decadent treat. A week later, I found myself fidgeting if I climbed into bed without it. Two weeks later, and one peanut butter cup in bed had turned into two. A month later, I had to stop buying them, because I could no longer fall asleep without that hit of sugar and fat.

Habits often become so ingrained that we keep doing them even though we’re no longer benefiting from them, like my peanut butter cup. It stopped being a delicious treat and became something I did automatically. I wasn’t really enjoying it and it was no longer special, it was just… necessary. And the thing about habits is that once they are grooved, they don’t ever truly go away. 

The good news is that they can be overwritten with new ones. And a life shift, like a new job, a move, or starting a Whole30, is the perfect time to imprint a new habit.

The Philosophy Behind The Pancake Rule

The Whole30 is a true nutritional reset, designed to change your health, habits, and emotional relationship with food. Those last two are the important ones when it comes to the “pancake rule.” Yes, a “paleo tortilla chip,” may include totally Whole30 ingredients, but your brain doesn’t know the difference. It just knows you’re still eating tortilla chips… perhaps just as mindlessly as you used to. It knows that it’s late, you’re bored/ anxious/ lonely/ stressed, and craving something salty and crunchy for reasons you don’t really understand because you’re still pretty full from dinner. All your brain knows is, “I craved tortilla chips, and I got tortilla chips.” Business as usual. (And don’t you always want something a little sweet to balance out that salt? Just sayin’…)

Your brain doesn’t care what they’re made of. It just knows those tortilla chips are easy and rewarding, and they’re usually how you pass the time between 9 and 10 PM, when everything is quiet and things feel harder. Which means without this rule, you could spend the entirety of your Whole30 still numbing/ distracting/ comforting/ rewarding yourself with the same old foods, stuck in the same old habits, learning nothing about your feelings, where they’re coming from, or how to actually process them more effectively.

That’s not much of a reset, now, is it?

Let the Whole30 Program Change Your Life

If you come out of your program with the same habits, coping strategies, and food choices you had when you started, what are your chances for long-term, life-changing success? It’s likely those very same habits, strategies, and food choices are why you came to the Whole30 in the first place. You want to break the cycle of crave -> overconsume, and the guilt and shame that often follows. You’re ready to develop other ways to self-soothe, show yourself love, navigate stress, and relieve anxiety. You’re excited to change your taste buds, have more energy, and sleep more deeply so you no longer need that sugary hit of caramel syrup every morning, or the 3 PM pick-me-up at your desk every afternoon.We really want to help you achieve all of those non-scale victories you’re after… which means you have to trust us on this rule. It’s been part of the program for the last twelve years for a reason.You really can’t keep eating baked goods, chips, or other treat re-creations during your Whole30 elimination and expect the program to work for you like it’s worked for so many others. And we really want you to have that experience.

The Fine Print

While there is a list of foods specifically called out in the rules (and off-limits to everyone, whether you have a “problem” with pancakes or not), this is the Whole30 rule that demands the most personal responsibility. The thing is, your “this could be problematic” list may include some foods that aren’t on our list.

Maybe you can plow through a jar of almond butter in a single sitting when you’re anxious. Maybe you rely heavily on Larabars or RXBARs to satisfy your sugar cravings. Maybe cheese was your comfort, and you easily see yourself consuming a whole tub of cashew “queso” at once.

You should always think critically about the Whole30 compatible foods and drinks you are choosing to consume during your program, even if they’re not specifically called out in the rules. Ask yourself, “Is this serving my goals for this Whole30? Is this perpetuating a habit or food fixation I was hoping to break? Is this food or food-related habit allowing me to continue to numb, distract, or avoid? Am I working really hard to recreate this old trigger food with technically compatible ingredients? Does this serve me?”

You’re the only one who can answer that question, and everyone’s trigger or comfort foods are different. For some, it’s bacon; the salty, fatty goodness automatically setting off cravings for something sweet (like pancakes). For others, it’s dried fruit. For still others, it’s almond butter or salted cashews. Hint: they tend to be the sweetest, saltiest, fattiest foods on the Whole30 spectrum—still compatible, but quite stimulating on the palate and in the brain.

So here’s how this one works: Avoid recreating foods specifically called out in our “pancake rule.” Continue to think critically about other foods you choose to include in your Whole30. Ask yourself not only if it fits the Whole30 rules but whether it fits the spirit and intention of the Whole30, and whether it’s right for your Whole30. 

To keep it even more simple, follow our golden rule: When in doubt, leave it out. It’s only 30 days.Use the Whole30 to ditch the cravings, change your habits, learn new ways to manage stress, and create a new, healthy relationship with food.  Much like Melissa’s first Whole30, the new habits and behaviors you groove here can stay with you for the rest of your life, and we really want you to have the same magical, transformative experience and life-changing results that so many Whole30’ers have reported.

Frequently Asked Questions

For more on how the Whole30 helps you change your habits and emotional relationship with food, please refer to the Sweets, Treats,  and Food Fixations section of The Whole30.

Shouldn’t it be up to me to decide what’s off-limits?

You always have the autonomy to make your own choices,  and in this case, you’re choosing to do the Whole30 for 30 straight days. We’ve got 12 years of experience watching people just like you succeed with the program–and the “pancake rule” has always been a critical success factor. This rule was thoughtfully and intentionally created to help you reap the psychological and physical benefits of the program. Trust us with this one, and remember, it’s only 30 days.

What about ______? How do I know what falls into the “pancake rule” classification for me?

A few high-level guidelines. If the ingredients are JUST a protein or a vegetable, it’s fine. That means your jicama “taco shells,” ground beef “meatza” crust, or egg white “wraps” are A-OK. If there’s flour mixed in, like with cauliflower gnocchi, it’s out under the pancake rule. You can also ask yourself, “Am I trying to duplicate or recreate the exact look, texture, and flavor of something I’m craving, or am I merely looking for a healthier, more nutritious substitution for that food?” If it’s the former, say no. If the food in question is something you turn to on a hard day or moment of stress, just say no. If you feel like you can’t go without it or get angry just thinking about eliminating it for 30 days, again say no.

Why are sweet potato “buns,” kale chips, and zucchini noodles allowed on the Whole30? Aren’t you recreating less healthy foods there too?

The real determining factor here is this: Are you attempting to recreate the exact look, texture, and flavor of food that isn’t compatible with the program? Alternative-flour buns and noodles are designed to look and taste as much like real bread and noodles as possible. Sweet potato buns, kale chips, and zoodles are just a substitute for the bread, potato chips and pasta they’re replacing, not a recreation. Your brain isn’t going to think it’s eating bread when it bites into a burger sandwiched between two sweet potatoes–which means you are effectively changing your bread-at-lunch habit, not continuing it.

Published by Melissa Urban

Melissa Urban is a 7x New York Times bestselling author (including the #1 bestselling The Whole30) who specializes in helping people establish healthy boundaries and successfully navigate habit change. She has been featured by the New York Times, People, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Today Show, and Good Morning America, and is a prominent keynote speaker on boundaries, building community, health trends, and entrepreneurship. She lives in Salt Lake City, UT with her husband, son, and a poodle named Henry.