AAA Member Melissa Hartwig started Whole30, a massively popular monthlong food regimen that eliminates grains, legumes, dairy, alcohol, and added sugars. A decade ago, her initial experiment changed her life. Today, she’s the best-selling author of seven books, and her Whole30 program has almost 3 million social media followers.
Q. What's your favorite tip for people who are trying to eat healthier?
A. Fat can actually be really good for you! In the 1990s it was all about low-fat foods and meal-replacement shakes. Now we have paleo and whole foods. I like it when people eat a good variety of fats—nuts, seeds, even saturated fats like clarified butter. But the most important thing you can do to start eating better is to learn to cook, which means you're starting off with whole, fresh ingredients. Dietary experts agree that eating more whole foods is the foundation for a healthy diet.
Q. You travel a lot for work. What's the must-have in your carry-on bag?
A. This is going to sound weird, but I travel with more meat than you'd imagine. It's easy to find healthy carbs—apples, bananas—and fats when I travel, but protein is hard to find. So I pack meat sticks and beef jerky, because they're really satiating. Protein will tide you over.
Q. Do you use a food-tracking app?
A. I'm against food tracking. I don't think that documenting, weighing, and measuring everything you put in your mouth leads to a healthy relationship with food. Whole30 helps you learn to eat when you're hungry, stop when you're full, and differentiate true hunger from cravings. Your body knows how much you should be eating better than any calculator you'll find on the Internet.
Q. You're open about the fact that you overcame a drug addiction.
A. When I got clean in 2000, my relationship with food became dysfunctional. That's common for addicts—to go from one numbing aspect to another. I started using food for comfort, numbness, reward, punishment. It wasn't until my first Whole30 experiment that things got better.
Q. What tips do you have for newcomers to the Whole30 program?
A. The biggest thing to keep in mind is that planning and preparation are key. It's unlike anything you've ever done before, especially if you're not used to reading nutrition labels or if you're not already gluten-free. It's a very specific set of rules. [No grains, legumes, soy, dairy, alcohol, and added sugar.] Cleaning out your pantry can be incredibly important. There's no such thing as being over-prepared. You want to make sure you're really well-insulated against the cravings.
Q. What are common pitfalls for people who try Whole30?
A. People think they can wing it. Or they get so excited about starting that they want to start tomorrow. If you can't get through it, it's because you didn't plan and prepare and you freak out. People also don't anticipate the amount of support they need. You need encouragement from real people in your life, and from the online Whole30 community that's awake 24/7. People don't realize how big a change this will be.
Q. Is there a vegetarian version of Whole30?
A. You can't do Whole30 as a vegan, but we do have a lot of vegetarian folks in our community who are trying to apply our principles to their framework. In one of my books I outline how to do so. The rules are similar: We're trying to address your habits and emotional relationship to food. Complete proteins that aren't meat can include fermented organic soy products and quinoa. You still have to eliminate gluten, though, so seitan is out.
Q. You live in Salt Lake City. Is that where you grew up?
A. I grew up in New Hampshire and moved to Utah eight years ago for the mountains and sunshine. But first, I did a big three-month road trip through the United States to look at cities that have an accessible airport and all the amenities of a big city but with a small-town feel.
Whole30 was founded before I moved, but my self-care practices have evolved since living here. Utah has certainly influenced how I connect with people's personal growth. It's easy to spend time in nature here, to connect with friends over activities other than eating crappy food and drinking alcohol. I'm a hiker, a cross-country skier, and a snow-shoer.