Most of us would love to eat a little bit healthier, but in a culture where every food group seems to have negative studies coming out against it, it can be hard to know which habits to start with. Perhaps that’s why the Whole30 diet is so popular: It offers a framework of diet changes and also a timeline in which to accomplish them.
Still, dedicating a whole month to what some consider an extreme diet overhaul can be daunting. That’s why we’ve boiled down the program to its most essential ingredients so you can work on adopting them over whatever period of time best suits you.
1. Start by phasing out the sugar
This one is easier than it sounds, if you can commit to making the first big change. For me, finally kicking sugar in the ass made the hugest difference in how I felt — and how my pants fit. If you do one “whole” thing in the next 30 days, take wellness coach, fitness instructor and health blogger Kristian Henderson‘s advice: Put extra thought into how much sugar you eat and the many different ways it can sneak into your diet. She says, “You expect sugar in sweets — pies, cakes, brownies, cookies, donuts, etc. — but sugar is also found in most processed food, flavored yogurts, breads and even frozen fruit. And a lot of times, you may not even realize it is sugar. You have to educate yourself on the 56+ names of sugar — here is a partial list: brown sugar, cane crystals, cane sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, crystal dextrose, evaporated cane juice, fructose sweetener, fruit juice concentrates, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, liquid fructose, malt syrup, maple syrup, molasses, pancake syrup, raw sugar and syrup.”
2. Then, get rid of the processed foods on your grocery list
If you’ve mastered no-sugar level one and are ready for the next challenge, slash all processed foods from your grocery list. “Cut out processed carbohydrates, even if you aren’t going to cut out all grains or even gluten,” says Liz Barnet, a New York City fitness and food coach. “That means no pasta, pizza, cookies, cakes, crackers, cereal, chips; these foods are generally deficient in nutrients, unless they are artificially added. Only eat grains and carbohydrates that require simple, straightforward cooking, generally boiling. Think rice, quinoa, buckwheat, or even farro or wheat berries and barley (which do include gluten). These types of grains contain fiber and protein, which increase satiety and slow digestion, so you’ll stay full and satisfied longer.” (Note that in the official Whole 30 diet, grains are cut out completely).
3. Focus on the clean foods you like, not the ones you miss
The Whole30 may seem like a long list of restrictions when first starting out, but that’s where your inner Pollyanna can come in handy. Look on the bright side, and you’ll see that there are plenty of delicious and nutritious whole foods that you can pile on your plate. Barnet recommends “lots of vegetables, some seasonal fruits, smart starches and carbs like sweet potatoes or butternut squash, lean meats and healthy fats like avocado, coconut oils and some nuts and seeds.” She continues, “By basing the majority of your diet on these nutrient-dense foods, you will essentially ‘crowd out’ not-so-nutritious foods.”
4. Read ingredients, not labels
As Henderson explains, it’s easy to get stuck in a clean eating rut, where you focus on flashy nutrition labels while overlooking ingredients. Help yourself to course correct by avoiding enticing “low-carb” and “low-fat” foods that claim to be healthy and skim the actual ingredient list instead. “You might love your trail mix, and it might be low in calories and carbs, but if the ingredient list is long and if it has words you can’t pronounce, you should pass. Remember, the essence of clean eating is eating food in its most natural state,” Henderson says.
5. Simplify when eating out
Unless you’re hitting up the trendiest vegan restaurant in town, it’s going to be hard to order a “whole” meal when dining out since you can’t guarantee how the food was prepared. Henderson recommends keeping it simple to keep your priorities straight when you grab a bite with friends. “For starters, avoid fast food,” she says. “It is nearly impossible to get clean food from a fast-food restaurant. Second, try to find farm-to-table restaurants or restaurants that pride themselves in offering organic or locally sourced produce. This increases your chances of getting clean food. If all else fails, just get grilled chicken or fish with a side of vegetables and brown rice. Keep it simple.”
6. Eat small salads throughout the day
If you’re not used to this squeaky clean living, it can be hard to stay motivated to pile veggies on your plate meal after meal. Instead, Dawn Viola, holistic nutrition educator and executive chef at This Honest Food, recommends breaking it down into bite-size chunks that make the Whole30 approach easier to swallow. “Salads can be a great way to eat a wide variety of vegetables during the day, but sometimes a giant salad can feel overwhelming (who wants to eat that much lettuce?). Instead, have a small salad with nutrient-dense foods. One half cup of broccoli sprouts or one cup of kale or cress micro-greens offer more nutrition per cup than their fully grown versions. Add a tablespoon of sesame seeds or sprouted sunflower seeds, some shredded raw beets, a little goat cheese, and you’ve got an easy (small) salad with big benefits,” Viola explains.
7. Finally, give yourself some credit
There’s an old adage that says the easiest way to swallow an elephant is one bite at a time, and the same might be true for all that fresh produce in your fridge. As Viola points out, every change makes a big difference, no matter how big or small it seems to you. “Every change moves you a step closer to your goals,” she says. “Keeping that in mind can keep you feeling in control and not so overwhelmed at the thought of everything involved with changing eating and lifestyle habits.”
When you inevitably slip up on your Whole30-inspired journey, make like Taylor Swift and shake it off. And remember Viola’s wisdom and take it one step at a time. “For example, commit to eliminating a minimum of one processed food from your grocery cart every week and replace with the real thing. So if you’re an applesauce freak, buy real apples; if you’re hooked on a commercial-brand moisturizer, buy a jar of coconut oil and slather it on when your skin is still wet after a shower (nope, you won’t smell like coconut for long).” Viola adds, “Don’t be so hard on yourself, because you’re awesome, and you can do this!”
A version of this article was originally published in February 2016.