Your Stories: In Depth with Melissa Hartwig from Whole30

Melissa Hartwig, the New York Times bestselling author and co-founder of the wildly popular and life-changing Whole30 program, has been on a whirlwind tour for her new book, The Whole30. Between pitstops at places like The Today Show, Dr. Oz and The View, she kindly made time to sit down and chat with us for She Thrives, and we are so thrilled to share our conversation with you today! Melissa was absolutely as fun, kind and insightful as we were hoping she'd be, had some amazing answers to our questions, and couldn't have been more gracious.

Read our detailed interview with her to learn all about the way she handles industry pressure, how her own body image and outlook has changed, how she draws on her strength from getting clean to help people with their food issues, and lots lots more.

 

WHAT INSPIRED THIS NEW BOOK?

Our first book, It Starts With Food, outlined all the scientific background for our general, big picture nutritional recommendations. It was the science behind our 4 good food standards, why we exclude the foods we exclude, and the health benefits of the foods that you’re eating. We outlined the Whole30 in that book, in the way of "here are the big picture recommendations and here’s a way that you can implement these in a self experiment", and we thought that would be enough for people to be really successful with the program. 

What we discovered was people would say, "I love the science, I love knowing why I’m doing what I’m doing, I’m super motivated, but I still need to know how to do the program"- We realized that people needed a lot more practical application. We did some focus groups and were surprised by the number of people who said that the Whole30 taught them how to cook. So this book came out of the desire to put everything we thought people needed to be successful with the Whole30 all in one place. So it’s got all of the preparation and getting started, planning tips, the extensive FAQs, and then cooking fundamentals (which we never would have thought to include until people told us they wanted that), and then also 100 recipes. 

So the thought behind this book was, if someone asked you about the Whole30 or you wanted to share it with someone, you could hand them this book and walk away, and they could be incredibly successful with the program.

 

AS THE CREATOR OF THE WHOLE30, DO YOU FEEL A LOT OF PRESSURE TO EAT AND LIVE "PERFECTLY"?

Oh my gosh what an insightful question. I used to. I used to feel like there was a lot of pressure to look a certain way (especially when I had my baby), to eat a certain way, to always exercise, to never have hard days.. But I gave that up a really long time ago when I realized it made me feel like an imposter in my own life. I was setting this standard for myself that I couldn’t expect anyone else to hold up to, and I certainly couldn’t hold up to, and I don’t think that set a good example for our readers. People connect with authenticity, with you sharing pieces of your life, the good and the bad, and hopefully explaining some of the life lessons you’re learning along the way. 

So I don’t feel that pressure anymore. There’s still the occasional, "I’m getting up in front of a lot of people today, do I look pretty enough?" kind of thing, but I feel like anyone standing up in front of 400 pople might think that. But for the most part, I really have found great peace in being more genuine in my own life and in my own struggles and sharing that with my readers, and they really seem to connect with that really really deeply. 

 

ONE OF THE THINGS YOU MENTIONED AT YOUR BOOK SIGNING WAS HOW THE WHOLE 30 GETS WOMEN OUT OF THE MIRROR AND OFF OF THE SCALE. HOW WOULD YOU SAY YOUR OWN BODY IMAGE HAS CHANGED SINCE GOING DOWN THIS PATH?

I had been using food so much as a tool for my body composition (either a reward, punishment or comfort), and just not having access to those foods to use in that way forced me to take a look at that and say, "ok I’m really lonely tonight, what am I going to do instead", or "I’m feeling really uncomfortable about my body weight, where is this leading me tonight". So between that and focusing on strength training, and just focusing on getting stronger, I was able to see food and my body in a different light. There would be days that would go by where I realized I hadn’t scrutinized myself in the mirror at all, and that had never happened before. 

I think part of this also came with the realization that I don’t have to be perfect and I’m not supposed to be perfect.  There used to be a time (this is true), that I used to say "there’s no such thing as too skinny" -honestly- before I started Crossfit, before Whole30. But now for me it’s more important to look healthy than to look any other way, and healthy for me looks 5 or 10 pounds more than what I used to carry. I think pregnancy helped change that too- you gain weight, you’re curvy, everything's bigger, you feel voluptuous, and it changed my perspective enough that I was able to get out of the majority of the body dysmorphia that I had.  And I’m still not totally there- I still have my moments. But when I get into that place now I’m able to get out of it so much faster. 

ON THAT TOPIC, A LOT OF PREGNANT WOMEN STRUGGLE WITH STICKING TO A PALEO TEMPLATE SIMPLY BECAUSE CRAVINGS AND AVERSIONS START TO TAKE OVER. HOW DO YOU SUGGEST WOMEN HANDLE THIS CHALLENGING TIME?

I highly recommend doing a Whole30 before you get pregnant, so that you can identify the way foods impact you. So when you’re pregnant and having cravings or aversions and you’re having a hard time sticking to a rigid paleo template, you know which of the grains or which of the "off-plan" foods you can eat that aren't going to mess you up in a really major way. 

I also like to tell people when it comes to cravings or aversions, shop from your pantry. I used to bring the whole damn grocery store home when I was pregnant- every single thing that I could possibly, maybe want to eat, and every time I’d want to eat I’d go through it all and think "do I want this, or maybe this"... Having a huge variety of really compliant choices would make me oftentimes gravitate towards some things that I wouldn’t have thought I wanted, but because they were there, I could eat them, and they were all healthy and clean. 

Constantly reevaluate whether you can or can’t eat a certain food. For me I couldn't eat eggs at 8am, but by 11am, eggs sounded really good. You’re probably going to have to toss meal planning out the window since often you don’t know what you’re going to want until 5 minutes before you’re eating. 

And if it’s really a struggle, I just say go back to the foods you know are going to do the least damage- see if you can satisfy that craving with a more compliant version of that food. If you’re craving something super starchy and sweet, instead of a pastry, would maybe a sweet potato drenched in ghee with a little brown sugar and cinnamon do the trick? Get creative. Don’t use this as an excuse to eat all the things, just because you’re pregnant. 

FROM EXPERIENCE, I KNOW THAT PROTEIN AND MEAT IN PARTICULAR WAS HARD TO EAT DURING PREGNANCY. ANY TIPS FOR HOW TO KEEP UP YOUR PROTEIN INTAKE WHILE PREGNANT?

When you’re pregnant, your body has a more difficult time getting rid of ammonia (a byproduct of amino acid breakdown), and higher levels of ammonia in your blood and body can be dangerous, so it kind of makes sense that women get an aversion. I think there’s enough evidence to suggest that a super high protein diet isn’t really good for mom or for baby, at least in that first trimester.

But the other piece of it is this: If you’ve been eating a really healthy, high quality diet, if you don’t eat that much protein for a month or two, it’s no big deal. Your body has plenty of vitamin B12 stores and your iron isn’t going to tank in a matter of a month or two, so try to look at this from more of a big picture perspective versus day to day. If you go through your day and can’t get any protein in whatsoever, no problem- your body has a tremendous capacity  to buffer, balance and store. 

And remember to explore your options and think outside the box! I ate so much canned salmon when I was pregnant- something I never really ate that much of before. Think, could you have sardines right now, do I want salumi, maybe some chicken salad, and eventually something will probably sound good. 

WHEN YOU'RE TRYING TO CHANGE YOUR EATING HABITS AND THAT DOUGHNUT OR COOKIE IS STARING YOU IN THE FACE AND YOU'RE DECIDING WHETHER OR NOT TO GIVE IN, WHAT IS YOUR THOUGHT PROCESS LIKE AND HOW DO YOU HANDLE THAT?

The first thing you have to identify is do you actually really want to eat it. The brain does some really funky things when presented with an opportunity to get reward: Dopamine spikes and you get really excited and the anticipation takes over, and it’s like an adrenaline response- fight or flight- am I doing this or not. So I always encourage people to pause, and just take a moment, take some deep breaths to go against that fight or flight stress response, and take that minute to think about what’s going on with this doughnut. 

Ask yourself a couple questions: Do I really want to eat this? Is it really going to be worth it? Is this a stale doughnut that’s been sitting out for 4 hours since the marketing meeting, or are you in Portland and planned a visit to the famed VooDoo Doughnuts? There’s a difference. Is it going to mess me up? Will the consequences of eating this be so negative that I will regret this choice? 

If you get through all of these questions and you still want the doughnut, then eat the doughnut! That way it’s a conscious deliberate decision, and not a reaction to this reward sitting in front of you. 

And if you decide it’s not worth it, the best thing you can do is distract yourself; physically remove yourself from the temptation, call a friend, take a walk, whatever you need to do until that craving breaks it’s hold. 

 

WE KNOW YOU RECENTLY CELEBRATED A BIRTHDAY OF 15 YEARS CLEAN. IT'S RELATIVELY EASY TO SAY OK, I'M NOT DOING DRUGS OR DRINKING ANYMORE, BUT FOOD ISSUES ARE UNIQUE IN THE SENSE THAT YOU ALWAYS HAVE TO EAT- YOU CAN'T JUST STOP. A FAIR AMOUNT OF PEOPLE WHO STRUGGLE WITH FOOD ISSUES ARE ALSO RECOVERING ADDICTS OR ALCOHOLICS. IS THERE ADVICE YOU WOULD GIVE THEM WHERE THEY CAN DRAW ON THE SKILLS USED TO GET SOBER AND CLEAN TO HELP WITH THEIR FOOD ISSUES?

I think I’ve taken a lot from that experience and pulled it into the support we offer on Whole30, perhaps subconsciously. The advice we give people who are recovering from drugs or alcohol is the same advice I would give to people who are really struggling with food, and sugar in particular: You have to change your environment.

When I got clean, I literally threw away tee shirts and hats that reminded me of using, and I couldn’t listen to some music anymore… If you have these powerful associations, you’ve got to cut your ties. We talk about creating space or distance; I tried to create as much of a buffer between me and the drugs as I could, so I dropped all my friends who I knew would give it to me if I asked, I told my whole circle, "If I ever ask you and try to convince you that I’m ok now, you cannot pay attention, and you need to call my mom". So you create a buffer to make distance, and then you rely on support from other people on a regular basis. 

It’s the same thing with food. You can’t stop eating, and that’s what makes it so much harder. You have to learn to create a healthy relationship with the thing that you feel addicted to, which is really challenging. But you can still create the space and make your environment really safe; get  the tempting stuff out of your house (we’ve got a section in the new book that addresses when you’re the only one in a household doing the Whole30 and you can’t rid the cabinets of all temptations). Talk to your friends and family- communication is so key with this. The more personal you can make this communication, the more effectively you’ll be able to enroll people in this change. Explaining to people why you’re doing what you’re doing, the impact that these negative associations with food are having on your life, or with your relationship with that person, can all help to recruit them to help you. 

And then leaning on that support is key. I don’t think anybody coming from a place of sugar addiction or an eating disorder should do the Whole30 without the support of a trained counselor. It’s not just about the food, it’s about why you’re doing what you’re doing. Sugar is a totally real addiction that’s socially acceptable, that often comes with peer pressure too. Relying on that support and adding in tradition psychotherapy or group counseling or meetings or whatever you can do to get that in-person support (a very powerful stress mediator), can be helpful.

And you might not be able to do the Whole30 all in. The rules are not for everyone and they can actually be very triggering. If you need to modify the program for your particular context, do it. 

 

YOU MENTIONED THAT YOU USED TO DO CROSSFIT. WHAT IS YOUR FITNESS ROUTINE LIKE THESE DAYS?

I get into the gym or move outside about 5 days a week, and I do whatever I feel like doing. Right now (because of the book, travel, family, etc), I can’t afford to stress my body with high intensity exercise, and I don’t have the consistency in a gym to have serious performance goals. So my goal right now is to just get in there and move and maintain muscle mass. So I’m doing a lot of kettlebell stuff, some body building stuff, some heavy lifting, walking a lot, hiking occasionally, sometimes some HIIT on the erg, or just throw a bunch of weight on a sled and push it around the gym. Mostly slow and heavy stuff to keep muscle mass and not so much cardio.

I don’t do any work until I’ve gone to the gym- I always start my day with that so that it sets the tone for the rest of the day. My goals in the gym right now are to get back to 5 or 10 dead hang pull ups (since I had my appendix out in January), and I’d love a 1.5 body weight deadlift, but really right now it’s more just about moving and enjoying how good it makes me feel to be active.

 

WE CAN TELL BY FOLLOWING YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA THAT WOMEN LOVE YOUR HAIR AND CLOSET! IS THERE ANYTHING YOU'D LIKE TO ADD ON THE TOPIC OF BEAUTY OR FASHION?

No, actually there isn’t! It’s so funny, people are always asking for a hair tutorial or something and I just think, "No, I don’t do that!". I just can’t be all things to all people. I’m not a makeup expert or that info fashion.. It’s like "I just wrote this really long and intimate post, and you just want to ask me about my hair?". You’re never going to see me on Like To Know It- it’s just not my thing. 

 

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE TOTALLY NOT PALEO TREAT YOU HAVE TO HAVE EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE?

If it’s April, it’s a Cadburry Creme Egg. It is the least food-like product in the world. It could literally not be less food. But for me, my mom always put one in my easter basket and I always saved it for last, I always got to eat the whole thing (instead of cutting it in half like I had to do with most treats). So I eat it every year, I love it, I savor it, and I move on. 

 

YOU'VE BEEN RUNNING THE WHOLE9 AND WHOLE30 PROGRAMS FOR A FEW YEARS NOW, AND AN ENORMOUS COMMUNITY HAS BEEN CREATED AROUND THEM. YOU'VE HEARD HUNDREDS, IF NOT THOUSANDS, OF SUCCESS STORIES OF PEOPLE CHANGING THEIR LIFE. WHAT IS THE MOST SATISFYING, MOVING OR IMPACTFUL THING YOU HEAR?

I think it’s the people who say that for the first time in their life they are in control of the food that they eat. They are almost always in tears (which always puts me in tears), because I know just how incredibly freeing that is. If you feel like you’ve been a slave or out of control, you feel weak and like you have no willpower (which is not the case), but when you finally get a handle on that,  that’s what I love to hear the most. It comes from men, from women, from 70 year old grandmothers, from teens, everyone. Hearing that people feel like they finally have a good relationship with food is what means the most to me. 

There are also amazing medical testimonials- just absolute miracles- and those are always great to hear about too. From a big picture perspective, finally developing a healthy emotional relationship with food, your body, and the scale is really really powerful, and it translates into every other area of your life. It’s the keystone to it all. The confidence that comes along with that just naturally carries over to so many different areas in life. 

 

WHAT'S NEXT FOR THE WHOLE30? WHERE DO YOU SEE THE PROGRAM IN THE FUTURE?

I think we are really going to expand our resources for the “life after your Whole30”- that’s where we have to go next. This book really outlines everything about how to do the program, and though I’ve written pretty extensively about what to do when you’re done (my Dear Melissa series, for example), but I really want to provide people with more information  about how to turn this into a healthy lifestyle. 

There needs to be more information about talking to friends and family about the way that you’re eating, because when you don’t have the “rules” of the Whole30 to fall back on, you have to learn how to do this in your real life and explain to people, "No, I’m not on the Whole30 anymore but I’m still not eating bread". That was actually my presentation at Paleo FX this year- Food, Friends, and Family, and how to have these conversations with people in your life, since food can be very divisive for people. 

We’d like to get more boots on the ground for in-person support and local communities (instead of just online-based), and we’d like to put together a pregnancy resource as well, to offer tips and ideas for nutrition and exercise, and also things like finding a pediatrician, or choosing your childbirth style, and so on.

But mostly we are trying to continue stay true to our roots and very connected to the community. We never want to get so big that we lose touch with our community, and in fact we have been tuning down some pretty big companies who want to partner or promote us, since we don’t want the Whole30 to become a product promotion machine. We want to make it clear that our integrity is more important than this appearance of success by partnering with big names. We will continue to keep advertising off our website, write all our own articles (no ghost writers), and stay active on social media. Yes, we are running a business, but we need to hold onto our roots.

DO YOU HAVE ANY WORDS OF ADVICE FOR WOMEN WHO ARE ON THE JOURNEY OF SELF ACCEPTANCE AND SELF BETTERMENT?

You know it’s funny, so many people say you have to learn to love yourself, and I don’t think we really know what that means. I think it’s been such a long time since we’ve been kind to ourselves, that while that sounds nice to do, in practice it’s really really difficult. A good rule of thumb is never say anything to yourself that you wouldn't say to someone else. If you think about the way we speak to ourselves and the names we call ourselves, how hard we are on ourselves, it's like, you wouldn't say that to a stranger on the street, so why are you treating yourself like that? 

So many women identify with their eating habits, their exercise habits, their motherhood status, and so on. They become "I am the healthy eater", or "I am the exerciser", or "I’m the kick-ass employee at work", and when you do that, your entire self esteem is riding on something that is entirely out of your control. What happens when you get sick or lose your job or your kid does something stupid and gets in trouble?  I like to try to help women identify the fact that you can’t use these outside factors as a proxy for your self esteem. If you weren’t an athlete or a mother or a healthy eater, who would you be? Are you kind, are you generous, are you loyal, are you dependable, are you fun? Those are all intrinsic things that no one can take away from you. If you can get clear on where you come from in that perspective, then your self esteem comes from you. Get in touch with the things that you value within yourself that no one can take away from you.


FIND MELISSA ON INSTAGRAM AND BLOGGING OVER AT WHOLE 30 AND BE SURE TO PICK UP A COPY OF HER NEW BOOK, THE WHOLE30, IF YOU HAVEN'T ALREADY!

All photographs copyright Taylor Gage Photography. Hair and makeup by Off White Beauty.


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