The first time I did Whole30, I was overwhelmed by the amount of animal protein I was consuming. Eggs for breakfast, salmon for lunch, chicken for dinner… Though I’m not a vegetarian and the protein was high quality—Whole30 guidelines recommend eating grass-fed, organic, and pastured meat—I wasn’t used to eating that much of it. And I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. As a former vegan who eats a mostly pescatarian diet, it seemed like too much of a departure from my regular eating habits.
Food preferences aside, I stuck to the rules. And 30 days later, I have to admit, I felt great. But despite the positive changes—I had more energy, wasn’t craving sweets, and felt slimmer—I quickly went back to eating less meat and more vegetarian proteins like quinoa and hummus, which are both eliminated during Whole30.
After a recent trip to France for two back-to-back weddings—think free wine galore, daily baguettes, and hefty portions of butter and cheese—the prospect of Whole30 was tempting. But I didn’t want all that meat. It got me thinking: Is it possible to do Whole30 as a vegetarian?
Back Up: What Is Whole30?
For those unfamiliar with Whole30, it’s a popular clean-eating plan designed to reset your health by eliminating foods like sugar, dairy, gluten, soy, legumes, and alcohol for 30 days. Though there are many rules that are quite specific—cheating is not allowed!—the easiest way to remember is that the focus is on eating *whole* foods for 30 days, hence the name Whole30.
While a life without cheese may not feel like one worth living, the list of things you can eat during Whole30 is long. And the recipes are incredibly delicious. We’re talking meat, poultry, fish, veggies, fruit, and fats. (Oh, and black coffee too.) For those already partial to a Paleo diet, it can feel like a breeze. For those who aren’t so meat inclined, that’s where it can get tricky.
But before we dive into that, why do people even do it? It’s likely you’ve gone on vacation and indulged a bit too much. (Or is that just me… ?) Or you’ve hopped from one holiday party to the next and suddenly found yourself feeling sluggish. Or you’re simply looking to kick-start new, healthy habits. People often turn to Whole30 for a quick reboot—not to mention possible benefits like weight loss, improved digestion, surging energy levels, clearer skin, and more. Tempting, right?
Can Vegetarians Do Whole30?
When I started masterminding how to do Whole30 as a vegetarian, I quickly lost hope. If I wanted to stay away from meat and fish completely, eggs would be my primary source of protein. And as much as I love eggs, eating them every day—and at every meal—felt far too limiting.
And nutritionists agree.
“While the Whole30 program can be done as a vegetarian, it is rather difficult due to the exclusion of beans, grains, and soy-based proteins, which are staples in the vegetarian diet,” says Stacie Hassing, RDN, LD, of The Real Food Dietitians.
Some even go so far as to say doing Whole30 as a strict vegetarian—meaning your diet is limited to eggs, fats, fruits, and veggies for 30 days—simply isn’t healthy.
“I do not agree with the concept of taking out so many foods from an eating plan,” says Toby Amidor, MS, RD, author of Smart Meal Prep for Beginners. “This is a red flag and can result in a lack of nutrients because you aren’t eating the foods you need to keep your body healthy.”
Considering seitan, tofu, tempeh, edamame, lentils, chickpeas, and quinoa are some of the best plant-based protein sources for vegetarians, which are all off-limits during Whole30, it’s easy to see why not all nutritionists are jumping for joy at the prospect of such a limited eating plan.
“When you remove processed foods, grains, sugars, and dairy products, you’re potentially removing a significant portion of calories from the diet that need to be replaced with other foods,” says Jessica Beacom, RDN, also of The Real Food Dietitians.
So, yes, it is possible to do Whole30 as a vegetarian by seriously upping your fat intake—think avocados, nuts, coconut, and other oils. But is it healthy? That’s up for debate.
What’s a vegetarian-inclined, Whole30-intrigued eater to do?
Animal-Style: A Slightly Modified Eating Plan
According to the Whole30 website, if you’re vegetarian and truly want to give the eating plan a go, the best way is to reintroduce fish to your diet (and other lean proteins, if you’re up for it).
But is it safe to reintroduce a food your body isn’t used to?
“Adding quality sourced animal protein is safe if that’s what the individual feels is best for their personal health,” Hassing says.
But Beacom cautions, “Consider working with your healthcare provider or dietitian/nutritionist, who can help guide your choices and recommend certain supplements like digestive enzymes to help make the transition easier.”
In fact, when it comes to any drastic change in diet, or even if you consider taking a new supplement, it’s always important to consult medical professionals before taking the plunge. Every body is different, and it’s safest to trust science and the professionals who rely on it.
That said, if you’re all for experimenting with new animal proteins and have the go-ahead from your doctor or nutritionist to do so, there are some helpful ways to reintroduce them without too much body backlash.
“If a vegan or vegetarian does choose to introduce animal proteins in their diet, they should do so at their own pace,” Amidor says. “Start with a small amount and slowly increase portions.”
In the case of Whole30, it may actually be best to start the reintroduction process before you begin Whole30 so your body is ready for regular consumption before you up your intake.
The animal protein you choose and how it’s prepared may also matter.
“Some people like to ease into things by starting with fish, shellfish, or pre-cooked poultry that just needs to be reheated (think: rotisserie chicken),” Beacom says. “Others find that ‘hiding’ meat in dishes like stir-fry, casseroles, soups, or stews is the way to go.”
As with any eating plan, listen to your body. Only you know what feels (and tastes) right and what doesn’t.
Animal-Free: Can Vegetarians Break the Rules?
It’s a-OK if fish and meat aren’t for you. But that also means that Whole30 may not be a viable eating plan. The eating plan is exception-free, meaning that if you choose to stick to some of the rules but not all of them, then it’s simply not Whole30.
“If an individual, whether someone is vegetarian or not, does not have the desire to exclude grains and beans for the 30 days, then Whole30 may not before them,” Hassing says. “And that’s OK! It’s not for everyone, and if someone feels great eating grains and beans and they want to continue, then they should.”
That said, Whole30 has developed vegetarian and vegan eating plans that stay true to some of the core ideologies behind the 30-day eating plan. But the Whole30 website is quick to note that if you’re cutting out animal protein, it’s technically not Whole30.
While Whole30 may work wonders for some, it’s certainly not for everyone. So don’t feel like you have to try it if it doesn’t fit with your lifestyle and dietary preferences.
There are plenty of ways to implement healthier eating habits—whether you’re vegan, vegetarian, Paleo, gluten-free, etc.—and there are plenty of medical professionals who’d be more than happy to help you craft a 30-day plan that can become your own version of Whole30.
But if Whole30 is what you’re aiming for, play by the rules and embrace that animal protein. After all, it’s just 30 days.