Book Review: It Starts with Food

It Starts with Food
By Dallas & Melissa Hartwig
(Victory Belt Publishing, 2012)
Reviewed by Holly R. Layer, RD


Dallas and Melissa Hartwig debuted their ‘Whole30’ program in 2009, after they themselves ‘changed their lives in 30 days’ after adopting a strict Paleo diet, “no cheats, no slips.” Each chapter begins with a different Wholer30er’s testimonial of how the program has done everything from improving skin to controlling blood sugar to incredible weight loss, and everything in between. The Hartwigs base their approach on four ‘good food’ standards: that food should promote a healthy psychological response, a healthy hormonal response, support a healthy gut, and support immune function and minimize inflammation. According to the book, the program is based on scientific research (references are in the back), clinical experience (the ‘tens of thousands’ Whole30ers) and self-experimentation (the reader’s own findings while doing the program).

 Synopsis of Diet Plan:

The Whole30 program is a Paleo eating pattern ‘on steroids.’ In addition to the usual Paleo no-no’s (grains, legumes, dairy), the Hartwigs also prohibit soy, alcohol, seed oils, artificial and added sugars, nor can you recreate ‘junk food’ with allowed ingredients. Weighing yourself is also not allowed, as the Hartwigs insist that the program is not for weight loss, but for becoming healthier and weighing oneself may cause participants to become discouraged if the result is not as they expected. Participants CAN eat meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruit and natural fats; a recommended meal is made up of one to two ‘fistfuls’ of protein and a plateful of vegetables with a fat source, like avocado. Participants are expected to follow the rules even when eating at restaurants, which can be difficult.

The Hartwigs claim that much of our poor health is due to our food choices, especially that of sugar, which breaks all of their ‘good food’ standards by promoting overconsumption of certain foods, a hormonal imbalance, poor gut health and inflammation. Their program is an elimination diet of sorts, complete with a 10-day reintroduction period in order to assess your body’s response to the offending foods.

Nutritional Pros and Cons:

While the Whole30 program eliminates not one, but two food groups, there is a lot to like. First, it’s meant to be a short-term ‘reset’ to one’s diet by focusing on the most nutritious foods, despite the fact that the ‘diet’ itself is sustainable. Second, the program addresses readers’ addictions to problematic foods, even if those foods are ‘approved’ items. Third, the program promotes label reading and awareness of ingredients, a skill useful to anyone trying to eat healthily. Lastly, there are no complicated food lists of specific types of meats, fruits or vegetables. With very few exceptions all fruits, vegetables, meat and eggs are allowed, and there is no need to calorie-count. Recommended fat sources include coconut and olive oils, nuts, seeds and avocados. Unfortunately, the program’s ‘all or nothing’ approach and extreme restrictions may turn off many readers.

The Hartwigs’ main point is to get readers to eat only super-healthy food for 30 days; they see grains, dairy and legumes as ‘crowding out’ healthier options on your plate. They also promote the idea that gluten contributes to ‘leaky gut,’ and that legumes are poorly digested, leading to inappropriate immune responses, neither of which are supported by a preponderance of research. One of the reasons meat, seafood and eggs are recommended is that they are a complete protein (meaning they provide all the essential amino acids in the correct proportions), as well as being a good source of heme iron and B vitamins. Additionally, studies show that calcium from kale, greens, broccoli, bone broth, salmon, almonds, walnuts, oysters is better absorbed than calcium from milk.

 Bottom Line:

The Whole30 isn’t for appropriate for many readers due to its restrictive nature, but the structure/challenge may appeal to others looking for or willing to make drastic changes. Because we can get everything we need nutritionally from meat, eggs, vegetables and fruit, the diet is appropriate for either a short-term reset or a longer-term eating pattern. By addressing readers’ unhealthy relationships with food and teaching label reading, the program empowers participants in a way other ‘diets’ do not.   Additionally, the Whole30 program goes a step further by using online and social media resources to provide participants with support during a program. While it’s solidly in the ‘fad diet’ realm, participating in a Whole30 program once (or once a year) can help readers achieve long-term health and fitness goals and break bad food habits.

The book includes a 25-page Appendix of recipes, including ‘master’ recipes for each type of protein, as well as multiple variations for each.









Today was Day 1 of my first Whole30.

-no SUGAR (unless it’s in a fruit or vegetable)

-no grains

-no dairy

-no legumes

-no alcohol

*There are a few other things on the ‘no-no’ list, like MSG and sulfites, but suffice it to say it’s basically Paleo on steroids.  Super restrictive.  Probably the only way I’ll curb my sweet tooth.

*Note: As a dietitian, I’m always wary of any eating plan that removes entire food groups.  However, by eating a varied selection of fruits and vegetables, a person can get all the nutrients grains and dairy provide.  Additionally, grains and dairy are often over-consumed in high-calorie, nutrient-poor forms (think crackers and ice cream) by many people, which doesn’t lead to optimum body weight or health.  Therefore, removing those two food groups isn’t as ridiculous as it sounds.  Difficult, yes.  Impossible, no. Lastly, the Whole30 removes these food groups for specific reasons (explained in-depth in the book) and also REINTRODUCES them after 30 days so individuals can assess their impact for themselves. End note.*

I’m super excited, even though I know it’s going to be really difficult sometimes.  A few years ago, I skimmed through Melissa Hartwig’s book, It Starts With Food, and thought ‘hell no!’ and slammed the book shut.

However, a few weeks ago, after seeing it mentioned somewhere on social media, it was all I could think about.  It’s amazing how different seasons of life change our perspectives.

The truth is, I’ve known for awhile now that I’ve needed a change.  A reset.  A shock to my system.  It’s been four years since I’ve been happy with how I look (thanks, school, for negatively impacting my body through stress…NOT), and more recently, I’ve realized how badly I feel when I overeat/eat certain things.  While I eat a lot of healthy foods, I also have about zero willpower when it comes to sweets.

(The recent blog re-org and trip down memory lane while reading past posts reminded me how great I feel when I’m eating better, not to mention how great I looked a few years ago. Sigh.)

These last couple months have been a double-whammy for me in terms of my health and routine.  First, I’ve been experiencing pain in my lower back since January (recently diagnosed as a bulging disc by an MRI) and an inflamed nerve in my elbow, both of which sidelined me from my usual high-intensity workouts and weight-lifting sessions.  (The cause: all that heavy lifting and landscaping last summer.  Boo.) At the same time, I’ve been stressed and splurging on sugary treats even more since my gym time decreased.  Go figure.

All that to say, I’ve been slowly accepting that I need to take charge over my diet in order to feel better–physically and mentally.  On a sleepless night Easter weekend, I read up on the entire Whole30 plan by the light of my phone and committed right then and there that I would start soon.

The next morning I asked Andrew if he’d do the Whole30 with me (lucky for him, he loves meat, hates cheese and beans, doesn’t do a lot of dairy and doesn’t crave sweets) and he agreed.  I bought the books that night and pored over them all Easter weekend, hopefully not at the expense of spending quality time with family–sorry, grandma!

As I said before, I’m really excited, because I know in my heart it’s what I need to get back on track.  I really DO love being healthy and fit, so I need to stop letting sugar win and take back control of what I eat.  In essence, I need to practice what I preach!

For extra motivation, I’m re-reading the Made to Crave devotional, on which I relied heavily a few years ago on a weight-loss journey.

I won’t be blogging what I eat every day throughout this 30-day period (like I did with our Paleo Challenge last year), but I will post some photos on Instagram (username: hollyrlayer).  I will, however, be posting a book review of It Starts With Food (not to mention all the other ‘diet’ books I’ve read) and perhaps some topical posts based on the program, like how to get calcium without eating dairy.  (You can, and it’s easy!)