I Tried the Brand New Plant-Based Whole30 — Here’s What I Discovered
When I was first given the opportunity to do the new Plant-Based Whole30 as part of a beta test group, I was excited for the challenge and seriously ready for a change in diet. Over the holidays, I’d been eating with all the mindfulness of a rat rooting around in a Coney Island dumpster, so I was ready to spend a month focusing on fresh fruits and vegetables. I was also feeling fairly cocky about my ability to stick to a plant-based diet because I was vegan for a couple years in my early 20s, and still regularly use vegan cooking staples like nutritional yeast and tempeh. Of course, just like the Original Whole30, the Plant-Based Whole30 isn’t just a vegan program — it’s also an elimination diet. This means:
No added sugar.
For a month.
Which means this program also requires that you go quinoa-, oat-, and maple syrup-free — which makes this a challenge within a challenge, in my opinion: A matryoshka doll of diet challenges. I wanted to reset my relationship with food, however, so this was a great way to be mindful about it. Plus, I had the good fortune to check in with Whole30 co-founder herself, Melissa Urban, a couple of times and she had some great tips for making this experience way more sustainable (including a seriously solid product recommendation, shared below). Here’s what I discovered on the Plant-Based Whole30. Hopefully my experience will help you determine if the Plant-Based Whole30 is a good fit for you, too.
I (weirdly) didn’t really miss alcohol
I definitely thought the “no booze for 30 days” rule would be the hardest part. I don’t tend to drink a lot, but I do drink very regularly: If I’m cooking a big dinner, I’ll almost certainly have a glass of wine while cooking, then a glass with the meal. If I’m out with friends, I’ll usually have a couple of cocktails — you get the idea. But drinking turned out to be the easiest habit to break. There was one evening when I made a really great, spicy curry that would have been fantastic with a beer, and I felt a genuine craving for it. But otherwise, hitting the pause button on booze was super easy, and definitely helped me reset my relationship with alcohol.
After meals, I felt satisfied but not lethargic
You know that sluggish, too-full feeling you get after wolfing down a big, heavy meal? I didn’t experience that once during the Plant-Based Whole30. And that’s not to say I didn’t eat well or as much as I wanted to — I never felt hungry after a meal. But after eating a dinner like roasted stuffed butternut squash, shawarma cauliflower steak, or smoky tempeh quiche, I always felt fantastic.
I started off with brain fog and lower energy…
I’m going to be real with you: I lost IQ points during the first week of the program. At work, I would stare at my laptop screen with the reading comprehension skills of a gazelle. On my way to the gym, I accidentally left my keys on the kitchen counter. Twice. I lost my cell phone repeatedly, which is not like me… basically, my brain was just not working right. As it turns out, that was my fault, not the fault of the Whole30: Despite my best efforts, I wasn’t getting nearly enough protein to support myself.
…and then I discovered pea protein
This was a game-changer. I started putting two scoops of pea protein into my post-workout smoothie, and all of a sudden, my brain was back. I’d been pretty careful to include protein in every meal (tofu for breakfast, chickpeas for lunch, nuts for snacks, etc.), but it just wasn’t enough — and before I get a bunch of DMs informing me that I don’t actually need that much protein, allow me to explain: I keep to a weightlifting routine and really do need to hit a certain amount of protein per day, lest my muscles start eating themselves.
So pea protein was a godsend. I started off with the organic pea protein from Trader Joe’s, but to be honest, it was kind of clumpy and didn’t taste great. Then I switched to this other version, and it was much better. Then Whole30 founder Melissa Urban recommended this pea protein, which is so great that I’m sticking to it after the Whole30 is up because I like it so much.
My skin purged (then started glowing)
I got the biggest, most painful pimple of my life in the middle of my forehead. It took countless acne patches and four full days to make that thing go away, but when it did, my skin looked fantastic. Was this due to the lack of drying alcohol in my system? An uptick in fruit and vegetable consumption? Unclear, but exceptionally healthy skin was definitely a side effect of this diet for me.
I found some amazing new recipes
I already eat a pretty healthy, plant-forward diet, so I was not expecting to discover so many incredible new recipes, but I absolutely did. I wrote about a bunch of my favorite recipes from this past month, but I also want to note that roasted sunchokes were a major MVP — who knew? You can just cut them up and roast them on a baking sheet with olive oil, salt, and pepper until they’re easily pierced with a fork. They taste kind of like a cross between artichokes and French fries, and I love them.
Some products made the journey much tastier and healthier
I want to give a shoutout to a handful of my very favorite products I discovered during this month of plant-based, grain-free, sugar-free eating.
Their simmer sauces are phenomenal, and Masala Mama has three new ones debuting shortly (Cashew Tikka, Boom Boom Curry, and Almond Korma — I’ve gotten a sneak preview, and yes, they’re all excellent). Basically, this is how you use simmer sauces: Throw whatever vegetables and proteins you want onto a saucepan, then simmer them up in the sauce, and voila, there you have it, a really tasty dinner made with basically zero effort. I’d often heat up a can of rinsed chickpeas, mushrooms, carrots, and green beans in the Coconut Curry sauce, then serve over cauliflower rice. Delicious, healthy, filling, fast: everything you want in a weeknight dinner.
Before I discovered Artisana, I thought that all nut butters that contained just nuts and salt were pretty much interchangeable. Oh, how wrong I was. Artisana makes the best nut butters I’ve ever tried, hands-down. They’re just extra creamy and richly flavored. My favorites were the almond butter, pecan butter, and hemp and brazil nut butter blend.
Kite Hill makes a lot of great, vegan products, but in my opinion, the cream cheese is the MVP. Unlike a lot of other vegan cream cheeses I’ve tried, it has that yogurt-adjacent tang, rather than just a mimic of creaminess. I love it in a sweet potato with some spiced nut clusters as a snack.
How have I never used coconut aminos before now? I’ve used a lot of shoyu and tamari over the years, but somehow never had the opportunity to try coconut aminos. I love the flavor. And paired with garlic and onion, it makes me less mad at cauliflower rice for not being rice.
I kept Daily Harvest on hand for those days when I just didn’t have it in me to cook. This ended up being great for two reasons: Daily Harvest is both healthier and less expensive than delivery. My go-to dishes are the brussels sprouts and tahini harvest bowl, gigante bean and artichoke olio bake, and the kale and sweet potato flatbread. Love.
I started waking up with more energy
With the Whole30, you’re supposed to pay attention to and celebrate “non-scale victories,” which is a mentality that I think we could all stand to shift into. One of my favorite non-scale victories: I started to wake up earlier, and felt way more energetic when I did. I’ve always been a morning person, but now I’m a morning person who’s actually really productive, not just awake.
Dining out was basically impossible…
I emailed with half a dozen different vegan restaurants, and because the Plant-Based Whole30 is so very strict, they all offered me the same options a steak house would (“Uhh, I guess we could grill you some vegetables?”). So if you’re used to eating a lot of take-out or dining out a lot, you’ll need to accept that this won’t be an option for a thirty-day period — which turns out to have its own benefits.
…but I learned new ways to socialize
Did you know that you can spend time with your friends and family without snacks or drinks? The thought had honestly never even occurred to me. But during this month, I met up with friends to visit museums, go for walks, check out some comedy shows, and see a few bands perform. I would have loved to stay for an oyster happy hour, of course, but it turns out, I could enjoy myself just fine without it.
All in all, the Plant-Based Whole30 was a great reset — and while I’m looking forward to carefully reintegrating some foods back into my life (steak, tuna, and scallops come to mind), there’s one ingredient I’m not planning on reintegrating anytime soon: added sugar. I’ve found that I’m really happy not having sugar highs and crashes, and because I’ve gone so long without sweets, my sugar cravings have completely vanished, which feels fantastic.
Jess Novak is the Head of Content and Audience Development for Clean Plates. She’s obsessed with making meals that taste like they’re not healthy but secretly really are. You can follow her on Instagram @jtothenovak.
Good food brings people together. So do good emails.