The Whole Package
How Whole30 Co-Founder Melissa Hartwig-Urban Went From Doing Drugs to Designing Diets
Four-time bestselling author, wellness coach, sports nutritionist, brand innovator, and mother, Melissa Hartwig Urban co-created one of today’s most-followed, trendsetting, cult-status diets that simplistically helps people meet their health, fitness, and weight loss goals. But, her own road to living a healthy, fulfilling lifestyle didn’t start out so smooth.
She’s a certified sports nutritionist who specializes in helping people change their unhealthy obsession with food and fad, on-the-fly diets while creating long-term, sustainable, healthy habits that lead to a purposeful-driven life. But, Hartwig had a rough start on the road to health and happiness. Her fresh-faced, fit exterior and go-getting personality are synonymous with her cult diet Whole30. But, the 44-year-old New Hampshire native endured a painful past of sexual abuse and debilitating drug addiction despite having had a “very vanilla” upbringing. With a stay-at-home mother and a doting dad who tirelessly toiled at two jobs, Hartwig’s childhood epitomized the classic all American household. With good grades, a strong family support system, tight-knit circle of friends, and participation in school sports, her young life seemingly resembled that of any red-blooded American gal. Until she was cruelly molested by a family member she trusted when she was only sixteen.
To cope with her tainted reality and the excruciating feelings of emptiness, pain, isolation, despondency, and worthlessness, the once put-together teen suddenly began to spiral into a dark abyss of drugs, alcohol, loneliness, and depression. “I was just so empty and so sad…I felt like I didn’t have anything good to offer. I felt something was wrong with me. I felt broken,” Hartwig vividly recalls. So, at 18, she began experimenting with drugs for the first time. And, that numbing feeling that gave her the distance and respite she so ached for was instantly gratifying, elating, and addictive. “It was so easy…It became my object of desire to try as many different drugs as I possibly could.” And, she did. When heroin, cocaine, pills, and psychedelics stopped “cutting” it, she turned to cutting herself to reach the next “high.”
With friends incarcerated and others who regrettably overdosed and died, Hartwig came to the startling realization that she needed to clean up her act – fast. She completed two agonizing stints in rehab and underwent years of psychotherapy to deal with the sexual abuse she had been suppressing for so many years. In the years that followed, Hartwig began working as an administrative assistant for an insurance company, while doing fitness and nutrition consulting on the side. Eventually, she earned her degree and became a certified sports nutritionist. She was on her way to healing and thriving again.
It wasn’t until after a crushing CrossFit sesh with her then-husband Dallas Hartwig in 2009 that she started to see some light at the end of the tumultuous tunnel. While the pair was shamelessly scarfing down a sleeve of Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies following their body-busting workout, Dallas had blatantly proposed the young couple to clean-up their diet with a self-imposed 30-day challenge. And, Whole30 was born.
During the couple’s 30-day clean-up challenge, Hartwig experienced the most restful, restorative sleep, clear, glowing skin, energized days, increased productivity, and uplifting moods – all while completely removing added sugars, dairy, and grains from her diet. The official Whole30 program comprises a 30-day, complete cleanse of added sugars, dairy, and grains. After thirty days, you introduce those forbidden foods back into your diet one day at a time so see what works for you and what doesn’t. It is that simple and Hartwig couldn’t wait to get the word out to so many who mercilessly struggle with unhealthy food addictions, yo-yo dieting, and poor body image. Though Dallas and Melissa split in 2015, she found love again in partner Brandon Talbot and is living her best life yet. “I never could’ve predicted it would turn out this way…But, I definitely feel like the addiction was setting me up for this path.”
In April 2015, the pavement-pounding pair published The Whole30 – a New York Times Bestseller on how to healthfully eliminate dangerous sugar, dairy, and grains from the diet for 30 days, while largely focusing on consuming lean meats, fatty fish, fresh veggies, and heart-healthy fats like nuts and avocados. Since its publication, the instant-bestseller has sold over one million copies and boasts over 3.5 million Instagram posts with the #whole30 hashtag. The easy-to-follow, cleansing diet craze has garnered over 600,000 Facebook followers. Of course, the highly influential program isn’t without its critics, as some dieticians disapprove of the program’s restrictive qualities. The program has been likened to the popular “caveman” Paleo diet, as it takes a bite out of potentially harmful added sugars and refined carbs.
Rehab to Riches
While halfheartedly clocking in at her 9-to-5 steady gig, Hartwig was feverishly putting in an additional 30 hours a week writing blogs and posts and answering emails for Whole30. She also took the time to travel to different cities around the country doing motivational speaking engagements to help get the Whole30 message out. In 2010, Hartwig was finally able to ditch her 9-to-5 to dedicate all her time, unlimited energy and resources to Whole30. Like her past rabid drug addiction, she was inexorably addicted to all things health, happiness, and exuberance. Hartwig would spend the next three months on the road speaking at gyms and CrossFit competitions with her co founder to build the fast-growing, burgeoning brand. With an already established social media presence, it was all about spreading the message in real life.
At the helm of Whole30, Hartwig has managed to keep all her money in Whole30, investing in digital media, content creation, website design, continued social media growth and creating resources to help retain the program’s followership and evolving needs. “I had a savings account that we used to keep us afloat for the first few months, but from year one, we were blessedly profitable,” says Hartwig. Instead of following traditional business models of profit growth via formulaic conversions and advertising collateral, Hartwig grew Whole30 by employing a rather unorthodox trajectory. She keeps her staff small by only employing seven people and relies on sophisticated marketing strategies that are innovative, simplistic, purposeful, and powerful. Hartwig and her team constantly read testimonials, comments, and posts from followers of the program and design updates and launches according to the needs of their devotees. Dedication to audience engagement and how best to serve the Whole30 community is the cornerstone of the brand’s extraordinary success. “In today’s social media-driven, short-attention span world, where everyone is your competition, that’s an outdated path to success and longevity,” declares Hartwig of the antiquated business models of yesteryear.
Whole30’s rising popularity has led to unconventional, lucrative business opportunities, including several brand partnerships, trademark licensing to meal delivery service Blue Apron and Whole Foods Market, and affiliate programs with up-and-coming health food mecca Thrive Market. Whole 30’s impressive growth as afforded Hartwig and her five-year-old son financial freedom. “My son and I are financially secure and I’ve been able to help my family with some projects, which makes me very happy.”
And, that’s the whole story.