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From Calorie Counting to Food Freedom with Whole30 Certified Coach Melissa Tenholder

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After an incredible 100 pound weight loss and battle with cancer, Whole30 Certified Coach Melissa Tenholder transitioned from calorie counting to Food Freedom with Whole30, transforming her relationship with food along the way. She's talking sustainable weight loss, Food Freedom, and sharing easily adoptable strategies you can use yourself to live your own Food Freedom. Perspective is a huge part of renegotiating our relationship with food and Coach Melissa is telling us exactly how she did it and said goodbye to counting and embraced a new way to think about nutrition and fueling her body.

Hi Coach! Before we get into the nitty gritty, tell us about your background and what got you interested in Whole30. How did you make the the decision to become a Certified Whole30 Coach?

I have maintained a weight loss of over 100 pounds for nearly 10 years. I lost weight the "old school" way with counting calories and exercising regularly. After YEARS of logging my calories daily, exercising out of a calorie in/calorie out mindset, and judging my success by the number on the scale, I knew that it wasn't a sustainable plan for me. At the age of 33 I was diagnosed with breast cancer and went through months of exhausting treatment. I found the Whole30 and did ALL the research before I planned my first round. I still couldn't exercise because of my surgery recovery, but I could get back in the kitchen (where I LOVE to be!) and control my food choices. I fell in love with the Food Freedom aspect of the Whole30 - finding out what works for each person individually makes so much sense. I started telling my friends and family about the Whole30 and soon was volunteering to help anyone I could. I believe in the research and science of the program - and the people behind it - and want to help as many people as possible change their relationship with food. I became a Whole30 certified coach in June of 2018 and LOVE being a part of the amazing community of coaches.

 Model Meals Blog | Melissa Tenholder

Not every “diet” is right for everyone. You mentioned sustainability, but what ultimately helped you decide to try Whole30?

The Whole30 is so different from a diet in so many ways! There are no pills or shakes to buy. There’s no weighting nor counting involved. It’s intentionally NOT a Whole365 because the goal is not to have you eat this way for your entire life. The goal is to figure out what foods work individually for each person. The focus on uncovering your emotional ties to food and working through decades of bad habits really convinced me that the heartbeat of Whole30 is really about food freedom and not a short term diet. Reading the book Food Freedom Forever was a massive shift in my mindset and I can’t recommend it enough. Pro tip: it’s a great book to listen to on audio during your commute or while you walk the dog!

What was the most challenging thing about making that transition from a preoccupation with numbers to embracing the “freedom” aspect of Whole30?

I have to be honest - there are days when I still mentally calculate the calories in a meal or snack in my head without thinking. I’ve done 4 complete rounds of the Whole30 and each time I take a giant step towards my Food Freedom, but I’m not fully there yet. What really helps me is noticing (and not judging!) what old habits still remain after each Whole30.

Here’s an example of pre and post Whole30 thinking for me.

What I am doing: reaching for chocolate chips (or another sweet!) immediately after dinner every night while cleaning the kitchen.

Pre Whole30: How many calories do I have left for the day? Can I “afford” those chocolate chips? If I can, I weigh out exactly the portion size. I log them, eat them quickly, and definitely want more. I try to adjust my log and see if my exercise calories are really entered correctly. Maybe if I go for a walk around the block I can earn a few more chips? Or, I don’t eat them and I go to bed with a calorie deficit and I feel very proud of myself for resisting.

Post Whole30: Hmm...I seem to have a handful of chocolate chips in my hand. I didn’t have them for a month during my Whole30 and I was ok. Is this a mindful choice? Am I not satisfied from the meal I ate 8 minutes ago? Can I stop after a few or will I keep reaching for more? Do I need something sweet? Would a cup of tea or decaf coffee satisfy the same desire to end my meal? If I really want the chocolate, I have a high quality piece of dark chocolate and savor it. If I determine I’m just eating them out of habit, I make myself tea instead.

Did Whole30 help change the way you thought about calories and fueling your body?

Oh absolutely, yes! My goal now is not just to lose or maintain weight. My goal is WAY bigger than that. I want to have sustained energy, to be able to feel and look my best while knowing I’m not depriving myself, and to feel good in my clothes. My success at the end of the day isn’t measured in my calorie deficit. Food is fuel for me to stay active, think clearly, and to function at a high level in my daily life. Food is not something I need to restrict out of fear.

Can you tell us how your overall relationship with food changed as a result of Whole30? Was that the only relationship that changed?

I no longer fear food! No food is really good or bad, but now I know that some things just don’t work well for me. There are no off limits foods to me - I just have to consider the “cost” in a much different way. The potential skin breakouts, the bloat, the cravings that emerge, and the low energy that may result are all considerations when I eat something unusual for me. If the cake is really worth it, then I have some! If it’s not, I don’t envy the people who are eating it. I feel much more relaxed around food and think that mental shift has spilled over into my closest relationships. I don’t feel the need to look at my plate vs their plates and worry that I’m eating too much. I also don’t feel the need to have to explain myself and my own food choices. Yes, this big ass salad is all for me, thankyouverymuch.

Model Meals Blog | Melissa Tenholder Whole30 Coach

With your own experience and now that you’re a coach, what advice do you give to others who may be afraid of not counting every calorie or macro?

Breaking up with my calorie counting app didn’t happen quickly. I slowly used it less and less and then kept it as a safety net. I finally deleted it after over a year of the Whole30 totally changing my relationship with food! It takes a while to re-learn your body’s hungry and full signals. If you’ve been counting calories or macros for a long time you likely aren’t acquainted with your own body’s needs. The ONLY way to really practice mindful eating is to stop the counting. A number can’t tell you how satisfied you are, but your stomach and brain can and will.

I also realized that I did not want to spend half an hour (or more!) per day logging and tracking my food and exercise. I was tied to my phone or computer to know if I had a “good” or a “bad” day and that’s not freedom. I don’t want to still be logging my food and weighing my salad dressing in 20 years!

Share with us a little about what your Food Freedom looks like and how you use that in your coaching.

My evolving Food Freedom process is really a fun experiment. I tell my coaching clients that the most important part of a Whole30 is actually the reintroduction! Learning how food impacts YOU is such a unique experience and only YOU will really know what works for you. The only way to take steps towards Food Freedom is to test things out. In Whole30 language, deciding for sure what is really “worth it” to you takes time, but is so so so so so worth it.

Specifically, I’ve learned that having clear skin boosts my self confidence by 400% and that dairy gives me huge pimples at my jawline that take a week to clear. I’ve learned that dairy + sugar in the form of ice cream makes my stomach cramp and then I get bonus zits the next day. I’ve learned that gluten free grains (like quinoa) give me embarrassing gas and that legumes are also best avoided. Most of these foods aren’t getting regular rotation on my plate!

Model Meals Blog | Melissa Tenholder Whole30 Coach Blog

You are truly AMAZING! Before we go, is there anything else that you’d like to share with the Model Meals/Whole30 community?

If you are interested in doing a round of the Whole30 or would like to do another round, read at least ONE of the books before starting. If you use the Whole30 as a short term diet before a reunion, vacation, or wedding, you are missing out on something that could really free you from needing or being attracted to a short term diet. This is the only truly sustainable eating plan I have found because it ultimately guides you on what works for YOU for the rest of your life.


Connect with Coach Melissa on her website at and on Instagram @chopitrealgood.


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