Interview with Melissa Urban (Whole30 Co-Founder) on Addiction Recovery, Healing from Sexual Abuse, Dealing with Divorce, and Why She Started Whole30 + Tips for Working Moms & How to Help Someone Who is Struggling with Depression!

I am sure most of you have heard of Whole30, the international community that focuses on real, whole foods and mental and physical fitness. In this week’s podcast and blog, I interviewed the incredible creator and founder of Whole30 and bestselling author, Melissa Urban, on her health journey, dealing with trauma, how to recover from addiction, how to help someone who is battling with depression and much more!

Melissa didn’t just wake up on day and decide to found the Whole30 movement. Her journey to health was a long one: even though she grew up in a good home, she was sexually abused by a family member as a teenager. To suppress the trauma, she turned to drugs, and what started off as a distraction soon became an addiction. She tried to hold in her pain, and started self-destructing internally—trauma and pain cannot be suppressed, and will manifest in other areas of our lives if we do not embrace, acknowledge and deal with the hard stuff in life.

Melissa’s first time in rehab didn’t quite stick; she soon relapsed. She then went to rehab a second time, and realized that she had to reinvent herself as a healthy person with healthy habits: she adopted a growth mindset. Over time and with a lot of determination, commitment and practice, she realized that she could change her life. 

During this personal health journey, her and her co-founder decided to start the Whole30 community in 2009 to help people around the world eat, exercise and live well. Whole30 now helps countless people all over the world reset their health, habits and relationship with food and discover lasting food freedom. How? Through community! As Melissa says, every good idea she ever has comes from her community. They inspire and encourage each other to keep on keeping on, facilitating good decisions and helping people feel like they belong to something bigger than themselves, which is why Whole30 is not just a way of eating but a movement, helping people define health on their own terms.

Of course, it took Melissa years to overcome her trauma. The process of change was a long, hard struggle; healing never occurs overnight. She had built a strong armor around herself to protect her from her own vulnerability, which not only gave her little capacity for empathy but also kept other people out of her life. It took her time to work through the idea that she was a worthless human, and even today she still struggles with her mental health at times, which is perfectly normal! Although her sense of worthlessness has faded over time, she occasionally hears echoes of it in her mind, especially when she has been working too hard, and spends time working through the pain, focusing on what her brain and body needs and giving herself time to process her feelings, and she now realizes that this is okay. She recognizes when she is entering a depressed state, and reminds herself that she will come out of it.

One of the most important things she learnt on her journey was to be gentle on herself and embrace her whole story, even the messy bits. She realized that even during her period of addiction she was doing the best she could at the time to save herself, and has compassion on the past her. She is not defined by any piece of her story, but by the big, beautiful tapestry of all she is and was—the good, bad and ugly. She doesn’t label herself as “broken”; she now looks at the past with grace and acknowledges that she was doing what she could at the time—she is only human. As Melissa notes, the labels we give ourselves and the story we tell ourselves can either help or harm our healing journey.

This messiness also included her two divorces. He first marriage ended amicably when her and her husband realized that they had different goals. Her second marriage, however, was more challenging, and the divorce process tended to bring out the worst in her relationship. However, Melissa realized that when she changed how she responded to the situation, then her husband changed how her respond to her. Even though it was difficult at times, she decided that she wasn’t going to lower herself and comprise her integrity. She decided to choose happiness; even though this was a process, she realized that she could be happy amid the pain.

Today, she is in a happy relationship, and, even though her partner Brandon struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts, they have found a way to help each other through the pain. When Brandon first opened to Melissa about his mental health, she was scared, but she chose to listen to him rather than judging him, and together they have found a way to be there for each other, support each other and find ways to move forward together. Through this process, Melissa realized the importance of:

  1. Having the courage to listen and not freak out, as panic can make the situation feel worse or make the person feel like they are a burden.
  2. Seeking out support. Melissa realized she needed someone she could talk to, as the situation was frightening at times and she wanted to make sure that she was supporting Brandon the best way she could. She knew she had to protect her own mental health as well—like flying with an oxygen mask, you need to help yourself so you can help others!

Melissa’s courage and vulnerability has helped Brandon open up to others about his struggles, and he now helps countless people through his social media and work, and continually finds new and creative ways to process his feelings and deal with his mental distress. As Melissa says, shame hides in dark, but loses a lot of its power in the light! The more you connect with others and relate, the less alone and helpless you will feel. When we learn how to embrace and bring our issues into the light, we can physically weaken the thoughts that are holding us back; we can start doing something about it, rather than being consumed by our distress and pain, which is why as a society we need to be open and honest about mental health issues and suicide. Once people feel safe, they can be honest and open about what they are going through and find healing.

In fact, Melissa approaches every area of her life with intention and respect, including her role as a single mom. The concept of work-life balance can be confusing, which is why Melissa is a big fan of practicing presence: when she is at work she concentrates on her work, and when she is with her family she is focuses on them. This may look different week to week, but she has found that the best way to balance work and home is to put strong boundaries in place and remain fully committed to what she is working on in the moment.

Of course, there is no one-size fits all for motherhood and work, just as there is no one-size fits all when it comes to what we eat. As Melissa notes, some people have criticized the Whole30 movement for its focus on specific foods or ways of eating, but it is just one of the many dietary tools available to help people—Whole30 is not right for everyone. Generally, Melissa tries to not dwell on the negative feedback too much. Instead, she focuses on the people who do want her help: her amazing Whole30 community, and doesn’t take the negative comments personally. 

However, she does think it is important to recognize that no one diet or way of eating will work for everyone, as I say in my book Think and Eat Yourself Smart. When deciding what to eat, don’t just follow the latest wellness trend, as doing so may cause real metabolic damage and other health issues. Rather, focus on your specific lifestyle, and find something that works for you. Take your specific life context into account and do things for the rights reasons. What are your habits? What are your goals? Don’t think that because one way of eating worked for someone you know it will work for you. We are all different. 

For more information on trauma, community, healing, diet and mental health, listen to my podcast with Melissa (episode #136), check out the Whole30 website, their books, the Whole30 podcast, and their Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter. If you enjoy listening to my podcast please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing! And keep sharing episodes with friends and family, and on social media (don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).

Podcast Time Highlights:

2:34 What inspired the Whole30 movement?

4:08, 43:00 How community lays the foundation for true success

6:00, 8:08 How Melissa overcame her drug addiction

19:08 How we are not defined by any one part of our story

20:42 How to heal from divorce

27:11 Why is mental health so important?

31:06 How to help someone who is depressed and suicidal

39:40 Is there such a thing as work-life balance?

41:31 Melissa’s spiritual journey

43:00 What is it like to run Whole30?

47:55 Melissa’s favorite foods and recipes

50:21 How to deal with negative criticism and feedback

53:42 Are there any wellness trends we should avoid?

If you would like to learn more about how to find healing and improve your mental health, join me at my Mental Health Solutions Summit in Dallas, TX December 3-5, 2020! This conference is for everyone: teachers, CEOs, students, parents, doctors, life coaches...everyone! For more information and to register click hereEarly bird special pricing end 3/31!

Dr. Leaf no longer runs a private practice or takes individual patients. If you are looking for a therapist we recommend BetterHelp, an online counseling platform that offers affordable and accessible mental health care tailored to your individual needs. Visit our sponsor here for more details and to find a therapist. 

Switch On Your Brain is providing this podcast as a public service. Reference to any specific viewpoint or entity does not constitute an endorsement or recommendation by our organization. The views expressed by guests are their own and their appearance on the program does not imply an endorsement of them or any entity they represent. If you have any questions about this disclaimer, please contact

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