The Whole30: Changing Your Relationship with Food

For my monthly challenge in September, I chose to do a Whole30, which I had never done all the way through before.

Our older son Alex got married in August, which meant riotous celebration and vigorous dancing to Latin music with guys in Scottish kilts, along with cake, champagne, pisco sours from Peru and a Taco Bamba taco bar.

Feasting and fasting are part of the human experience, so I decided to stay away from alcohol during September and eat super-clean. Then it occurred to me that if I was going to do that anyway, I should go ahead and experience a Whole30.

What is the Whole30? It started in 2009 as a spontaneous challenge, according to co-founder Melissa Urban:

I was eating Girl Scout Cookies right out of the sleeve after a hard gym session when a friend suggested that a month off from sugar, alcohol, and processed foods would certainly improve our health and performance. I loved the idea, and said I’d do it if he would.

Melissa Urban
First day’s breakfast

Being strict about avoiding these foods for 30 days has two main advantages:

  1. By committing to the rules, you aren’t constantly making decisions (“should I eat this donut or not?”). You can break unwanted habits, ride out the wave of cravings, discover new foods that make you feel great, and “slay the sugar dragon,” as they say in the Whole30 community.
  2. Most importantly, you can discover how you feel after clearing out less-than-optimal foods from your system. It’s possible that bagels, milkshakes, Chardonnay or French fries have been impacting your health in ways you don’t realize until you “detox” from them for a while.

The Whole30 is an elimination diet, a kind of natural experiment on yourself. You temporarily cut out foods which tend to cause problems for many people, and see how you feel. Within 30 days, you might find that your digestion improves, your skin is clearer, you have fewer headaches, you’re sleeping better, you have less joint pain, or many other effects.

Whole30 lunch at IKEA

Then — and this is a key part of the experiment (unfortunately ignored by me) — you carefully reintroduce categories of foods, one at a time, and monitor how you feel. If you reintroduce dairy products and still feel great, terrific! You can add them back into your life. Or by carefully experimenting, you may find that a certain level of, say, chocolate, cheese or corn tortillas works fine for you, but too much will bring back unwanted symptoms.

We’re all different, in our genes, our gut bacteria, and our lifestyles. The Whole30 (or another elimination diet) is a great way to figure out what works best for you as an individual.

What are the rules of the Whole30?

Eat meat, seafood, and eggs; vegetables and fruit; natural fats; and herbs, spices, and seasonings. Eat foods with a simple or recognizable list of ingredients, or no ingredients at all because they’re whole and unprocessed.
This was everything I ate on one day (pulled out of the fridge in advance). Avocado oil mayo is “Whole30 compliant” and the white stuff is homemade hazelnut milk

What’s out? Sugar (or any other added sweeteners, even honey), flour, alcohol, additives and industrial food. The Whole30 also bans all grains, legumes and dairy products (yes, not easy!). It discourages work-around “recipes” like mashed-banana pancakes. Interestingly, the rules also prohibit weighing or measuring your body during the Whole30. You’re supposed to focus on the much more important question of how you feel, along with “non-scale victories” (NSV).

The Whole30 temporarily prohibits categories of foods that are staples for some of the world’s healthiest people: whole grains (such as oatmeal), beans, legumes and yogurt. But the idea is not to stop eating these forever, just to give your body a break from them to see if they are problematic for you.

The rules may be slightly arbitrary, and other elimination diets are a little different, but there is a great advantage to the Whole30 — it’s a worldwide community, with guidebooks, cookbooks, and supportive social media networks.

I enjoyed following people’s journeys on Instagram

So, is the Whole30 for everyone? I would be very cautious if:

  • You have experienced an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. The restrictive nature of the Whole30 could potentially send you in an unhealthy direction.
  • You feel an emotional threat response to the idea of strictly avoiding certain foods. The Whole30 should involve a spirit of curious inquiry (how will I feel?), creative experimentation (can I make a lunch out of roasted parsnips?), and positive challenge (I’m doing this to take charge of my health!). If you can’t imagine these feelings in connection with a Whole30, maybe try a limited test at first, like “no dairy for a week.”
A typical meal for me, plus flavorful sauces with no sugar or additives. There are many other ways to eat on a Whole30 if this doesn’t look tasty to you 🙂

If the Whole30 would mean a really radical shift in your diet (let’s say your typical daily menu is Cap’n Crunch cereal with milk, a grilled cheese sandwich, chicken-fried steak, baked beans and Sprite), it’s probably good to gradually introduce more vegetables and fruits into your life first. It takes time for the friendly organisms in our guts to adapt.

A simple snack shared with a friend

If you’re vegetarian or vegan, the Whole30 can be problematic, because it cuts out some key sources of protein (beans, legumes, tofu, dairy). But here are some special guidelines that can help.

Of course, it’s always a good idea to discuss any big dietary change with your doctor, especially if you’re being treated for a chronic condition. For instance, a person on diabetes medication may need to lower the dosage after cutting out sugar and flour.

So … how was my personal Whole30 experience? I was already pretty close to a Whole30 lifestyle, but I had to rigorously cut out:

  • Alcohol (farewell, Pinot Noir, craft beer and Don Julio tequila)
  • Yogurt and kefir
  • Beans and legumes (staples for me, especially during my $10 a day food challenge)
  • Cheese. This one was easier than I’d expected. I didn’t really miss it after the first few days, and I know (confirmed since adding it back) that my digestion isn’t thrilled about it.
  • Weighing and measuring myself (it turns out that I actually do this a lot and had to actively resist it)
  • Random exceptions. Like today, when my Airbnb guests from India offered me some homemade flatbreads and potato curry. If I’d eaten the bread during my Whole30, I would have had to start the 30 days over again (not as punishment, but to get a truly “clean slate”).
Homemade hazelnut milk for my coffee/tea, or black is fine too

Cutting out alcohol was my biggest struggle. I’d been “relaxing” with some wine or tequila most evenings, especially after jumping around for an hour at Zumba. This tended to creep up to two drinks a night, definitely outside the optimal health range for me. The fact that it was hard to stop reinforced the importance of doing so (my motto when I coach people in physical movement: if it’s hard to squat, raise your arms, or get up off the floor, you need to do it). I munched on grapes, which for me act as a helpful substitute for wine, and things got much easier after the first week, but I was still looking forward a little too eagerly to a date with my neighbors on Oct. 7 to taste local craft beers at Dominion Wine and Beer.

Could I go out to eat on the Whole30? Absolutely. Some of my Real Food on the Road discoveries came during this time; Chipotle even offers a specialized Whole30 salad bowl (no beans). And there’s always Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot, with a wide range of whole foods to cook at the table in bubbling broth. Thank you @melissabrayerhess for introducing me to this great place, and thanks to @besssimkin, @elviewfitnessinstructor, @ambercarlsgaard, @inesrosales, @niknodge and @laurenlinderman for going there with me (I go often, who’s next?).

Hot pot, good friends, happy times

I’ve worked on overcoming cravings for years, with great progress (except sometimes with alcohol), and I thought I was pretty serene in the face of temptation. But my Whole30 took me to a whole new level. On Sept. 18, I attended a happy hour at Northside Social. I’d eaten earlier, which always helps, of course. I ordered sparkling water with lemon and happily conversed with people who were sipping good wine and snacking on warm pita bread and hummus — without even a squeak of a craving. A friend wanted me to try some special Greek cookies (thanks Joanna!), and I gratefully took them home, promising that I’d enjoy them with my coffee on the first morning after my Whole30.

Sparkling water, a lemon slice, and great company

I didn’t have to think of the wine, hummus or cookies as “bad” or push them away; I just didn’t need them. This was a new kind of food freedom. I felt like I was in a food museum. In a store, I might feel the urge to buy a beautiful object, but in a museum I know it isn’t even a possibility. And it’s not painful at all.

I used to avoid spending too much time amid the sights — and aromas! — of the bakery section, for example at Whole Foods. But now I can appreciate them, museum-style, with pleasure rather than discomfort. (The craft beer taps, however, are still calling my name. I buy kombucha instead. )

What were my results?

“Before” pic on Sept. 1. No miracles occurred
  • The most striking outcome for me was the decrease in food cravings — I hadn’t even realized how much more progress I could make. The alcohol cravings are much better too, although not gone.
  • When I finally weighed and measured myself, I was the same weight, but I’d lost an inch around my belly, nice! I’m still getting rid of that deep visceral fat which is much more of a health threat than the relatively harmless jiggly stuff.
  • Because I wasn’t drinking, I started eating dinner earlier, and I found I had more energy and could do more productive things in the evenings rather than just reading or watching Netflix.
  • Ironically, I actually felt a little bit more inflammation (for instance, waking up with slightly stiff fingers). People accustomed to a standard American diet (SAD, get it) tend to experience less inflammation on a Whole30. In my case, I think beans, lentils and kefir help reduce inflammation for me, and cutting them out wasn’t ideal.

I could have carefully examined the effects of those foods during the reintroduction phase. But I totally blew that. As you know, I started the first morning with tasty Greek cookies. And then, instead of carefully bringing back food categories one by one and monitoring how I felt, I blasted off immediately to a new Egyptian restaurant with my dear neighbor @juliestern and chowed down on everything: hummus, falafel, yogurt dip and pita bread. I even put sugar in my hot minty tea and ate the cute mini-cookie.

How NOT to reintroduce foods after a Whole30. But delicious

After that delicious lunch I felt a bit light-headed and weird. I’m pretty sure it was the pita bread. But I’ll have to do another round of elimination to know for sure 🙁

And what about alcohol? It’s now October 25, and I’ve had two beer flights with friends, including wildly fun local varieties like Aztec Imperial Chocolate Stout with Ancho Chiles, from Virginia Beach (whoa), and one local IPA growler to take home. After the beer at home, I definitely felt a little fuzzy-headed the next day and not quite as bouncy. But the tastings with friends were so much fun, and their aftereffects were manageable. I’m thinking that craft beer with friends or family 2-4 times a month, and no alcohol alone at home, might be reasonable. But will it creep up? Will growlers, Pinot Noir and tequila stealthily re-enter my house? Stay tuned.

I’m glad I completed the Whole30. I may do it again sometime — or I may make my own rules to allow yogurt and beans 🙂 What do you think? Have you tried one before? Are you inspired to give it a try, or maybe to create your own variation?

Meanwhile, I’m on to the next challenge. Since October first, I haven’t driven a car: only walking, biking, and taking the Metro and bus, and occasionally getting a ride from a friend, but never a “pity ride” :), and no Uber. It’s my favorite challenge yet!

Riding at night with my new lights, looking like an excited squirrel

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