I just finished doing the Whole30 at the beginning of April (and in fact immediately began again after a one-week hiatus) and have wanted to share my experience, as so many bloggers do, to offer insight for others wanting to try the program.
For those who don’t know what the Whole30 is, in short it’s a total whole foods approach to eating. Some people call it an extreme form of Paleo eating. It focuses on healthy, natural, simple foods — fruit, vegetables, meats, seafood, and healthy fats like lard, coconut oil, ghee, and olive oil.
But yes, there are prohibitions: No grains, no legumes, no dairy, no alcohol (even in cooking), no added sugar (of any kind), no soy, no carrageenan, MSG or sulfites (and other unpronounceable ingredients in processed foods).
There’s a lot of reasons folks do this “dietary reset program.” Here’s mine.
I already was kind of eating Paleo style…sorta. More properly I’d say I was eating Weston Price or Sally Fallon style. What that means is meat, eggs, veggies, some fruit, butter, and fermented foods, including soured breads and soured dairy (kefir, yogurt, sour cream, etc.), good fats and none of that soy or canola crap.
But I didn’t sweat over sugars, and definitely can tip a few drinks back with the best of them. And certainly was willing to grab plenty of manufactured foods — tortillas & tortilla chips, pasta, ketchup, salsa, etc. In other words, I like guidelines but I’m too much of a slacker and too much of a rebel to adhere to anything in absolute terms.
At the same time, I was struggling with a bad knee and even, at times, bad joints overall. I majored in dance and choreography in college, putting my body through many unnatural positions in both classes and at rock shows. It took its toll and I had Archie Bunker-level aches and pains at far too young an age. My knee injury had actually taken me away from dancing almost altogether.
Even though I am pretty active for a 48-year-old, I still noticed the occasional labored breathing and even what seemed at times like mildly elevated blood pressure. And I certainly could give my liver and pancreas a break from wine and beer.
My other motivation was a constantly increasing passion for local foods and a deep concern with America’s unnatural and even openly poisonous food paradigm. I was already sourcing a lot of things locally, but like I said, I also purchased plenty of stuff from far away, and in packages. This is ultimately not good for me or our world.
So I wanted to up my game on going local, going zero waste, and see what I could do through nutrition to improve my health overall.
A friend and I agreed to do the Whole30 together, to provide support and insight for one another. And we did it for Lent, to seat it in a spiritual process as well. She’s about 15 years younger than me and has an infant (he just turned one when Lent ended), so our needs and bodies were different. But it was still good to know someone was on board with me.
I can be a hugely disciplined person about things, at least sometimes, and I’m very experienced with types of fasts. In fact I’ve fasted radically at times, which I don’t recommend. Compared to a fast, the Whole30 is like eating high on the hog. And compared to a fast, this is the healthiest I’ve become through elimination eating.
My knee did indeed get better. Rapidly.
It had already gotten somewhat better just eating Paleo style, which was inspired in part by reading Wheat Belly and so eliminating flour. But then I slipped back into eating my sourdough bread and I had noticed more aches in all my joints. Within 5 days of the Whole30 my joints were markedly improved. Clearly grains have their issues.
I haven’t slept better in a long time. I’m a light sleeper, and can have trouble from time-to-time falling asleep. On the Whole30 I became a gifted crasher and a much more vivid dreamer than I already am and that’s saying something — I’m an intensely lucid dreamer and doing that even more is, to me, an amazing gift. (Alcohol is easily the WORST thing for my sleep and I’m happy to have mostly eliminated that barrier to both my rest and my nocturnal dream excursions.)
Losing weight wasn’t an expectation I had. I just didn’t think I would.
But like the average American, I was heavier than I could be without being obese or anything. However, you’re not supposed to weigh yourself during the entire 30 days of the Whole30 reset so I didn’t. But lo, turns out I dropped 13 pounds after the 46 days of Lent, and having again gone onto the Whole30, I’ve lost 17 1/2 pounds total to date (probably another factor in my knee feeling more stable).
Can’t knock that!
It definitely surprised me that I started eating more fish. I’ve never been a huge seafood fan, even though I grew up in a household that ate it a lot. I still refuse to eat any shellfish, and I’m not happy that, except for trout and some Virginia-based Atlantic fish like rockfish, most fish has to be sourced pretty far from where I live. That remains a troubling environmental issue for me — I don’t want to regularly buy things from thousands of miles away.
Still, eating more fish is important for human health so I’m doing what I can to now include it a minimum of once a week.
Sugar wasn’t something I really missed since I didn’t eat a lot anyway, but it’s amazing the difference between not eating much and not eating any. Sugar is hugely addictive, found in almost everything store-bought in some form or another if it’s in a package, and such a culprit in inflammation, which is epidemic in Americans. I am really happy to shift to a pre-industrial level of sugar consumption. Really happy.
I already thought I read packages thoroughly but after the Whole30 it is essential for me to read them and shocking to see what is in our processed foods. It’s criminal really. We’re an insane society.
Benefits, adaptations, and criticisms
I already cooked a lot, but the desire to avoid non-local foods, industrial foods, and processed and packaged foods of most kinds, really helped me increase the use of raw ingredients in their most basic form. Now I’m no Barbara Kingsolver (heart aflutter), but I do hope that, if I can mostly keep up the Whole30 over the next year, I’ll be able to take the next significant step in my environmental concerns related to food, and begin to truly and almost exclusively eat seasonally.
Not there yet, but that’s the goal here. (How can I say good-bye to pomegranates and avocado? Well, there was always trade, so…we’ll see.)
But my main point is that we ate out less and I got into the habit of cooking even more, which was great.
What was at first an apparently larger expense in groceries was more than offset by purchasing almost no packaged foods and a huge decrease in restaurant bills — saved roughly $1k in dining expenses. Now we do have two really amazing local-foods, chef-driven restaurants just down the block from us, so we’re not going to stop eating out entirely, but we’re definitely doing it less.
You’re not supposed to use any kind of sugar with the Whole30 but I made an exception when I planned to cook a whole chicken, which is about once a month. I brine my whole chicken for a day in a combo of sugar, honey, and Himalayan salt, and it produces the most moist, tender chicken imaginable and I’m simply not giving that skill up. Brining is the bomb for meat (and doesn’t always include sugar).
In fact “added salt,” is discouraged on the Whole30 too, but Himalayan salt is so rich in a complex mineral profile that it can’t rightly be compared to the isolated salt profile of American white table salt so I simply didn’t fret it. I add plenty of salt in cooking and to season at table.
Also after 30 days (not the Whole of Lent), I was ready for some wine. And some beer. And a mojito. And a Grand Marnier. And a Tawny port! Not all at once, but occasionally.
But as for food, I cooked in my usual home gourmet style (hated not being able to cook with wine, but oh well), and my meals were easy, full, rich, complex, flavorful, and satisfying. Huge breakfasts with bacon and eggs and watercress and kimchi, and wonderful dinners of meat or fish and yummy veggies (lots of ways to roast these to perfection).
Nothing felt like “being on a diet,” or worse, “diet foods.”
Snacks to go were easy — nuts, cut veggies, a piece of fruit, meat cuts on cucumber slices, homemade dried veggie chips. No problem!
I really missed my daily teaspoon of true raw honey, which I consider more a daily health tonic than a sugar, but forgo it I did. I also really missed peanut butter which I LOVE! But no legumes. So I learned to like almond butter (which again, comes from far away and is really taxing the poor California drought, so I’m conflicted). It’s also WAY expensive!
I also missed hummus — that’s a hard one!
I never thought I could learn to like black coffee, especially since, Weston Price-style, I used to have mine with whole cream (and not his style, but also had Muscovado sugar in it). I dreaded the first day on black coffee. But now I am totally fine with it and don’t miss the cream and sugar at all. I have mine with cinnamon in it as a blood sugar regulator.
Not having fermented dairy seemed to me like a misplaced aspect of the Whole30. Not all dairy is created equal, at least in my eyes, especially after having read so much about the benefits of fermentation for both probiotics and digestion. But no dairy was no dairy so I abstained. But boy did I make a bee-line for kefir and sour cream and crème fraîche (and raw honey and peanut butter and booze) during that one-week off from the Whole30.
Sane eating, not dieting
And that’s how I plan to deal with it going forward. Not bingeing in between (I didn’t feel the desire), but definitely allowing for an indulgence. I mean, ice cream? Hello!
Thirty days is not that long to do anything. But done right, it can change you profoundly — it can reduce or eliminate cravings, habits, and patterns and cultivate a new awareness that makes processed and denatured foods actually seem rather repugnant. So I’m sticking with it.
However, after every 30-day stint I’ll give myself a break for a week to enjoy things, even sourdough bread and alcohol “in moderation.”
Fortunately, I’m not the world’s biggest cheese fan, unlike most folks. So except for some nice stinky roquefort, which I very much enjoy (and again, is truly fermented) I didn’t miss that. But every thirty days? Gotta have some!
And another mitigating factor for me is that I have no intention now that I’m eating this way 98% of the time to be an absolutist in a social situation. It was fine for the first time, but regularly speaking I don’t want to be the one to talk food, nutrition, and what might seem like scolding lifestyle choices when I’m out and about with friends. I’ll leave that to the vegans. (Kidding people, kidding!)
Try it you’ll like it
If you have any minor or major health concerns, I strongly recommend you give the Whole30 a shot (with the regular litigational-society caveat that you “check with your doctor first!”).
On the Whole30 you can eat as much as you want and not count calories or any of that stupid “diet” stuff.
I didn’t even really exercise much while on it because I don’t believe in gyms and, other than walking a lot, don’t really stress over the “workout” concept. I do yoga at home. Sometimes. I walk everywhere or ride my bike, not to be an agro “queen of the hill” or anything, just to get around.
When I was on the Whole30 it was so cold on the East Coast that I didn’t want to do anything except take hot baths and sit under wool blankets and yet I still lost weight. So if weight loss is your motivation, go for it, it works surprisingly easily.
If you’ve got any questions, feel free to shoot me an email or post in the comments field.
— Lindsay Curren Art & Essays Blog