What I learned from the Whole30
During the summer of 2010, my friend Robin introduced me to a way of eating called “paleo.” I had never heard of it, but she explained that following the paleo diet, in very simple terms, means eating like a caveman. (Paleo is short for paleolithic, as in the Paleolithic Era.) So to eat paleo – the word has become so trendy, it can be used as an adjective or an adverb! – one consumes meats, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts and healthy fats.
Robin said she was doing the “Whole30,” which, in case you were wondering, has also become quite trendy. The Whole30, created by Melissa Hartwig and Dallas Hartwig, is, you guessed it, 30 days of eating paleo. If you’re a fan of the Food Pyramid you learned in elementary school, hold on to your Greek yogurt because the Whole30 means eliminating major food groups. Here’s how the Whole30 website explains it:
Certain food groups (like sugar, grains, dairy and legumes) could be having a negative impact on your health and fitness without you even realizing it. Are your energy levels inconsistent or non-existent? Do you have aches and pains that can’t be explained by over-use or injury? Are you having a hard time losing weight no matter how hard you try? Do you have some sort of condition (like skin issues, digestive ailments, seasonal allergies or fertility issues) that medication hasn’t helped? These symptoms may be directly related to the foods you eat – even the “healthy” stuff. So how do you know if (and how) these foods are affecting you?
Strip them from your diet completely. Cut out all the psychologically unhealthy, hormone-unbalancing, gut-disrupting, inflammatory food groups for a full 30 days. Let your body heal and recover from whatever effects those foods may be causing. Push the “reset” button with your metabolism, systemic inflammation and the downstream effects of the food choices you’ve been making. Learn once and for all how the foods you’ve been eating are actually affecting your day to day life and your long term health.
To recap and clarify, the Whole30 requires the elimination of dairy, grains, legumes, sugar (but fruit is allowed) and alcohol.
Robin had a positive first experience with the Whole30 and is currently working on her fifth run at it. Another friend Ashley positively influenced my view of paleo eating. In 2013, she began following a paleo diet because she suffered from digestive problems and had a family history of celiac disease. Ashley launched “My Heart Beets,” a super successful food blog, where she recreates paleo versions of Indian cuisine.
Thanks to these two ladies, I’d dabbled for years with the idea of doing a Whole30. Until recently, I didn’t believe I could do it. But over the past couple years – spurred by my commitments to improving my physical health and developing as an entrepreneur – I’ve learned that, cheesy as it sounds, I really can do anything if I make a decision.
My main motivation for wanting to complete a Whole30 was to see if it would improve my skin. I have struggled with acne for years. I’ve seen several dermatologists, been on every antibiotic and topical medicine known to man and had my face “frozen” with liquid nitrogen. I tried facials. I tried switching to organic foods. While taking an oral antibiotic worked better than the other options, I didn’t want to be on medication forever. I had heard anecdotes from other women, including Robin, who reported improved skin because of the Whole30.
So in May, I started by simply considering: Perhaps I should do a Whole30 in June. It is only 30 days. I knew I would not be traveling during the month. I knew my kids’ birthday parties would be over. I knew June had an even 30 days in it, and the first day was, conveniently, a Monday. (Go ahead and laugh at me, but counting is hard. Having the day of the month coincide with the day of the Whole30 was pretty huge for me.)
About two weeks before the first day of June, I officially made the decision. I told my husband and Ashley I would do the Whole30. As June 1 grew closer, I let a few more people in on my plan, including my 8-year-old son Elliot, my parents and Robin. I knew I would essentially be on my own, meaning no one in my immediate, local circle would be joining me in my Whole30-ness, but I didn’t care. I was determined.
Before I started, however, I ate ALL THE THINGS: cheeseburger, pizza, cake, ice cream, doughnuts, Frappuccino. On Whole30 eve (also known as May 31), I even forced myself to drink the remaining half bottle of red wine on my kitchen counter. I couldn’t dump it, and I couldn’t leave it sitting there for 30 excruciating days. Just to be clear, eating ALL THE THINGS is not recommended. Not by me and certainly not by the lovely people who created the Whole30. If you are a healthy person and you can prepare for the Whole30 by not eating ALL THE THINGS, good for you. Me, not so much.
Anyway, I did prepare by doing the world’s most horrible chore – grocery shopping, which is generally listed under my husband’s duties. I did some intense, eye-squinting, perplexing, foreign language reading (some it call it label reading). Did you know even the fancy, organic, store-bought bacon has sugar in it? Yeah, me neither. I stocked up on coconut oil, olive oil, coconut milk, steak, chicken, eggs, sweet potatoes, broccoli, asparagus, watermelon and blueberries. I also threw in the cart some other things, like pork tenderloin, sunflower seeds, cauliflower, red peppers, apples, strawberries and grapes.
On the first day, I recall that, for breakfast, I planned to eat two hard-boiled eggs, half an avocado and a banana. As I ate, though, I realized I was becoming full and did not need the second hard-boiled egg. It was the first time in a while I remembered feeling really full after breakfast. It was also the first time I ever put coconut milk in my coffee. I texted Robin: “Well, coconut milk in my coffee is not horrible.” She said it made her laugh. To be honest, not using half and half in my java was a concern for me. You see, I love my half and half. I mean, I really enjoy creamy things.
I knew my emotional connections to food were (are?) the perfect reason to do the Whole30. According to the website, “It will change the way you think about food, it will change your tastes, it will change your habits and your cravings. It could, quite possibly, change the emotional relationship you have with food, and with your body.” Ah, my emotional relationship with food. So many thoughts about this.
One of my Whole30 worries was getting bored with the food I was eating. (Notice bored is a feeling.) Looking back on my 30 days, though, I can honestly say that I rarely felt deprived. With the support of my amazing husband, I had many exciting breakthroughs. Mike even commented that the biggest benefit he saw in my Whole30 journey was all the experimentation we did with new recipes. Like pork tenderloin with cherry shallot sauce, Hawaiian chicken kebobs, avocado gazpacho, chicken cacciatore, basil artichoke turkey meatballs, and meatloaf (with almond flour instead of bread crumbs). I made mayonnaise, and Mike became an expert at whipping up his special cinnamon cashew butter. When I told my mom about this delicious concoction, she asked, “What do you eat that with?” I paused, then replied, “Ummmm… a spoon.” She laughed. She meant, What did I pair the cashew butter with? Truth be told, it is delicious in any way peanut butter is. So, on a banana, with apple slices or as a dip for banana chips.
OK, we must discuss banana chips for a moment. There is a Kroger near us that has large bins in the natural foods section. For example, you can get raw cashews, chia seeds, quinoa and, you know it, banana chips. They have sweetened (big no-no for the Whole30) or unsweetened. Thank you, Lord, for banana chips cooked in coconut oil. Totally Whole30 compliant, right? Well, sort of. This is where the emotional connection to food rears its ugly head. The Whole30 community uses an acronym known as SWYPO, which stands for sex with your pants on. Basically, SWYPO refers to the recreation of junk food or treats using a paleo-friendly recipe, even if all the ingredients are Whole30 compliant. Paleo pancakes, cookies and breads fall into this category, as do potato chips. Because potato chips land in SWYPO land, I kinda felt like banana chips maybe do, too. I don’t know. But I’m being honest here. I ate those banana chips anyway. With joy. If you saw Disney Pixar’s latest masterpiece, “Inside Out,” you know that joy is a feeling. And when I dipped the banana chips in my husband’s glorious cinnamon cashew butter, well, yeah, I think I definitely SWYPOed.
All of this discovery about my emotional connections to food got me thinking. I mean, it really forced me to examine my deep-seated, tumultuous relationship with eating. I started to wonder: Isn’t the true purpose of food just to nourish my body, to provide me with nutrition and fuel? Is it OK to get excited about delicious food? Is it OK to look forward to eating or drinking something? Am I using wine or chocolate to cope with feelings I don’t want to deal with? I’m still not sure what the answers to the first three questions are, but I can tell you that the response to the last one is yes, sometimes. I also struggle with feeling like I deserve certain foods or beverages. The Frappuccino is the perfect example of this. I have, in the past, used the frozen coffee drink, as a reward – for weight loss results (I know that’s counter-intuitive) or for the accomplishment of a business goal.
All that said, much of my overeating simply came from unawareness. Some things I immediately noticed on the Whole30 were how much I licked my fingers, “taste tested” while preparing or cooking and grazed on my kids’ leftover food after dinner was over. I had to force myself out of these habits.
Overall, the Whole30 retaught me that I function much better as an abstainer, rather than as a moderator. (I previously touched on this concept in a post about abstaining from Facebook.) You may’ve heard people say something crazy like, “All things in moderation.” Well, if that saying has ever made you feel bad because moderation is hard for you, I am here to tell you it’s OK. Don’t feel bad. Instead, get empowered. Moderation does not always work. In fact, I think balance is a very average word. Searching for balance is futile in most of life’s arenas. Going all in to something is the only way to truly be successful. You’re either all in on purpose or all in by accident. I want to be all in on purpose. The Whole30 is a great exercise in going all in to something. And this mindset can extend into other areas of life; for me, it is particularly relevant to entrepreneurship. I had to apply this mentality to food. I know that I have a tendency to overeat, so training myself to abstain, rather than moderate, works for me.
Some may say abstaining from certain foods and food groups is hard. I understand this thought. I mean, I subscribed to it for five years. However, after having followed the Whole30 for a month, I have to disagree that it’s hard. Does it take dedication and commitment and preparation? Yes, absolutely. But the Whole 30 actually made food simple. Despite the hours of food prep and cooking – I’ve not cooked so many meals that are not breakfast food in years, probably – decisions about eating became very easy. For example, before the Whole30, if someone brought doughnuts into the office, here was my thought process: Oooo, those doughnuts look yummy. I shouldn’t eat a doughnut; it’s not healthy. Well, I wonder how many calories are in a doughnut. Maybe I could have half a doughnut. Or just one doughnut would be OK. Probably. Oh, but what if they are super delicious and I want to eat two doughnuts? No, no, no. That would definitely be bad. No, I shouldn’t eat any doughnuts. I would sit in my office and continue an endless, distracting inner monologue about the doughnuts. Until finally, I’d get up, grab one doughnut and eat it. Afterward, I’d feel sick to my stomach and guilty in my head. You know what happened if someone brought doughnuts into the workplace during the Whole30? (And they did. It’s not like everyone around me bowed to my Whole30-ness and ate only compliant food in my presence.) “April, there are doughnuts in the kitchen.” No. See? Simple. No internal battle. No guilt.
For those who are interested in slightly more measurable results of the Whole 30, let me start with energy level. Throughout the month of June, I kept the same workout schedule I’ve had for many months – Spinning on Tuesdays, strength training with some running on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and running on Thursdays and sometimes Saturdays. (This varies slightly, depending on my husband’s crazy work schedule.) At the beginning of the month, my energy level was noticeably low. I wasn’t sure if it was the reduction of carbs or the lack of sleep, a typical problem in my life no matter what my nutrition is like. It was not until day 29 that I felt an improvement in energy level during my workouts. Whole30ers refer to this phenomenon as “Tiger Blood.” I had actually forgotten about the concept until I texted Robin after my June 29 run and told her how great I felt during and after it. She sent a simple reply: “Tiger Blood!” Not all Whole30 participants experience this sensation, and that is OK.
My husband said he thought my moods were about the same during the Whole30. I agreed.
I lost 6.4 pounds. I was actually hoping for more, but weight loss was not my motivation for the Whole30. I know that if I stick with a paleo diet and cut back on some of the fats (ahem, I’m looking at you, cashew butter!), I’d see a drop on the scale. I did not take pre-Whole30 measurements, although I wish I would have, so I can’t say what my inches lost were.
And, finally, the biggie. Following the Whole30 certainly did not clear up my skin. In fact, I think it had little effect on my acne. I admit, I am disappointed. I was hoping for some noticeable changes in this area. However, I will be interested to see, after I reintroduce certain food groups, especially dairy, how my skin will respond.
I also suspect dairy was causing me some digestive issues that I didn’t even pinpoint I had. For example, before the Whole30, I would sit at my work desk in the afternoons and my stomach would bubble and gurgle and just generally feel terrible. On the very first day of my Whole30, I noticed that those symptoms were gone. Completely non-existent. Again, only reintroduction will determine the cause. But all of that got me thinking about dairy. Why in the world do humans drink milk from another mammal? It just doesn’t make sense. When I drilled down to that question, I thought, no wonder so many of us have digestive issues!
Speaking of eliminating dairy, I’d like to end with the subject of clarified butter, which is achieved by melting butter and removing the milk solids. I started to feel like this glorious golden goodness also entered into SWYPO territory because it is so amazingly gratifying. The first time Mike clarified butter, I might have been tempted to drizzle it on ALL THE THINGS. I dipped crab meat in it. I sauteed vegetables in it. I even put clarified garlic butter on my sweet potato with cinnamon. Not the best combo. But it’s CLARIFIED BUTTER. So anyway, after Mike’s first clarifying adventure, he looked at the disgusting milk solids left in the pan, and said, “That’s pretty gross. Maybe we should always clarify our butter?” Yes, Husband, I agree.
Honestly, though, even though Mike did not Whole30 with me – see how I used it as a verb there? – he was my biggest supporter. He did most of the grocery shopping. He made adjustments to his food prep. He cooked and cooked and cooked for me. He told me I looked great. He said he was proud of me. And, last night, with three hours left to go in my Whole30, he made me garlic hummus because reintroduction begins today with legumes, and he wanted me to have something fabulous to look forward to. He’s awesome!