If you read my last post, I [successfully, miraculously} completed the Whole30 Challenge.* It was grueling, and it was not so grueling. It was hard at times, easy at times, and I would totally do it again. Some of you wanted to know more about how I did it (probably because you can’t quite wrap your head around how I could live life sans grains, sugar, legumes, et cetera for an entire month), so I thought I’d make a little guidebook of sorts to doing it – should you be so inclined – and also what I learned from the process.
Whole 30 ultimately requires you to commit, plan, execute that plan, and be mindful at all times of what you are eating. Or not eating, as is often the case. It’s not about starvation or about “dieting”; rather, I gave exactly zero cares about calories during the program. I ate each meal until I was full, and then I waited –
no almost no snacking – for the next meal. Rinse and repeat. It sounds like a “diet” at first, but it’s not really a diet as much as it’s just forcing you to be 100% clear on what you’re eating and when you’re eating it.
*I should note that in no way, shape or form did the Whole30 people sanction this. In fact, I would probably be on their list of the last people on earth they’d want to blog about it. Lest you were to think this is in any way sponsored, it is most certainly not. Just me subjecting my body to experiments.
Shannon’s Unofficial Guide to Whole30: Tips for Survival.
- Read the guidelines. If that messes with your head, try reading the shopping list: I felt much better when I saw what I could eat as opposed to what I could not eat, and I think as a food/recipe person, the shopping list made it easier to begin formulating what recipes I could make. It also helps to read the timeline, because you should know what you’re about to embark on and because it’s a pretty spot-on depiction of what you may experience week-to-week on the plan.
- Plan your attack…and it can’t just be “I’m going to do this.” Don’t kid yourself: starting anything that’s potentially difficult never works if you just say “okay, so I’ll just do this and I’m sure I’ll learn as I go, whatever, it’ll be fine” because you’ll get frustrated and it’ll seem harder than it really is and you’ll quit. Do yourself a favor: clean out pantry and fridge, do a big grocery shop, give yourself options. Other mouths to feed in your house? Find a way to work around that, either by inclusion or by just sucking it up and making two sets of meals. Think about the foods you like within the boundaries of the plan and make a list of potential meal ideas. Use the power of the internet for good and find some Whole30 recipes: Nom Nom Paleo has a ton of them, as do other sites. Everyone has their own set of strengths and weaknesses, so think about yourself and do what you need to do ahead of time to make it easier on yourself, or it could get ugly.
- Have recipes…and backup recipes. and backups to those backups. It’s really incredible how easily the vegetables and fruits you think you could eat all day, every day can turn into the very things you most despise. Take cauliflower, for instance: I love cauliflower. It makes me feel good just buying it. After two weeks of churning out cauliflower-heavy meals during my Whole30, I couldn’t even look cauliflower in the face, much less purchase it. Moral of my story? you never know what you’ll love and you’ll never know what you’ll get sick of, but eating will become a chore if you don’t have variety. It’s smart to go with things which can be prepared in minutes or made in batches ahead of time; you’re not supposed to snack – like at all – and I guarantee you when meal time finally does come, you will not want it to take an hour.
- Make those recipes interesting to your taste buds. If you’re used to a wide range of foods and lots of exciting flavors, making one thing for 30 days will just not cut it; you will not be satisfied, you will want to snack, and you will find yourself in what I call The Perpetual State of Hangry. You don’t want to live in Hangry – it is a cold and desolate place – so plan recipes that differ from one another in flavor and in texture. Cauliflower soup day in and day out? Lame. That same cauliflower soup with different crispy vegetable sides each time? Totally satisfying. Think about your comfort foods and flavors and try to translate them into Whole 30-compliant recipes. It’s not as impossible as you think. For instance, both of Natalie’s recipes for quinoa tabbouleh can be made with “cauliflower rice” instead of the quinoa and it’s great alongside chicken. My personal favorite recipe of the Whole30 was her red lentil daal re-imagined with oven-roasted sweet potato home fries instead of the lentils and a few other minor adjustments. It’s heaven: the end result is like a Thai minestrone, and I’ll be posting that recipe in a few weeks because Whole30 or no Whole30, it’s fabulous.
- Prep yourself silly. You may want to put off prepping food for future meals and emergency snacks (due to reduced energy levels), but talk yourself out of that: prepping food is probably the biggest key to success with this. You have to have food ready or you will grab other things, or you’ll suddenly be so hungry that if you don’t get food in your mouth within 38 seconds you may pass out. That’s just how it feels, but often it comes down to you having food at the ready or you suffering and maybe curling up into the hunger-fetal on your way to the kitchen.
- Begin…and feel all the feels. I wish there was a way to mise en place your feelings prior to starting the plan, but there is not. You’ll have up days and down days, and days with lots of ups and downs. You’ll be skipping through your day just fine until BAM HUNGER WANT ALL THE BREAD time. You’ll get angry that you can’t have bread, try to walk it off, then realize that you don’t have the energy to accomplish it. I have no suggestions for this other than go with it. Just go with it – try to ignore the bad feels, relish the good ones, but just get through the day. It’s only 30 days. Keep repeating that.
- Know that food will never leave your mind for long. Everything will be about food. I spent at least an hour a day (cumulative) remembering the foods that I couldn’t eat and wishing I could eat them. Natalie had dreams about foods she couldn’t eat. It’s ridiculous, but try not to focus on what you can’t have, but rather how creative you can get with what you can have. Even better, plan some projects or something which will busy up your day and take your mind off things. I work from home, so I planned some organization projects and the Wee’s little summer camp to keep me occupied. If you’re at work during the day, maybe this is the month you catch up on a bunch of things you’ve been putting off. Maybe you redecorate your desk or office. Maybe you get up once an hour and just take a quick walk or something. Anything helps when it comes to not thinking about food, but there will be times it’s excruciating. I went to bed early some nights because I simply was so distracted by not being able to late-night snack that I couldn’t even watch TV; just creating physical space between myself and the kitchen helped.
- Forget about going anywhere: either to restaurants or people’s houses. Seriously. Because vegetarian and vegan restaurants are going to rely heavily on legumes and seeds, and carnivore-friendly ones are going to have sugar in sauces and marinades and grains to round out your plate. It’s almost impossible to order even something as innocent a salad without navigating through the no-cheese-and-no-sugar-of-any-kind forest; frankly, it’s frustrating and you’ll go hungry. People’s houses are another beast entirely, because either you get to be the person who emails ahead of time to discuss the menu (which I did in one situation), the person who attends and doesn’t eat anything, or the person who thinks they’re eating something perfectly compliant only to find out someone “threw some Splenda on the fruit…after you have eaten two servings because it was one of the only things you could have. I found it best to just stick around the house at meal times, because it kept me sane. And it’s only 30 days, so it’s not like you’ve given up eating at restaurants forever (although it will seem like it.) As for family and friend gatherings and the like? Host those yourself, if you can. I had to do that with two birthdays during my Whole30, so I invited people for brunch and made a few things which I could have, and a few things I couldn’t. It was nice; I got to cook things I hadn’t been making (because I couldn’t eat them) for others, I didn’t feel like a weirdo, and it almost automatically gave a balance to the menu so it wasn’t an onslaught of indulgent food.
- Choose your month wisely. December? Not a good month to do whole 30. January? Better. Stay away from months which have food-centric holidays in them. Avoid months with birthdays, vacations, and so on. Think also of the season in which you’ll be doing it: June, for instance, is a pretty awesome month for it, because you’re eating predominately fresh vegetables and fruits, and you couldn’t ask for better during the summer. Obviously any month will work, but it’s not a bad idea to factor in which months will provide you with good inspiration and variety.
- Best tip ever? Have a WholeBuddy. because no one will be able to empathize with you and what you’re going through unless they are doing the same thing as well. More specifically, no one wants to hear about how you thought about chocolate chips for roughly 6 hours that day. Or how you woke up so dehydrated you actually thought all the water had left your body. No one gets it except someone who is going through the same things at the same time. When I thought I had been poisoned by Splenda? She was there. when she walked in on free Momofuku cookies (who even does that?!?) in the break room at her job? We came up with a solution and got through it together. no one can effectively feel all the feels of the Whole30 with you unless they are doing it, because they are also feeling all the feels. So find a friend you know will be committed as much as you are; someone who will not let you fail, even if that means they just guilt you into not failing. if that friend comes with delicious Whole30 recipes and random GIFs to cheer you up? all the better. Seriously, this may be the biggest key to success for this; I would have found a way to justify quitting this halfway through, but thanks to Natalie, I didn’t.
Ultimately, the Whole30 forces you to change your perspective on food and allows you to view your personal eating habits through newly-objective eyes. It’s like that whole thing about not being able to see the forest through the trees: most of us simply have zero idea what we’re putting into our bodies every day. I’m a food writer, for heaven’s sake, so you think I’d pay attention, right? I do, but evidently I don’t pay attention enough. Much like Yoda, Whole30 brings to light things you should already know but have either been ignoring or have just over time become less mindful of. At least for me it did: I’m assuming everyone’s results will vary considering everyone has different “food weaknesses” to deal with. Here’s what I learned:
- Packaged foods are sneaky – more sneaky than I realized. So Natalie and I are food people, right? We both created recipes, typically modified from healthy cookbooks – to make them Whole30-compliant. Some of these recipes involved buying things like olives, diced tomatoes, and chicken stock. Sounds innocent, right? Wrong. I had to look at the ingredients list of 4 brands of Manzanilla olives before landing on one which had no weirdo additives. The diced tomatoes? Same deal. The chicken stock? Natalie found out in her search (and warned me) that our beloved Kitchen Basics chicken stock has honey in it (illegal in the Whole30 universe). Now, the workarounds for this (which typically was an organic product or – with Kitchen Basics – a simple switch from chicken to their vegetable broth, although Natalie really loved her Imagine chicken broth which I have yet to try) are simple, but the problem still remains: those brands I had to nix were the brands I used regularly. Which brings me to the following point.
- Sugar is a big problem, but not because it’s in birthday cake. Coming out of this little Whole30 experiment, I have zero issues with sugar in a general sense. In fact, I may have even less of a negative view of sugar than I did before. Why? Because I don’t believe there’s anything inherently wrong with a little dessert, that’s why. Because my grandparents are 90 years old, and have spent the vast majority of those years having “a little ice cream / a small piece, oh honey! Just a small piece!” of pie or cake. They eat simply, mostly whole foods, and don’t waste a lot of time on the packaged things, because that’s not how they were raised. People whose formative years were in the 1930’s and 1940’s? Smarter. But most of us grew up immersed in a world of convenience foods, which I don’t regret in the slightest, but somewhere along the line, the novelty of those things turned into de rigueur for all meals. Add in chemical advancements, an increasing demand for affordable, fast goods, and a country’s (possibly unknowing) dependence on more and more sugar, and you get potassium polysorbate mononitrate BHA fructose syrup in your olives and honey in your chicken stock. Kinda gross, if you ask me. Do I sound like a crazy person? I’m not: I’m making ice cream today, and I will lovingly take that light corn syrup out of the pantry, combine it with cornstarch, sugar, and several kinds of dairy, and eat it with gusto when it’s ready. Because when I sit down to demolish it, I’ll know exactly what’s in it, right down to the ingredients in that corn syrup. So I don’t think the sugar we eat knowingly in from-scrach cookies or ice cream is the issue. I think the sugar that finds its way into my chicken stock is the problem. Or the sugar in those gluten-free breakfast bars I sometimes like. Or the sugar in that pre-marinated meat I grabbed for dinner. That sugar…that sugar haunts my dreams. And that sugar is almost impossible to get away from unless you’re paying attention. I’m paying more attention now. It’s taking longer at the grocery store when I go, but I’m coming home with better stuff, and it’s getting easier.
- I have a new appreciation for those of you with food allergies. Wow, you guys: I can’t say I completely get it now, because that would be slightly disrespectful to what all of you have to go through on a minute-to-minute basis, but having to constantly dream up work-arounds for “illegal” foods on Whole30 made me super aware of some of the huge challenges there must be with eating when your body can’t process something and/or has a life-threatening reaction to something. I feel like it must be so frustrating at times that you would just give up on leaving the safety of your own home. I never – when ordering or eating food in a public setting – would tell anyone I was “allergic” to something because I’m not and that’s not fair to anyone, but my substitutions and special order requests? Largely ignored or halfheartedly followed. If I had been allergic to something, I would have been sick and possibly in pain at least 4 times this month. I feel super blessed to not have any big food allergies, because it was difficult for me to really think strategically about meals for a month, and you have to do it all the time with no breaks. I applaud you. I do not know how you do it, but you do.
- I still love grains with gluten, gluten-free grains, legumes, seeds, nuts, dairy, and of course, sugar. No changes there, but I have become more aware of how those things affect me individually. We all have different tolerance levels for things, and it’s nice to understand my own personal limits with some of these foods and how to incorporate them into everyday life. I love food, and that’s never going to change, but I was totally guilty of working with it so much that I stopped realizing exactly what I was eating throughout the course of a day. I wasn’t paying attention to balance, and now I am.
- I’d do it again. This was actually a really good 30-day eating plan for me, and a refreshing alternative to a “diet,” because I’ve spent half my life at this point on a diet and I’m ultra over it by now. I feel lighter, better, more in shape, and my skin is glowy. My nails? Amazing. And I lost about 10 pounds this month. Anything that provides me with both tangible and intangible benefits is a plan I can get behind, period. Probably I’ll be doing it again in September but definitely in January, because those are my “free from cake/celebratory food” months, but I can even see doing smaller “Whole2Weeks” or “Whole1Week” sessions just for a wee feel-good boost.
That’s it! Hopefully that covers it for those of you who had questions or were curious about how I managed to do something so utterly unlike me. If you have question, feel free (as always) to email or message me…whatever! I’m here for you.
We now return to our regularly scheduled programing. Because, food is fantastic and I can’t wait to make you all the food again.