So I did a Whole30. There are many reasons and non-reasons why. For one thing, my girlfriend wanted to, and on a whim I told her I would join. I had never done a “cleanse” before and was curious. I also wanted to get strict pull-ups down, and if I lost a few pounds of fat, all the better.
Now, I don’t believe I have any inordinate sensitivity to gluten, lactose, or legumes. (I am pretty much a garbage disposal.) In fact, I don’t believe that most people who follow diets like this really do.
What I truly believe is that the Whole30 is by design a weight loss/body fat maintenance tool, specifically good for athletes doing crossfit-esque things, and also good for people who eat too much AMUURRRICAN junk (which can include so-called diet foods). In my mind, the athletic pursuits it is good for are: rugby and field sports in general, weightlifting, sprinting, and some other things I am no doubt forgetting. I do not think this is a good way of life for, say, triathletes. Which does bring up an interesting point…should this be treated more as a diet or a cleanse? The Whole30 website seems to be of slightly two minds about this. They consider this extreme form of the paleo diet (the 30 day challenge) to be more of a cleanse, but seem to advise people to be paleo-ish most of the time. Sometimes they do suggest things like if you eat a donut you are impure. After all this is the only body and life you have, why would you poison it!* To which I say, yes but no. Your body is a resilient fucker. Slamming many donuts everyday is a recipe for disaster but one every once in awhile is fine. And if you’re healthy in your ways otherwise, you could probably have a donut a day.
Of course, the problem is most people aren’t healthy in their ways. Even if they try, letting one vice in lets all of them in. One donut becomes room for, fuck it, I’ll have two. And probs a cheeseburger and a beer. And when they try to make up for it, they fall short of ideal. My pedometer counted 10,000 steps so I can cheat a bit, right? Also I have some Lean Cuisine at the office for lunch. The Whole30, with its no moderation policy, leaves no room for this behavior. CUT IT OUT. (Less crazy thoughts on moderation here.)
Here are the facts as I see them, aka the reasons why the Whole30 works coming from a skeptic.
-Sugar and alcohol are empty calories, so get rid of those. Really, any good diet should get rid of these. Your body hates processing alcohol (for instance, you sleep better without it), and we all know the highs and crashes that come with sugar. Further, with alcohol, it’s easy to make poor food choices when drunk. And with sugar, it’s too easy to consume too much, since you never feel full. (You know how each nutrition label mentions calories in carbs, fat, and protein? Well there is a fourth category of calories, from alcohol. Alcohol is really its own thing, but the alcohol industry has been successful in covering up this fact. And per gram, alcohol really has a ton of calories. So having a rum and diet soda doesn’t put you that far ahead of the game.)
-To me dairy is not inherently bad, unless you are actually lactose intolerant (and even then its a weak argument, since cheese and real yogurt have little if any lactose). The problem with milk is the often high hormone content. Really good cheese can have similar omega-3 profiles to salmon. And fermented foods in general offer a great host of good bacteria. The problem with cheese is that it’s so damn calorie dense, and will back you up. The problem with yogurt is that most people equate yogurt with Yoplait with fruit-on-the-bottom, not real plain thick yogurt. Further, some cheese is really cheese product. Product = additives = hormones get screwed with.
-Legumes, such as soybeans and peanuts, contain compounds like lectin (peanuts) and estrogen (soy). These cause inflammatory reactions in some, and mess with your hormones to a certain extent. Soy and peanut are also in lots of additives, so eliminating them is a handy way to eliminate overprocessed foods. HOWEVER, beans like black beans have small amounts of lectin when cooked, so they really aren’t bad in this way. So I believe the elimination of beans in general has a lot to do with a) just say legumes, and people will not accidentally eat soy or peanut and b) beans are pretty carb-y. Fundamentally, this is a low carb diet.
-Sweet potatoes are okay, white potatoes are not. Here is the weakness in their whole “do it for the nutrients and sanctity of your body” argument. Sweet potatoes and white potatoes are nutritionally not very different. It seems the designers of the diet recognized people would need to have one source of starch or they will become very angry, so let’s make it the orange one since it seems healthier. And it makes sense in other ways, too (just not in the nutritional way). White potatoes are a slippery slope to french fries and potato chips. Cut ’em out.
-Grains in general are not okay, and this sadly includes corn. In addition to the trendy “gluten is bad” philosophy, this seemed a quick way of eliminating all factory-processed foods. The more processed something is, the more it can potentially absorb in our bodies –> extra energy stored as fat. The likelier it is to have sugar added, or other franken-additives. Further, grains are (duh) carb-y. Pretty much anyone with a slammin’ physique eats low carb. Finally, as we all know it’s easy to overeat things like bread and tortilla chips.
-You get calories from: Animal protein (Good protein source), Nuts (Good fat source and protein), Sweet Potatoes (really your source of complex carbs), veggies (carbs and protein), avocados (fat), fruits (yes sugar but also plenty of good compounds and fiber, really hard to eat too much). That’s pretty much it. It’s a low carb diet by design, and takes an absurdly high volume of food to consume too many calories. So it works. And it’s really nutrient dense, and unprocessed, so I do think it gets the healthy stamp overall.
My experience was as follows. The first few days sucked, but not in a crippling way…I was mostly just a bit hungrier than usual. While I like sweets and bread, they just aren’t much of my diet so I wasn’t going through intense cravings. I’ve been getting CSAs for quite some time so I’m used to dealing with loads of veggies daily. And I love meat!
Days 4 and 6 involved going to happy hours. I am not going to lie, this sucked. Neither of them were with people I knew that well, so I would normally have a drink to loosen up. But, I lived, I was good, I had good times overall, and a saved a few bucks. And after the first week I found it easier and easier to resist, with a major exception to be detailed.
Day 4-6 totally sucked. But I’m not convinced the diet was the cause, I think it was just an added cherry-on-top of my stress. My cat disappeared for a few days, and I was really worried about him. It was August in Maryland, and he couldn’t survive very long without water. Luckily, he showed up just as I was about to put posters all over the place, thinned out and parched, but okay.
Day 8 of the challenge I was to be at a wedding in Boston. I figured I would schedule in a 24-hour cheat day around the wedding, because, let’s face it, I would want a few cocktails. This was the wedding of a college friend, and many other college friends would be there.
My initial plan was to incorporate some nice cheese I bought a couple weeks before into this cheat 24-hours. But then I stopped myself. I will feel better if I can do this to the fullest. The cheese went in the freezer and I got on my plane.
I met up with the people I was rooming with and we found a Greek place near the hotel to have a late dinner. I informed them of my diet (but also cheat 24 hours), with some moderate eye rolling from both sides. At dinner I really thought about not getting a beer, but then went for it, and I would have been totally fine without it. It wasn’t a great beer. Had great on-plan kabobs and veggies.
The good part was the meal warmed me up to tasting alcohol again and I could be the champ when another friend showed up, and wanted to go out for a drink (everyone else was too tired).
In the morning, my late-to-dinner friend and I went for a long run about Cambridge and Boston. At the Holiday Inn Express (we are classy) I helped myself to all the water in the world, and a plate of bacon and a couple hard-boiled eggs. Our other friends wanted to get brunch, but we realized it would be at least an hour or two before that really happened. The bacon no doubt had sugar and additives, but frankly, I didn’t work myself up about this.
When we got to brunch, I went on the mostly Whole30 kick, and had a seltzer+grapefruit juice mocktail. I ordered a custom plate of sausage, salsa, eggs and avocado.
I really like bloody marys though. Our server was really busy, so by the time I had decided to order one mid-meal, we never really saw her again. One of my companions didn’t finish hers, so I got to have it both ways. Not a whole bloody, didn’t have to shell out dough, got a little happy.
After the wedding, the pre-dinner options were BEAUTIFUL plates of cheese and fruit and nuts and grilled vegetables. I had a couple pieces of cheese, but didn’t feel the need to have a bunch. I ate a ton of veggies (did I mention how beautiful the presentation was?). The day was a little hot, so I had a sparkling water at first.
At some point, I slowly dipped my toe into the champagne. And settled on the classic vodka soda for the night. I don’t know how many I had—it was a fun night of catching up and dancing. If my main dietary sin was drinking a bit too much vodka, I figured I was doing my best. I tried my best to get as much water in as I could.
Dinner was served family style, and I found it pretty easy to stay on plan – ish. I didn’t have anything from the bread basket. The salad was a beet salad. The chicken was grilled with peaches and it was excellent. There were candied pecans at the table and I had a few. (I’m sure there was added sugar in the chicken, too.) There was a salad with green beans, tomato, and corn. I had some of this, just tried to take scoops with less corn. I didn’t have the quinoa salad. (Yes, this was a lesbian wedding if you couldn’t tell already.) I had some of the swordfish, which wasn’t that good. The cake (ice cream cake) wasn’t served at the table, so I didn’t even have to awkwardly refuse it.
In the morning, after a few hours of sleep, I had to hop in a cab to get to the airport. Hungover, I grabbed many apples and hard boiled eggs from the hotel lobby and ALL OF THE WATER. When I got to the airport at home, all I could find in the newsstand to eat was almonds, but they were delish.
As for my day-to-day life during the diet, it involved a weekly trip to Costco, a weekly trip to the farmers market, and a weekly trip to the organic market, in addition to my CSA veggies. How I usually operate is work with my CSA veggies, go to the market for a few things if at all, and stock up monthly on everything else at Wegmans/TJs/Giant/Costco.
Sometimes, it seemed like I would just putter around the kitchen everyday for hours, with nothing to show but some chopped vegetable and coffee RTG for the morning. But really, I was on the same routine as normal. I cook most days anyway, so this was just a little more. My food routine was the same: eggs + coffee, workout, coffee + snack, lunch, snack, dinner, prep for tomorrow.
The last 15 or so days were a breeze. I got in the habit. I slept like a CHAMP. My nails grew faster. And I did lose some body fat. I wasn’t really craving alcohol anymore. Food was not something I consumed out of boredom.
At the close of my diet, I wasn’t really “craving” alcohol or the “bad stuff.” In fact, I secretly feared how my body would react. However, my housemates and I had scheduled a dinner that night. So we ordered pizza and had too much to drink. I was surprised how easy it was to get back into this way of being.
Then I farted for about a minute straight when I retired to my room. Hmm. This was something I hadn’t been experiencing on the Whole30. Perhaps because the pizza is easier to inhale than a mound of vegetables? Anyway….
I also should have taken in more water that night. I felt a bit rough in the morning.
Since then, I’ve been a little bit better that usual, but as it’s rugby season, also pretty much ignoring all dietary restrictions in the name of having a good time. It may be that doing Whole30s occasionally is really the way for me to go. I, like so many others, have moderation issues. The problem now is after rugby ends, we pretty much dive straight into the holidays, so I’m not sure if there is a proper time until 2014.
After and during the diet, I reflected about myself and the diet a lot. Here are some things.
-One of the main things I had fears about was alcohol. I had literally never “given it up” for a period of time, and I do enjoy drinking. It got easier. I questioned why I usually got two drinks instead of just one at happy hour. Limes and seltzer is a great way to liven up your drinks at home or when going out. My wallet and morning self thanked me. I would like to abstain again soon, again, not sure when this will be.
– I did not want to be “that guy” so I didn’t often ask waitstaff what kind of oil was in things, etc, though technically you are only supposed to eat certain oils, and avoid all added sugar and other fun add-ons. Whatevs.
-Obviously, free food at the office has to be ignored. Which I will admit to sometimes hoarding some to take home if there are extras and it was good.
-I’m still not sure if I saved money or spent more money. The grocery bill for the month was absurd. But I went out less, and when I did go out, there were no drinks on the bill. It definitely cost me time, going to the market so often and preparing food.
-I drank coffee (endorsed) and chewed gum (not endorsed).
-Fundamentally, a diet based on so much animal protein is not sustainable for the Earth. Which is why I think this better viewed as a cleanse, and only used as a regular diet for elite athletes. Also, I like beans and cheese. Also, I feel a bit like I have disordered eating when I am on this diet. There is a lot of feeling pure that comes with doing this, and I’m not sure that’s how one should live their life w.r.t. food.
-A lot of the websites devoted to the Whole30/Paleo lifestyle seem to be about “Sex with your pants on.” This means, follow “the rules” to a T (be that guy who asks about added sugar in the restaurant) but find technological solutions to have the things you crave. Coconut aminos as a replacement for soy sauce. Gluten-free “pancakes.” Almond “milk.” Healthy “desserts.” There are even sites that claim which is the best alcohol for a paleo lifestyle, if you’re going to have it (answer: agave tequila). All of these are really against “the point” of the Whole30, but we love finding loopholes, don’t we?
In conclusion, this diet can certainly be an eye-opener if you are on a standard American diet. If you’re not, you might find it an interesting exercise anyway. I don’t suggest drinking the Paleo Kool-Aid by any means, but do think diets like this fundamentally force us into mostly healthy choices.
*Quote from Whole30 people: It is not hard. Don’t you dare tell us this is hard. Quitting heroin is hard. Beating cancer is hard. Drinking your coffee black. Is. Not. Hard. You won’t get any coddling, and you won’t get any sympathy for your ‘struggles.’ YOU HAVE NO EXCUSE not to complete the program as written. It’s only thirty days, and it’s for the most important health cause on earth – the only physical body you will ever have in this lifetime.