My Experience on Whole 30
This week’s blog post is about my experience doing the Whole 30. I learned a lot about myself, what is considered healthy eating (by myself and others), and my relationship with food. Whether you are familiar with the whole 30 or not, please read on.
I started this journey on the Whole 30 on January 30, 2018. This new year brought about new promises to myself and some changes to my life which included a commitment to eating clean (even more so than I currently do), and working out more. What prompted this way of eating for 30 days was a trip to Philadelphia on January 29, 2018 when I took my son to see the University of Pennsylvania. We had a great day of visiting the college, and when we were finishing up, decided since we were in Philly, we should get a famous cheesesteak. I typically don’t eat cheesesteaks but figured we were in a city that was famous for them so why not? We both hadn’t had a chance to eat much for lunch (I had packed us both a small lunch), so we were both famished by the time we left U Penn’s campus. After a 10 minute drive, we arrived at the famous cheesesteak restaurant, and placed our order for cheesesteaks with cheese wiz, peppers and onions, and a side order of cheese fries (we shared the fries). The cheesesteak was amazing when I was eating it- so were the fries which I ate with ketchup too. We ended our meal with a mini cannoli, and left Philadelphia with full stomachs. I know some of you are thinking, “wait- isn’t she a nutritionist? Why is she eating a cheesesteak, and fries?” Let me clarify that: I am a healthy eater about 90% of the time, but I don’t know anyone who eats clean 100% of the time. Even the healthiest eater occasionally has a “cheat” whether it’s a piece of gluten free pizza, cupcake, hot chocolate, a glass of wine or french fry.
In the car on the way home, I began to feel sick. Like, REALLY nauseous. The food tasted SO good going down, but after most people eat something unhealthy that they are not used to, the body reacts, often with nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea. Thankfully I made it through the hour and 20 minute drive without throwing up, but for the rest of the evening, I felt so sick. It was an awful feeling and a good reminder as to why I don't eat food like that often. It was that night that I decided I was going to make a commitment to eat really “clean” for a month. I put the word clean in quotes because I knew of the Whole 30 and knew it was a diet that was considered clean by many people’s standards. I knew it was a very popular diet, and decided to give it a try. I personally think I eat pretty clean most of the time, but decided that I was really going to challenge myself into eating as clean as can be, as defined by other people’s standards. My other motivation for doing this was because I am a nutritionist. I have heard many people talk about this eating plan, as well as many others. I figured if I am going to recommend this way of eating to any of my clients, I had better experience this diet myself because I believe it’s important to practice what you preach. I would never ask a nutrition client to do something I hadn’t personally done.
So my journey on the Whole 30 began. I started on January 30th, very determined to do this. If you are unfamiliar with the whole 30, here is a condensed version of the program: You basically have to eat whole foods for 30 days and nothing else. What is a whole food? A whole food is something that you would find that is one ingredient with nothing added to it. An apple is a whole food because, what are the ingredients in an apple? An apple. Nuts are whole foods. Chicken is a whole food. You get the point. All the food must have as few additives as possible and no sugar can be added. There is a whole list of things that are not allowed on the whole 30 (if you want to check it out yourself, here is a link as far as what is not allowed as well as a little information on the plan: https://whole30.com/downloads/additives.pdf) but the gist of what is not allowed is as follows: There is NO:
- sugar (or sweeteners of any kind including honey or stevia)
- grains of any kind (no steel cut oatmeal, no rice, no wheat, no quinoa, no gluten free bread)
- legumes (no beans, peanuts, peas, lentils)
- corn or any kind of corn products
- additives such as carrageen, MSG, sulfites, soy lecithin
- cheating for the entire 30 days
If you are familiar with a Paleolithic diet, you are probably thinking this diet sounds a lot like the Paleo plan. (For those of you that are unfamiliar with a Paleo diet, it is modeled after how it was thought our ancestors ate during the Paleolithic era. There were no processed foods during this era, and it was believed there were no grains, or dairy and certain other foods.) However, on a Paleo diet you are allowed to have Stevia, and/or honey. Whole 30 you can not. Also, on the Paleo plan, you can make paleo muffins or other mock baked goods (using almond or another non grain flour). On Whole 30, this isn’t allowed. They are similar plans but each have different rules.
I looked over the program the night before and figured I was mostly prepared to do it as I am already in the habit of planning meals for the week and prepping them on the weekends. I already had lots of fresh produce and have lunches, packed when I go to work, breakfasts made for the week, and dinners are planned and prepped as well, so I wasn’t really concerned about prepping that night before I started or stocking my fridge.
I have always considered myself an overall healthy eater. I am 5 feet tall (actually almost 5’1”) and I usually weigh anywhere form 107-112lbs, so I was not desiring to lose weight. I maintain my weight at 47 years old by eating healthful foods, managing my stress, and exercising. I have literally no health issues. None. I go to the Ob/Gyn once a year for a check up and the eye doctor annually. I know many of the people reading this blog already know that I am an exercise professional, teaching classes in several gyms 5, often 6 days per week. Additionally, I have my masters degree in nutrition and my bachelors degree in nursing, so I have a pretty good idea of what is considered a healthy lifestyle and what food choices are appropriate for this type lifestyle.
To give you an idea of how I ate prior to whole 30, I typically would prep my breakfasts for the week by cooking lots of different vegetables, add eggs, making a frittata, and then slicing in 4. Each day for breakfast I could have a slice of frittata as I was running out the door to go teach a fitness class. If I didn’t have eggs prior to whole 30, I would have steel cut oatmeal if I had the time to make it, would add either raisins, some vanilla extract and maybe some cinnamon. Occasionally I would have half a whole wheat/high fiber english muffin with some peanut butter with no added sugar. I typically drink one 8 ounce cup of coffee per day (sometimes two cups), with half and half, but no sugar. Lunches were either homemade soups (I love to cook), home made salads with different veggies, and grilled chicken or fish and my own dressings. Dinners typically were a protein such as fish or chicken, vegetable such as broccoli with garlic and oil, or brussels sprouts with bacon, and a starch such as mashed potatoes, rice, or small amounts of pasta. I did not typically have “taco Tuesday” or use boxed potatoes. I am Italian, so food is very important in my culture. I grew up cooking every night for my family, so meal prep and planning and lots of fruits and vegetables were always (and still are) my norm. I would say I loosely follow a Mediterranean type diet. I also drank lots and lots of water every day.
Here is what I learned in 30 days of being on the Whole 30 plan:
- Sugar is hidden everywhere and I mean everywhere. Yes- we expect it to be in breakfast cereals, and ketchup but did did you know most bacon has sugar added to it? Check your bacon before you buy it next time (read the label). I had to look through literally 9 different varieties before I found a compliant bacon. And that being said, complaint bacon was $6 (on sale) for a half pound. Which brings me to my next point..
- It was expensive to eat like this. I tell my nutrition clients to do the best they can with their budget. The diet doesn’t specifically say you have to have all organic foods, but the idea here is to eat as clean as you can. The only compliant cold cut/deli meat I could find was prosciutto at $16 a pound. Yes I bought it and enjoyed it, but my budget really doesn’t allow for that on a regular basis. I have 3 teenage boys that can easily eat 2 pounds of bacon between the three of them for breakfast or blow through that pound of prosciutto in one sitting. Do your best as far as buying organic, grass fed, etc
- You really have to read labels. Besides the sugar, there are often fillers, artificial sweeteners, or other additives that you really don’t need that could be affecting your health (that you may or may not know are in there). Did you know soy lecithin is often added to tea? Or that carrageenan is added to deli meats? I didn't know that. I don't buy a lot of deli meat/cold cuts, but when I was reading the whole 30 book, I became very aware of many of the additives in food.
- Non starchy vegetables alone don’t fill me up, and eating all that fat didn’t make me feel good. I know the Paleo followers may freak out at that statement, but it just didn’t work for me. I ate a burger one day at a farm to table restaurant, (had no bun, so it was literally a burger with mushrooms and onions, and salad with balsamic and olive oil). Believe it or not, I felt sick to my stomach driving home and didn’t eat for hours because I felt so sick. Yes the fat filled me up, but I felt sick and gross. I can’t even imagine adding bacon or guacamole to that. I know some people feel great on this type diet (high fat, low carb), but I didn’t feel great without eating any healthy carbs (healthy carbs meaning beans, lentils, steel cut oatmeal). The Whole 30 book actually talks about how around day 16 of the diet you start to feel great as far as energy level, GI system, etc. I kept thinking, "when am I going to start feeling great?" Unfortunately for me, it never happened.
- Avoiding alcohol isn’t really all that hard for me. I don’t enjoy wine, and I’m really not much of a drinker at all. I can live without making chicken marsala for 30 days, but on day 28 I went to New York City with my mom and my sister for a belated birthday celebration for our mom. We went to a fun Cuban restaurant before going to a show. I really wanted to have a mojito, but knew it wasn't allowed on the plan. Yes- I went for it, but had the bartender add no simple syrup, so it was pretty tart with the lime juice, but I really enjoyed relaxing with a drink. The not adding alcohol to food though was hard. I am Italian. We cook with wine in my culture. That was a challenge for me not to.
- This was meal prep “on steroids.” I am normally accustom to prepping and planning my meals. Every single meal had to be carefully prepped and planned on this diet because I didn’t want to make a mistake and add some ingredient to something that was non compliant. I meal prepped and planned before starting the diet, so that wasn’t a change, however I will usually do a cheat meal twice a week. There were no cheat meals on this eating plan, which for me, was psychologically tough. To be honest, this diet had me obsessing over food, and I felt like I couldn’t really go out to eat because I was so afraid they would add something to my food that I couldn’t have .
- My sleep became disrupted on the diet. I used to sleep like a baby prior to this experience. During the 30 days, I would routinely wake up at 4 or 5am, and have trouble falling back to sleep. The Whole 30 authors say it’s due to caffeine so they tell you to cut out all caffeine. I did this for three days. The result? Still woke up at 4am, and I personally find it pretty tough to believe that one 8ounce cup of coffee that I would have at 7am would completely disrupt my sleep almost 24 hours later. When I was done with the diet and added carbohydrates back in my diet, I had no trouble sleeping (despite the cup of coffee that I drink every day), so I'm not convinced it was the caffeine that was having affecting me.
- Giving up coffee was not an option for me. Neither was drinking it black. I wasn’t willing to do it. I tried every creamer there was that was compliant. Some cashew nut creamer, some almond milk creamer, coconut creamer, etc. They were all awful. By day 8 I gave up on the no cream in my coffee, and measured out 1 tablespoon of cream in my coffee daily. I figured I was giving up everything and one 8 ounce cup of coffee with 1 tablespoon of cream would be OK. Other than the coffee, I followed the diet very strictly.
- My will power was actually pretty good. Not having any bread, grain, legumes, soy, dairy, sugar, additives is a great thing for many people, but it actually was challenging for me (the healthy carb part in particular). Despite this, I learned that when I am determined to do something, I do it.
I am glad I tried this diet, as it challenged me to eat as little processed foods as possible, and cut out a lot of sugar. It’s amazing to think about how many additives are in our foods. Unfortunately though, this diet was too extreme for my taste. I did this not only as a challenge to myself, but as a nutritionist, I talk the talk and walk the walk and I wouldn’t ask a client to do something I was unwilling or unable to do. I personally feel like if I put a morbidly obese person on a diet like this- someone who isn’t used to cooking for themselves, and eating like this, I think it would be overwhelming for them. I found myself becoming obsessive over food, felt like I couldn’t go out to eat (because God forbid they put some butter or wine in the food), and did not enjoy all the “great” feelings so many people who have been on this diet experienced. I think it was due to the fact that I already was a pretty good eater -it’s not uncommon for me to eat huge salads and lots of vegetables. What I did here was restrict my carbohydrates, cut out sugar, cut out alcohol, and honestly I felt very deprived. I also had stomach aches because I would find myself eating LOTS of vegetables (like a whole head of cauliflower at a time) because I was constantly hungry. Snacks are not encouraged on this plan, and my snacks were nuts which are very calorie dense and yes- they are healthy, but I would have large portions of them because I was HUNGRY! I tell my weight loss clients 1-2 cheat meals per week are OK because you really need to have that balance. I felt this diet was extreme and I was out of balance with my eating. After 30 days of this with two cheats (cream in my coffee and the mojito/few bites of appetizer at the cuban restaurant on day 27), I only lost 3 pounds. I personally think my body works better with more healthy carbohydrates.
I feel eating should be to fuel our bodies with proper nutrients from healthy foods, but I also feel that eating is meant to be pleasurable and social. Healthy foods are pleasurable for me to eat, but so are all different types of foods, textures, flavors and temperatures. It is pleasurable for me to eat a big salad with grilled chicken on a hot day, or a warm bowl of homemade soup on a cold day, or to sit at the table and have nice conversation over Sunday dinner. I eat lots of fruit and fresh vegetables and enjoy these foods tremendously, but I also occasionally enjoy a brownie, or a few french fries, or my ultimate favorite: Tates chocolate chip cookies (which I seemed to find everywhere when I was on this diet plan).
If you are overweight or have health issues, this diet may work well for you as you will lose weight, should feel better (if you are not a very healthy eater to begin with), and health issues most likely WILL improve without all the sugar and other additives, however I felt this was a very strict diet, and was out of balance. The authors of the book say if you make a mistake, you have to start the entire 30 days again, which I feel is extreme. My advice is to do what works for you. Clearly, my prior way of eating was working for me as evident by my healthy weight, my energy level, my appearance (hair, skin and nails) and overall good health. If you are not feeling great, feeling like your health or appearance could be improved, you may want to consider doing this, or a modified version of this diet.
Have you ever done Whole 30 or similar eating plan? What was your experience? Feel free to comment below.