I first discovered Whole30, as many people do, on the Internet. This was several years ago, and while I found the health benefits of this clean eating plan interesting, after realizing I’d have to give up my morning routine of oatmeal with yogurt, I decided it wasn’t for me. It wasn’t until several years later, when I was suffering from amenorrhea after stopping the birth control pill for the first time in thirteen years, that I decided to give Whole30 a chance.
What Is Whole30?
Whole30 is an eating philosophy invented by Melissa and Dallas Hartwig. There are lots of resources on the Internet that will give you the nitty gritty, but as far as broad strokes are concerned, Whole30 is all about discovering which foods your body reacts poorly to. To do this, you essentially cut out all possible irritants, inflammatories, and endocrine disruptors for 30 days, and then you slowly reintroduce them.
The list of foods you are not allowed to have on Whole30 include:
- Processed foods (including white flour, sugar, and alcohol)
- Added sweeteners (including honey, maple syrup, and coconut sugar)
- Dairy (including grass-fed butter)
- Legumes (including beans, peas, and lentils)
- Soy (yes, a legume, but I draw attention to it because this includes tofu and soy sauce)
- Grains (including rice, corn, and pseudo-grains like buckwheat and quinoa)
In other words, you eat protein, fruits and vegetables, and more eggs than you ever thought possible.
There is absolutely no cheating tolerated on Whole30. You can’t “mess up” on day 17 and go to day 18 with a clean slate. If you eat any of the unapproved foods, even by accident, you’re back at day one again.
Once the “30” is over, you have several options for reintroducing "non-compliant" foods. You can either introduce one new food every few days, eating the new food for one day and then reverting back to Whole30 for a few days to see if the food has any adverse effects, or you can continue eating “clean” and only add in new foods based on individual situations.
To find out more about Whole30, I recommend checking out the official Whole30 site.
People start Whole30 for a number of reasons: maybe they have poor digestion, or they assume they might be intolerant to lactose or gluten. Some people do it because they're constantly tired or have poor immune function.
As for me, while amenorrhea was the trigger, as I was recently married and trying to get pregnant, I had two other problems I was seeking to resolve.
The first was my skin. When I was a teenager, I had pretty permanent breakouts on my forehead that have slowly migrated to my jawline, where they have remained, pretty much every day, for the past ten years.
The second was a sort of unspoken truth about Whole30: I have been struggling with approximately 20 extra pounds ever since I gained them my freshman year of college, and while officially, Whole30 isn’t a weight loss plan, most of the people I knew who had tried it said that weight loss was an added bonus.
How I Felt
A lot of Whole30 is about learning how your body feels. I ended up spending more time than ever before asking myself how I felt: tired? bloated? full? irritable? great? bad?
The answer was pretty much always yes.
The first week of Whole30, especially, is kind of a roller coaster. The first two days, I felt fantastic, followed by a major crash on the third day where I felt like I was going to simultaneously fall asleep and burst into tears. Of course, it didn’t help that day three coincided with me getting my first post-pill period (!), and so I had to deal with real cramps for the first time in thirteen years.
After this part is over, some people talk about a “tiger blood” effect that makes you feel super powerful and able to do anything. I never felt that, though I did feel better than I did before: I slept better, and when I was awake, I felt more awake. I very rarely felt drowsy.
I did, however, have some digestion issues. (Yep, we're gonna talk about poop.) My digestion wasn't as regular, and my stool was often loose. I would sometimes feel bloated, though it didn't last very long. I did, however, get pretty frequent heartburn.
The reintegration phase made me feel even better.
The first thing I added back in was organic wine, which was a horrible choice. I got drunk after one glass, fell asleep at nine o'clock, and spent the whole next day feeling stupid.
I was, however, successfully able to reintroduce legumes (no soy) and raw honey, and this improved my digestion and made me feel a bit more like myself again; without beans and legumes, I was eating meat pretty much every day, which is not at all normal for me. Now I'm back to eating vegetarian two or three days a week, which I much prefer, both for health and ethical reasons.
As for my three symptoms?
As you might have noticed I mentioned above, I did get my period again, and it's now fairly regular for the first time in my life. I can't attribute this entirely to Whole30, as I also began acupuncture a few months before, but I'm fairly sure that cutting out endocrine disruptors like processed food and hormone-rich foods like dairy and soy helped.
My skin absolutely cleared up on Whole30 – I’ve never gone so long without a zit in my life. I also notice immediately when I eat a non-compliant food, as I break out pretty much within twelve hours.
Oh, and I lost six pounds.
But the biggest change was one that I wasn’t expecting: my relationship with food was completely overhauled. In just 30 days, I lost the need to fill time, cure feelings, or sate boredom with food. I stopped snacking, and as a lifelong snacker and someone who works from home (i.e., within two feet of my fridge), this was a huge change.
The Secrets of My Success
The Whole30 program is famous for its "tough love" approach. In their book, the Hartwigs are clear that Whole30 is "not hard." And it's true; when you compare it to truly hard things, the Whole30 is not hard. It is, however, a big change, and there were a few things that made it easier for me to be successful.
I started my first Whole30 right after Christmas, after the kind of crazed binge eating that makes this kind of regimented way of eating seem like the best idea you’ve ever had.
But before Christmas, I had actually started phasing in a few of the rules of Whole30. In March of the year before, I had already cut out pretty much all processed foods as well as most grains. I was also eating very little dairy except for fermented dairy like yogurt and kefir, and I had cut out caffeine which, while allowed on Whole30, I continued to do for the 30 days of the plan.
Having already made these changes (and starting the program right after the holidays) made it a lot easier to commit to the Whole30 without feeling either lost or deprived.
2. A Buddy
My sister moved in with me right after Christmas, and she was game to start Whole30, too. Having a buddy at home who was going to keep me accountable was immensely helpful in keeping myself accountable, especially because while eating out on Whole30 is technically possible, it tends to be a bit more trouble than it's worth. (I turned into a bit of a hermit during the program.)
We also made it even harder to cheat by creating our own rule: if either one of us slipped up, we would both have to start over at Day one. It’s one thing to face off with cookie dough and tell yourself that starting over tomorrow isn’t that big of a deal. It’s quite another to imagine having to tell your sister that she’s starting over, too.
Menu planning was my saving grace for Whole30. While I've been planning my dinners in advance for years, my sister and I took it a step further, planning not only dinner but also breakfast and lunch, sometimes two weeks ahead of time.
Planning ahead meant that it was harder to get sick of things. While you do eat a lot of eggs on Whole30, especially for breakfast, planning ahead meant that we were able to keep from eating the same thing multiple mornings in a row without actually having to think about it first thing.
Changing it up meant that I never got sick of eggs on Whole30 – and considering the rate at which we went through them, that’s a victory in itself.
Here are a few of my favorite Whole30 breakfast ideas.
4. Interesting Recipes
When you look at the items you can actually eat on Whole30, it can seem a bit daunting. How are you supposed to find 60 interesting ways to prepare such a short ingredients list?
Many friends I know decided to just power through, making a compliant chili and eating it dutifully for a whole week, two or even three meals a day. My sister and I, however, are foodies, and we decided to make things as fun as we could.
Both of us spent lots of time on Instagram searching hashtags like #whole30 and #whole30approved to find the dinners that we would be making during the week, which included things like meatballs with arrabbiata sauce, cauliflower and celery root mash with Cajun spiced shrimp, and Asian orange chicken.
For lunches, we went a bit simpler: usually, we would take whatever scraps we had in the fridge and make a curry with almond butter and coconut milk sauce or a huge salad – here are some of our favorite combos. We generally split a piece of fruit as well, which was a nice way to end the meal and tell our bodies we were done eating without actually having that much sugar.
While Whole30 recommends against snacking, we also had a two-kilo bag of organic carrots in the fridge at all times, in case the sugar dragon reared its ugly head.
5. Herbal Tea
Yep, I’m giving tea its own category.
Whole30 is, at its core, about changing your relationship with food, and that, for me, meant cutting out snacking entirely. When I went for a carrot in the fridge, it was because I was legitimately hungry. When I got “snacky,” often at night, I would drink herbal tea, or sometimes just straight-up hot water. I have never been more hydrated in my life.
Herbal tea became a bit of a crutch for me, I'll admit it, but as a result, it trained me to know when I was hungry and when I wasn't. Now, I don't need the tea (though I still enjoy it!) to keep from opening the fridge idly and reaching inside.
Moving Past Whole30
Moving past Whole30 will definitely be a learning experience. Many people will do a Whole7 or a Whole14 every once in a while to keep themselves honest, and that seems feasible and even enjoyable for me. As for now, I'm eating a mostly compliant diet, though I'll sometimes have a piece of cheese or really good bread. I do, however, notice how my body reacts to those foods, and it makes me aware of the repercussions on my health and well-being of eating something non-compliant.
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