My Experience with the Whole30

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This January, I jumped on the Whole30 bandwagon along with the rest of the “New Year, New Me” crew to begin a 30-day metabolism and diet reset. Initially, I was interested in doing the Whole30 wayyyy back in October, thinking “I’ll squeeze in a quick 30-day round after the Halloween candy craze and be back on track by Thanksgiving!” That quickly led to “maybe I’ll just do it between Thanksgiving and Christmas, it would be almost 30 days exactly and a great preemptive attack on the holiday pounds!” Until my mom wisely pointed out that it would be lunacy to attempt such a restrictive diet at that time of the year, essentially Black Friday through Christmas Eve; not only is it prime holiday party time, but I would also be going home for Thanksgiving and what would I eat when I was there and she was not going to cook separate meals for me and goddammit I was going to help finish the turkey leftovers! Okay, okay; I obliged.  And I’m glad I did – though my skinny jeans weren’t.

So after the holidays, I buckled down and embarked on a January Whole30 with the BF, who I forced joined me willingly. Having a boyfriend who can eat whatever he wants and not gain a pound is NOT fun when you’re someone who merely breathes around chocolate and gains 10. I needed a fail-safe support group that wouldn’t tempt me with splitting late night pints of Talenti peanut butter pretzel gelato (aka heaven in a cup; seriously try it if you haven’t)! We finally agreed to print out the recipes, meal prep, shop for groceries together, plan in advance, and stick to the protocol. No cheating, no slips.  For anyone who’s ever considered doing the Whole30, I’m sure you’ve read up about the super strict program rules on the website.  Founded by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig to supposedly solve a variety of health issues, the Whole30 diet seeks to eliminate all potentially inflammatory and system-disrupting foods, including: all grains, dairy, legumes (no peanuts! no chickpeas!), soy, sugar (including ALL substitutes), additives/preservatives, and alcohol for 30 days.

So what CAN you eat?? The focus of the program is one part protein of any kind, one part healthy fat (think lots of avocado, coconut oil, olive oil, etc.), and LOTS of vegetables (including potatoes!). Limited fruits and nuts, no snacking between meals, and eating enough to tide you over for at least 4 to 5 hours.

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A typical day consisted of the following meal plan:

Breakfast: Paprika and garlic potatoes and onion sauteed in olive oil and topped with sunny-side up eggs and a side of avocado; a breakfast scramble with onions, mushroom, bell pepper, and ground pork or turkey; or sweet potato avocado toast with herb-and-olive scrambled eggs and compliant sugar-free bacon (below).

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Lunch: Fresh chicken salad with cucumbers, red onion, pepper, carrots, and tomato; tossed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Snack: If I was really hungry or knew I’d be having a late dinner, I’d eat an apple with some almonds or almond butter, or maybe some baby carrots, though I generally tried to steer clear of snacking. Sometimes I would have an apple with lunch, sometimes not.

Dinner: Depends.  We tried out several new recipes, but overall I would say our style of cooking leaned more towards Asian/ethnic food with a Whole30 twist. It was sort of our go-to comfort food, especially since our favorite local Indian restaurant – Yaar – would be off the menu for the next 30 days. We made a LOT of chicken curry (one of my favorite recipes even before Whole30!) or lamb curry with coconut milk over cauliflower rice; variations of skillet chicken thighs with some sort of side like a salad or roasted potatoes, asparagus or roasted veggies; a couple of other favorites included Buffalo Chicken, Bacon and Ranch Skillet with Roasted Brussels Sprouts (below), Boneless Buffalo Bites, Orange Sesame Chicken, Thai Chicken with Spicy “Peanut” Sauce, and homemade burgers/fajitas in lettuce wraps. We even tried our hand at homemade paleo condiments like ketchup and ranch dressing, which turned out to be surprisingly good.

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I think that what most people are generally interested in when researching the Whole30 are the bottom-line results of the program, which is what I usually skimmed for when I read up on the diet and learned about other people’s experiences. I will start by saying that while I appreciate the principles of the Whole30 diet, I am not its biggest fan. But before getting too far into the negatives, let’s start out with the pros.

Whole30 Pros:

  1. After quite a few months of jumping (no, not falling – I embraced this wholeheartedly!) off the healthy-home-cooked-meals bandwagon and relying on bagels for breakfast, Seamless for lunch, and the vast restaurant playground that is New York City for dinner, I was really happy to be shopping for fresh groceries again. I know it’s no excuse, but it’s hard when life gets busy to stay on track! It happens to the best of us. But for me, it was especially devastating because I LOVE cooking – in 8th grade I was actually convinced that I wanted to go to culinary school – so it was great to be back in the kitchen and in control of the foods that I put into my body. 
  2. It was a good way to spend some quality time with BF. We had fun grocery shopping and cooking together, and enjoying the fruits of our hard-earned labor in the kitchen!
  3. BF learned quite a few new culinary skills! When I first met him, I had to show him how to open a can; while I still have to show him how to use the can opener, at least now he’s chopping salads and cooking chicken and potatoes and pretty confident he could whip up a delicious breakfast without my help (I am going to test this theory very soon with a breakfast-in-bed request).
  4. I saved money. I could see BF having a minor panic attack the first time we stocked up his kitchen with groceries, basics, and spices, but what I knew (and what he eventually came to realize) is this: While groceries can be expensive depending on the quality and type of food that you buy, eating out will always be more so. Grocery shopping just involves a larger upfront cost, but with greater returns (see, working at a hedge fund has taught me a few things!).
  5. It was great to have a New Year’s resolution and actually see it through. Being intentional, setting a goal, and following it to its completion is a wonderful way to start a new year and sets a good precedent for things to come.

As indicated, I was not the biggest fan of the Whole30. Here’s why:

Whole30 Cons:

  1. It’s extremely time consuming. The shopping, the cooking, the planning out meals and running out to the grocery store again because crap you forgot that one really obscure ingredient you’ll probably only use once but you really want to try this new recipe because dammit you’re hungry for “Chinese” food and double crap your janky grocery store doesn’t carry that sugar-free magical brand so I guess I better run to Whole Foods and chop off my arm as payment – all that takes up a LOT of time. Not to mention the Sunday afternoon ritual of chopping up salads for the week. We didn’t have much of a social life. It felt like most of our weekends were confined to the kitchen chopping, cooking, eating, doing dishes in our dishwasher-less NYC apartments, and planning our next meal, just so we could do it all over again. Never having ONE day where we could take a break and go out to eat or just grab some takeout was exhausting. Which leads me to my next point:
  2. It’s really hard to have a social life on the Whole30. Not only is it difficult to find foods that are 100% compliant with the Whole30 rules (which state that ONE slip up, means you have to start over from day one); but food simply doesn’t taste as good, and costs twice the price, of the food you make at home. So why eat out? Why order the omelette without cheese and no toast for $22, when you can make an amazing breakfast at home for $2.50? Going out to eat is nearly impossible. Even our experience at one of the few Whole30-approved restaurants in the city – the famous organic, 100% grassfed, locally-sourced, non-GMO blah blah Bareburger – was really disappointing. We were both so looking forward to a dinner out before a movie, and eagerly ordered burgers and sweet potato fries. When the burgers came out I almost jaw-dropped: they were SOOOO tiny! And I mean like SUPER tiny! BF and I went home and made burgers two days later because those burgers did NOT scratch our itch; ours were way better, healthier, and knocked the socks off of those tiny little lettuce wrap “appetizers” we ate that were held together by a toothpick. I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t want to eat a “burger” that’s held together by a toothpick.
  3. I never experienced any of the significant non-scale victories so proudly touted by Whole30. In fact, it was quite the opposite. One morning, I actually woke up with a completely sore and swollen bottom lip for NO REASON AT ALL. Seriously, I didn’t bite my lip, didn’t have a sore -it was just abnormally swollen and really freaked me out.
  4. Not only did my headaches not go away, I found that they had actually increased after starting the Whole30. I was taking my behind-the-counter allergy medicine literally every day, when normally I take it maybe once or twice a week. Correlation is not causation so it could be attributed to other environmental factors, but STILL.
  5. My skin, which has always been pretty clear even since high school, didn’t develop that “glow” everyone talks about – in fact, I started getting really painful cystic acne on my chin and forehead for the entire four weeks. Like SUPER nasty acne that even cover up wouldn’t, well, cover up. It was really distressing! Some people suggested that maybe it was the toxins coming out of my system, but if that’s the case, it would only last for a couple of weeks, not the duration of the program. *Note: I’ve been off the program for 3 weeks now and my skin is back to normal.
  6. I felt bloated the entire time. I’m not really sure why? The only thing I can think of is that I was eating more starches/carbs than I was used to, in the form of some of my favorite root vegetables like potatoes, beets, and carrots.
  7. I never developed “tiger blood” – aka this amazing feeling of being super energetic and alert and concentrated. In fact, I felt even more groggy and exhausted, wasn’t sleeping well, and was also concerned about the other side effects I was feeling.
  8. Worst of all, I actually GAINED WEIGHT on the Whole30. Not a significant amount, but still. UGH! When you go into something hoping for one result and the opposite occurs, it’s pretty frustrating. Meanwhile, BF LOSES 15 POUNDS. I’m not kidding. Talk about wanting to rage eat a donut.

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I guess there were a couple of indirect positive outcomes, including the fact that I learned a lot about my body throughout the process. For example:

  1. My body really doesn’t handle potatoes well – especially sweet potatoes. It caused a lot of digestion issues for me and I think contributed largely to the bloating and weight gain. So it’s probably best to limit my starches and carbs.
  2. Conversely, I think my body actually processes dairy pretty well in small quantities. I felt very satisfied and much lighter in the morning after eating Greek yogurt with berries instead of potatoes and eggs. In the future I plan to swap out carbs for dairy, as that seems to work best for my body.
  3. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that the canned coconut milk I was putting in my coffee two to three times daily was contributing to my acne. It’s extremely high in fat which can lead to oily skin, in rare cases it can cause allergic reactions LIKE SWOLLEN LIPS, and the BPA-lined cans are not supposed to be good for you at all. As soon as I switched back to half and half, everything cleared up. So I think I have to limit my intake of coconut milk.
  4. Almonds/nuts/nut butters are my downfall. I can’t have just 10, so it’s probably best to just cut them out altogether.
  5. I don’t think snacking is evil, and I find that I like to eat smaller meals and have snacks throughout the day to keep me fueled. If you’re eating the same amount food, just split up differently, I don’t really see the point of having huge meals if that’s not really your style. Some may disagree, but again, each body is different.

The best part of the whole Whole30 was my boyfriend’s success story! Not only did he lose 15 pounds, but he also developed a whole new skill set, became comfortable navigating the grocery store and the kitchen, woke up feeling more energized, and the chronic chest pain he was experiencing actually disappeared. If that’s not a success story, I don’t know what is!

This post is not meant to deter anyone from giving the Whole30 a try; it obviously has different results for different people who come from different places in their life. The majority of people actually seem to have great results.  While I probably won’t be trying Whole30 again, I did learn some valuable things, all of which can be summed up in one sentence: It’s not for me.

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