Today is the last day of my Whole 30 culinary “reset,” and it’s hard to argue with the results. In the past month I’ve lost nearly 15 pounds, my stomach no longer resembles a beach-ball, and — I can’t lie about this — I feel better overall than I’ve felt in a little while. My energy levels are a bit lower, but they’re more consistent, and I wake up feeling more rested in the morning.
But it hasn’t been all sunshine and roses. Cooking, while fun, is a fairly large time sink even after I’ve gotten my act together in the kitchen. There are a lot of foods that I’ve missed — even beyond the “This awful, bad-for-you food tastes too good to give up” stuff. Rice, beans, a slice of buttered toast, red wine…these are all things that I’ve been wishing I could have consistently through the month. Going on the Whole30 ‘reset’ can be a bit of an isolating experience, as well — I’ve had to put up with a bit of derision from folks about it, even though I haven’t really bought into the principles behind it. It can be frustrating to make a decision to eat better (especially on a drastic program like this) and have people second-guessing you every time it’s brought up. It’s hard enough to deal with your own brain screaming at you to break the diet, and peer pressure certainly doesn’t help.
Most of my friends have been pretty cool about it, though, and by two weeks in I had my “elevator pitch” for it down pat. The Whole30 operates on a simple — but demanding — principle; food should provoke healthy psychological and physiological responses, support a healthy gut, and prevent inflaming your digestive tract or suppressing your immune system. That’s it. If it only does three of those things, you can’t have it. And according to their research, that leaves you with meat, eggs, nuts, fruits, vegetables and a few oils. Dairy, grains, legumes, anything with processed or added sugar and alcohol does not pass this test. So it has to go, for at least thirty days.
It’s been a bit of a roller coaster. The first week or two was the most difficult; your body has to adjust to a radically different diet, and then the rest of you has to catch up to the ramifications of your lifestyle choices. Eating out is suddenly far more hassle than simply staying home and cooking for yourself, and that’s notably more involved than just popping something into the microwave and letting it go. It’s very much a trial by fire — at least it was for me. And now that it’s over I have a new set of tools that I can sharpen moving forward.
I think the best way to tackle this look back would be to look at the positives, negatives, lessons learned and what I’ll walk away with. This might be a bit of a long entry, folks.
While you’re on the Whole30, they strongly recommend that you don’t look at the scale at all. You’re supposed to focus on other things, like how you feel and how differently your clothes are fitting, or how your skin is clearing up. In theory, I agree with this — learning to pay attention to your body is a vital thing if you want to have a good relationship with it. If something you’re doing isn’t making your body happy, you should learn to recognize the signs and pay attention. I think Whole30 aims to teach people to do this by positive reinforcement. See how much more energy you have? See how much better you’re sleeping? Notice how your skin looks better? So forth and so on.
And I have to admit, by that measure this reset was a success. I can’t boast more energy, but my energy levels are more consistent. I’m sleeping better in general, and when I wake up it requires far less time to get me up and running. A lot of the oily skin that I had on my forehead and nose has diminished, and my digestive tract has gotten a lot calmer. Before the Whole30, my stomach was bloated, I had pretty strong irritation in my bowels, I was constipated. For the most part, that’s cleared up.
It’s also worth noting that I lost 15 pounds in one month. That kind of weight loss is insane (and probably not healthy, but that’s another story). I’ve spent the past few years with my weight creeping ever-upward, trying to get back to 170 – 175. I’ve counted calories, I’ve tried weight training and cardio, and nothing’s worked. The Whole30 produced really surprising results that I can’t deny. It’s amazing to me that this one thing worked when nothing else did.
Beyond the physical, Whole30 forces you into a lifestyle change that I think is very beneficial. The program encourages you to know exactly what you’re eating, and really pushes you to ask questions you wouldn’t even think about otherwise. Since meat is such a vital part of the Whole30 diet, a lot of effort goes towards training you to make sure it’s quality. Ideally, you should be eating meat from locally-sourced, humanely-raised animals. Antibiotics and additives are discouraged, and just trying to cut out those two things takes so much of what’s on store shelves off the table. By hunting for the best meat you can find, you start to develop an eye for what’s acceptable and what’s not. It teaches you a totally different way to shop for food, and ties neatly into becoming a “locavore”.
A brief aside — being a locavore is something I highly encourage. It’s something that you don’t have to be a big hipster about, and you can do it in stages on your own pace. Find out about your local meat and dairy sources. Go to a farmer’s market to see what’s in season, what you can buy fresh from a farm. By choosing foods that are cultivated nearby, you’re cutting down on a lot of the problems with an extensive, far-reaching supply chain. It also really gives you a sense of place; you become knowledgeable about what does well here, what’s in season when, ties you to the cycle of the seasons and the personality of the land around you. Something as basic as food can be this gateway for connection to the world you live in, which is a really awesome thing.
Generally, you’re going to be forced to buy your meat, fruit and vegetables with as little processing as possible. You end up going to a very specific zone of your store, and you quickly learn that most of it is useless for your purposes. At our neighborhood supermarket, we ended up spending all of our time in produce and the deli. Then we brought it home to cook, because trying to throw together a dish with a little bit of taste is way better than eating ingredients.
And that brings me to the next perk of Whole30: learning to make peace with your kitchen. Ryan and I tend to live more like bachelors than a truly domesticated couple. The kitchen holds the appliances that we use to make quick meals: the microwave, the toaster, the coffee pot. Prepackaged food that requires the use of our oven or stove was pretty much our idea of cooking in. Anything that took much more effort than that was hopelessly complicated. I exaggerate — or do I? — slightly. We weren’t big cookers, and a month later, I have to say we still aren’t. But we’re a bit more savvy than we were before Whole30.
What’s more, I discovered that I liked to cook. I like to follow recipes, that magic ritual where you put a bunch of things together in the right amount, at the right time, to create something wonderful. When you pull off something relatively complicated or involved, or when you do something that you haven’t been able to manage yet for the first time (like, for example, cooking a perfect over-easy egg in an iron skillet), it makes you feel a bit like a wizard. Cooking is the closest I’m going to come to spellcasting, and as whimsical as that sounds the effect and reward is immediate and tangible. You create something delicious that you (or better yet, others) can appreciate.
The whole experience — from sourcing my ingredients to cooking it to eating it — was vastly different from the way I normally eat. I never really thought much about my food. It just comes from “somewhere”, and ends up on my plate to scratch a particular itch. Now that I’ve spent a month really studying it, looking at where my food comes from and thinking about how my body reacts to it, I’m glad to feel more connected and invested in the things I eat. I still love food, and all kinds of food — I’m never going to give up fried chicken, or waffles, or cheeseburgers — but that love feels more mature, more well-rounded, more complex because of the knowledge I’ve gained. And that means a lot to me.
The reason I think we, as a society, have the diet we do is because it’s cheap and fast. I forget who came up with this model, or where I heard it from first, but almost any commodity you can buy will have three costs: a material one (cheap vs. expensive), a temporal one (fast vs. slow) and a qualitative one (healthy vs. unhealthy). Obviously, what’s best is something that’s cheap, fast and healthy — it’s reasonably nutritious, doesn’t take a lot of time to prepare or consume, and doesn’t cost a lot. So much of our diet industry is based around chasing that holy grail. It’s why we have Power Bars and protein supplements, Slim-Fast and pre-packaged salads. We want to eat food that has it all. But something cheap, fast and healthy probably isn’t going to taste very good. But we don’t have time or money to spare, so we sacrifice quality to eat food we like. At least it’s cheap and fast!
In order to make food that tastes good, you’re going to have to pony up for it somehow. It’s either going to be expensive (think of the pre-packaged stuff you get at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods), take a lot of time to make (think of cooking your own healthy version of, well, anything) or it’s not going to be good for you (think of any fast-food restaurant). Sometimes you’ll have to pay in time AND money, and that’s basically what Whole30 forces you to do.
Getting locally-sourced, humanely-raised meat takes time; you have to research what sort of conditions are important to you (Is it important for the animal to be free-range? What about no antibiotics? What about vegetarian-fed?), then you have to find sources that match those criteria, then you have to find out where the product is being sold. When you do find it, it’s probably going to cost a lot. Our food production system is geared towards using factory farming methods, and anyone stepping out of that system will need to pay money to do it. In the end, you have to put your money where your mouth is and pay for your beliefs.
I don’t think this is necessarily a negative. But it is something that impacted my life over the last 30 days, quite a bit. Ryan and I, as I said before, aren’t big cookers — we both have fairly busy lives and we sacrificed healthy eating for what was cheap, fast and available up until now. Whole30 puts quality above everything else, so it’s difficult to do if you’re not willing to put in the time and/or pay up the money for it.
My grocery bill shot up in February QUITE a bit, and most of my evenings were spent preparing food — either for dinner that night or for breakfast and lunch the next day. As much as I appreciate discovering a love of cooking, other priorities were shoved aside to make room for this. While I’m glad I had the experience of living with an uncompromising set of ideals for thirty days, I miss having the time to focus on writing.
Whole30 itself is also ridiculously prohibitive, and while their philosophy is sound regarding why they demand those restrictions, it’s actually really freaking difficult to live that philosophy out ‘in the wild’ without becoming kind of a fanatic about it. Going out to eat is a bit of a nightmare; even if you have a dish that looks ‘safe’, you have to ask what the chicken or steak is cooked in, whether that has any added sugar or butter, or ask for croutons or cheese to be taken out of your salad. If you don’t have friends who are doing it with you, it can be kind of isolating. Nobody wants to be the guy with the ridiculously specific order at the table, but you have to in order to live up to Whole30’s uncompromising philosophy.
Even with the drastic increase in money and time spent making sure our diet complied with the Whole30, we tended to rely on a few simple staples for breakfast and lunch. As a result, I’m burned out on turkey patties and canned tuna. It’ll take me at least a year to get my enjoyment back for either of those! We didn’t manage to get to specialty stores for ghee or clarified butter (two of the only oils/fats approved for cooking), so we went through a ton of olive oil.
The bottom line: the Whole30 is a fairly advanced-level diet, which makes it almost impossible to follow for someone who doesn’t really know their way around a kitchen. A couple of friends who were doing it with us fared far better, but they like to cook and have quite a few years of experience on me. In fact, all of the best Whole30 meals I had during the month were cooked by other people; without them, it would have been a much blander experience.
So, despite the massive (for me) time and financial commitments to Whole30, it still didn’t feel like enough to really fall into this alternate lifestyle. That was frustrating, but changes like that don’t happen overnight. I can’t imagine someone even busier than I am (or in a place that isn’t quite as good with fresh produce and alternatively-sourced meats) could manage it. You can’t do the Whole30 well if you’re picky about your food, don’t have a lot of time to devote to it, or financially strapped. And these are people who most often sacrifice healthy eating for cheap, fast food.
SO WHAT NOW?
Now that this whole experiment is over, I have to admit I’m looking forward to going back to ‘normal’ life. I’m not planning to fall directly back into my bad eating habits, but I now know that there’s a place for carbs and starches on my plate. It’s not nearly as large a place as it once was, but I’m glad to give it a little room.
Despite all of my griping about how time-consuming cooking was, I’m glad that I developed a habit of making meals in the kitchen and that’s something I really want to do. With time and practice, I’ll become more efficient with it so that there’s room to cook healthy, fast meals and still have time to do other things. The next month or so will be finding that balance between cheap, fast and healthy — I know that there’s no magic bullet that will offer all three options, but surely I can come up with a “payment system” that I’m happy with.
From now on, I’ll probably be cutting down on my carb and dairy intake. I’m lactose-intolerant, so I shouldn’t be having nearly as much dairy as I do, and I have to admit I’m a bit of a believer in a lower-carb diet at this point. I mean, the results speak for themselves. What I do have will be of better quality and more nutritionally sound than before; if I’m going through the trouble to have cheese or rice, it had better do more than just taste good.
I’m still planning to indulge in things that are bad for me — I love food far too much not to. But the difference here is that I’m choosing it for the sheer pleasure, not feeding a dependency on sugar or caffeine. For now, I can eat a cookie or have a cup of coffee and then…not have one for a while, and be fine. I don’t want to give that up. When I do indulge, it won’t be for crap. I don’t have time or health to waste on unhealthy food that’s also disappointing. The cheesecakes will be fine, and lo, the caramel shall be like spun gold.
All in all, it’s difficult to call the Whole30 ‘cleanse’ anything but a success right now. I lost weight, I feel better, reconnected with my food in a really awesome way and took baby steps towards having a small amount of culinary skill. Time will tell if I’ll keep the progress I’ve made, but for now I feel pretty good about what I’ve done, and what I CAN do.
Now excuse me while I tear open this box of cookies.