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30 Days of Plants and Animals

Self Improvement 150Today 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.

THE POSITIVES

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 NEGATIVES

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.

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2013 in Diet and Exercise, Self-Reflection

 

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My Whole30 – Week 3

Self Improvement 150It’s hard to believe that I’ve just finished my third week of Whole30 eating. Day 21 passed on Monday, and today I’m looking at the home stretch — in just 8 days, I’ll have completed one of the more difficult things I’ve ever done. I’ll have been living on meat, eggs, fruits, vegetables, nuts and oils for a whole 30 days as part of a dietary reset.

Now that we’ve settled into the habit of Whole30 eating and beaten the cravings that we have (and we still have those), we’re looking at what our lives will be like after this whole experiment has ended. Ryan is worried that we’ll go back to the same old unhealthy habits — stuffing our faces with candy and cookies, eating fast food, getting right back into the things that we’ve worked hard to stop doing. And I have to admit, it’s a legitimate fear. I’ve often thought that it would be pretty amazing to just go nuts for a week after the Whole30, eating anything and everything I want to, indulging in all the things my brain has been screaming at me to have.

Part of me thinks that I would be so overwhelmed by the fat and sugar and carbs that I’ve been missing out on this whole time, and that it would be proof that my body had changed. I would cringe away from the foods that are bad for me, and embrace my new healthy-eating lifestyle — within moderation, of course. But another part of me knows better. The siren’s call of tasty but nutritionless food is always going to seduce me, and falling into that temptation would be undermining everything I’ve built this month. It’s best to gain a bit of closure with my worst habits now, and walk away for good while their hold on me has weakened.

But that’s a post for another time, closer to the end. For now, I’d like to talk about the friends we have who’ve made this whole thing a lot more pleasant than it would have been otherwise, and what I’ve learned through them.

The silver-tongued devil who encouraged me to sign up for the Whole30 in the first place has been the most interested in really stretching out with it. We’ve been over to his house a few times in the past three weeks, and each time he’s made food that was *really* good and totally Whole30-compliant. We’ve had “shepherd’s pie,” with wild boar, mushrooms and (I think?) carrots under a ‘crust’ of mashed yams. There was dry-rubbed pork chops with unsweetened apple sauce, and a really great breakfast scramble with over-medium eggs, shredded yam, zucchini and onion with wilted spinach. Of course, he and his husband are much more used to cooking than Ryan and I are, but it kind of gave me a look at a different way of doing the Whole30. If you know what you’re doing and willing to put in the prep time, there’s a pretty great set of recipes that you can totally rock the house with.

Ryan and I are still padawans when it comes to cooking; I don’t think he’s much interested in doing much inside the kitchen, and that’s fine. His priorities are on his writing, where they should be. But now that I’ve gotten a taste for cooking — and seen what my friends are being motivated to do inside the kitchen — I’m definitely into the idea of doing it more. I’m really excited by the idea of being able to make a cheeseburger and fries at home that’s way healthier and skewed to my tastes then something I could get at a fast-food (or even gourmet) burger joint. Now that I have a basic idea of how cooking meat and combining spices works, I’m a bit more comfortable with experimentation, and I think I can start expanding my horizons a little more all the time. Getting quicker and more comfortable in the kitchen is one of those things that I’ve been inspired to do — not only by the necessities of the Whole30 — but by the folks who’re doing it with me.

We had a friend of ours hold the very first test-run of her new business idea in our kitchen, and ate most of her dishes for dinner over the week. The idea is that she sits down with you, talks about your likes, dislikes and dietary restrictions, then comes up with a number of entrees and side dishes to choose from. Once the final menu has been decided (five entrees, five sides), she comes over to your house to cook them and stores them in your fridge and/or freezer so you can have it whenever you’d like. It’s a really neat idea for busy working households, and since she’s a professional chef you just know you’re going to get your money’s worth.

We had Salmon A L’Afrique du Nord with cauliflower Confetti “Rice,” Cinnamon Beef Stew with Jicama Home Fries, Pineapple Red Curry Duck with Cumin-Roasted Carrots, Macadamia Chicken with Tangerine-Ginger Sauce with Curried Onion and Ginger Soup, and Moroccan Lamb Meatballs with Creamy Spice Market Kale. I think the dishes turned out to be a bit more complicated than any of us realized; she was cooking for 14 hours straight, and I felt terrible about it. It turns out choosing five different meats for entrees makes things more complex than they need to be. Who knew?

At any rate, they were all very good, and a good number of the dishes were big enough that we ended up with leftovers the next day. The duck and the lamb were my favorites, and I usually don’t break for those two. In fact, much of my Whole30 experience has been filled with taking second looks at things I decided I hadn’t liked a long time ago. I’ve tried new seafood dishes, egg dishes, vegetables that I just thought looked funny at the store. Being driven into the arms of different foods is a great thing; my palate is expanding, even though it doesn’t want to be, and I can appreciate a great deal more than I could before.

As far as the physical effects, my energy is still lower in general and it’s hard to get exercise in a lot of the time. But it’s a lot easier to wake up in the mornings, and for that I’m grateful. I haven’t really experienced the boundless energy and wellspring of joy that’s been advertised, but that’s fine. I’m generating a different sort of contentment from the things that I’ve accomplished so far this month.

That’s all for now. I’ll look forward next week, to see what lessons I’ll be taking with me after my Whole30 has ended.

 
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Posted by on February 26, 2013 in Diet and Exercise, Self-Reflection

 

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