It takes 30 days to push the reset button on your health and change your relationship with food. This is the concept behind Melissa and Dallas Hartwig’s Whole30 program. By eating non-processed whole foods and ditching grains, dairy, and sugar, you will reduce inflammation in your system, clear up your skin, and revitalize your energy stores. These are just a few of the benefits this program boasts.
Sounds pretty great, right? Well, I tried it, and I’m going to walk you through what happened.
First, I’d just like to acknowledge that I’m not a nutritionist or a healthcare professional. The opinions I share here are simply my own experiences and thoughts while trying this program. I also acknowledge that the topics of healthy eating, dieting, and illness are very personal, and what might work for me, might not work for someone else. We are all unique.
So I’m here to share my experience with this program, and you can make the informed and personal decision as to whether or not this might be something you’d like to try.
What Is Whole30?
During this program there is no calorie counting, no measuring, and no weighing yourself for the entire 30 days. I know that can be hard — especially if you’re feeling totally bloated (which can happen in the beginning) or particularly svelte in the later weeks. Just don’t do it. Even though a lot of people's weight begins to normalize during the 30 days, the program focuses a lot on the “non-scale victories,” as in how you’re feeling. Is your sleep better? How’s your skin? Do you feel like doing cartwheels with that extra energy? Cool.
As far as food goes, you’re simply going to eat a lot of fresh, good-quality eats and ditch the processed stuff. Beyond that, you’re removing all grains, dairy, soy, legumes, sugar, artificial sweeteners, and alcohol from your diet. All of these foods (especially in excess), according to the authors, have been linked to systemic inflammation, hormonal imbalance, gut issues, and more. The idea is to remove the stressors from your body and give it the nourishment and time to heal itself it needs. This means less inflammation, a healthy metabolism, hormonal harmony, a happy gut, clearer skin, and improved energy! Sounds good to me. (Although if we’re honest, I panicked a bit when I realized no cheese would hit my lips for a full month.)
After the 30 days are up, you slowly reintroduce foods that were off plan. Much like an elimination diet to detect food sensitivities, you’ll be able to have a really good picture of what your body likes and doesn’t like during this reintroduction phase.
Why I Decided to Try Whole30
I consider myself to be a pretty healthy eater. I’m gluten-free for health reasons, and I always try to make sure to eat a ton of vegetables. I make things from scratch, and am wary of overly processed foods. However, just like most of us, I can eat too much chocolate or indulge in something really carb-heavy and feel the after effects. For me, this means joint pain and the feeling of being hungover, along with many other equally fun symptoms.
Two years ago I got formally diagnosed with chronic Lyme Disease. You can read more about that and what it means here. In my health journey, one of my goals has been to reduce inflammation in my system. There are a ton of factors that go into this, but one of the things I can control is the food I put into my body. Food, and restoring gut health, is a huge part of reversing chronic illness.
I once read that 70 to 80 percent of one’s immune system resides in the gut. That’s a lot! So if your gut is out of balance, and you’re fighting a chronic illness, it makes sense to try and restore gut health in order to better your immune system, right?
Plus, I feel like the way I eat directly affects my mood. If I eat sugar, I almost always feel like garbage. If I eat protein and veggies and tons of avocado, I feel stable and much less like I am going to have a stage-four meltdown. Blood sugar swings are also real — no one wants to deal with me when I am hangry. It’s a nightmare. This program is supposed to help with all these things. I desperately wanted to feel better, so I dove in.
Meal prep is essential! I made a lot of soup.
So, What Can You Eat on the Whole30 Diet?
You can fill your plate up with vegetables, meat, eggs, seafood, fruit, and healthy fats. Potatoes of all kinds are allowed, as well as squash and root veggies. You can’t eat dairy, but ghee or clarified butter is allowed since it’s lactose-free. I was really happy about this, since I’m a big fan of butter!
Grass-fed meat and organic veggies are preferred in the program, but if it’s going to break the bank, just buy what’s in your budget. I tend to spring for the best meat I can, and use this Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen guide to facilitate what produce I’m going to buy organic.
Let’s Talk About Sex with Your Pants On
Sex With Your Pants On (SWYPO) is a term used to describe the idea of recreating treats such as pancakes, brownies, or pizza with Whole30 ingredients, and is strongly cautioned against. The Hartwigs feel that if you’re trying to recreate a pizza made out of cauliflower crust in order to scratch a craving itch, then you’re kind of missing the point. To quote the Whole30 website, “You can tell yourself it’s okay, it’s still pretty good, you’re totally satisfied … but that’s kind of a lie. Because you know exactly how good pants-less sex feels.”
I understand the concept of what they’re trying to say, but I feel awkward likening a lackluster cauliflower pizza to dry humping. We’re going to be practicing abstinence for those 30 days. In short, keep your pants on and don’t try to make pancakes. It’s too sexy. It might tempt you to take your pants off eventually and go full-pancake. I’m going to stop talking about taking my pants off now. Perfect.
It’s Not Hard
This program is famous for its tough-love approach. The most quoted line of Whole30 is this: “It is not hard. Don’t you dare tell us this is hard. Quitting heroin is hard. Beating cancer is hard. Drinking your coffee black. Is. Not. Hard. You won’t get any coddling, and you won’t get any sympathy for your 'struggles.'"
So you can imagine that their stance on cheating in the program is very stringent. If you cheat, you’re supposed to start again at day one with no exceptions. As an intense perfectionist in life, this scared me more than any other rule or dietary restriction. And to be fair, I think that any dietary change is hard. Maybe it’s not like quitting heroin, but it’s also not like a spa massage. Did I mention that I also don’t like when people tell me what to do? As a really small child, I stabbed myself in the eye with a fork because my mom told me not to. Yeah ... tough love isn’t my love language. Life is complicated.
This Mason Jar Tuna Salad totally saved my life!
What I Ate on My Whole30 Diet
Those are the general guidelines, but what about the specifics? What do you actually eat? Here's what worked for me (I'll share more specifics and recipes later this week).
- Breakfast: My favorite breakfast during this program was leftovers from the night before — it was easy and usually had all the elements I needed to feel full and jumpstart my day. If there was leftover protein, I might throw it over some greens and make a salad. If there was soup, that was always perfect too. When I was feeling breakfast-y, eggs did the trick with some roasted veggies.
- Lunch: I got really into making Mason jar salads. I would pile all kinds of salad goodies into Mason jars during my Sunday meal prep, and simply dump it into a bowl when I was ready to eat during the week. This is a lifesaver during a workday.
- Dinner: Crispy chicken thighs, roasted veggies, and sautéed greens; slow-cooker kalua pork with cabbage; soup of various kinds; and thinly sliced steak over a salad. There were tons of meals that I loved for dinner. This was almost always my easiest meal.
- Snacks: Carrots and celery dunked into a guacamole! This was a lifesaver. Usually on the days I felt the most hungry, it was from not having enough fat in my diet. The guacamole is both satisfying and satiating. A handful of almonds or a piece of fruit would also do the trick.
- Drinks: Tons of water with lemon, kombucha, coconut water, and herbal tea. Coffee is totally allowed — I just didn’t partake.
This BLT Breakfast Salad is everything!
How It Went
The first week was the hardest. I quickly learned that meal prep was essential to survive this program. Since everything you’re eating isn’t processed, there’s a lot of planning that goes into being able to have an easy week. If I prepped on Sunday nights for the whole week by filling my fridge with things I could easily eat, and doing things like pre-slicing veggies for those hunger emergencies, I did great.
Preparation is so key to the success of this program, and is directly tied to the amount of frustration you will experience. Not preparing meant getting really hangry and sometimes having a bit of a meltdown. Don’t be like me. Prepare. Always.
Also, I might have cheated this one time — but, I’ll write about that in a separate post. Whoops.
I experienced some funky physical symptoms during the first 10 days or so, but this is pretty typical of a Whole30. I would feel great, and then the next day I would feel tired, achy, and bloated. Depending on what your diet was like before you started the Whole30, you’re bound to get hit by some sort of detoxing symptoms. If you’re doing this after eating a lot of sugar and processed food, your symptoms might be a bit more severe. However, the book assures you it’s normal, and it will even out. According to the authors, the bacteria in your gut are shifting and creating a new landscape. Your body is getting used to this new diet of protein and a ton of veggies with the absence of sugar. Things adjust and shift. For me, this meant a couple days of feeling off.
After that initial hump, things got a lot better. I had energy to do some things that I usually had no energy to do. I was doing yoga, and was able to go on walks. This was a big deal for me. Going through treatment for Lyme Disease is exhausting. Often I feel like I don’t have enough air to hold up my body — it’s a feeling of intense can’t-get-out-of-bed-exhaustion. So to have a little more pep in my step felt invaluable.
By the second week I started to notice that my face and my stomach looked less puffy. Score! I saw this as a sign that inflammation in my system was going down. One of the most remarkable changes was in my mood. I felt generally happy and positive. I would say I’m a positive person in general, but I do get stressed out easily. The margin for getting really stressed got a little thicker, and I was simply able to deal better.
I’m not going to say I didn't have some pretty difficult moments. For example, don’t purchase an ice cream maker the day you start your Whole30 and let it sit in your entryway for 30 days to taunt you. I did that; it was dumb. Also, there were points in the program on those days when I felt off that I broke down or wanted to throw in the towel. Feeling bad on top of the normal Lyme symptoms wasn’t great, but I’m glad that I stuck it out.
One thing that I noticed happening was a marked difference in my tastebuds. After not eating any sweeteners for a few weeks, it’s really amazing how sweet fruit tastes. I became one of those weird people you’d like to smack who thought an apple was dessert.
Overall, my results were really positive. I felt lighter, happier, and had some extra energy to burn. All very welcome things!
Sometimes keeping it simple was the best!
Things That Didn’t Happen
I didn’t die from not eating cookies or cheese for a month, but there were some days where I would have made a strong argument that I might. I didn’t lose half my body weight and magically acquire abs, but I did lose inches in my stomach. I didn’t magically cure my chronic illness, but I did make myself feel a whole lot better.
Would I Do It Again?
Absolutely. In fact, I’m doing it again right now as a way to reset into the New Year. It gets easier the second time around, actually. I already know how to meal prep, and have an arsenal of recipes that I created from the first go-around to guide me through. I kinda miss cheese and chocolate (because, yum), but I’m excited to push that glorious reset button.
So, What Do You Think?
How about you? Is this something you could see yourself doing? Have you ever tried the Whole30? If so, would you do it again? I’d love to hear about your experiences and thoughts on the program!
I have a few more thoughts and tips coming up this week, including some of my favorite Whole30 recipes, and some thoughts on "cheating," Whole30-style.
(Image credits: Gina Eykemans)