Fitness, Fad Diets, and the Whole30

I’m on day 20 of the Whole30. I thought it would be simple to explain the dietary limitations that come with a Whole30, but I’ve found few people speak the language of “fad” diets like Whole30, Paleo, South Beach, Atkins, etc.

What is Whole30?

Whole30 is an elimination diet. For 30 days you remove certain foods from your diet–focusing instead on eating fresh vegetables, fruit and unprocessed meats. Eliminate added sugar, dairy, processed foods, most legumes, grains, and alcohol. After 30 days, slowly introduce these foods back into your diet and monitor the body’s response to the reintroduction. (This is an overview, for more information on the how-tos, go to Whole30.com or purchase It Starts with Food and the comprehensive Whole30 book.)

Why do it?

A lot of people seem to do a Whole30 to lose weight, and they tend to have great results. But weight loss is not the purpose of the program. It’s about changing your relationship with food and listening to what your body says about the foods you eat. Do some foods make you feel poorly? Does dairy cause you distress? Are you surprised by the strength of your sugar addiction?

Once you become more in tune with your body’s response to foods, you can make the decision if “bad” foods are worth it for you. Not necessarily high caloric foods, but just foods that don’t make you feel like your best self.

Why am I doing it?

I did a dry month in November, cutting alcohol for a month. Since then I’ve been wanting to do a no sugar month. I’ve worked to eliminate added sugar in the items I purchase at the grocery store. The more comprehensive (than just no sugar) Whole30 called to me as one of my monthly bootcamps. However, there’s never a great time to start a moderately restrictive diet. I planned to begin after returning from my trip to D.C. Then my grandma passed away that same night, and I knew I wasn’t strong enough to start a Whole30 (with no alcohol) in the midst of my wine-loving family post-funeral. Two days after we buried my grandma, I cleaned out my kitchen cupboards and got started.

How has it been so far?

Both easier than I expected and incredibly difficult.

Technically I’ve already failed at least twice. There are probably other failures I just haven’t realized as well!

The first time, I cooked a whole chicken only to realize that it had carrageenan, a forbidden additive. It didn’t occur to me that a whole, raw chicken would be “processed.” But after cooking it, I wasn’t about to throw it away. I did some research on the side effects of carrageenan, and I decided that with my specific goals for the Whole30 and my limited grocery budget, I would keep going.

The second time, it was the first time I couldn’t avoid a dinner out. Previously, I’d been inviting friends to see movies instead of dinner, to get tea instead of drinks, or playing DD when going out. But a restaurant was waiting. I did my research and found the item I could order off with the least amount of annoying substitutions. Then I made a salad dressing to take with me. I did not look at the ingredients in the tablespoon of balsamic vinegar that I added to the dressing until afterward, and it has sulfites–another forbidden additive.

In both situations, I missed small additives. Whole30 diehards would say that I should start over. In my opinion, these are lessons on reading food labels. If the Whole30 is about breaking sugar addiction, isolating inflammatory food groups, and reevaluating your relationship with food, then my tablespoon of balsamic with some sulfites is not going to ruin it for me. It would be far more damaging to my goals to say “Welp, I guess I failed, I quit.” (Yes, I know that technically the response should be “Well, I guess I failed. Start over.” But I know myself well enough to know that is not the approach I would’ve taken, especially when my failures were small and innocent, not a stolen candy bar.

But you said it’s also easy?

Yes! It’s so much easier than any other diet. It’s so much easier than counting calories. To be fair, it’s more time consuming to cook than to order a pizza. You have to plan ahead a little more to make sure you have enough proteins and fats in your life. But it simplifies the whole dieting process. And other than extremely fleeting whims about ordering that pizza (or pouring a glass of wine), there aren’t really any cravings because you’re eating so much food. And it’s not forever. It’s a short term process designed to help you realize what works for you. Then the process is repeatable whenever you want a refresher.

What about weight loss?

You aren’t supposed to weigh yourself or track calories while doing a Whole30. If your goal is to rethink your relationship with food, then constantly calorie counting is not going to benefit you.

They Whole30 site provides a huge list of Non-Scale Victories (NSVs). You’re encouraged to look for these NSVs–better sleep, clearer skin, better focus, etc.

I will make another post at the end of my Whole30 reintroduction, talking about more things I learned and my physical results.

Any tips and tricks?

I love food. But I’m not motivated by food. My focus on food has always been on minimizing cost. I cut my food budget for the month to practically nothing. I did this so I could pay my student loans, put money in savings for the inevitable future when my car dies, pay unexpected bills, and still have some money for fun.

What I’m eventually getting to is that my focus was never on buying good food and eating good food. It was about keeping my costs low. This meant eating whatever free food is available when it’s available, even if it’s not food I love and even if I wasn’t hungry. It meant buying the cheapest food possible at the grocery store. And sometimes it meant ordering the XL pizza and eating pizza for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for three days straight because that’s more economical than getting the medium.

This has been a benefit and a curse during the Whole30. No matter what any Whole30 fans try to tell you–it’s expensive. It’s so expensive. Buy your vegetables and fruits on sale. Get cheap bags of frozen brussel sprouts. Eat 70 cent cans of tuna and oh so many eggs. Shop at Aldi. Do everything “right” in terms of making it affordable. It’s still so much more expensive than what I was doing before. Even when you consider that I’m not buying alcohol or eating out, I have completely busted my monthly food budget. Which means that when I start reintroducing “fun” things, I will have to completely reevaluate my budget and find other ways to cut back if I want to keep saving money. One cannot continue to eat this many vegetables AND booze and also save money.

On the upside, since I don’t care about food, I can eat hardboiled eggs every single day without getting bored. Boom. Take that everyone on the Whole30 threads moping about breakfast.

I once watched a TEDx talk about the habits of highly boring people. It basically argued that eliminating choices from your life in most areas enabled you to be more efficient and creative in others. I have to admit that organizing and minimizing my wardrobe and my food options definitely has eliminated stress. It may not be the right approach for everyone, but it works for me. Maybe that’s why the Whole30 is working for me. It gives me a simple template of foods I’m allowed, which gives me more brain power to devote to true crime podcasts and reviving my blog.

Have you tried an elimination diet? How did it work for you?

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