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We Tried That: What the Whole30 eating plan taught me about food and myself

Avocado Chicken Salad is a tasty — and Whole30-compliant — recipe.
Avocado Chicken Salad is a tasty — and Whole30-compliant — recipe.
Published Aug. 29, 2017

Everyone is skeptical of "diets." There are so many now that when a new one begins to circulate among our friend groups and social media, we're tempted to roll our eyes and shrug our shoulders at something that promises to help use lose weight, to get in shape.

I did just that the first time I heard about Whole30. I was out to eat with my mom and her sisters, one of whom was on her third day of the plan. She ordered a burger, plain and with no bun, and a side of steamed broccoli. I raised my eyebrows before ordering a bacon cheeseburger and steak fries.

When our food arrived, her broccoli bland and steaming, I watched as she picked at it. After one bite, she frowned. There was butter on it and, though she didn't want to, she sent it back and had it remade. I thought she was crazy. She kept referring to a "book" that listed what she could and couldn't eat.

A few days later, a copy of that book arrived on my mom's stoop courtesy of Aunt Martha. My mom read it and, to my complete and utter dismay, suggested we try Whole30 together.

I've struggled with weight and body image issues for a long time. I've been on a diet, in some form or another, on and off since I was 12. So I was weary of yet another one.

But the thing with Whole30 is that you're not supposed to focus on weight loss. In fact, you're not even supposed to step foot on a scale throughout the 30-day program.

"The number on the scale says nothing about your overall health," say Melissa and Dallas Hartwig in that Whole30 book, The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom.

The program has been around since 2009, but has picked up steam since the book, a New York Times bestseller, was published in 2015. Recently, it's made fresh rounds on food blogs and social media.

The goal of Whole30 is to teach you to eat intuitively, to train you to figure out what your body wants and what it doesn't want and to eat accordingly. The gist: For 30 days, you don't consume dairy, wheat, soy, alcohol, legumes, sugar of all kinds (even honey and agave) and a lot of other things that the Hartwigs spell out for you. One of the program's more notable aspects is that if you accidentally slip up and eat a forbidden ingredient, you have to start over.

Like hitting a reset button on your body, you strip your diet of foods that could be causing you harm. The idea is that common ailments like lack of energy, digestive problems, skin issues, unexplainable aches and pains and, yes, even trouble losing weight could be unknowingly caused by certain foods. Getting rid of these items for 30 days, the Hartwigs say, will teach you about how they're affecting your physical well-being beyond the scale.

At the end of the 30 days, you slowly start working these items back into your diet to see what your body likes and what it doesn't. Does gluten make you feel gross? Cheese hurt your tummy? Maybe you should eat less of those things going forward.

How it went

I knew I was in for a rough ride when I was invited to happy hour just three days into the program. (I did go, by the way, and my friends got a kick out of my bottomless club soda and lime.)

During the first few days, I joked about the process.

"I don't want to 'change my relationship with food,' " I would say, crooking my fingers in air brackets. "Food and I go way back. We're tight."

But about halfway through the program, I learned something about my food habits. I was eating the way I was supposed to, avoiding things like cheese, malbec and pasta, but I was resisting the process. As a food writer and someone who loves to eat, I initially didn't feel compelled to change anything after the 30 days were up. I didn't see anything wrong with how I ate.

That changed. I remember very vividly waking up on the 10th day and thinking to myself: "I like how this feels." It became a mantra as I resisted invitations to bottomless mimosa brunches and forced myself to walk past grocery store end-caps stocked top-to-bottom with powdered doughnuts. It became how I explained to other people why I was sticking to Whole30.

And over time, things got easier. By the 20th day, I figured out which recipes I really liked and which ones I really didn't. I will never be able to force myself to like sweet potatoes, and ghee (the Indian clarified butter) is just not my thing. (According to Whole30, the problem with dairy is milk proteins, and during the process of clarification, such as what happens with ghee, these proteins are removed, making it acceptable on the program.) But I found out that I prefer meatballs made with ground turkey — and lots and lots of garlic — and that macadamia cream, used in place of sour cream, is actually really tasty.

I didn't struggle with the restrictions as much as people said I would, but I don't discount that the struggle is very real. While I had few cravings, the hardest part was breaking old habits: resisting the urge to pull into the drive-through for my favorite Starbucks drink; bringing food with me to work, rather than relying on grab-and-go stops like Chipotle; bypassing gum in the checkout line.

I did discover what my body doesn't tolerate. Dairy, my lifelong friend, is actually not so friendly; soy, which I used to think would be a healthy alternative to replace some of my dairy intake, wasn't so nice on me either. And wine now gives me headaches.

The verdict

I liked how I felt when I woke up in the morning so much that I decided to continue with parts of Whole30 in my weekly routine, though I do give myself a break on the weekends, and bottomless mimosas are back on the table. I make my own mayonnaise and avoid dairy and sugar as much as possible, and use almond milk now instead of soy milk.

Whole30 is almost punishing in its strictness and brutal in its rigidity. (Don't call it hard, though; the Hartwigs say that birthing babies and losing parents is hard, but drinking black coffee is not.) There are a lot of rules, and you need to be well-versed in them so that you make the right choices.

This way of eating may not be for everyone, but it taught me things I wouldn't have learned if I didn't try it, and not just about food. I didn't think I had the kind of stamina to go through such a radical diet change, and I didn't want to. I made excuses about needing to eat for work, not having time to prep meals, the lack of convenience — you name it. But I surprised myself.

I know now that a diet doesn't have to be about weight loss, and it doesn't have to come with negativity. It can be as easy as finding out what makes you feel bad and cutting those things out.

Contact Carlynn Crosby at carlynncrosby@yahoo.com.

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