I (finally) tried Whole30

I’ve been wanting to try Whole30 for a while now, as it gets a fair bit of hype on the wellness podcasts/blogs/YouTube channels I frequent.

There’s no denying it’s hard. Thirty days spent eliminating numerous food groups, no processed or pre-prepared foods, and no cheat meals.

But, as timing would have it, my city entered a one-month lockdown that prevented me from dining out, clubbing, brunching, or any social engagements. In fact, my only legal reasons to leave the house included grocery shopping, exercise, and medical appointments.

So, if there was ever a time to try Whole30, it was now.

What is Whole30?

When it comes down to it, Whole30 is an elimination diet that removes several food groups linked to intolerances and allergies in order to help you understand how different foods make you feel.

Less of a fad diet and more of an experiment, it’s beloved by many in the wellness space as a bit of a reset with your food, body, and habits.

The website claims that Whole30 can help with “eliminating cravings, improving energy and sleep, reporting an improvement in allergies, anxiety, chronic pain, digestive issues, skin conditions; and losing weight healthfully and sustainably.”

Now, it’s obvious that anyone who has struggled with restrictive eating might not be the best candidate for Whole30 – and the menu isn’t particularly vegan-friendly either.

I’d urge you to chat with a doctor or nutritionist if you have underlying medical conditions or specific nutrition requirements – or even if you’re hoping to get a specific benefit from the program.

However I was approaching it mostly out of curiosity and as someone who has been gluten and dairy free for two years, so I felt safe enough going ahead.

The Whole30 Rules

list of whole30 rules

This is the Whole30 program. As you can see, it restricts numerous food groups and makes it virtually possible to eat out or indulge.

But in lockdown, I had nothing but time to grocery shop, explore new recipes, and prepare my own food.

I anticipated the “No replicating banned foods using approved ingredients” to be a tricky one, and I also suspected my sweet tooth would trip me up. Nonetheless, I was curious and eager to start.

Week One

The first three days are known as the “hangover stage” where you permanently feel groggy, tired, headachey, and lethargic – akin to a night after several rounds of spicy margs. Supposedly, the more you splurge in the days leading up to Whole 30, the worse you feel in the first few days. While I didn’t go particularly crazy, I did have some of the banned foods before starting and I can confirm I had a pretty bad headache for this period.

I felt somewhat dizzy, overwhelmed, and my daily 10km definitely felt harder – but the Whole30 website says this is to be expected and to just stay hydrated. I made sure I was eating enough calories, tried to stay extra mindful of water intake, and just take it easy.

Whole30 affectionately refers to days 4-7 as “kill all the things”, named as such because you could just about murder anyone that crosses your path. I was dealing with a particularly stressful time at work during this phase, and I can confirm the temptation was real.

Ultimately I just tried to lay low, reduced my exercise a bit, and tried to stay sane.

Week Two

I started my second week by getting my Covid vaccine, which wasn’t ideal timing. At this stage I was warned I would feel tired and notice some bloating as my body continued to adjust itself, but I didn’t even notice as I was dealing with vaccine side effects.

This was a bit of a learning curve as I navigated fever, chills, headache, body aches and fatigue while sticking to the Whole30 rules. Normally I’d be having Gatorade and toast, but these are obviously noncompliant. Instead, I found a few things that stayed within the boundaries whilst making me feel better.

First was obviously ibuprofen, lots of water, and bed rest. I also sipped coconut water and tomato juice (which I was craving for some odd reason) in lieu of any electrolyte drinks. I had a few Blue Dinosaur bars which are little snack bars made of mostly dates, coconut, cocoa powder, coconut oil, and various dried fruits. I even snacked on sweet potato and potato chips baked in avocado oil. Now, these are all snacks made using Whole30 approved ingredients, but just in a more convenient/packaged form. Typically they ask you not to try replicate junk foods and to have your foods fresh and whole – but I wasn’t able to cook for myself and this was the closest I could get. Whole30 even has a whole page devoted to what to do when sick, and they say it’s okay to bend the rules within reason such as if you need to take cough syrups or you can’t stomach anything other than dry toast.

Throughout this week, food boredom really set in. I almost couldn’t be bothered to eat because I was sick of almonds, vegetable sticks, melons, omelettes, chicken, salmon, and assorted steamed and roasted vegetables. There are numerous recipes online, but many of them were just iterations of what I was already eating.

Thankfully, I had no more irritability or headaches and my entire body and mood seemed back to normal.

Week Three

By this stage, the cravings had more or less disappeared. I definitely wanted things like chocolate, popcorn, and Pad Thai, but I didn’t really have to talk myself out of it. I just accepted I could have those foods in a week if I still wanted them.

I was actually pretty surprised at how easy it was to go grocery shopping and walk past the blocks of chocolate and fresh baked bread without debating slipping up. I’d anticipated that I’d need much more willpower, when in reality I simply fell out of the habit of reaching for those foods.

This was the point where I began to notice how often and why I ate certain foods – routine, boredom, and comfort, mostly.

I continued to snack on fresh fruit, nuts, smoothie bowls, homemade baba ganoush, olives, smoked salmon, vegetable sticks, trays of roast vegetables, salads, and omelettes. I never felt hungry or starving or deprived, just a bit bored of all the foods in my rotation.

Friends and family began to ask me about what my first meal post Whole30 would be, and I struggled to think of one. Rice and rice noodles are in a lot of meals I enjoy, and something like a lasagna or bowl of pasta would be nice – but nothing in particular was jumping out at me.

The program recommends that when you come off your 30 days you start to slowly reintroduce one food group at a time, so I mulled on that for the next week to figure out what I wanted to start off with.

Week Four

Weirdly, at the start of this week my cravings were worse than ever. I was sick of eating eggs for breakfast, I wanted chocolate, and there were so many different foods and recipes I wanted to try but just couldn’t replicate.

I didn’t anticipate this, because I assumed by the end my body would be more used to it than ever. Of course by this stage, I wanted to see it through and quitting never seriously crossed my mind – but it was harder than I thought.

On the days the cravings died down, I more or less just kept to my routine and ate the same foods as always. I did end up needing a Covid test, which meant I had to avoid the communal areas of my house while I awaited results. This meant ordering food instead of spending an hour in the kitchen cooking – and I realised I could order poke bowls without rice and soy as a Whole30 safe meal. And honestly? It was nice not having to cook for once.

The Results

What I did notice is that I never got that rush of energy and sense of wellbeing, that Whole30 dubbs “Tiger’s Blood.” Whilst it didn’t remain extremely hard for the whole month, I wouldn’t say there were intense highs or lows – just feeling a bit unwell, boredom, acceptance, routine, and mild irritation. This was definitely doable, but not always pleasant.

Overall I did see that I adhered to some of the timelines and trends noted by Whole30 themselves, but not to a tee.

It wasn’t extremely uncomfortable, but I didn’t see extreme results either. I didn’t have magic amounts of energy, I wasn’t hyper-focused, I didn’t really sleep much better and my skin wasn’t clearer. I will say that I trimmed down a bit around the waist – either from fat loss or reduced bloating that I might not have been aware of before. But obviously, Whole30 isn’t exactly sustainable as an indefinite diet, so I knew any changes in weight would be temporary.

Reintroducing foods

The program recommends reintroducing one food group at a time and as much as I craved a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, I decided on gluten.

Dealing with PCOS, I saw a lot of stuff online about the benefits of going gluten free – which I’ve followed for about two years but could never quite figure out if it was helping or not. I figured now was the perfect time to isolate gluten as a potential intolerance and bring it back into my diet over the course of a week.

I started with a few slices of bread here and there, then moved up to pasta. I didn’t see any changes in my skin, no bloating or stomach pain, and no flushing or redness in my cheeks, so I figured gluten was okay.

Next, I began having a bit of dairy like low-fat greek yogurts, a spoonful of Ben and Jerry’s, and that Peanut Butter Cup I’d been craving. The combination of dairy and sugar did make me feel a bit nauseous and was overwhelmingly sweet, but the dairy on its own was just fine.

Rice, corn, and oats all came back in seamlessly, as did artificial sweetener, legumes, and soy.

Alcohol was the last thing I reintroduced, mainly because I knew I’d be a total lightweight and I didn’t particularly feel like getting tipsy off a single standard drink – especially while we’re still in lockdown and all I had to look forward to was feeling a bit buzzed in my living room.

Nevertheless, I took one for the team and had a celebratory pre-mixed Bloody Mary (I highly underrated drink in my opinion). I did feel the effects of alcohol a bit more than I’d expect for a single standard drink, but this is completely to be expected and it’s what I experience every time I go a few weeks or months without drinking.

With every new food group, I mainly checked to see if I felt nauseous, bloated, flushing in my face, breakouts, rashes, headaches, sluggishness, or other tell-tale signs of intolerance.

When none emerged, I felt happy to go back to my normal diet – and even reintroduce modest amounts of gluten and dairy.

Final thoughts

Was it a cool experiment? Of course. I’d been curious about it for a long time, I wanted to give it a shot and see what all the fuss was about. It was an interesting mental challenge, and I think it’s always good to bring some awareness to your eating and how it makes you and your body feel.

Would I do it again? Perhaps, now that I know it’s not too difficult. If I was ever suspicious of a food allergy or intolerance, or if for any reason I felt I needed to rethink my eating habits.

Will it change your life? Well, it didn’t change mine. I suspect each persons results will depend on the diet they were eating before they start Whole30. I was already gluten and dairy free, and really only needed to cut out the legumes, rice, corn, oats, sugar, and sweeteners. Most of my meals have always been homemade, and loosely follow the Mediterranean diet (I’m Italian, and that’s just what I was raised on). If you were transitioning from frozen meals, frequent snacks and packaged foods, eating a lot of take-away and restaurant food, or had an underlying intolerance, I’m sure you would have a very different experience.

In conclusion, I’d say to approach Whole30 with a healthy amount of curiosity and skepticism. Anything that claims to be a silver-bullet for your health deserves a degree of hesitation, and should never replace advice given by a doctor, nutritionist, or professional.

The program might be a good fit for you, or it might not be. Either way, take it with a grain of Whole30-approved salt.

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