Whole30-ish: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Over what must have been our fifteenth meal out in row while out of town during the Christmas holiday, I was bloated, tired, and desperate, and I looked at Tim and said "what if we did Whole 30 in January?'
I was only half serious. I'd been on a bad run of eating and drinking my feelings following a DNF at a half marathon, my subsequent plantar fascitis diagnosis, hearing a doctor tell my mother she had breast cancer (on my birthday, no less), normal end of the year traveling and revelry, and a never-ending personal pity party about all of the above (save maybe the traveling).
I was pissed off, unmotivated, and in a bad cycle of self loathing and body shaming. Even my workout clothes were getting tight. I was bloated and cranky and trying to convince myself that restricting calories during the day and saying "fuck it" at night by drowning my sorrows in half a chocolate bar (at least it was organic, fair trade, and 85%!) chased with two glasses of wine was going to make me magically lose weight. While unhealthy, it's a strategy that's worked for me more than half my life--at least when working out two hours a day and before the reality of 40something hormones set in.
I really wasn't looking to commit completely to Whole30, but felt I needed a drastic change to pull me out of my rut, and Tim jumped on board. Looking back, I went into it for the absolute worst reason possible: to lose weight, and lose it quickly.
I've not made it a secret I have a history with disordered eating. It began in my tweens and turned into a full blown eating disorder in my 20s. But even then, while restrictive with calories, I was never restrictive with certain FOODS. If I wanted queso and tacos and two margaritas, I had them. An entire sleeve of Thin Mints? No problem. I just didn't eat much other than what I craved, and even then, not enough calories. My primary food groups were carbs, sugar, and alcohol--especially considering I didn't eat red meat from 1993-2005 and the only vegetable I remotely ate on a regular basis until I was 34 years old was a potato.
When several other friends did Whole30 two years ago, they tried to get me to jump on the bandwagon. I expressed serious reservations about its restrictive nature and was worried especially how it would impact someone with my history.
As it turns out, my instincts were right.
If I had to do it all over again, frankly, I wouldn't.
If I were, I wouldn't proceed without the guidance of my trusted nutritionist (the amazingly intuitive and nurturing Megan Lyons) and my therapist.
But, I made it through (a bit of honey, a few pieces of birthday cake, and one non-compliant LaraBar later), and here's what I found--the good, the bad, and the ugly.
1. Meal Planning
There are few things I hate more than cooking, grocery shopping, and planning. In the past year, we've relied on Instacart out of convenience and sheer laziness, often trying to get an order (in which half of what we needed wasn't at the store) and cook on the same day. It was frustrating and expensive. I dread going to the grocery store, and I spent every day in Whole Foods the first ten days or so. But once I got a good understanding of the staples, I was fine. I now shop twice a week, during the week, in the early mornings. Minimal stress, in and out. It's a pattern I hope to continue.
Also, once I was out of marathon training, I got lazy about meal planning. We'd do great cooking early in the week, and by the time Thursday rolled around, it was a free for all, with Tim grabbing mac and cheese or take out, me eating my third RX bar of the day or half a bag of tortilla chips, or both of us piling over to the Taqueria del Sol. Now, I cook and prep during the day, as I realize I have zero energy or patience in the evening when I'm tired and hungry, the dog is most in need of attention, and I'm likely to not bother or make impulsive choices (or worse--eat nothing at all). We ordered a few new cookbooks and relied on some great websites for new recipes (though honestly, there are only so many variations on meat, vegetables, and eggs--more on that later), and I got in a better habit of packing nuts and fruit and mini-meals versus eating pre-packaged bars (even compliant ones, which I had been consuming pre-Whole30) or protein shakes.
2. Instant Pot
Yes, we joined the cult. I'm a big fan of one pot meals anyway, since I can't be trusted to multitask when there's the potential of burning down the house. Our Instant Pot cut prep and cooking time to a minimum and saved my sanity. I highly recommend Paleo Cooking For Your Instant Pot, and can't thank my friend Tami for starting an amazing Facebook group where our friends have been sharing quality recipes and tips. Even the non-compliant recipes gave us ideas.
3. Eating Whole, Real Foods
I'm the queen of snacking. I've never been a big meal or meat and three person. Even going out to eat, I'd much rather have a drink, an app, dessert, coffee and be done with it. My problem was two-fold: Even though I was down to running 10-15 miles a week, I was snacking like I was still running 50. Eating every two hours had become habit. Also due to my teaching and workout schedule, I often have to go from 5am to 1 or 2pm before I can sit down and eat a real meal during the week. The other is: I fear and have real issues around eating "real" food. I've never cleaned my plate. I graze. I nibble. And then I'm ravenous 90 minutes later. But I've programmed myself to think that snacks and drinks "don't count." Even in the height of my anorexia, I ate mini Reese's peanut butter cups daily. Snacks were my way of controlling calories. Whole30 throws those macros out the window. Eat as much as you can of these things. It's freeing in a way (and not so much in another--stay tuned), and it helped me learn to eat more at mealtimes and try to fill up and get over my phobia of eating too much in one sitting.
5. No Bloating! Within three days, my stomach had gone flat (ish) again and my clothes fit better. While I had raging PMS, I had none of the bloat I normally get, which suggests that the foods you crave and indulge in during that phase have more to do with the bloating than anything else.
5. Better Sleep. My sleep was awful the first week and then it was amazing. Probably exhaustion from all the food shopping and cooking! Or maybe just getting back into a new year and double workouts. Or maybe because life and current events were wearing me out. Or because honestly, there's not much to do after 8pm if you're not eating and drinking or going out, so you might as well sleep!
6. Social Activities. Speaking of going out, someone asked me today "how did you maintain a social life while doing Whole30?" I didn't. At first. I deeply regret not having brunch with my mom on her birthday the weekend before her surgery. But we went to the Center for Puppetry Arts as a family instead and had a great time. But after the first two weeks, I stopped making my diet an excuse for being a recluse. What really turned things around were our friends Marc and Jo inviting us over for dinner. Jo made a traditional Dominican meal, so it was a nice break from our normal fare, and we had great conversation and great company--no wine or dessert needed.
After that, I made yoga dates, hiking dates, coffee dates, activist dates. I went to birthday parties and didn't drink (and sometimes, didn't eat). I had a great time, and in fact, a better time than normal. I have major social anxiety, and while I like to think alcohol helps me in those situations, it actually makes it worse and makes me less present and in control to enjoy what's around me. My friends were supremely supportive and respective of Whole30. I also have plenty of friends who don't drink (either by choice or in recovery) and those who have serious food allergies, and they have very active social lives, so if they can do it, what's my excuse? I think we have this warped sense--especially in my urban, upper middle class, professional circle--that "social" means going to the latest restaurant or cocktail bar, when it can be as simple as having a friend over to sit and chat or meeting for a yoga class. I ate a meal at a restaurant last night for the first time in over a month. It was probably 95% compliant, and I felt fine and confident ordering and was actually full for the first time in four weeks. I know some people go to restaurants and ask a million questions and get super worked up about being compliant, but that's not who I am. I really believe it's a disservice to chefs and restaurants workers and people with true allergies to expect people to cater to your every dietary need while dining out for a lifestyle you voluntarily chose [end rant].
7. Eat What You Like. People said I would get sick of eggs. I didn't, and in fact, only ate them three times, because they're not my favorite. I don't mind them scrambled or hard boiled, but because my breakfasts are at 5am and pre teaching and workout, I tend not to go for something heavy that might upset my stomach. I just eat an earlier lunch. Some of the best advice I got before doing this was "forget what you're supposed to eat for each meal, and just eat."
That was freeing and something I've been doing for the past couple of years, like having my second breakfast/first lunch at 9:30 or 10:00am and eating a turkey zucchini burger and kale chips or a salad with grilled chicken or even soup. Have breakfast for dinner or dinner for breakfast. You'll really hate this if you force yourself to eat things you don't like.
8. Teamwork. I would not have made it through this without my husband. He jumped in with both feet and was my rock, cooking more than his fair share, talking me off a ledge more than once, researching recipes, and making changes that were in many ways much harder for him than they were for me. Except...
1. Disordered eating. My eating habits are emotional, controlling, and ultimately, completely messed up. For Tim, it was black and white. Can't have this? Okay, cool. Make a different choice, move on, done. For me, it became an obsession.
Why can't I have beans but bacon is okay?
What harm will lentils or quinoa do? There are ultrarunners who are vegans!
Why is a 22 gram of sugar Larabar "better" than a square of 85% dark chocolate?
Who can possibly consume this much meat?
I hate rules, and especially rules outside of "my" rules, which are an elaborate and exhausting and nonsensical list it's taking years of therapy and good nutritional consulting to overcome. Give me a restrictive diet, and I'm all in. My brain (unhealthily) thrives in super competitive, obsessive mode.
Whole30 triggered all sorts of unhealthy thoughts and made me think about food MORE--which is the exact opposite of what someone with my history needs.
I need to think about food less, not more. I already obsess about calories in and out, about which choice is the better or best one, which food has how many grams of sugar or fiber or fat. Even knowing what was in and what was out, thinking about food and planing the next meal became physically and mentally debilitating. To their credit, the founders of Whole30 have added a disclaimer on their website about this not being a wise choice for people with eating disorders. Should have read the fine print!
2. Meat aversion. I already dislike meat. I am only now at the point in my life where I can handle raw chicken breast or ground meat without gagging. Halfway through the experiment I cooked a pozole with pork shoulder and the smell and sight of the raw meat made my stomach turn so much I couldn't eat dinner that night and barely ate the two days after. Yes, it was my fault for trying to cook so much meat and things I didn't particularly enjoy, but I was so freaking ready for lentils or beans or quinoa. I'd honestly find it easier to be vegetarian or vegan than to eat paleo for the rest of my life.
3. Starchy vegetables. White potatoes are a new addition to the Whole30 "rules," and I ate more of them the past month than I have in a year. Which isn't necessarily bad. For a runner and an active person like me, starchy vegetables are key to having enough stored energy. My issue is starchy vegetables are my favorite ones! Carrots, turnips, parsnips, sweet potatoes, squash--pile them on! I did eat my fair share of zucchini, red pepper, kale, and cauliflower, but I definitely tended toward the ones I found more palpable, especially consuming day in and day out. Though I will have a meltdown if I have to eat one more damn sweet potato.
1. Hanger. I had good energy from Days 5-12 and again from Days 26-29, but the entire time I was on the program I was HUNGRY. Not bored, not craving sugar, but legit waking up at midnight, 3am, 5am with my stomach growling and having to stuff my face with yet more almonds. No matter how much I ate at meals or how much avocado or almond butter or olive oil or ghee I consumed, I just never felt full. Part of it is me learning how to get full on "real" food, but part of it is I think it's next to impossible for picky eaters with active lifestyles like me to consume enough calories on this diet.
2. Food fatigue. Around Day 13, about the same time as my meat revulsion, I had a major meltdown. Nothing tasted good, and I became convinced the whole point of the diet was to make you so sick of food that you just lost all will to eat. Which is what happened to me from Days 13-25.
I literally had to force myself to eat. And losing your interest in eating, especially when you suffer from eating and control issues, is disaster.
There was no Tiger Blood, only exhaustion, frustration, despair, and rage. I nearly quit the program and probably should have. But once I gave myself permission to cheat if I needed, it got a little bit easier, but I was force-feeding myself through a good bit of this experiment, which only increased my messed up relationship with food.
3. Expense. Well sourced meat is not cheap. Fresh produce is not cheap. I do not even want to add up our grocery bill for the past month. It's well over $1,000. I once spent $300 in four days. Granted, I was stocking up for a snowstorm that never happened, and we still have some good staples in our freezer and pantry, but damn--rice and beans are cheap. And tasty. Now I want a taco...
4. Illness. On the last week of the experiment, I got sick. Run down, sore throat and cold at first, and now on Day 30, I have a full blown sinus infection and am in stuck home in bed when I should be celebrating making it through. While some added life stress didn't help, I also think the rigid nature of Whole30 and my bad response to it made me more susceptible to illness.
This was not the right re-set for me. I've done elimination and re-set diets under the guidance of my nutritionist that were much less rigid in nature and came out with more energy, fewer body image issues, less inflammation (for me, it's hives), more confidence, and less obession.
I'll admit I went into this with the wrong mindset--to lose weight--and I honestly didn't need it for the reason it was created, which is to find your intolerances and triggers.
Due to my nutritionist's amazing guidance, I have found over the past three years things that don't work for me--non-whole grains, dairy, nightshades, red wine, sugar, and even caffeine (which I drank entirely too much of during Whole30 and honestly, am not sure why it's even "allowed," as that habit was harder for me to break than sugar or alcohol and did me the greatest good last year). Plus, my diet is relatively clean. I don't eat dairy at home. I don't eat pasta or bread. I don't eat cookies or cupcakes or potato chips or junk food. Something like Whole30 was really not meant for people who've already done most of the hard work.
I would have been better served giving up added sugars, caffeine, alcohol, and eating out for two weeks than suffering through Whole30 and triggering more body image and control issues.
Also, I didn't like the duality of Food A being "forbidden" and Food B being "compliant." It's just not realistic, even for 30 days. For someone like me, it would be better to eat a chickpea stir fry with brown rice than skip dinner because I can't stomach another round of vegetables and meat.
Also, if you're truly serious about pinpointing your intolerances, there are better elimination diets, tests, and professionals out there to help you. Nuts, fish and shellfish, and eggs are huge staples of Whole30 and are also some of the most common food allergies. In fact, after dairy, nuts were the second things my nutritionist had me give up to solve my chronic hives. An elimination diet that includes some of the most common trigger foods makes zero sense to me.
Ultimately, I'm not sorry I did it, as the issues it triggered for me encouraged me to return to therapy and brought a new level of self-awareness to my eating, even if it was negative awareness. I did drop a few pounds (I haven't weighed myself in four weeks) and got some clarity for fueling my body properly, as I've been finally cleared by my physical therapist to start serious running training again. But in the end, I don't think it was worth the emotional and mental trauma it caused me.
So, on Day 28, I had a few bites of cake! You only live once. Life is too short to deny yourself joy. And I spent much of my life not deriving any joy from food, so I hope to get back to that place again--in moderation, of course.