What Is Whole30? A Real-World Review From Someone Who Tried It
I’m not totally comfortable with my body. There—I said it. I used to be that girl who’d down a large pizza without gaining a pound. But my habits soon caught up with me (as they always do), and instead of gaining the Freshman 15 in college, I gained the Junior 30 (let’s pretend that’s a thing). That’s when I decided to do something a little different. I started eating a mix of whole grains, rice, fruits, vegetables, and protein. And whenever I felt like it—well, when my budget permitted—I’d splurge on a meal out, eating anything my little, food-loving heart desired. I thought my diet was balanced, but my body said otherwise. I felt out of control, and my digestive system was an absolute wreck. In short: I didn’t feel great. Enter Whole30.
What is Whole30?
Whole30 is a restrictive dietary program that promises to “change your life” in 30 days through some tough-love nutritional changes. These include: no dairy, no grains, no added sugar, no alcohol, and no legumes. For 30 days straight. Cold-turkey. Think: Paleo meets an elimination diet—but just for 30 days. First, the marketing pitch: According to the creators of Whole30, these foods can be problematic for some people—”gut-disrupting” or “inflammatory,” as Whole30 would say. The idea behind the program is to eliminate and then reintroduce potential problem-causers so you can better understand how what you eat is affecting you. The truth is more complicated, though.
Whole30 isn’t a good diagnostic tool (more on this below), but it can potentially help you develop some healthier eating habits, like preparing meals ahead of time or cooking more of your own food, both of which force you to eat much more whole foods and fewer processed foods. It can also be beneficial in the sense that it means you’re not drinking alcohol for a month, and you’re also teaching yourself how to eat wayyyy less added sugar, which is hard as hell to do without actively, intentionally trying.
It’s worth noting here before I go any further that SELF has reported—repeatedly—that it’s not a smart idea to go on an elimination diet without consulting a doctor first. Elimination diets, when done correctly under medical supervision, are diagnostic tools that can help pinpoint specific irritants. Whole30 is decidedly not a medical diagnostic tool—and the irritants it claims to help you pinpoint are only truly problematic to a very small percentage of the population. If you feel better after Whole30, it’s more likely because you’ve been eating less junk food, alcohol, and empty calories, rather than because you have a specific food intolerance. Beyond all that, if you have certain health conditions, going on an elimination diet without medical supervision could actually be dangerous for you because it might mean that you’re not getting the right amount of nutrients that you need to be healthy. And I’d be remiss not to point out that any diet with super restrictive rules can be incredibly problematic to anyone who has ever struggled with disordered eating—and even to people who haven’t. Food rules can help some people, but can be really harmful to others.
To be clear: This isn’t a weight-loss plan. Plenty of people lose weight on Whole30—myself included—but the purpose of the program has more to do with feeling good than looking a certain way. To be honest, that’s what attracted me to Whole30 in the first place. It wasn’t one of those three-day magical solutions to weight loss. It was a 30-day challenge that promised to change the way I think about food and fuel—how could I resist?
While the plan has a somewhat tragic set of restrictions for me, I welcomed the seemingly ascetic program with open arms. Sure, I’d have to bid adieu to many of my favorite foods (including the generally healthy: rice, oats, peanut butter, and tofu I’d come to love so much), but it would just be for 30 days, and the challenge promised to ~change my life~. That’s gotta be worth it—right?
Day 1 of eating my heart out at Smorgasburg. Many more food-filled weekends to come 👀. pic.twitter.com/ggCDxRd0mB
— Lindsey Lanquist (@lindseylanquist) April 30, 2016
This is a photo of me in my natural state shoving a bunch of food in my mouth.
Deciding to start the program and actually starting it are two totally separate things.
I started the program with determination in my heart. This turned out to be key, because let me tell you: Getting Whole30-ready is hard AF. The program gives you a lot of resources: a grocery list, a blog, a forum—there’s also a book you can buy. Plus, I even recruited a couple people to do the program with me: my friend, who had done the program before, and my dad, who agreed as long as he could continue to drink scotch at social events (a concession Whole30 would not advise, but whatever). Still, nothing could prepare me for the level of thought that would go into planning my meals from then on.
I hit the grocery store the night before starting the program. With a full heart and an Instagram feed covered in #Whole30 meal inspo, I explored aisles of Trader Joe’s I never knew existed—running everything by my Whole30-provided grocery list, of course. I go grocery shopping every Sunday and only buy enough food to last me a week, so I didn’t have much to work with aside from essentials like olive oil and various spices. I stocked up on chicken sausage and eggs for protein and spent the rest of my trip filling my cart with vegetables (spinach, squash, broccoli—you name it, and I probably bought it).
I already ate breakfast at home and packed my lunch every day, so making them Whole30-friendly just meant re-evaluating some ingredients. I traded stir-fry (bye sugar- and soy-filled teriyaki sauce) for roasted vegetables, and stocked up on eggs like never before. Dinner presented more of an issue. I like to treat myself to a meal out here and there, as I said before. But due to Whole30’s intense restrictions (namely that added sugar is a no-no), eating out became hella complicated. It wasn’t enough to pick mustard over ketchup—I had to check to see if the mustard had sugar in it, and most of the time, it did.
Oh, and I totally failed the first night. Though I exchanged plenty of texts with my friend who was in it with me to make sure I was on track, I made the fatal mistake of eating some corn—a starch I later learned was not Whole30-approved. I embraced my failure and ate some beans too. At that point, I kind of figured, why not?
Once I started cooking meals, things got a little easier. (Not to mention, it was kind of fun!)
As far as I’m concerned, there are two ways to do the Whole30 program: Sink into a monotonous but comfortable routine or use the challenge as an opportunity to spice up your recipe repertoire. The first is a great option for some people, but for me, the latter was the only way to go. While I hadn’t cooked that much before, I felt inspired by my limitations.
For breakfast, I threw eggs into a pan with whatever vegetables inspired me that day. Lunch meant some form of protein (be it chicken sausage, baked chicken, or eggs) combined with more vegetables (some days it was Brussels sprouts and squash, other days it was broccoli and potatoes). A kale and fruit smoothie served as the perfect mid-afternoon snack. And I finished off my day with whatever combination of protein, fruit, and/or vegetables I wanted. Dessert was a no, but I had enough fruit to go around. Though I used the #Whole30 Instagram and Pinterest tags for inspiration, most of my meals were an experiment in creativity. I just let my taste buds guide me and threw ingredients into a pan, hoping they’d combine well. Luckily for me, they usually did.
A few things I learned: Salsa is a great way to spice up your chicken. Your coffee doesn’t really need the milk you’re putting in it, and it definitely doesn’t need the sugar. (Plus, tea is always there for you if you need it.) Squash is an amazing addition to any dish. I also realized I relied on grains, dairy, and added sugar on a daily basis a lot more than I thought I did.
My budget was limited, which proved to be both great and terrible for this experience. On the one hand, my food expenses went way down after I cut going to restaurants out of my life. On the other, I was reluctant to dole out money on fancier forms of protein like steak and fish, so I was pretty much on a chicken-and-egg diet for the month. This wasn’t terrible, but someone who’s willing to spend a bit more could probably have even more fun with their cooking than I did.
But then there was the free cake at work situation. (There’s always a free cake at work situation, amirite?)
I’d been at work for two hours the first day of the challenge when I was offered free cupcakes. I kid you not. I literally wrote a note in my phone that said, “10:00 A.M.- There is free dessert sitting next to me. Help.” It turned out to be a co-worker’s birthday, and someone surprised the office with delicious peanut butter chocolate cupcakes.
I grabbed my phone and immediately texted my support system—my vegan roommate, my friend who’d done the Whole30 before, and my dad (lol). My roommate offered, “Just start tomorrow,” but my other friend sent a simple, “Don’t even think about it.” TBH, I don’t think my dad replied. I reluctantly took my second friend’s advice. If I made an exception for these cupcakes, what would stop me from making an exception for the free cake that would come a few days later, or the box of cookies the next week? (These are real things that happened. I get offered a surprising amount of free dessert.) I realized that resetting the challenge every time I feel like it would entirely defeat the purpose of doing the program. I committed to 30 days sans exceptions, and 30 days sans exceptions is what I would do. Regardless of how painful and sugar-less it was.
I took a screenshot of my friend’s cupcake shut-down for future reference and sat at my desk eating a banana. I stared at the free dessert for what can only be described as an embarrassing amount of time and persevered.
One more thing worth noting: It can get seriously hard to maintain a social life while on the 30-day plan. So much of the time I spend with people involves food and alcohol, and explaining what Whole30 was and why I was doing it never got easier. Plans to go out could never just be plans to go out—even when it’s a happy hour with colleagues as you’ll see from my chat above. I had to peruse the menu ahead of time, and my friends had to endure endlessly changing plans as I struggled to find something I could eat from any restaurant they suggested. Added sugar is in everything, guys.
I cheated—but only once.
I was pretty much killing the game until Day 18. I was full of energy, alert at work, and exercising with ease. I was throwing together Whole30-approved meals like it was my job, and I wasn’t experiencing my typical digestive issues. To put it simply: I felt like a badass. And I’m not sure what happened, but once that fateful 18th day rolled around, something changed in me. I no longer had the resolve to hang out in a corner eating Brussels sprouts while my coworkers enjoyed the pretzel dogs our office kitchen had so lovingly been stocked with. And while I tried to mentally repeat my ~determination mantra~ (“You didn’t come this far to only come this far”—cute, right?), I’d hit a wall. Maybe it was the fourth set of free cupcakes I forced myself to reject (not exaggerating), or maybe it was the fact that my body had lasted nearly three weeks sans foods it was consuming on the reg before, but I decided to cheat. And I decided to cheat hard.
I texted my roommate some passionate message about “EATING A F#&%ING BAGEL,” and we headed to my favorite restaurant (Brooklyn Bagel—go there) for a cream cheese-covered everything bagel with lox. I treated myself to a soda as well, because why the eff not? I post-gamed my cheat meal by splitting a six-pack of Insomnia Cookies with my roomie, who was thankfully along for the caloric ride of a lifetime. I proudly stuffed my half of the cookies (two peanut butter, one chocolate chunk—in case you were wondering) in my mouth on the train ride home. I’d never experienced such a beautiful indulgence in my life. And I had the sugar hangover the next day to prove it. (I’m not kidding when I say I spent the day after in a sugar-induced mental fog, made worse by my sugar-induced headache. I’d never hated sugar—or my lack of self-control—more in my life.)
Oh, and just so you know, you’re supposed to restart your 30 days once you cheat. I decided not to do this, because I had a trip coming up that I so thoughtfully planned my Whole30 around. Unfortunately, when I caved, restarting meant restricting my diet while on vacation—something that was just not gonna happen. (Sorry guys. We can’t all be Gisele and Tom.)
So here are my takeaways.
Let’s talk results. First of all, Whole30 did end up challenging my relationship with food. My pre-Whole30 food mentality was: “Eat now. Regret later.” (To be clear, “regret” alludes to feelings of pain and binge-induced food comas, not necessarily qualms with my appearance.) But Whole30 forced me to rethink that mantra, turning it into, “Eat now, and maybe regret now. But thank yourself later.” I didn’t eat the pizza. I ate the roasted vegetables. And guess what: It did make a difference. I felt the results. I’ve never had more energy—or fewer digestive issues. And even though Whole30 isn’t a weight-loss program, being more mindful about the foods I ate did carry the added benefit of me dropping a few pounds, as well.
Whole30 has a guide to the 10 days following the program, as well. This time period is called the “Reintroduction Phase,” because Whole30-ers are supposed to use it to slowly add ingredients back into their diets to see what’s causing a problem. I defiantly (and regretfully) abandoned this time period and resumed pre-Whole30 eating habits almost immediately after my 30 days were up. Neither I nor my digestive system recommend this approach, but sometimes a food-loving girl’s gotta do what a food-loving girl’s gotta do.
That said, I see indulgences totally differently than I did before. Now that Whole30 is over, I can ~treat myself~ again. But instead of mindlessly diving into the nearest cupcake, I try to be more conscious of my desires. Before picking up a tasty treat (or two, or three—let’s be real), I ask myself, “Do you really want this? Or do you just want to eat it because it’s near you?” More often than not, the answer is that I’m just trynna eat it because I can see it. If that’s the case, I bypass the treat and rest assured that the craving will pass (because seriously, it usually will).
Still, it’s important to find a program that works for you. Adiana Castro, founder of Compass Nutrition, weighed in on potential negative aspects of the program. “The Whole30 program encourages whole foods, meal planning, and preparation—all beneficial habits for a healthy lifestyle,” she tells SELF. “That said, I’m not a fan of ‘food rules,’ because they trigger negative connotations and can lead to disordered eating patterns. I believe adding general healthy habits to your daily routine is more impactful.” Other nutritionists have warned vegans and vegetarians to be careful when trying the program due to the lack of legumes (though the program has resources tailored to vegans and vegetarians on its website).
Most importantly, I walked away from Whole30 with a newfound sense of love for my body. No, it’s not because I’m looking leaner than ever before (though that was a welcome side effect of the program) or because I’m feeling incredibly ~in tune~ with my body. It’s just that passing up every sweet treat that has come my way in the last month has made me realize one thing: I love indulging in food, and I love my body for letting me indulge in that food. As far as I’m concerned, it’s worth it to flaunt a few extra pounds if I immensely enjoyed every bite it took me to get there. And knowing me, I probably did. As long as I’m not indulging in a way that’s unhealthy—and I’m not—what’s the harm in eating a cupcake or two? I’ve been sustaining this usually-healthy-but-treat-yourself lifestyle for a while now, and guess what: I look fine. That was just something I had to come to terms with, and thanks to Whole30, I have.
Now, if you’ll excuse me—there are some bagels that need consuming.
"Just got a six pack of Insomnia Cookies and ate them all while walking the streets of NYC." -me, living my best life
— Lindsey Lanquist (@lindseylanquist) March 25, 2016
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