Sometimes, the plan doesn’t work. And that’s okay.
Disclaimer: Everyone has a different experience with Whole30. For many people, the Whole30 is an absolutely life-changing program that can transform their relationship with food, help them craft healthy habits, and alleviate health, skin, and medical conditions that have plagued them for years.
For these reasons, I’m extremely happy that the Whole30 exists.
HOWEVER, what I’m here to do is give you my experience with Whole30. I can’t speak for anyone else. And I will be completely honest when I say that the standard Whole 30, strict-Paleo template did not work for, and was definitely not right for, me.
What is the Whole 30?
The Whole 30 is a lifestyle program comprised of two parts: elimination and reintroduction. This is something that I think many people forget, or do not realize.
Not only is this a 30-day food and habit reset, but it’s also a program that has you reintroduce foods after the 30-day elimination.
In this vital re-intro period, you learn and understand how specific foods and food groups (grains, legumes, dairy, refined/processed goods, alcohol, and sugar) affect you on physiological, emotional, mental, and physical levels. From this knowledge, you can create your own personal definition of healthy eating (that may or may not involve the foods the Whole 30 cut out).
The basic premise? Knowledge is power, so once you find how certain foods work for you, you gain control of your skin, energy levels, health conditions and digestion. Incredible.
I’ve been a longtime supporter of the Whole 30 program and co-founder Melissa Hartwig’s approach to eating real food, finding food freedom, and creating a healthy, individualized lifestyle and diet that is right for your body and mind. However, I had never done a full Whole30 until this past February. Inspired by Food Freedom Forever and a desire to curb my sugar/dessert habits, I embarked on this journey.
You can go to the Whole 30 website to learn, in detail, about what exact foods are included in the original Whole30 program (they now have vegan, pescatarian, and vegetarian options), but basically, for the past 30 days I ate a black-and-white Paleo diet. Well, mostly…
Some Context: I Have A History with Restrictive Paleo Diets
About two years ago, I put myself on an extremely rigid, “no cheats” Paleo diet. I was hooked on this craziness for over 12 months, and it was terrifyingly destructive to my relationship with food.
It was essentially a Whole 365, which is exactly what the co-founders of Whole30 advise not to do. But I didn’t know this at the time. As a freshman in college, all I knew to be “true” was that gluten and gluten-free grains were devils. Refined seed oils were horrendous. And sugar was something to genuinely fear and avoid under all circumstances.
(Mind you, I’ve been allergy tested by a naturopathic doctor. And while I do have actual allergies to dairy, all nightshade veggies, and random shit like oranges, garlic, and tuna fish, I’m not intolerant or allergic to gluten, sugar, legumes or gluten-free grains. Like, at all.)
Thinking it was super healthy and good for me, I continued on this Paleo diet for months.
Being in this place of rigidity fueled some intense cravings for treats. I wanted the things I could not have (ice cream, frosting, cookies, brownies), so I turned to the closest, Paleo-friendly option available: the jar — no, jars on jars on JARS, of nut butters. What started out as a snack that I occasionally enjoyed quickly evolved into a food I would binge on repeatedly for days.
It was not until I removed all dietary restrictions from myself (over a year later) that I began to remediate my relationship with food. I became happier and healthier again. It felt amazing to legalize the foods I’d restricted, such as oatmeal and quinoa, and I finally, finally stopped binging on almond butter. I no longer had a reason to; without me even trying to avoid it, the habit died on its own.
I’ve written more about my Paleo experience, and how I healed my food relationship and habits here.
The Perks of Whole 30
Fast forward to February 2017: I’m taking on Whole30 for the first time, and the first two weeks of the program are fan-freaking-tastic!
1. Tiger blood.
After the first two to three days, when I felt like my brain was about to explode due to a sugar hangover headache, I was on such a high. I felt like I had the tiger blood that Whole30-ers talk about experiencing at the end of the month!
2. My food felt energizing and satisfying.
I had a ton of energy at work, and I barely needed snacks during the day. My meals were delicious, satisfying, savory, and tasteful. I was trying out new recipes and creating a bunch of my own.
3. My body felt a difference.
I was sleeping soundly (something that didn’t happen much before), my skin was getting clearer and softer, by week 3 I had NO cravings for chocolate or cake or any baked goods, and my hair was growing…wicked fast. I seriously feel like my hair grew three inches during Whole30.
Even though my Whole30 is over now, these are the most profound effects that I’ve continued to see even after the fact. They are the benefits that inspire me to eat healthy. I really like sleeping like a baby, having clear skin & strong hair and nails, feeling energized all day, and not maintaining constant cravings for treats. Hello, non-scale victories!
The Dark Side of My Whole 30: What You Didn’t See
While I did experience all of these benefits and was eating delicious food (such pesto turkey meatballs and rosemary + prosciutto frittatas), there were some drawbacks to my Whole30 experience, and they all stemmed from that year of rigid, restrictive Paleo dieting.
Co-founder Melissa Hartwig explicitly states in her books that if you have/had an eating disorder, or specific disordered tendencies with food, to please work with your trusted healthcare practitioner to see if Whole30 is a good fit (or not) for you.
This is what I didn’t do, and this is what I learned (the hard way) that I should have done.
I thought that eliminating grains, legumes, alcohol, and all sweet treats for 30 days would help me to feel better and reset my relationship with food, but in fact, it made my connection with eating worse. After that two week high, I should have stopped my reset. Instead, I kept going.
By week three, I was tired of a) eating eggs, and b) restricting food groups that I’d finally, after that year of fearing certain foods, integrated into my diet.
Before the reset, I felt emotionally happy and on point with my digestion while eating non-Paleo/Whole30 foods– beans, occasional gluten-filled treats, oatmeal, quinoa, and dark chocolate. Since I knew this about myself and my digestive system, I became incredibly and enormously pissed off that I was not allowing myself to eat these foods.
So what did this annoyance and restrictiveness cause during my Whole30? I was brought right back to the unhealthy cycle that I used to maintain when I was stuck in my rigid paleo diet — binge on almond butter (sometimes stuffing it in Medjool dates because hot damn that’s a fabulous “Paleo” treat), feel bad about it, restrict stringently for a few days, and then one night after dinner, dive face first into the current jar.
I was hot and bothered that I was restricting myself like I had in my freshman year of college, and that my almond butter binging had come out of its grave. Upon realizing this habit had resurrected, I realized that since limiting myself to specific food groups was not working for me, I had no obligation to continue. If and when I wanted to, I could just…stop. I could simply start listening to my body instead of trying to work so, so hard to make the Whole30 right for me.
And let me tell you: this legalization of food (which I’ve realized is a gift of grace and kindness to my mind, my relationship with eating, and my body) has continued to bring me joy every day since I called off my Whole30.
After Whole30: Benefits and Lessons Learned
Of course, within every experience, there are lessons to be found, and I certainly learned a lot about myself through doing this program.
Here are the things that my Whole30 taught me:
1. Even though ghee is clarified butter and contains no lactose, my body does not tolerate it well. I think I’m so allergic to dairy that even ghee is rough for me. Anyone want my jar of Fourth and Heart Vanilla Bean Ghee? It’s so good, and I wish it didn’t upset my digestive system. Ugh!
2. Post-Whole30, I can now enjoy treats (a piece of dark chocolate, a slice of homemade banana bread) and not feel the need to consume the whole bar or loaf. This is truly my favorite improvement because I had a huge problem with eating dessert in mindless excess before Whole30.
3. Eating meals without looking at my phone, my computer, or the TV are insanely more satisfying.
4. Things that help me digest food better: taking a few deep breaths before my meals, and taking short walks outside after meals.
5. Owning a food Instagram and food blog is way less enjoyable while doing Whole30, unless I surround myself with only Whole30 content (hard to do when I enjoy following lots of bakers and non-Paleo bloggers).
So What Now?
My post-Whole30, healthy eating plan? To eat whatever the hell I want, when I want.
Because my restrictive past with food ignited a backfiring of my attempt at Whole30, I now try my best to exist in the entirely opposite realm. When I do genuinely desire a treat, whether it be once a week, once a month, or five times in five days, I allow myself to indulge and seriously appreciate that almond butter truffle, chocolate cookie, or slice of pumpkin bread.
In doing so, I don’t drive myself crazy with restriction, and I don’t enter the binge cycle that I know happens for me personally when I do restrict way too much.
The Takeaway: One Program Isn’t for Everyone
Before Whole30, I thought that doing Whole30 was going to be the only way to reset and improve my food habits. After giving it my best shot, though, I’ve learned that this is not the truth. And in many ways, this brings me so much peace.
My hope is that you experiment and discover what works for you (with food, wellness, and health habits). Whole30 is a life-changing program for millions of people; you could very well be one of them. Or not. While it has helped tons of individuals become happier and healthier, no single program is going to work for all us, and I think we should try our best to be A-okay with this.
So go out there, experiment with different foods, be honest with yourself about what is working, and is not working, for you, and eat a delicious freaking cookie when you want it.
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