The Whole 30 experience


Sarah heard of this diet/food plan called “Whole30” and wanted to try it out.  This is now the last day of the 30 days. Here’s what happened.

The idea is it’s an extra-restrictive version of the paleo diet, to sort of reset your food intake to eliminate many known allergens or foods that cause digestive issues. You stick to that restrictive list of foods for 30 days, then gradually reintroduce other foods to see if they have any impact on how you feel.

It was easier if we both did Whole30 at once, since it would make meals and available snacks easier to coordinate, so I agreed to join in. I only agreed to do meals other than lunch as Whole30, since I wasn’t sure I would have compliant foods available at work, and I’m usually too lazy and uncoordinated to bring a lunch to work. However, the salad bar at work fit the bill, so I ended up doing Whole30 all the time, no exceptions for lunch.

What is it?

Being more restrictive than a paleo diet, it means:

  • no grains (no wheat, soy, rice, etc)
  • no dairy (milk-type dairy, eggs are ok)
  • no sugar or sugar substitutes
  • no legumes
  • no alcohol
  • no carrageenan, MSG or sulfites

What’s left? Mostly meat and veggies.

We didn’t apply the same diet to our son, although since he shared meals, he was mostly on the same diet… but we still gave him snacks of crackers and peanut butter when needed.

How did it go?

Not bad, actually. No sugar or milk meant black coffee, or coffee with coconut milk or almond milk. Breakfast was lots of omelets and scrambles or leftovers from dinner. But I never went hungry, and never felt like I had no options for food.

Incidentally, I also lost 15 pounds, with no change to my lackadaisical exercise habits. That’ll happen when you cut out carbs. Now I just need to actually exercise.  =P

Lessons learned

Real food is expensive – in this case, lots of meat and fresh veggies. If you want your meat and veggies organic and possibly locally grown, it’s gonna cost you.  Without grains, there are no carb filler foods like rice or pasta to bulk meals up, so it’s all meats and veggies. Luckily, we can afford to do this kind of experiment, but it highlights the difficulties of eating heathy for people with lower incomes.

Real food is slow – there are basically no packaged foods that fit the plan, so every meal is going to involve planning and cooking.  Without grains, there’s no grabbing a bowl of cereal for breakfast.  You either make big batches of food and heat them up later, or cook at every meal.

It’s a lot of meat – I’m not a vegetarian, but it was more meat than I usually eat. From an ecological standpoint, meat is very costly to raise compared to vegetables, eating meat for every meal just doesn’t feel right to me. I don’t need that much meat.

I didn’t miss sugar – for the most part. Before Whole30, having dessert every night was the normal ritual. Cutting this out, or having a piece of fruit instead, was fine. Going for the fresh fruit instead of the donut box at work felt fine too. I did miss some sugar, which I’ll get to next.

I missed sauces – there are very few condiments that are Whole30 compliant. Most have added sugar, or soy/wheat/corn/carrageenan as thickeners. This left basically gourmet or homemade mayo with no added sugar, mustard, and oil and vinegar. Salad for lunch was especially bland, I’m not big on oil&vinegar for dressing, so I ended up just splashing balsamic vinegar on my salad. I like BBQ sauce on my burger, it was not to be. Also, no Sriracha on Whole30!

Sometimes grains are replaceable, sometimes not – replacing a taco shell with curled pieces of romaine lettuce worked surprisingly well. A burger topped with mustard and wrapped in a large lettuce leaf, not so much. Zucchini cut with a spiralizer into a spaghetti shape was actually pretty good. Having baked potato wedges when everyone else has pot pie with a nice crust – not so great.

Having a restrictive diet can suck – there are very few foods I could eat when out with friends, although there was always something on the menu that could be requested without butter or sauce, it was not as enjoyable as just picking something that sounded good from the menu. It gave me some added empathy for people I know who have actual allergies and have permanent dietary restrictions.

I didn’t feel different – I did have a slight headache a couple times on the first week, perhaps from sugar withdrawal, but it wasn’t that bad. Otherwise, I didn’t feel like I had more or less energy than before, or any differences with my digestive system. It didn’t feel life-changing or anything, as the marketing for the plan would have me believe, but I’ve never had any food allergies. The next phase is slowly re-introducing the forbidden Whole30 foods, a variable at a time, to see if it makes any difference. I suspect I won’t find any difference.

Willpower was there – There were often tempting foods around, the office always has pastries scattered around, and the aforementioned pot pies were very delicious-looking, but I never had that hard a time saying no. It was refreshing to know that if I need to, I have the willpower to stick to something.

Long-term changes – As Whole30 is phased out, I suspect my eating will mostly return to how it was before, my diet was pretty healthy before Whole30. But there will be some changes that stick. Less sugar, for example. I don’t mind black coffee now, and didn’t really miss dessert. A dessert might be nice now and then, but it’s not something I need every day. Also, before Whole30 I’d gotten into the habit of having a beer every day with dinner. No beer is not enough beer, but a beer a day was probably leading to a beer gut. I’m also going to stay with smaller portions of carbs like rice and pasta, and larger portions of veggies. Small changes, but hopefully lasting ones.