We are not practicing Christians of any faith, but we decided to complete a Whole 30 during Lent this year. By way of quick introduction, the Whole 30 is a month-long elimination diet where you eat exclusively “whole” foods and cut out foods that commonly trigger inflammation or allergic reactions. This was motivated by my 101 tasks list and also a general desire for weight loss. We had mixed results, but the experience was overall positive.
Our plan was perhaps flawed from the start as we initially modified it to accommodate raw dairy and the no-added sugar products we make from it (e.g. homemade butter is okay, but homemade ice cream is not). The official plan is strict and doesn’t allow for any modification, which is why we say we were flawed from the beginning. The plan’s imperative to restart your 30 days in the event of any slip up, intentional or not, quickly proved unworkable for us. I don’t want to dwell on our excuses for why this was the case, but we’d be happy to talk about what didn’t work well for us in the comments. The most consecutive on-plan days we strung together (as modified, which is prohibited), was four. Overall, we were on plan for 16 of the 30 days. Of the 14 days that deviated from our modified Whole 30 rules, it was often just one meal or one drink and not an entire day’s worth of off-plan eating.
We thus dubbed our effort the Whole30-ish. It was sometimes frustrating, but we felt good. I lost about 5 lbs (Mr. Vine did not track his weight). I’d loosely follow the plan again in the future; it was an effective way to lose weight while feeling healthier and [mostly] not deprived.
Here’s what surprised us
Abstaining from alcohol was both easier and more difficult than expected. I had a happy hour with a networking group where I expected to want alcohol. But the bar offered Perrier, which was an excellent substitute. The soda water swap for booze is something I’ve employed since trying the Whole 30 and it’s been a nice way to reduce alcohol consumption (and increase hydration). I didn’t miss the social lubrication aspect of alcohol–reinforcing my extroverted nature. This was a huge relief and an eye-opening confidence boost that my ability to get to know people is genuine. I missed alcohol more at informal gatherings at home (either The Vines HQ or friends’ homes) and that’s where I’d most often go off plan for alcohol (especially when visiting friends). The post-work evening wind down drink was also harder to forego than I expected. It was enlightening to notice that alcohol routinely helped soften the blow of a tough day. Given my profession’s documented struggles with substance abuse, it was alarming, but also valuable to recognize that this was my primary trigger. I’m not sure what, if anything, that means. But I do believe it’s helpful to understand what causes us to indulge in any behavior. And going forward, I’m more aware and intentional about when I choose to drink.
I barely missed grains, but definitely wanted legumes every.single.day of the plan. I deliberately selected at-home meals so we wouldn’t feel the absent grains as strongly and it worked! With few exceptions, we avoided grain substitutes. We didn’t rice any cauliflower or make any zoodles! We did occasionally eat roasted spaghetti squash with homemade tomato sauce. Rice, stir fry, and other Asian dishes were one of the first things we brought back, but none of our meals were joyless. We noticed the absent beans in chili, in soups, and on top of salads. We missed hummus. And almond butter will never be peanut butter! We long ago made the switch to natural, no sugar added, peanuts-are-the-only-ingredient peanut butter. So we were fairly comparing the two butters. Peanut butter is much more flavorful and delicious. Before the Whole 30, I wouldn’t have guessed that I’d miss peanut butter and beans so much.
Here’s what worked well for us
The plan’s 3 meal a day mandate, but no strict requirements on what to eat was the perfect balance of flexibility and structure. I also appreciated the “snack if you must” directive. It was nice to have permission to snack if I was hungry. But plans that involve eating every 2-3 hours with mandatory snacks are a bit tedious for my current lifestyle. Often we had a piece of fruit like a banana or apple or orange for breakfast on weekdays. Sometimes with a handful of nuts or some almond butter. Even though it was not an ideal breakfast, it was often just enough, simple, and on-plan. We could grab a piece of fruit on the way out the door on busy mornings. Our other go-to breakfast was a smoothie with frozen fruit, raw milk, and sometimes unsweetened coconut flakes. Frequently, I find myself skipping breakfast altogether. Sometimes lunch, too. Obviously, this isn’t healthy and inevitably leads to eating everything in sight upon returning home. It also interferes with my ability to be active after work. Packing a lunch and eating something for breakfast would stave off the crazy hunger and keep me functioning until bedtime.
It was much easier to stay on plan with food prepared at home. Restaurants were always a complete minefield. I would usually pack a salad on workdays topped with leftover protein from a previous night’s dinner. In the absence of leftover protein, I would make Whole 30 compliant tuna salad with canned tuna, mustard, chopped celery and black pepper. Avocado was always a welcome addition to the salad when we had it in the house. Fruit would typically round out the meal. It was nice to save money on lunches out and to be so well-nourished during the work day. This gave me enough energy to fuel a quick workout before cooking dinner.
Hearty vegetables like cauliflower, squash, and potatoes most often replaced grains at our dinners. This made for beautiful and satisfying meals. We only used recipes a handful of times. The straightforward approach of Whole 30 was simple to follow and easy to make delicious meals when we had these foods on hand. Mr. Vine isn’t much of a sauce or salad dressing guy and for a long time I’ve made most of my own salad dressings (or topping salads with some salt, pepper, and the best quality olive oil we can find). We just don’t have a lot of condiments in our fridge (other than five varieties of mustard, which is the one condiment I’ll never give up!).
Based on previous dieting efforts, we have a hard time with plans that restrict portion sizes (those are also the eating every 2-3 hours plans). We also struggle with plans that require extensive preparation and cooking (we’re looking at you, BuzzFeed clean eating!). I dislike anything that encourages “fake” or highly processed foods of any kind (we’re looking at you, protein shakes, meal replacement bars, and sugar substitutes!). So, we were on board with the Whole30 core concepts. I also don’t suffer from a serious sugar addiction. I will say, though, that purposely avoiding sugars (even the natural ones like maple syrup and honey) helped me realize a few things about sugar. Many foods sneak it in! You probably already know about things like barbecue sauce and ketchup. But did you know that Starbucks’ cold brew with cascara foam is loaded with sugar? Did you know about the added sugar in most commercially prepared bread? I also realized how eating things like that would affect me–either by upsetting my digestive tract or making me crave three more sandwiches from a quick casual restaurant.
We also learned that we’re terrible at perfection. I learned during this process that I am a moderator, not an abstainer. This means, in terms of food, that I’m more likely to stick to a plan that allows for some indulgence. Or, I can measure out a portion of something and be satisfied.
During our Whole 30, I kept a diary of meals. Between the weight loss and the general lack of deprivation, if only because of the “ish” nature of our program, we were happy with it. We should also note that we didn’t come into Whole 30 with any food sensitivity issues. One benefit to faithfully following the plan is to identify dietary issues. That was less of a priority for us.
Have you tried the Whole 30? What did you think?