As the last days of summer stretch on and we inevitably march towards autumn with each slight drop in temperature and reddening leaf, the seasonal change can signal a lot of things for different people. The transition from summer to fall has always signaled a time of recalibration for me, setting new goals, reflecting on the ones I set out to achieve in the spring. Maybe because it reminds me of starting a new school year, September feels full of gleaming potential. A clean slate that and hasn’t yet been marred by any of the habits that make us human.
To capitalize on this feeling, I chose September to embark upon my first The Whole 30.
The Whole 30 is basically following a paleo diet for 30 days, but a paleo diet on steroids. No dairy, added sugars, alcohol, grains, or even legumes for christ sake, for 30 days. I first stumbled upon the program from reading about a fellow writer’s experience with it. When you first hear about it, the Whole 30 sounds pretty restrictive and awful, but those that make it through sing the program’s praises. I was immediately intrigued by the challenge of it, but more so I was drawn to the possibility of the benefits: increased energy, better skin, eliminating your “hangry” energy dips, and the best part, 0 calorie counting and no stepping on a scale. You eat until you’re full and often times end up losing weight. I love good food. And I’m terrible at saying no to myself. So this part really appealed to me. All of these benefits without the restriction of “dieting” sounded really great. Coming out on the other side, I’ve come to learn the program is about much more than losing weight.
If you’ve been considering the Whole 30, or looking to hit reset on your own relationship with food or unhealthy eating habits, I have some tips to share from my own experience with the program. In September 2015 I successfully completed one. I’ve tried two other attempts, but I decided not to cut out alcohol and it was a big mistake, maybe even costing me success. This is really an all or nothing type adventure. If you start out by making small tweaks to the rules it’s going to impact your entire experience. The founder Melissa Hartwig described it as “cheating at solitaire”, you really only end up cheating yourself.
Before beginning, take the time to mentally prepare and be strategic about when you choose to start. I’m pretty impulsive, so when I first stumbled upon the article I immediately thought “Great! Where do I sign?”. I was ready to jump in and GO. I decided to wait 3 weeks to align myself with September 1st (and honestly because I wanted to be able to drink for the remaining weeks of August) and was so glad I did. It’s important to have time to mentally prepare, and to prepare your kitchen and choose a date that sets you up for success. Print off all the downloadable PDF guides available on the site and familiarize yourself with what you can and can’t have. Clear your cupboards of any tempting things that aren’t allowed. The Whole 30 is notorious for it’s tough tone. Boldly on the rules section of the website they state “Beating cancer is hard. Birthing a baby is hard. Losing a parent is hard. Drinking your coffee black. Is. Not. Hard.” While this is very true, completing a Whole 30 is a challenge and you want to set yourself up properly to succeed.
Optimize all the support you can: You can successfully complete the program without paying a single dime to the founders. They’ve done an amazing job of creating the resources you need as well as social communities to support you through the program, all for free. Follow the Whole 30 Instagram account for tips to align your start date with others, and follow their recipes account for amazing daily crowd-sourced recipes from Paleo chefs and bloggers. I did decide to pony up the $14 for daily e-mails and it was one of the reasons why I think I was able to get through my first Whole 30 successfully. Waking up every day to a new e-mail cheering me on and helping me prepare for what I might encounter that day was amazing. I also had strong support: my boyfriend and another friend at the time both decided to also start it with me. You will be doing a TON of cooking (read: dishes), so sharing that responsibility with someone helps, and it was amazing for moral support to discuss what I was experiencing in real time with someone who could relate. If no one in your circle is willing to start one with you, jump into the online community. The Whole 30 Forum is another amazing resource that answered so many of my questions as they popped up along the way.
Meal Prep and have fun with the recipes: Sure, you can eat avocado and egg with sliced peppers for every meal, but it’s going to make getting through the program a hell of a lot harder. You’ve dedicated a month to this, throw yourself in! Those delicious recipes you’re seeing in The Whole 30 instagram stories? Make them! Even better, create a pinterest board or save them to an Instagram collection as you browse and then meal prep on your day off. I actually save so much money when I’m doing a Whole 30 because I only buy what I need for each meal, and I’m not eating out at restaurants as frequently. I created a Pinterest board the first time I did one and I still turn to it frequently for ideas and save new recipes as I come across them because after the program, I still find myself eating primarily paleo. The biggest tip I can tell you when it comes to Whole 30 cooking: get saucy. The magic in these recipes is in quality ingredients and in sauces. And learn to make mayo. If you do anything in your 30 days let it be this.
Follow a reintroduction plan: I didn’t reintegrate food groups slowly the first time around and it was a big mistake. I dove right back into my crap habits and got a big, cheesy pizza and regretted it almost immediately. Especially if you are doing the program to find out how certain food groups affect you, this is where you have the opportunity to test. By reintroducing food groups you can closely monitor the effect each has on your body.
The Whole 30 is quite polarizing even among nutritionists. Because it’s so extreme some think that it’s a really unhealthy way to think about food. But I think many people gloss over the fact that it’s not meant to be a long-term regime. It’s really meant to be an intensive time period where you are forced to think hard about your food choices and to start to tune in to how the food you eat makes you feel. In that regard this program actually did change my life. I don’t look at a scale anymore, I focus wholeheartedly on how the food I’m eating makes me feel. That’s not to say I don’t indulge in a baguette with cheese every now and again, but I consciously make that choice and I know I’m going to feel a bit sluggish after. I still follow all the social accounts, I meal plan with many of the recipes I came to love. I exclusively make my own mayo now (I’m not kidding it’s so good I will lick it off the spoon). If I leave you with anything I think it’s to go into your Whole 30 open to the changes that might take place for you, beyond simply losing weight. Allow yourself time to truly reflect on your relationship with food.