I first heard about Whole30 five years ago. At the time, I was in college and our nightly ritual consisted of grabbing our favorite pints of Ben & Jerry's and as many bags of chips as our arms could hold. Safe to say, going 30 days without sugar, carbs, dairy, and alcohol was something I absolutely could not wrap my head around. Fast-forward to March of this year, and there I was beginning the program. What changed? A whole lot.
Four years into working full time I found myself with a laundry list of gastrointestinal issues, an extensive medical bill from the many doctor visits and tests done, and no answers. Even though I was now eating a healthy and balanced diet, I felt I needed some type of reset. My friends and I were continuously tossing around the word "reset" and began considering the idea of doing Whole30 without ever thinking we had the discipline. That is, until, all of a sudden, three of us agreed that March 1 would be our first day.
After people questioned my sanity for completing Whole30, they always asked what I learned. The list is long, but here are a few take-aways:
1. Meal prep is an absolute must.
I cannot stress this point enough. As someone who already prepped a lot of my meals, I thought this would be a breeze. Let me tell you, prepping a couple of breakfasts and lunches throughout the week is a whole lot different from prepping every single damn meal for 30 days. This task may sound daunting, but I suggest taking the time on Sundays to sit down and plan out your week. Start by creating a table with a section for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for each day of the week and marking down any social events you have that week. Next, write down exactly what you plan to prep and eat for each meal of each day. In addition to meal prep, you must always be prepared. I am constantly referred to as a grandmother because of the thousand snacks that are stockpiled in every one of my bags. Pack compliant trail mixes, almond butter individual packets, fruit, crudités, or any of your other favorite snacks for the times you are stuck somewhere and hungry enough to eat your arm.
2. Not all restaurants or food brands are created equal. Don't be afraid to ask questions!
You will learn this lesson about a week in when you are sick of planning your meals and spending Sundays chopping vegetables. You’ll think, "OK, so who says I need to prep every meal? I can still go out to dinner and order a compliant meal, right?" But not all restaurants or food brands are created equal. Some restaurants will be extremely cooperative and prepare something you are able to enjoy (bless you, you wonderful places), but some will most definitely not be. With that being said, take the time before heading out on this adventure and call the restaurant ahead of time. While this is incredibly helpful, it will also cause you to question all of the ingredients you never knew were hidden in some of your favorite dishes at nearby restaurants. Similarly to this epiphany, you will also be shellshocked the first time you go grocery shopping, when you'll sadly notice that almost everything you’ve been enjoying your entire life has some type of added sweetener hidden in it. I had to pick up 10 different packs of bacon before I found one that did not have sugar listed as an ingredient!
3. You don't need alcohol as much as you might think you do.
Cutting out alcohol was the thing that intimidated me the most about Whole30. I could somewhat wrap my mind around not having those 3 a.m. city nights, but I really couldn’t imagine not having one sip of alcohol for 30 days straight. However, while it was difficult at times, it made me realize that I may not need alcohol as much as I think I do. Perhaps I don’t need those two glasses of wine while watching one of my shows in my apartment. Or, probably more importantly, maybe I don’t need those extra cocktails when out on a Saturday night. This is not meant to come across as preaching about my mature drinking habits, because, trust me, there are times when these wheels fall off. However, it is a refreshing feeling to take a step back and acknowledge that, as integrated as alcohol may currently be into your life, it may not be as necessary as you think.
4. You don't know what type of energy or sleep your body is capable of.
In the beginning, you will feel like you’ve been run over by a truck. I don’t say this to scare you but instead to help manage your expectations. I remember wondering how it was possible to feel hungover when I hadn’t had a sip to drink in over a week. Whether you are aware of your sugar intake or not, your body is responding to no longer having sugar as an energy source and rewiring itself to find other sources of fuel. Just continue to remind yourself that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. One morning, out of nowhere, you will jump out of bed without hitting snooze and attack the day. I truly never imagined that these levels of energy or slumber were attainable.
5. You may be reliant on more foods than you're aware of.
Whole30 not only cuts out some foods that you already know are not nutritionally beneficial, such as sugar, but also ones that you may purposefully incorporate into your diet. I don't like to label foods as "good" or "bad" because I believe everything has a place in the world, but eliminating some of these foods I always thought of as "good," such as grains or forms of dairy, made me realize how reliant on them I was. Taking a detox from some of these foods and forcing yourself to cook with ingredients you usually are not incorporating into your meals may not only break some of your dependent tendencies but also introduce you to flavors you did not know you enjoyed. For example, not being able to use milk in my daily chia puddings threw me for a loop at first but then forced me to take on the milkmaid lifestyle and begin making my own nut milks. And guess what? I haven’t used dairy in these parfaits since.
6. People will critique and judge you—and that's their problem, not yours.
One of the things I was most amazed by during my Whole30 experience was the number of people who decided to judge or criticize my decision and quickly offer their opinion. I often found myself in this exact situation: I would be enjoying my home-prepared meal or turning down office pizza minding my own business and, when someone would ask why, I would explain that I was on Day X of Whole30. Their immediate reaction: "What! Why? Are you crazy? That is so stupid! I’m so sorry for you." Thank you, person I never asked to tell me how you feel, for diminishing my own personal decision to take a step toward improving my health. Learn from my mistake and do not take these unwarranted judgments to heart. You do you, and encourage others to do the same.
7. Listen to your body. Really, seriously, listen.
For years, I struggled with stomach issues and never knew the cause. As uncomfortable as the pain was, the fact that I was unable to figure out why was the most frustrating part. Thankfully in the reintroduction phase of Whole30, which begins after completion of the 30 days, I was finally able to pinpoint some trigger foods that I was completely unaware of. Some of my trigger foods are legumes, large portions of gluten, and oats that have not been sprouted or soaked. Before Whole30 I ate peanut butter (legumes) and granola (filled with oats) every day. Whole30 taught me to listen to my body and helped me realize that although I may love some of these things, my body may not feel the same way as my mouth. That doesn't mean I will permanently cut these foods out of my diet, but I am now aware that maybe I should monitor my consumption and have just a spoonful or handful instead of an entire jar or bag. If you have mastered the willpower and dedication to finish the 30 days, do not throw it all away on Day 31. Take the reintroduction phase seriously and listen to your body—you'll be amazed at what it has to tell you.
8. You may actually enjoy Whole30.
Once you hit the closing stretch, everyone will ask how excited you must be to wake up on Day 31 and eat whatever the heck you want. I cannot tell you how many people asked me what my "reward meal" would be. Around Day 25 I felt something I never, in a million years, thought I would feel: a bit of sadness that Whole30 was ending. This sounds crazy, I am well aware. By no means is Whole30 a lifestyle that I could uphold 24/7, but these 30 days had me feeling like an entirely new human. If I felt so much healthier, happier, more energetic, and overall better by following this lifestyle, then why should I return to my old habits? This was a question I pondered for a while. In fact, with the exception of alcohol, I maintained a Whole30-compliant diet for an additional 10 or so days. Eventually, life caught up and I was eating dessert and carbs again. However, I now know that I'm able to enjoy a less strict lifestyle while also still implementing some of these Whole30 tendencies, whether simply for a day or week, and begin to feel a difference. If you are in any way considering partaking of the Whole30 challenge, do it. What is the worst thing that could happen? You may surprise yourself and actually enjoy it.
Intrigued? Here are the best Whole30 breakfasts to get you started. Also, the founder of Whole30 shares how her drug addiction led her to create the program.
Cameron Rogers is a blogger and creator of Freckled Foodie, currently residing in New York City. As a certified health coach, she's on a steadfast mission to making healthy living approachable. Forbes called Rogers one of the "top 5 entrepreneurs changing the New York wellness scene" and she has worked with notable brands to develop transformative content stemming from her professional expertise.