In this post I review my Whole 30 experiences, the results I got, and the results I didn’t get. I saw some awesome improvements in certain areas, and was a bit let down in others, but overall I was so happy I did the Whole 30! Read on for some Whole 30 results, some food photos, and an amazingly ‘TMI’ chart.
What is the Whole 30?
The Whole 30 is a 30 day food reset program created by Dan and Melissa Hartwig. They have a wonderful book, blog, and community that you can find over at www.whole9life.com. The book does a great job of explaining the ins and outs of the program, as well as why we’re doing each thing, how to meal plan, and what your experiences might be.
Basically, you eat three meals a day of (roughly) the right amounts of meats, vegetables, and fats – all whole and unprocessed. You can eat all kinds of meats, vegetables, fruit, eggs, nuts, and seeds. You can have some oils. You can’t have any grains, dairy, added sugar, soy, legumes, alcohol, and a couple of other chemicals. You can’t eat food that tastes better than sex, or food you can’t control yourself over.
It’s not a punishment, as much as it might sound that way now, but actually more of a liberation! Freedom from guilt, hunger, shame, nausea, regret, and sugar cravings.
Why did I do it?
I was watching the Women’s Weight loss Summit (which was really a lot more about overall health, than weight loss, which is something I fully support), and I felt so inspired by the interviews and information that I wanted to do something really proactive for my health. I’d been meaning to ‘get around’ to doing a whole30 for about 2 years, but never found the drive. This Summit gave me the inspiration I needed to take my fairly healthy habits and really put them under the microscope.
This might sound a bit unpleasant – I mean, who knows what you’re going to find when you put your unexamined daily habits and beliefs into the forefront of your mind and really analyse them for functionality, effectiveness, and truth?
As Alex Jameison says in her new book:
…once you lay down the crutches of things like caffeine, dairy, sugar, and alcohol, just to mention a few, your direct, personal contact with the world – with reality – is immediately heightened and brought into sharp, clear focus. You realize that you are a vulnerable being, alive and electric, in a vulnerable, ever-shifting world.
Not to mention, you learn some interesting things about both yourself and the people around you when you tell them what you’re doing… some good, some not so good.
For example, I learned that my main man is an extremely supportive guy. He went out of his way to make sure I had things to eat wherever we went, and remembered when I couldn’t eat certain things I always have in the past. However, I also learned he has almost no understanding of health, diet, or nutrition, and very little knowledge of how the body works. He also didn’t really understand why I was trying to improve my health when I wasn’t ‘sick’.
This is brings up an important point.
I didn’t think I was ‘sick’ either. I was doing the Whole 30 more as a way to optimize what I thought was an already healthy body. I ate well, exercised 3-4 times a week, and my complaints were minor and ‘normal’.
Well, normal doesn’t actually equal healthy, as I found out.
Normal doesn’t equal healthy
I kept a detailed journal of my whole 30 journey, experiences, and results. I took notes on my sleep, how my body was feeling, my cravings, and even my bowel functions (true story). Some really interesting patterns came out of this, and I’d say it’s the biggest benefit I got from doing this program. Tracking really made me aware of my patterns, body, and issues I didn’t even realise were issues. However, it has shaken my self-image and means I have a lot more work to do than I thought.
Result: Sweet dreams are made of… ?
One very unexpected issue my daily note-taking uncovered was to do with my sleep, which I never would have identified as any kind of problem. I am a great sleeper! I go to bed early and wake up ok (even better now), I average around 8 hours a night, and usually don’t have any trouble falling asleep. These weren’t any problem during Whole30, but what was happening while I was sleeping… a whole different story!
I had vivid, stressful dreams. Every. Single. Night. I knew I dreamed a lot, but every night? I had no idea that I was dreaming quite so much, but what’s worse is that nearly every night my dreams ranged from mildly stressful (like forgetting things or being unable to get where I need to go) to full on nightmares of plane crashes and tidal waves (I dreamed of tidal waves 3 times!). If you’d asked me a month ago about my stress levels, I’d have told you I’m great – my job, relationships, and hobbies are all going really well. However, I now think my night-time brain is trying to tell me something and I need to listen.
Because of this realisation, I decided to try to calm myself down and de-stress before sleeping. I got the lovely, and free, calm.com app on my phone and started meditating using their guided relaxation recording for between 2-10 minutes each night. It’s still a bit soon to tell, but I have had a higher ratio of dreams I list as ‘normal’ rather than ‘stressful’.
Result: Loop the loop with poop
Another thing I didn’t realise was quite so out of whack was my bowel movements. I knew they were a tad inconsistent, but until I started writing it down I had no idea they were totally messed up. Messed up was my normal. I’m talking wild fluctuations between diarrhoea and constipation, and constant bloating and belly distension.
I mean, I was vaguely aware it’s been like this for a while, but I was always just ‘waiting for it to come right’. Because I was made aware of how bad my patterns were, I knew I had to do something about it. I researched the Bristol Stool Chart and from day 22 (thanks to a piece of advice I happened to hear from Dr Tom O’Bryan) started drinking 500ml of water every day right after waking.
As you can see from my oh-so-TMI poop graph below, the final week of my Whole 30 saw a real reduction in constipation (‘0’ on the graph means no movement that day) and diarrhoea (6-7 on the graph), and many more days in the good range of 3-5.
So, was it the water or the food? I think both – both are obviously good for my body and my gut.
Result: Sent snacking packing!
One of the main motivations for me to do a Whole 30 was my after dinner snacking. It was getting to the point where I was compulsively eating junk I didn’t even like that much (I’m looking at you, Peanut butter Oreos), and which I knew was bad for me in every way. It was serving no purpose, physical, social, spiritual, or even emotional. But, I couldn’t seem to stop. However, with the iron-clad rules of the Whole 30 echoing around my head, my urges and cravings literally disappeared overnight. I was lucky, I’ve read that some people get awful cravings, but mine were pretty much non-existent.
Except on workout days.
And again, this is where the note-taking came to the rescue. I was able to see that I was having cravings and was feeling very slow and tired on workout days. So, I made some Whole 30 friendly energy bars to eat before my workouts, and had a big breakfast after each session and this really helped resolve the problem. Up until now, I hadn’t thought my workouts were intense enough to warrant more/special food. That was just for ‘real’ athletes. However, when I started tracking and listening to my body, it definitely wanted more that I was giving it. Simple fix and now I can have good energy levels and manage my food easily on workout days too.
So, main results of the Whole 30? Learning to listen to what my body is trying to tell me instead of brushing things off as ‘normal’. The note-taking aspect was totally key to seeing patterns and then taking steps to change those patterns.
The main take-away point here is: improvements mostly didn’t happen as a result of just the Whole 30, but of seeing the problem and taking steps to fix it.
Review: Was there anything particularly easy or difficult about doing a Whole 30?
So, that was a breakdown of what I think were my main take-away points from the program. Now you want to know about the actual eating, I’m sure. What was hard, what was easy, was it worth it? Well, let’s start with what was easy.
I was already gluten free (mostly), don’t like soy, and don’t eat a lot of grains or dairy (because it’s very expensive in Korea!), don’t drink coffee, and am metabolically intolerant to alcohol. So these things were unusually easy for me to take a pass on. Most of them and the habits I needed were already there, I just had to focus and really be conscious and strict about it. I know for most of you, and my co-workers, things aren’t quite that simple.
By FAR the most common reactions when people asked what I was doing were
1) “I could never give up bread/pasta/muffins”, and
2) “I could never give up dairy”.
I’m going to cover why this might be in a later blog post, but these two, while no problems for me, do seem to be a major hurdle for many.
Another way the whole 30 was uncommonly easy for me was that I already knew how to cook (thanks mum!), and I live alone with complete control over my meals. I would imagine that it would be a bit more of a balancing act with a family, or even just a spouse – though far from impossible if it’s a priority for you.
Here’s a few of my Whole 30 meals:
Apples, banana, and blueberries; Scrambled eggs and spinach; Whole 30 burgers; ‘Surf and Turf’ Whole 30 style. Yes, my food photography needs work.
So, now with those things in the bag, what made it hard?
Eating out was a pain in the neck! It’s totally possible, it just takes some pre-planning and some care. Because I live in Korea, many local foods were out thanks to sugar or soy content, so I focussed on plain meat Korean BBQ and foreigner style steak restaurants. Between these two options I ate out 2-3 times a week without too much hassle, but I did have to make sure I knew where I was going and what the options were. Korea doesn’t have a culture of personalising your order, so I had to find places that just had food that would suit me. If I can do it here, you can do it anywhere!
Less of a problem, but something that took some adjusting was eating a lot more vegetables and fat. Getting these on my plate each and every meal definitely took some effort. I still struggle with vegetables at breakfast. Hiding vegetables in soups, stews, and meat dishes was really helpful, as was pouring over some coconut or avocado oil before serving to get that good fat in there.
The final thing I found tricky was resisting the urge to ‘treat myself’, especially when I looked at my symptoms and saw no improvement. I wanted very badly to turn to food for comfort. There were times during my 30 days when I did eat more than I needed just because it felt good (hello, paleo nachos). While it was all Whole 30 approved foods, it goes against the philosophy of the program, which is to try and improve our relationship with food. This is an area for focus in future whole 30’s.
So, as I’ve mentioned a couple of times, some of the key symptoms I was hoping to heal by doing a Whole 30 didn’t change at all during the program. But, alongside the benefits noted above, I did experience a range of pretty neat improvements and benefits:
– awesome support from friends and family.
– major reduction in sugar cravings
– nausea after eating has gone away
– no mouth ulcers (I was getting a few small ones each month)
– I have more ideas, more drive, more passion
– better mood
– wake up time naturally went from a groggy, hazy, puffy 7-8am to an awake, mind ready to go 5-6am (I’m actually a little annoyed about the 5am… that’s still night time, if you ask me!!).
– clearer/more even skin tone on face
– lost 3cm off my hips (and only 500g in weight)
– awareness of what’s in food
– it inspired me to look deeper into other ways toxic stuff might be getting into my life and body (such as beauty products and house cleaners)
What didn’t work/didn’t happen?
None of the symptoms I was hoping would improve showed any sign of anything. I became a lot more aware of them, and things like my bowl issues I now realise are actually a sign of ‘something’ rather than ‘normal’. I had one ½ day where I wasn’t bloated or distended and it felt so amazing – I hadn’t realised I felt like this ALL THE TIME until it wasn’t there anymore. Sadly, it came right back. Similarly, my red skin bumps on upper arms, outer thighs, and buttocks haven’t improved at all. They’ve been there my whole teen-adult life, so maybe they need longer than 30 days to heal.
Also, the constant mild sinus congestion and inflammation I’ve experienced for the past 5 years did not improve at all. I had high hopes that removing dairy would kick this to the curb, but no. Still got some work to do here.
Put together as a whole (haha) experience, I will definitely do this program again. While I didn’t see the symptom improvement I wanted to, it made me feel good, and really helped me to be more aware of my body and what I was choosing to fuel it with. I became so much more in control of my eating, and while the guidelines were a little stressful, I feel like they really contributed to my success by externally making it so clear what was ok and what was not. I feel a real sense of achievement and gratitude towards myself for taking this step in my wellness journey. Definitely a valuable step in a road to live the whole!
So tell me, have you done a Whole30? Would you like to do one?