our whole30 experience

8:34:00 PM

We're back!

Bob and I successfully completed the Whole30 (and then promptly went on vacation for a week and indulged too much, but we're back to healthy eating now) and I wanted to write a bit about it since it was an interesting experience.

What is it?
It’s a big fad diet right now where, for 30 days, you completely eliminate all grains, all dairy, all legumes/peanuts (snap peas are okay), all added sugar, all corn and corn products, all soy products, carrageenan, all sweeteners of all kinds (Splenda, Stevia, etc.), artificial colors, and alcohol. The idea is to sort of “reset” your tastes and cravings and to focus on only whole foods. You can have meat, seafood, all fruits, all vegetables, potatoes, eggs, nuts and seeds (except peanuts), most oils, animal fats, coffee and tea. The idea is to stop sugar cravings and focus on whole foods only, and it also serves as a sort of elimination diet if you think you have a food sensitivity. If you slip up at any point, intentionally or unintentionally, you are supposed to start all over again. 

Why did you do it?
Mostly curiosity. Neither of us has any real food sensitivities, but obviously if we eat crappy food, we feel crappy. I sort of wanted a strict set of rules for a while to sort of get “on track” because we’d do pretty well and then get off-track on weekends. I wanted to end the debate in my head of “I’m exhausted, should we get takeout tonight?” or “should I go buy wine?” or “Will it kill me if I eat a cookie off the back counter at work?” I used to debate in my head for ages and this just made it really easy to make good choices for a month and it was kind of fun to test my willpower. It was pretty easy to say "Nope, can't have that" and move on, rather than debate it in my head. 

I think the concept of Paleo is stupid (believing that what "cavemen" ate was the healthiest way to eat, and also ignoring that modern-day Paleo is about as similar to what "cavemen" ate as a Pop Tart is) but I do like the concept of whole foods, lots of fruits and vegetables, and no processed garbage. So, we gave it a try.

Was it hard?
Yes and no. I think this is the reaction a lot of people have after completing a Whole30. Contrary to a lot of the recipes I post on this blog, we’ve always eaten fairly healthy stuff at home. In addition to the cheese-laden pastas and tarts I’ve been known to post here, a lot of the more “boring” stuff we make doesn’t make it on here - like fish with lemon and vegetables, or a steak salad, or basic vegetable and tofu stir fry that’s nothing special. We really never have had junk food in the house at all except crackers and popcorn kernels we get from the farmer’s market and air-pop.  As much as we both love food and the awesome restaurants in Madison, we really don’t eat out much, only for special occasions. Never fast food, except once in a while during traveling. I’m big on vegetables and have always eaten fruit as snacks. So a lot of things were similar and I was able to easily substitute a few things. Neither of us was eating a lot of packaged or overly processed foods. 

Mostly, it would depend on the day. Some days I breezed through, staying full and feeling good with zero problems or cravings. Other days I craved pizza like crazy, which is weird because it’s not like I’ve never gone 30 days without pizza before. 

Bob says it wasn’t too hard for him either, but it was “annoying.” On a couple separate occasions we were supposed to go out to dinner (once when his mom visited and once for my dad’s birthday) and on both occasions we ended up cooking at home for everyone because it was just easier than trying to find ANYTHING compliant. Going out to eat was hard. He also missed our “special treats” (dark chocolate or caramels from the co-op) and bourbon.

Was it expensive?
YES. I thought maybe buying more meat would sort of even out with buying no grains, beans, soy, dairy, and the plethora of other things we weren’t allowed to eat. It didn’t. Meat is EXPENSIVE, especially grass-fed and ethically raised. We’ve always tried to  buy meat like that, but eating it every day is expensive. We had a few vegetarian meals, but when you can’t have beans or soy or dairy, the only real sources of protein we could have besides meat/fish were nuts. You’re not supposed to eat a ton of nuts/seeds on the Whole30, but I was buying a LOT of nuts and nut butter, especially at the very beginning. Having to buy compliant fish sauce and coconut aminos was a pain, too (though I am thrilled I have fish sauce that doesn’t have a bunch of junk in it, and I will probably keep buying it.) 

Basically, the Whole30 is a strict version of Paleo (except we get potatoes!) and food manufacturers know that they can stick a Paleo label on pretty much anything and jack up the price (like Paleo bacon.) It’s annoying, and another reason to hate fad diets,  but I participated in it, so there’s that. Blame me for the rising prices of food that doesn’t have a bunch of crap in it! 

Did we cheat?
It was hard for us to find a “good time” to do a Whole30, but I was really curious about it and wanted to do it before our vacation because I really was feeling like my healthful New Year’s Resolutions were going down the drain. We had an event planned smack in the middle of this on March 4th, which was  a beer tasting event called Madison on Tap. I’d bought the tickets months ago as part of Bob’s Christmas gift, so we agreed before we started that he would cheat on this day (only at the event) to have some delicious beer. I agreed to be DD since it was his gift. So on this day, and this day ONLY, Bob “cheated” with beer. But he was awesome with food. There was a ton of food at this event, and if I were him I would’ve eaten a ton of it. But he decided nothing looked good enough to cheat further with, so we came home and had a compliant dinner. I thought that was pretty awesome of him, because I would’ve eaten food, especially with beer in me.

As for me, I did cheat, but only accidentally. I got a cold during week 3. It sucked. I hated it because I couldn’t work out and I was so exhausted. So I took DayQuil (has sweeteners and artificial colors - so unnecessary, why do they do that?) I do not really count this as cheating, because seriously, who enjoys drinking DayQuil? I did, however, avoid all the cough drops/ColdEeze. The other time I cheated was when we went out to eat after my nephew’s baptism and I ordered a chopped chicken salad without bacon or cheese, but forgot to request the dressing on the side (since it was a blue cheese dressing I figured they’d omit it too since I said no cheese.) I’m sure the dressing had sugar of some kind in it though I picked around the cheese. This was near the end of the Whole30 so I didn’t worry much about it. I wasn’t going to send it back and waste an entire salad.  We weren’t doing this to discover any “food sensitivites” so we didn’t care too much. Other than these occasions, though, we stuck to it 100%.

Did it take a lot of time?
I’ve always spent a lot of time in the kitchen. So, yes, it does take time, but actual meal prep/cooking was about the same as always. Some things took longer - making cauliflower rice, for example, instead of regular rice. I am really sick of cauliflower rice! 

What did take time was trying to find recipes I actually thought we’d both enjoy that were compliant, and finding substitutions for meals that we already like. But this is stuff I’ve never minded doing, because I spend a lot of time looking for recipes of all kinds.

What was the best thing we ate? 
We both agree the best thing was probably these crispy potatoes. Potatoes were a godsend on this diet and we ate them a couple times a week - really satisfied the starchy components we wanted. I love eggs for breakfast on the weekends but hate them without some kind of toast or carb, so potatoes were common with breakfast. These were by far the best roasted potatoes we’ve ever had, and they were so crispy. I made them for my parents when they came over and served with steak, salad, and brussels sprouts. The potatoes were the best part. 

I also made these steak fajitas with some substitutions (chipotle powder instead of chipotles in adobo, omit liquid smoke, use coconut aminos instead of soy sauce, and serve in lettuce wraps.) I’ve made these before but they were just as tasty with these substitutions. 

I also re-made one of my absolute favorite soups (Thai Coconut Curry Chicken Noodle Soup) with lots of substitutions, the main one being using spiralized sweet potatoes instead of ramen noodles, and it was really good. 

We also became fans of kombucha, which is allowed as long is no sugar is added after the fermentation process. We both missed Friday night beer and wine, so this was a great substitute. It was a special once a week treat and I drank mine out of a wine glass. I’d had kombucha before, but I really started liking it on this diet.

The worst thing we ate?
I tried to cook almond-crusted chicken by simply coating pieces of chicken in egg and then crushed nuts and baking. This did not work. I’ve made almond-crusted chicken successfully before, but usually the nuts are accompanied by panko or some other kind of breadcrumb which helps. I also couldn’t dredge the chicken in flour first and was not about to go out and buy a special coconut or almond flour (because they’re so expensive.)  I burned the chicken and the topping was gloopy.  

Mayonnaise was a HUGE challenge. I could not, for the life of me, find a good oil to make mayo with. I’ve usually made it with canola oil at home, but canola oil is frowned upon in the Whole30 (not eliminated, but discouraged.) I tried light-tasting olive oil, which was bad, and then avocado oil, which just tasted off to me. I can’t describe the flavor except maybe like.. machine-equipment? Like a factory. I also bought the stupid Primal Kitchen mayo (made with avocado oil) and had the same experience with the machine taste. The most successful attempt was with grapeseed oil, but that’s also a discouraged oil, so it was all sort of lose-lose. I never succeeded at good homemade mayo.

Would we do it again?
I would do it again, but maybe a shorter period (21 days?) It’s not a long-term thing for me. But I truly don’t think a lot of the exclusions are necessary - things like quinoa, peas, peanuts, beans, chickpeas, and unsweetened yogurt are all healthy and it seems stupid to cut them out if you don’t have a sensitivity. But everyone has a different concept of what “healthy” means. I did NOT like eating the heavy quantity of meat, chicken, and fish - I really missed other forms of protein. Cooking with meat can also be a pain (all the handwashing! All the changing of cutting boards! Thermometers! Worrying about ruining an expensive steak!) and more time-consuming.

Bob said he would do it again. I think he liked eating a lot of meat whereas I’m a bit more wary of it. 

What did we miss the most?
I really missed popcorn and, oddly, soy sauce. I was REALLY excited to use soy sauce again. Also, wine. The main thing though was I just missed cooking my favorite things because so much was eliminated. I felt like we were limited to such specific items and so I wasn’t eating a big enough variety of food. 

Bob missed cheese, dark chocolate, and bourbon the most.

What was easy to give up? 
VERY surprisingly for me, I got over the “no grains” thing AND the “no dairy” thing without a ton of trouble (but I say this while also acknowledging that the thing I craved the absolute MOST was pizza.) I didn’t miss alcohol as much as I thought I would.

I didn't miss sugar or sweetener basically at all. I like sweets, but usually all we keep in the house is dark chocolate. I *did* miss being able to use some stuff that's higher in sugar like my favorite Asian-style sauces (hoisin sauce, oyster sauce) because I love stir fry, but I was able to create a couple decent stir-fries without any sugar. 

Bob says he missed noodles and bread.

How much weight did we lose? 
Bob lost about 5 pounds, I lost about 8. I want to be really clear though that part of this was clearly water weight and  that I don’t think you need to do this type of extreme diet to lose weight. I think the real reason I lost weight was because of the following: no alcohol (wine has a lot of calories and the choices I make while drinking it - yikes!); not eating out basically ever, and cutting out my after-work snack of popcorn. Also, cutting out unnecessary condiments - like cheese and sour cream on fajitas. And grocery store samples, and little treats at the co-op, etc. - a lot of little changes that add up. 

I will say though, I was a little surprised at how much I lost because I did feel like a lot of the days I was eating a LOT of calories. There were days I would be really hungry and would eat a lot of nuts and olives and other high-fat foods. We ate a lot of avocados (that isn't anything new!) But I think this was probably balanced out with the elimination of grains and dairy with our meals, so it's hard to say what actually contributed to weight loss. I think there is just so much we still don't know about the way that our bodies process certain foods! 

What were the physical benefits/drawbacks?
Bob says he was less bloated with fewer “stomach issues” (basically discomfort he’d get after eating lots of dairy or fried food.) His energy level was pretty good, but sleep was the same, skin was the same, mood same. He didn’t notice any benefits to exercise endurance. 

I also felt less bloated and with fairly good energy. Sleep was mostly good, which I attribute to zero alcohol, mostly.  My mood was good. Exercise endurance was oddly tricky. At the beginning, I felt like working out was harder. For maybe the first… week and a half? This diet is not low-carb (you can have fruit and potatoes and all the vegetables you want) but I just didn’t seem to have the energy I needed. This could be to a whole number of factors, though. The Whole30 has a plan set up for workouts and what to eat before and after, but I didn’t really follow that part accurately because I exercise at work, twice a day, so I don’t have access to all the food I normally would, nor am I allowed to eat at my desk before or after my breaks when I exercise, so that was hard. Lack of skin improvement was disappointing - I have eczema on one of my hands and I was really hoping this would help, but it actually got a lot worse. I did read that someone else found that his eczema was made worse with meat, so maybe that’s a trigger, or, more likely, it’s more environmental (actual skin irritants) than my diet.

What habits will we stick to?
We liked the idea of avoiding added sugar. I’ve always read labels carefully and have tried to be good about stuff like that, but it can be difficult, especially if you live in an area without health food stores. We are lucky in Madison to have many stores to choose from.  

We also decided that we didn’t really need cheese or sour cream on food or other unnecessary toppings on a lot of things, like our fajitas. We live in Wisconsin so cheese is, of course, going to stay in our lives, but we are opting for only use cheese when it is really essential to the integrity of a dish, and we’re limiting how often we are allowed to use it. 

We also decided to cut out all junk food and crackers completely at home, though I insisted on having my air-popped popcorn. 

We are allowing ourselves whole wheat pasta or brown rice but only once a week. We are re-introducing ancient grains (farro, quinoa, buckwheat) and I’m loving that. We’re also going to have beans and peas again, and corn. 

We are limiting alcohol to two days a month as opposed to the probably 4-6 days we used to. We’re also cutting out little snacks we used to get at the co-op (mainly these delicious little dark chocolate sea salt caramels… mmm) and all sweets, though we never really ate a lot of those anyway. 

So, basically, going back to what we were mainly doing before, but just making it a bit healthier and more strict. None of these rules are unbreakable; this is just how we want to eat at home most of the time. We’re going to avoid white flour and most processed grains. I'm also more open to using my stupid spiralizer (I've had it for years and made a lot of "zoodles" when I first got it but it mostly collected dust) because I found I really do like sweet potato noodles, plus it's fun to spiralize beets and carrots, too (makes for really pretty food.) I'm also open to using cauliflower rice again even though I was sick of it - it made a nice base for stir-fries. 

Did it change our lives?
This is a claim the Whole30 website makes. No, it didn't. Maybe it would if you were eating nothing but processed junk food - it requires a lot of dedication and a lot of kitchen time and knowing how to cook, and if that's not something you're used to, it will probably definitely change your life. If I had done this a few years ago before I really started cooking and eating a ton of vegetables and focus on whole foods, it would probably change my life. 

I don't think it really changed our tastebuds. Fruit did taste slightly sweeter, I suppose, but you can bet I still wanted pepperoni pizza. 

Do we recommend it?
Sure, but it's not the only way, and please don't spend money on stuff like this. People get so rich off the desperation of people who want to lose weight or get healthier, and it's so unnecessary. A lot of this diet is common sense, and I think it makes even more sense to follow the rules most dietitians agree upon: Eat whole foods. Eat your veggies. Eat fruit.  Eat whole grains. Don't eat a lot of processed foods. Cook from scratch. Eat high quality meats if you choose to eat meat. Limit added sugar and artificial sweeteners.  

But if you feel like you need a little bit of control and you're like me who spends way too much time thinking about whether or not I can have a cookie or if I should have wine and you're tired of the debate in your head - go ahead. And if you want to figure out how to cook whole foods and vegetables, this is a good way to learn, because it forces you! It also will get you into the habit of reading labels if you don't already do that, because you must must must. You'll quickly learn to despise the entire food industry for all the crap they put in food. 

This may be helpful as an elimination diet if you believe you have a food sensitivity (but you likely don't, and if you're in distress, you should really consult your doctor first who can help you with a shorter, actual elimination diet.) 

Any questions? 
Ask away! I’m obviously long-winded on this topic. 

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