My Month on the Whole30 Diet

Some people avoid gluten-filled grains for serious medical reasons; others just know it makes them feel better. (Photo: wideonet/Shutterstock)
food pyramid
There are a few tiers of this food pyramid that are off limits on the Whole30 plan. (Photo: bloody/Shutterstock)

On day five of my voluntary participation in the Whole30 program, I posted this as my Facebook status.

After this morning, it's clear that I should not talk to anyone for the next 25 days. #whole30

The diet claims to "eliminate the most common craving-inducing, blood sugar disrupting, gut-damaging, inflammatory food groups for a full 30 days" and says it will change your life by resetting your eating habits.

Those food groups are sugar, grains, dairy, beans and alcohol. Except for the alcohol, I stuck with the diet, not counting a few slip-ups that I could count on one hand. Since I write extensively about wine, there were times I had to drink, but I kept it to a minimum, even cancelling some tastings that weren't mandatory.

You may be wondering what you can eat on the program. The diet consists mainly of meat and seafood, vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts and nut butters (except peanut), eggs and healthy oils. You are also allowed ghee on the program, even though you can't have any other dairy.

Why I did Whole30

Don't let expensive nuts like cashews go bad when there are easy ways to keep them fresh. (Photo: prasit jamkajornkiat/Shutterstock)

I've put on a lot of weight over the past year and a half. The stress of divorce got to me, understandably, and I'd been having trouble getting back to healthy habits. But, that's not the reason I chose such a restrictive diet. I chose this diet because my feet hurt. I had swelling along with planter's fasciitis that made it painful to walk, and at night, the aching in my feet and ankles would keep me awake. A friend had told me she learned that she was allergic to dairy and gluten, and when she eliminated those from her diet, her foot pain went away.

I figured Whole30 could be a way to see if my foot pain was being caused by something I was eating without having to go through allergy testing, plus it could put me back on the road to not eating whatever the hell I wanted, whenever the hell I wanted.

Did it work? Somewhat. Although the underlying planter's fasciitis is still an issue, the swelling in my feet, and my hands, has gone down. I can get out of bed in the morning without searing pain in my feet when they first hit the floor. Aching that I had in the ligaments in my forearms also went away. There were other positive benefits. The skin under my eyes is now skin color and not gray. My rosacea has tamed down a bit. Some digestive problems that I've had for years improved. I sleep much better and there have been several nights where I've slept through the night. (That's incredibly rare.)

The 30 days were very hard at times, but I think they were worth it. There were a few foods that kept me from going insane: sweet potatoes, almond butter, nuts, bananas and ghee (not all together, of course). Now comes the even harder part, though, taking what I have learned, keeping what's good, and figuring out how to keep a lot of these ingredients down to a minimum in my diet. And while the better health I've experienced over the past 30 days have been wonderful, there have been things I've learned that are also important.

Almost everything has sugar in it

The first week on Whole30, I spent a lot of money on food, went to the grocery store almost every day, and got incredibly frustrated. Almost everything has sugar in it. I know that many foods that shouldn't have sugar in them do, but I didn't realize just how many. I spent hours in Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, reading ingredients, trying to find a nitrate-free bacon that also didn't have sugar. I couldn't do it. I asked both of the local meat vendors at the farmers market if their nitrate-free bacons had sugar. They did. I did find a sugar-free, nitrate-free turkey bacon — and it was vile.

I had to read every jar of almond butter and every container of nuts — two things that should never need sugar — to make sure they were sugar-free. After reading the ingredients in all the mayonnaise on the store shelf, I ended up making my own. (That turns out to be time-consuming but really worth it and makes the best deviled eggs I've ever had.)

You know what else has sugar in it? Store-made rotisserie chicken. I bought one my first day to have something to pick on, and when it dawned on me the next day there might be sugar in the solution, I read the ingredients. I cursed.

This what I learned: even packaged or prepared foods that I normally think of as not-so-bad choices have ingredients in them that I'm unaware of. I already cook a lot of my foods from scratch. I need to do even more of that, and I need to keep reading ingredient lists, even when I think I know what's in a food.

If it's not pasta, don't call it pasta

zucchini, chicken, tomatoes
If you don't expect these zucchini strips to taste like zucchini, you probably won't be disappointed in them. (Photo: Robin Shreeves)

In the first week, I went crazy with new recipes and new ingredients. I tried to make chicken nuggets with almond flour. I made meatballs without breading or cheese but with way too many spices. The dog really liked both of those dishes. The worst, though, was the beef fried cauliflower rice. I've heard great things about riced cauliflower. I've seen moms rave on social media that their children had no idea their rice had been replaced with cauliflower. I call B.S.

The beef fried cauliflower rice was made entirely with Whole30 compliant ingredients, and at a glance it looked like rice. It was made with fresh vegetables, grass-fed beef, and coconut aminos instead of soy sauce. This is when my 15-year-old rebelled against the plan. Did I forget to mention he decided to do it with me? He did great until day five when I made this dish. Not only does riced cauliflower not soak up any juices, making it incredibly soupy, the coconut aminos make it smell like a pina colada. Coconut is not what you're supposed to smell when you're bringing beef fried rice up to your mouth.

This is what I learned: I was much better off cooking up steak or chicken and having a bunch of vegetables on the side than trying to make Whole30 recipes. If I was going to try something different, I decided to look at for what it was, not what it was supposed to be. For example, I used a spiralizer to make what some people would refer to as zucchini noodles or "zoodles" as a substitute for pasta. There is no way I could be satisfied if I tried to think of zucchini as pasta, even if is in pasta-like strips. So, when I made the dish above — sautéed tomatoes and garlic in sheet and olive oil with zucchini and cooked chicken — I chose to just think of it as zucchini, tomatoes and chicken, nothing more. It was quite yummy, but it was nothing like pasta.

When you can't stuff your feelings down by stuffing your face, you're left with your thoughts and feelings

That day five Facebook status was not the only one I made. Here's one from day nine.

I have been extremely weepy since I started #whole30, and I've been wondering what about the diet would make someone be that way. I think I may have figured it out. As someone who is prone to stuffing away her feelings by stuffing her face with sweet foods and bread and butter, the inability to do that has left me to actually confront my emotions on a minute by minute basis. Yikes.

This is what I learned: some good comes out of thinking your unpleasant thoughts all the way through, and that may be one of the biggest benefits of the elimination diet. I did a lot of sorting through my feelings during the 30 days — not just my feelings about food, but things that were going on in my head about my work, my dating life, and even my kids. It was certainly an unexpected benefit.

What comes after Whole30

Crab Bruschetta Eggplant
Crab Bruschetta Eggplant Toast isn't really on toast, but the combination still works well. (Photo: Robin Shreeves)

I'm still figuring out what comes next. As I write this, I'm a few days out of Whole30. I haven't eaten much of what isn't allowed on the diet. Yesterday I had oatmeal and some milk in my mashed potatoes, but ate Whole30 the rest of the time. Today, it's been all fruit and almond butter so far.

There are several foods I learned to appreciate on the plan that I'm going to keep eating. I really enjoyed one of my go-to breakfasts of roasted sweet potato slices, mashed avocado, diced cherry tomatoes and a fried egg. I'll keep eating that. Larabar's Pecan Pie bars were something I could keep in my bag to eat on the run that I'll continue to buy. I made Crab Bruschetta Eggplant Toast that was so good I'll make it again, and spring for better crab next time. But, let's be real. You can't make toast out of eggplant so I'll just call it Crab Bruschetta on Eggplant.

And, here's the most amazing thing. I have no craving at all to add sugar back into my diet. Last night, I was upset and couldn't sleep. No one would have blamed for grabbing a pint of ice cream over this particular upset, but I didn't even open the freezer. Instead, I cut up a banana and strawberries and ate them. I do feel as if my sugar cravings have been reset. I'm also aware that it wouldn't take too many bowls of ice cream to bring them back.

There's one big problem that I always knew would be a problem. By eliminating all those foods at once, it's unclear which one or ones were contributing to some of my health issues that improved. I think I'll be adding foods back in slowly and watching my reaction. I'm also considering doing a Whole30 before 6 p.m. sort of plan, completely knocking off Mark Bittman's Vegan before 6 p.m. idea.

Maybe I'll have to do another post a month from now to talk about the next 30 days.

It should be noted that in a study of 38 diets, U.S. News & World Report ranked Whole30 as number 38. They had this to say about the health and nutrition of the plan:

No independent research. Nonsensical claims. Extreme. Restrictive. The slams against Whole 30 came in strong from our panelists, and it tied with the Raw Food Diet as the worst of the worst for healthy eating.

The panel from U.S. News said that while the diet is not particularly unsafe, it is relatively likely to spur temporary weight loss. One expert noted that it is "the antithesis of a long-term healthy dietary pattern."