A life without carbs isn't an easy life, let me tell you.
Diets have never interested me. As a teenager, I found it absurd that some of my classmates were so concerned with what they ate. They would talk about the new weight-loss plans they were trying or their pledges to eat more of this and less of that. I listened but stayed silent and ate whatever I pleased.
Up until this past January, I was still anti-diet. I tried eating more veggies and lean protein during the week, but I never counted calories or vowed to cut dairy from my life completely, for example, as friends did. Yet after writing an article about actress Busy Philipps' positive experience doing a plan called Whole30, I became intrigued.
Two friends and I discussed the article, and then one proposed something unbelievable: "We should do Whole30 together." After considering what Philipps' had to say about it, I decided to give it a try. Then Health editor in chief Lori Leibovich asked me to document my Whole30 experience with daily video diaries on Health Instagram stories, and I knew there was no turning back. I was about to do my first diet ever.
ICYMI: Whole30 is an elimination-style diet that asks dieters to ban all soy, dairy, grains, alcohol, legumes, and added sugars from their diet for 30 days straight. The point is to flush your system, so when the 30 days are up, you can slowly add different food groups back and get a sense of which ones have been secretly affecting your physical and mental health. The creator, Melissa Hartwig, also says Whole30 will change your entire relationship with food.
Food shopping and meal planning
Though I'd never tried a diet before, I knew that preparation would be the key to success. So I got copies of the Whole30 book Food Freedom Forever ($14, amazon.com) and the cookbook Whole30 Fast & Easy ($18, amazon.com) to research exactly what I couldn't eat, what emotional and physical changes to expect, and which recipes I should make.
Then I wrote down my first week's worth of meals and snacks, as well as the foods and beverages I would need to prepare them. One hectic trip to Trader Joe's and a few hours of meal prep later, and I felt ready and excited to start Whole30.
Week 1: Sugar withdrawal
I started Week 1 feeling optimistic. This isn't hard at all! I told myself. Wrong. Days 2 and 3 hit, and the sugar withdrawal was so real. In my company's kitchen, I stared at the free M&Ms longingly. "All I can think about are gummy worms," I texted my work friends. Instead of eating candy, I scarfed down a banana with sunflower seed butter and felt slightly better.
On Day 4, I reached for a beef jerky stick from Epic. I simultaneously took a big bite while turning over the packaging to read the label. When I saw it on the ingredients list, I stopped mid-chew: "honey." I immediately spit the partially chewed jerky in my garbage can. Close one. After that, I always read the labels on my food twice before eating a morsel.
This biggest success of Week 2 was attending a happy hour networking event completely sober. I headed there with a friend who was also doing Whole30, and we vowed to be each other's support system. We ordered seltzer waters together and proudly said no to the cheeseburger sliders and cheese board. Leaving the event, I felt empowered knowing I had it in me to refuse alcohol and fatty food, something I'd never tried before. Plus, I now knew I didn't have to use alcohol as a social crutch.
Week 2: Experimenting with recipes
After spending a week fine-tuning my new eating plan, I decided to add workouts back into my routine. On a typical week, I'll go to a cardio or strength class (I like boxing) once or twice and do some yoga or stretching at home another night. I dove right in and hit up my favorite boxing studio, Rumble. But I was really nervous. What if I didn't have enough energy? What if I passed out during class? What if I got so hungry I caved and bought a slice of pizza on the walk home from class?
Turns out, nothing dramatic happened. Once I finished the warmup portion of the class, I noticed I felt lighter and more energized than I normally do during evening workouts. I worked out three more times during Week 2 and felt stronger and less bloated than ever. I still didn't have six-pack abs, but hey, it was a start.
In terms of food, I kicked up my creativity up a notch in the kitchen. I tried experimenting with recipes that were a little more complex than my usual, like making pesto out of cashews and avocados and serving it over a plate of zoodles. I made blueberry energy bites in my food processor to snack on during a movie marathon and grab for a quick breakfast. I also tried new snacks, like bottled tomatillo jalapeno soup from ZÜPA NOMA and chia pudding from Daily Harvest to mix things up.
Still, it was a tad depressing to watch my boyfriend eat whatever he wanted while I was on the sideline sipping tea. "I miss sharing food memories with you," he said at one point. Sigh. So the next day, we headed to a local brunch spot, and I ordered a Whole30–compliant dish from the menu. I got a bunless burger topped with a fried egg, avocado, lettuce, tomato, and onion plus a side salad instead of fries. Let me tell you, this bunless burger tasted like the juiciest thing I'd eaten in my entire life. After nearly two weeks of cooking every meal, it was nice to have someone else do it for me.
Week 3: Major benefits kick in
I started spending more time away from my non–Whole30 friends and instead hung out with the two people who understood me most: my Whole30 diet pals. Together we made our own brunch plans at a New York City paleo cafe called Hu Kitchen. There, we could order compliant food that still tasted delicious (round of applause for sugar-free bacon).
We also talked about our meals, our struggles, and the results we were seeing from Whole30. Mentally, I felt more clear-headed and emotionally stable. I slept deeper and remembered more of my dreams, something that tends to never happen. (In one dream, I accidentally ate a slice of pizza and cried about it because if you break your Whole30 diet, you're supposed to start again from Day 1.)
Physically I felt lighter, my pants a bit looser, and my stomach flatter and less bloated. I also didn't have random stomach pain or cramps as I sometimes did pre–Whole30. Every time I longed for the diet to be over, I reminded myself of these bonuses, and that helped me make it to the end of the week.
Week 4: Food boredom hits...hard
I thought Week 1 was hell on earth, but boy was I wrong. Week 4 tested my patience and willpower like never before. Eating Whole30 staples like avocado and eggs became a chore. I choked down so many hard-boiled eggs during my last week, but all I could think about was how I wished they were freshly baked bagels—or even just a bowl of plain white rice. Anything but eggs.
To deal with this major food rut and disinterest in cooking, I bought my lunch every single day from Dig Inn and begged my boyfriend to take me out to dinner at a restaurant with Whole30–compliant options. As someone who typically brings lunch to work and cooks dinner on weeknights, I knew I was spending way over my normal budget, but I couldn't help myself. It was for my sanity.
I also tried Whole30 meal-kit options from Blue Apron, which offered recipes I would have never thought to make myself. The switch helped a little with my sense of disillusionment, but I was counting down the days.
The aftermath: reintroducing foods
While gorging on cheese and bread post–Whole30 sounds fun, it's not the way you're supposed to end the elimination diet. Instead, you want to slowly reintroduce certain food groups to see how each individually affects your body and mind. I decided to go this route because I was interested in discovering food sensitivities. And frankly, I was afraid of puking the second I came into contact with dairy or alcohol.
When the clock struck midnight, I couldn't wait any longer: I helped myself to a serving of plain white rice. I sat on my couch cross-legged, eating each spoonful with my eyes closed like one of the yogurt commercial ladies. I even smiled. The next day, I ate more gluten-free carbs, like rice and paleo pancakes. I also had wine and tequila, a grain-free liquor option. I didn't get bombed like I was worried about, but I did have a worse-than-usual hangover the next day. The fun night out was worth it, though.
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Since then, I've reintroduced legumes, soy, added sugar, and dairy back into my diet. Since I'm lactose intolerant, I was most afraid of dairy, but it seems as of my dairy intolerance has disappeared, which is an unexpected positive. I definitely sleep worse, though, and feel more bloated when I enjoy dairy or carbs with gluten. So going forward, I'll be eating these with more moderation than before.
So was it worth it?
Overall, my biggest Whole30 lesson is that mindful eating is possible. I don't have that urge to eat everything in sight, but I also know I don't need to deprive myself or worry about food 24/7. There's a happy medium where I get to decide what I really crave, weigh whether it's worth the bloat or restless sleep I might experience after eating it, and then say yes or no. I've caught myself thinking like this more, and so the ultimate goal of Whole30 has worked: I've changed my relationship with food—for the better.