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My Experience with the Whole30 Program


One of the things that has stuck with me from Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project is the idea of moderators versus abstainers. Rubin posits that some people are happiest when they moderate their behavior by allowing small indulgences every once in awhile. Other people, however, are happier when they abstain entirely from certain things – the constant debate about whether it’s a good time to indulge is more taxing than just taking it off the table.

I’ve always thought of myself as a moderator. My experience over the last month with the Whole30 program, a nutritional approach developed by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig and outlined in their book It Starts With Food, taught me that I’m actually better off as an abstainer (at least when it comes to what I eat or don’t eat).

Why read It Starts With Food?

it starts with foodI was inspired to learn more about the Whole30 after following another blogger through her experiment with the program. Her description of life before doing the Whole30 (feeling out of control with food, low energy, consistent headaches) sounded very close to how I was feeling about what I ate and it’s impact on my health. She was so positive about the results, and honest about her experience, that I decided I wanted to learn more.

While you can find a lot of basic information about how to do a Whole30 on the website, I wanted to read It Starts With Food because I was curious about the whys of the program and some of the science behind food and nutrition. Knowing that helped me stick to the program even when I wasn’t feeling motivated because I got the point of doing this in the first place.

What is a Whole30?

I’ve been describing the Whole30 as either a “nutritional reset” or a “weird diet,” depending on who I’m talking to and how much detail I feel like getting into with them.

Basically, the program asks you to cut out all sugars and added sweeteners, alcohol, seed oils, grains and legumes and dairy for 30 days. This means focusing on a strict diet of proteins, fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats for a month to let your body reset from the impacts that those eliminated foods can have. The foods you keep in your diet are foods that meet four good food standards:

  • The foods we eat should promote a healthy psychological response.
  • The foods we eat should promote a healthy hormonal response.
  • The foods we eat should support a healthy gut.
  • The foods we eat should support immune function and minimize inflammation.

The foods that are cut out during the Whole30 all fail at least one of those good food standards (often several of them).

How was My Whole30?

I officially started my Whole30 on August 24 and finished on Monday. Overall, I think it went really well.

The Whole30 website has timeline of common feelings and physical reactions people have throughout the month. This was probably the most helpful page on the whole site — I visited it pretty often. My reactions tracked pretty closely with this timeline, although my early hangover symptoms (headaches, fatigue, general malaise) seemed to linger for quite awhile.

I also never really got to the “Tiger Blood” state – super energy, feeling amazing – but I do feel much healthier than I did a month ago. I lost about 9 pounds and seem to have more consistent energy throughout the day (no slumps at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. like I used to have). I feel less bloated, and I know my clothes fit better even though I didn’t take measurements before I started. I also know that my taste for sweetness has adjusted in a pretty significant way (I actually enjoy unsweetened iced tea, something I thought was bitter and undrinkable before).

Although I didn’t deliberately cheat and eat foods I wasn’t supposed to (until one moment of weakness on Day 29), I also wasn’t as diligent about avoiding some foods (seed oils, mostly) when I went out to eat as I could have been. I think that may have impacted my overall results, but it’s ok. During my Whole30 month I was traveling for two weekends and hosting my in-laws for another weekend. It’s hard to eat out and be perfect, so I’m not beating myself up about that.

Missing and Not Missing

The one thing I craved every single day of my Whole30 was good dark chocolate. I also missed sugar in my black tea in the morning (I can’t quite get there) and, once in awhile, warm, flakey biscuits. I had other minor cravings, but those were the most persistent.

I thought that I would miss dairy, cheese and milk in particular, but I didn’t crave that much. I also didn’t miss grains as much as I thought that I would, although I am kind of excited to go out and get a big plate of pasta sometime soon.

One thing I did realize is that it’s possible to have bad eating habits even when eating healthy food. The program discourages snacking, but I still wanted to eat between meals and at night while watching television – even when I wasn’t hungry. That’s something I am going to have to continue to watch carefully.

Going Forward

The Whole30 includes a reintroduction schedule that slowly adds in new foods and gives you time to see how you react to them. I’m being a little bit loose in following it, but I am trying to test just one or two foods at a time so I can try to figure out which foods were making me feel bad (I’m almost positive it was all the sugar and grains, but we’ll see).

And I’m hoping to stick to a mostly Paleo diet going forward. Since I’m apparently an abstainer when it comes to food, I think adopting an approach that keeps certain foods out of my life most of the time will be easier and more effective than reverting to how I approached food before.

And really, I like the way eating this way makes me feel and I like feeling good about the food I put into my body. I still need to work on incorporating more vegetables into my diet and on doing meal prep on weekends to make weekday night meals easier. And I need to keep working to battle my sugar demon… I still have a pretty big sweet tooth. I have a lot to learn, but I feel like this reset helped get me closer to where I want to be.

Whew! I feel like I wrote a lot there without really even getting close to sharing all of my thoughts on this program and my month of super clean eating. If there’s anything else I can share, feel free to let me know in the comments!


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • sassymonkey September 25, 2014, 7:53 am

    The snacking thing takes time. When I met my husband he was absolutely an after dinner snacker. Since I wasn’t, he gradually cut back. It was a slow process but now we actually end up throwing out his common snack foods because they go stale. This completely blows his mind.

    • Kim September 25, 2014, 8:22 pm

      One of the things I finally realized in a concrete way is that food as much mental as it is physical. Snacking is a mental thing that definitely takes time.

  • Meg September 25, 2014, 10:02 am

    “And really, I like the way eating this way makes me feel and I like feeling good about the food I put into my body.”

    Yes! That’s what it’s all about — and how I feel about all I’ve learned and achieved through Weight Watchers. I was definitely one of those people who believed they were “eating healthy” when my portions, sugars and grains were completely out of control.

    Glad to hear you were successful and have made such positive changes! Very intriguing to think about abstaining vs. moderating . . . I’m mostly a moderator, but I can see where abstaining would be necessary. I’ve learned that my relationship with sweets — i.e., I love them so so so very much — means I typically cannot even begin to indulge . . . they’re gateway/trigger foods for me, and once I get “that taste”? It can be really hard to cool it.

    • Kim September 25, 2014, 8:26 pm

      I can be the same way about sweets too, especially if I’m feeling emotional for some reason. It was a good exercise to go for a month where I just didn’t eat any, a way of proving to myself that I could do it as much as anything else.

  • Jennifer @ The Relentless Reader September 25, 2014, 11:09 am

    This is so interesting to me. My whole family has recently undergone a change in the way we eat as well. We’ve cut out as much processed foods as we can. It’s been amazing for our family. 😀

    I think it’s so great that you did this. Thanks for sharing what you’ve learned. I hope the whole country can move in this direction. The junk that is put into our food makes me shudder. Thanks for the extra inspiration!

    • Kim September 25, 2014, 8:28 pm

      It was sobering to go to the grocery store and look at labels and see all of the stuff that is put in even the most basic stuff. I like focusing on foods that have fewer “things’ in them, but we’ll see how that continues to go with the limited options we have at our local grocery store.

  • Jennifer September 25, 2014, 11:33 am

    I’m so intrigued by this diet. So much of what you wrote resonated with my experiences with diets I’ve tried. Right now I’m just saying I’m trying to “eat healthier” and work out consistently. But I’ve hit this funky plateau that I’m struggling to overcome and I’m thinking that this kind of cleansing diet might be just what I need. I have been trying to just cut back on stuff I know isn’t all that great for me like alcohol, fried foods, and sugary stuff but when I get stressed, a small indulgence quickly turns into a huge mistake. I’m wondering if I can last 30 days with cutting out all the crap and how that would actually make me feel. I’m just scared about committing to something like this and then falling flat on my face!

    I’m definitely going to be checking out the program and I’ll consider trying it in October (that doesn’t give me too long to research but I think I’ll be able to figure it out pretty quickly. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, ideas, and reactions to the diet! So helpful and intriguing!

    • Kim September 25, 2014, 8:31 pm

      Honestly, part of doing it was to prove to myself that I could. I’ve had so many starts and stops on different diets… I just wanted to focus on something with concrete rules and show myself that I could be strong.

      Whole30 isn’t especially complicated in the rules, but it can be a little challenging when you’re grocery shopping — especially if you don’t have access to a store like Trader Joe’s for some basics. For my first week, I picked a few easy meals and ate them over and over again to make it easier. As the month went on, I got a little more adventurous. A supportive partner is important too.

  • Kimberly Robinson September 25, 2014, 12:04 pm

    I am so glad you had a good experience. I too concluded after my first Whole30 that I felt best when I ate pretty much Paleo and I have continued that practice. I too am better off as an abstainer because I notice that when I try the other course my moderation tends to get increasingly less, well……. moderate, until I’m back where I started. Many foods are foods with no brakes for me. This experience helped me identify those foods. The good news, and perhaps the only useful bit of data to come from re-indulging, is that many of them just don’t do it for me anymore. I’d say that is one potential benefit in occasionally eating something you think you want – – knocking the magic fairy dust off it. The other thing I learned is that I am no good at negotiating my boundaries alone , I need to be accountable to someone else to make sure I’m not playing games. I recommend a sincere effort of this to anyone who has a complicated relationship with food… It is a powerful tool.

    • Kim September 25, 2014, 8:40 pm

      I think your point about “knocking off the fairy dust” is such a good one. I didn’t miss many of the foods I thought that I would miss, which was good to find out — I don’t feel as tempted by them now because I know I can be happy not eating them.

  • Monika @ Lovely Bookshelf September 25, 2014, 10:22 pm

    Does this plan discourage snacking even if it’s something like… carrot sticks or something like that? Love the point you made about “it’s possible to have bad eating habits even when eating healthy food.” So true!

    • Kim September 30, 2014, 8:41 pm

      They do discourage snacking, mostly because the diet is designed to keep you full between meals. Part of the plan is to deal with the psychological pull of food, which snacking can be a part of (depending on the person). I tried to cut back on mindlessly snacking at work, but if I did need to munch on something I tried to stick with vegetables of fresh fruit.

  • tanya (52 books or bust) September 26, 2014, 4:05 am

    Sounds really interesting. I read a similar book, The 21 Day Kick Start, a couple of years ago, though the diet it suggested – vegan – is quite different. However, 4 years later my husband is still a vegan and our household is vegan, though I do sometimes indulge in dairy when we are out. But the effective part of the book was the day by day account of what you may be feeling, which sounds like the thing that worked for you with It Starts With Food. Anyways, congratulations on completing it and changing your attitudes towards food.

    • Kim September 30, 2014, 8:42 pm

      The daily road map was so helpful, especially during the first few days when I was not feeling great.

  • Jess - A Book Hoarder September 26, 2014, 9:09 am

    I’ve never really considered myself moderator vs. abstainer but you bring up a good point. There are certain things I shouldn’t eat (like dairy) but sometimes I allow myself to cheat and making the decision on the spot when the food is staring me in the face is tough. I have started to make the decision before I arrive at temptation but if moderation is more stressful than abstaining, what’s the point?

    • Kim September 30, 2014, 8:43 pm

      I don’t know if the moderator/abstainer distinction works all the time in every situation, but it made sense for me in this context because abstaining seemed to work so much better than any of the “moderator” style diets I’ve tried before.

  • Christina September 26, 2014, 5:38 pm

    I haven’t read this book, although it is on my tbr list, but I found myself nodding along with much of what you said. The realization about snacking was huge for me, and I’ve slowly come to realize that I need to be an abstainer rather than a moderator when it comes to things like soda. Allowing myself to have a soda on special occasions becomes soda with pizza and then slowly soda with every meal. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    • Kim September 30, 2014, 8:44 pm

      I think it’s really easy to slip back into old habits — I can already see some of that in my own behavior. But I like knowing that I completed this and have it as an option to go back to when the slips start to feel like too much.

  • Kathleen October 3, 2014, 2:11 pm

    I’m so behind on blog reading that I just now read this – yay! I am so happy that you did it and had a good experience and super congratulations! You have no idea how good it makes me feel that I encouraged you to try it. It completely revolutionized my eating and I feel 100% healthier than I used to. (Also, I now have dark chocolate almost every day…it is paleo after all! Haha.)

    • Kim October 6, 2014, 10:47 pm

      I’ve slipped back into some bad habits in the last few weeks, but I think once I get back to some more focused meal planning I will be able to pick it back up again. I’m so glad that I did it (so thank you for being so honest in sharing your experience!).