How We Failed the Whole30 (And Why I'm Glad We Did)

IMG_8786 To save face, we call it our 21 Day Paleo Experiment. In reality, it was a failed Whole30.

In a nutshell, the goal of the Whole 30 is to remove all foods from one's diet that cause intestinal issues (which contribute to a whole host of other issues including allergies and asthma or even fibromyalgia and infertility). These foods include dairy, processed foods, grains, and legumes. You also remove all sweets. That leaves you with nuts, meat, eggs, healthy fats, and vegetables.

I've known about Whole30 for a while, but it always seemed a little faddish--a little unnecessary. We didn't have serious conditions that urge people to try it. In fact, we eat and feel well most of the time.

But for some reason over Christmas I started looking into it in depth. And when I found out the intent of the program I thought, "Okay, maybe we could do this." I read lots of posts and lived on the Whole30 blog for a few days. We bought a cookbook, cleaned our pantry and fridge, and took "before" pictures of ourselves.

Jon and I decided to start on January 5. Initially I was surprised that it was a struggle for me. I've always tried to limit sweets, but over the past couple of months, I've allowed them back in my diet far too often. The cravings were much more intense than I expected the first few days, but we powered through. We survived a day trip to visit Jon's family, our small group dinners, a surprise birthday party, and two-night guests.

But by Day 16 or so, we were talking seriously about quitting. We weren't seeing anything especially positive and were feeling increasingly miserable. We kept encouraging ourselves and one another and talking through it. I used the forums on the website to try to figure out what we were doing wrong, but it boils down to this: we were spending excessive amounts of time and money on food and food preparation, but we were always hungry and had no energy. In the afternoons and evenings, we were exhausted and irritable.

I rarely felt full, even though I had tried everything the forums say to remedy it. It could be due to breastfeeding, but it was very frustrating to feel hungry all the time. It felt like the food went right through me. I couldn't stop thinking about what to eat next, a problem I've never had before. A piece of whole wheat toast with breakfast or a bowl of yogurt really seem to help me in terms of energy and feeling full. I also had some fairly significant joint pain around the two week mark that we think might be related to breastfeeding and doing the Whole30 (upping my vitamin intake solved this).

I kept thinking it would get better. Surely we were just doing something wrong! We ate more frequent template meals (meat, veggies, and healthy fats), incorporated more healthy fats, and kept up the positive talk.

But by Day 21, we were miserable. We both felt like we were living in a fog, and the expense in terms of time and energy was just too much. We tried to convince ourselves that we were so close-- just nine more days! But even nine days of feeling so poorly seemed like a long time. So, with the encouragement of friends and family, we decided to call it a worthwhile experiment and end it.

What drew me to the Whole30 was the "Only do this if you plan to succeed" mindset. I do not like to give up and never expected to. We went into our Whole30 with tons of preparation and feeling confident. But we saw no benefits worth feeling as tired, hungry, and stressed as we were. The intensity of the philosophy made it hard for me to realize that it was okay to stop and that maybe the Whole30 does not work for everyone.

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I'm glad we quit because:

  1. It was a conscious decision. So many of the "giving up" stories I read were due to incredible temptation or poor preparation. Neither of these were our issue. We quit consciously after days of thought and effort, knowing what we were doing.
  1. We accomplished our goals. The goal for us was not to find the cause behind any issue. We went into it feeling well and eating fairly healthily. My overall hope was that it would lead me to be aware of what and how we eat again. We hoped to learn how to incorporate more veggies and to learn new cooking techniques. Both of those goals were met, and we have continued to incorporate much of what we learned.
  1. We needed energy. Not only was the fog enough to make us want to kill each other by evening, but Jon was taking a new position within his company and I chase a toddler around all day. When the fog wouldn't lift, it just wasn't worth it to continue.
  1. It was dominating our lives. Okay, I'm probably just not good at it; I know some people are so good at doing Paleo diet on a budget, and many people are so much more efficient than I am in the kitchen. However, I felt like I spent all day in the kitchen (and it wasn't far from the truth). I planned my life around food for these three weeks. Our power, water and food bills were all double, and I know that a huge portion of this was due to the intensity of meal preparation. Again, this wouldn't be an issue for those more efficient at saving money and planning meals, but it was significant for me.
  1. Quitting felt right. I've become better at trusting my instincts over the past year. And in this case, by the time we decided to quit, I knew on a deep level that it was the right thing to do. And though I thought I would hate myself for giving up, I haven't regretted it at all.

But at the same time, I'm glad we tried it because:

  1. Cutting out sugar and processed foods was great. I loved how our tastebuds changed to appreciate whole foods again. Sweet potatoes became exceedingly sweet! I needed to see how much sugar I had gradually allowed into our diet. I'm reading labels again and making more of my own sauces. But it is still really easy for me to let sugar cravings get out of control.
  1. It made me really think about food, and it reminded me to be aware. I loved trying new foods (hello, jicama) and making my own mayonnaise, ketchup, and barbeque sauce. It was a great reminder of how food contributes to our health and daily well-being. I also didn't realize how often I wasn't getting enough protein and vegetables, even though I was eating mostly whole foods. I've started incorporating more protein-filled breakfasts and lunches like eggs with veggies or healthy leftovers.
  1. We are cooking better. Because there's no covering poor flavor with cheese or bread, Paleo recipes tend to be excellent in terms of flavor and technique from what I've found. I have learned that I can google Paleo versions of our favorite meals to find recipes that leave out less healthy stuff. I now think nothing of cooking dairy-free or gluten-free meals for friends or family because I have a repertoire of delicious recipes. (P.S. I love Well Fed 2, a Paleo cookbook, and still use it multiple times a week).
  1. We are eating veggies more frequently. The Whole30 was a veggie bootcamp. I learned that we love cauliflowered rice, the importance and ease of keeping bags of frozen veggies in the freezer, and how to eat veggies for breakfast. Some of the soups (especially this one!) were delicious.
  1. We saw the benefit of Paleo dinners. We both did sleep better and wake up with more instant energy, and we think a large part of that was the lack of carbs before bed. So we're trying to have Paleo (or mostly Paleo) dinners.
  1. I became better at planning for and preparing Jon's lunches. After all the work of those three weeks, it seems like nothing to make extras and cut up veggies for Jon to take to work. This is still a work in progress though (because I am a chronic under-buyer/under-preparer).
  1. It has given me a lot to think about. I didn't realize how often I had sniffles or allergies until I didn't have them for 21 days. My allergies are generally not severe, but I did find that I had very few during the twenty-one days. My eczema was better too. The lack of occasional allergies was not worth feeling so tired and hungry while on the program (because neither eczema or allergies are huge issues right now), but it is something to consider. We will probably experiment with dairy and grain to see if there is a main culprit, especially depending on the severity of allergy season.

My Overall Thoughts

My mom says that health is an art, not just a science. I found this to be true. I'm not so sure that food is just about physical health and nourishment. Being able to eat meals with friends and family is such a gift, as is the occasional chocolate chip cookie or the freedom to make a bowl of oatmeal. Our bodies and body types can differ, and what works for one person may not work for another (something Beth's post more eloquently touched on here).

This experiment also reminded me how easily our habits and mindset about food can get bent out of shape. I found myself obsessing about food during the Whole30 since I was never full. I kept overthinking whether I was hungry or not. And I found that I had to retrain my brain to realize that some of the non-Whole30 food are not bad for me.

I'm not sure about the sustainability of a Paleo diet in general. This post and this post talk a bit about that. In addition, it was frustrating to forgo organic or ethically-raised meat due to the vast quantity of meat we had to buy.

Ultimately, it was solid in terms of an experiment. We accomplished our goals, learned a lot, and added to our framework for thinking through food and nutrition. However, it taught me that it takes a certain kind of wisdom and humility (and tons of encouragement from friends and family!) to know when it's time to call it quits.

Have you tried a Whole30? What's your approach to healthy eating?

P.S. I just read Beth's post here about their subsequent Whole30, and it is worth a read if you're thinking through the Whole30.