We have done the impossible. We went 30 days without grains, dairy, soy, sugar, and all things easy and fast. To the uninitiated, Whole30 is a slightly more strict paleo diet that you stick to for 30 days without cheating, in order to reset your body. I have obvious health issues (Crohn’s), and less obvious things like occasional indigestion, headaches, bloating, etc. and the point of the Whole30 is to cut out the foods that can bother you for a month and then slowly and methodically add those things back into your diet like a controlled experiment to see which foods bother you in which ways. If I’m eating pasta with cream sauce and a soy mocha for lunch and then feel terrible, I won’t know if it was the pasta, dairy, soy, or sugar. This is the safe kind of cleanse, not the pills or tea that wring your guts out, but only putting real, unprocessed foods into your body for 30 days and seeing how you feel. Then, you eat a little bread or pasta and return to Whole30 for a couple days and see how you feel. Then a little sugar, then some cheese, and so one so that you can leave the process knowing that soy gives you indigestion, candy gives you a headache, pasta makes you bloated, and cheese is perfect and wonderful and should be served at every meal. (I miss cheese.)
Last month we drove to Austin for Grandma’s 90th, and my mother pointed at my cousins and said “look at them! So thin!” This is usually her way of not-so-gently introducing me to a new way to lose weight, but I swear, my mother is a lovely person. She equates being slim with a happy life, and just wants me to be happy, too.
My cousins have never been large people, and both lead active lifestyles, so I wasn’t terribly shocked that they both looked good. They are good-looking people, of course they look good. There is a fine line when complimenting weight loss, because if you make a big deal about how great someone looks now, it’s implied they looked gross before, but if you don’t mention it then maybe you’re being rude or jealous, or maybe you just honestly don’t size everyone up at every encounter (the last is me). For me, when I lost weight after my flare and people said I looked great it bothered me. Weight loss from muscle atrophy and liquid diets isn’t sustainable, so I don’t really know what you’re trying to tell me. Being thin is a bad sign, and being plump is a sign of good health. It’s a tricky area to navigate.
My cousins had been doing the Whole30 diet for months and were really happy with it, so I asked them a bunch of questions to see what type of ‘fad diet’ I was dealing with. It sounded really restrictive, and my favorite food is sandwiches, so I wasn’t sure how I would survive without bread, cheese, deli meat, and dijon (can’t have wine and most dijon mustard is made with wine). You can have mayo, but you have to make it yourself. Great. I’ll just smear some homemade mayo on a pickle (from a specialty store, because most are made with forbidden ingredients) and that will be my lunch.
What changed my mind about the diet was the very expensive book I bought, that is about half recipes and half an explanation of the plan. A lot of people need science to persuade them to try a diet, but I usually don’t have any idea if it’s real or pseudo science, so I skip it. Without getting too science-y, the diet specifically mentioned Crohn’s Disease and the benefits of a whole food diet. The authors didn’t give a lot of technical examples, but the way it was written they seemed to actually understand the disease, which was pretty surprising. Most nutritionists or fitness experts can’t fathom a health problem that is made worse by vegetables and whole grains, but the book acknowledged the difficulties I might have if I stuck to a strict Whole30 diet. When I’m having symptoms, I eat soft, fluffy foods like white bread with butter and cheese because, oddly enough, fat makes my gut feel better. During my first flare I lived on Dominos cheesy bread, so when doctors looked at me, round and fleshy, they immediately decided I couldn’t be that sick because I hadn’t dropped a scary amount of weight. It wasn’t until they looked inside that the extent of the disease became clear. My second flare I ended up in the hospital after eating kale salad and roasted Brussels sprouts in the same meal. Obviously, my health had been slowly declining before that meal, but tough veggies were the last straw. A diet where you can only eat vegetables, meat, fruit, and nuts could be a serious problem for a person who sometimes can’t digest vegetables, fruit, nuts, and some meats.
The book acknowledged that it could be a challenge, and offered suggestions and support for people in my situation. You can eat potatoes, and those are soft (without the skin), so I was encouraged. The next biggest challenge would be to pry the Diet Dr Pepper out of my husband’s hand. Not only did we have to give up sugar, we had to give up fake sugar, and Hubs had a pretty serious soda habit. Getting him on board would be tough.
By far, the hardest part of the diet is that lack of convenience items. You have to make
your own mayo, tomato sauce, ketchup, BBQ sauce, salad dressing, and anything else you would normally buy at the store because they all contain something bad, like sugar or soy or MSG. I would often use 90 second quinoa packets to fill out a meal, but ALL grains are off limits, so I it took a lot of planning just to get going. There are no shortcuts, because there are the RULES, and then there are the RECOMMENDATIONS. The rules are no dairy, grains, soy, legumes, sugar, or alcohol. The recommendations are a little more grey, because you find out pretty quick there are a handful of fruit and nut bars that are Whole30 compliant, but they don’t recommend you eat them as snacks, treats or meals. They are for emergencies only, so keep one in your purse in case your flight is delayed and there is not other compliant food. Don’t drink smoothies, because they send the wrong message about fullness to your brain and might contain too much fruit, or you might overeat later because it didn’t fill you up despite the caloric impact.
That being said, you don’t count calories or measure things, which is ideal for a cook. I’ve done Weight Watchers before, and I felt like my hands were tied in the kitchen. Ok, the pan is looking a little dry so I need to add a splash of oil, but how much did I add? This could use more tomato paste, but I can’t find my measuring spoons and if I add too much I can’t have dinner because lunch is too many points. On different days, with different batches of meats and veg, you will have to adjust recipes and it’s too stressful for me when I’m counting every grain of rice. With Whole30, you know what you can use and what you can’t. If the pan is dry, add bone broth or a little coconut oil. If you feel full before your plate is empty, you don’t have to do insane math trying to figure out how many points you left on your plate so you can have a snack later. Snacks are not recommended, so that takes some trial an error with meal timing and size, but you don’t have to borrow points from next week if you have a big workout and need an extra small meal one day.
Other than the constant cooking, prepping, and dish-washing, it’s not difficult to stick to. Dinner was never the problem, because we often ate Whole30 compliant meals without knowing it, but lunch and breakfast were difficult. Those are the meals we’re eating on the
run, in between errands, in the car on the way to school. I had to give up my beloved nut-butter Cliff bars and sandwiches, Robby had to hand over his Kind bars and to-go burritos. If your wife is as wonderful as Robby’s, she will finish doing the dishes from dinner and then make you lunch for the following day, and be sure to bake individual frittatas in muffin cups for your breakfast, complete with homemade pork sausage. If your wife gets sick of this, she’ll plop some leftovers in tupperware for lunch and tell you from under the comforter where you can find a couple hard-boiled eggs for breakfast.
We both saw results from our Whole30 journey, with soda possibly being the major cause of Hubs’ indigestion and me being able to move on to more fibrous vegetables by week two. It is not a weight loss diet, though most people do lose weight, and we both saw results in this area as well. The book stressed Non Scale Victories, and you’re meant to check off all your NSVs after the 30 day period like less heartburn, more energy, less knee pain, no more sugar cravings at 3pm, and so on. I never had a negative reaction to food that I could pinpoint, because I ate several offenders a day and couldn’t separate the effects. I eat a ton of vegetables, but it’s not a low fat diet, and like I’ve said before, fat seems to help my gut, so I have seen positive changes in my health. And OH MAN, wait until you start cooking with ghee. It’s butter with the milk solids strained out, so it has a higher smoke point which makes it the best cooking option for just about everything. It’s not a magic diet, I still take a hefty dose of Humira every two weeks, but I was about to ask my doctor if I could increase my dose to every week or 10 days, and now maybe I won’t have to.
The moral of the story is, this lifestyle is not for wimps. You will have to cook every meal from scratch, and many ingredients from scratch, and you will be pretty sick of eggs (the only suggestion they have for making something into breakfast is taking last night’s leftovers and adding an egg on top, because all delicious breakfast foods contain at least grains and sugar, if not also dairy.) We never broke the rules, but we did ignore some recommendations on occasion. I love eggs, and they are actually one of the safest foods for me to eat, but I can’t do savory first thing in the morning every day. I have to eat something before going to the gym or running errands, so we had smoothies sometimes, but they weren’t huge and loaded with sugar, just a banana, some almond butter, coconut milk, a dash of cinnamon and a pinch of salt. I’d serve this to Hubs with a side of hard-boiled egg or homemade sausage patty. I have recently started my day with a LaraBar, which is also frowned upon, but I’m finding what works for me. A LaraBar on the way to school, then an RXBar after the gym, followed by a snack in the afternoon so I don’t overdo it on dinner.
I don’t have many issues with proteins, but if things get tense in my gut I can fall back on potatoes and soft-cooked carrots after trying to eat too many rougher veggies or fruits with skin. I would absolutely recommend this plan to anyone with IBD, provided your disease is at least pretty well controlled, because you don’t want to set yourself up for failure. I only had a couple tender-belly days, and I realized I was eating too many nuts (not peanuts because they are forbidden), so I adjusted and felt better.
The book talks about how, once your body is used to burning fat instead of carbs and sugar, and you no longer hate everyone and want to rob a McDonalds for the chicken nuggets instead of the cash drawer, you’ll feel phenomenal. They call this phase Tiger Blood, and there were definitely days when I felt fueled from within during my workouts, and eager to get out and do things, go for a walk, or hand-whisk my own mayo (because I wear a fitbit and it’s the only way to beat my Dad’s ridiculous weekly step totals. My family is really competitive). There were certainly tough days, like when the whole house got the stomach flu and I would have killed for a saltine, but we made it through with boiled potatoes and scrambled eggs. We will take these lessons forward and avoid known triggers in the future, but I don’t feel as though I’ll never eat another sandwich, because that would be insane. With a greater understanding of the physical impact my lunch choice would have on me, I might go for meat and veggies instead. Or I might eat a sandwich, because I MISS CHEESE.