What It’s Really Like To Do The Whole30 Diet For An Entire Month

January. When the gyms overflow and the produce section is overrun by dieters. When your perfectly ripened avocados have been picked over — leaving only the rock hard few, taken from the tree so very young.

Sure, it’s a frustrating, but let’s be honest: Whether someone makes a New Year’s resolution to hit the gym or to incorporate more kale into her diet, choosing a healthier lifestyle is always a good idea. The motivation might be superficial, but if the lifestyle change is done in a way that promotes healthy, positive shifts, then there’s no harm to resolution season.

Well, except maybe the inconvenience of not getting your normal spot in yoga class or your favorite Gingerade Kombucha being sold out. Obviously, you can live through those calamities.

After Christmas gifted me with its cookie parties and New Year’s Eve influenced me to drink a bottle and a half of red wine, I decided it was time to take a break from all things sugar. I began reading about different detoxes or post-holiday diets, and I stumbled upon the Whole30 program.

For anyone not in the know, here’s a quick synopsis of what Whole30 is: It’s a program designed to “cut out all the psychologically unhealthy, hormone-unbalancing, gut-disrupting, inflammatory food groups for 30 days.” This method helps the body recover from systematic damage. The 30 days gives you the time and space to naturally heal your body with whole foods.

The assertion is that by removing sugar, grains, dairy and legumes, you can reset your energy levels, heal skin damage, gain control over digestive issues and grow mindful of your food sensitivities. As a yoga instructor involved in the health community, I felt pretty confident in these claims. They seem to fit with recent studies on the damage that sugars and processed foods have on our bodies.

Before I embarked on my month-long journey, I decided to speak to some experts about whether Whole30 would be right for me. Caroline Tusiuk, an Orthomolecular Health Practitioner who specializes in hormone balancing and sustainable weight loss, told me that she advocates the Whole30 program to her clients. Tusiuk stresses the importance of eating more healthy fats and ensuring proper omega 3/omega 6 ratio, and Whole30 encourages healthy fats like fruits, oils, nuts and seeds. She also says improving gut health is important, and Whole30 ensures this by avoiding foods that cause systematic inflammation.

Tusiuk also points out the power of reducing stress. The Whole30 emphasizes that it is not a weight loss program. There is no encouragement to step on a scale or to take measurements. She points out that chronically elevated levels of cortisol and stress correlate with weight gain. Whole30 helps regulate cortisol levels, which theoretically helps aid in future weight loss, if that’s what you’re going for.

“By avoiding foods like grains, sugars, soy, dairy and other foods that could cause excess inflammation, intestinal permeability, enzyme deficiency or excess insulin release – the process of reversing the imbalance can begin,” Tusiuk says. “Our hormones are chemical messengers that transfer information from one place in our body to another, which means our hormones regulate what the food will actually do within our bodies.”

Melissa Hartwig

Meanwhile, Melissa Hartwig, co-creator and co-founder of the Whole30 program, says, “It’s not a weight-loss program. It’s not a quick fix. It’s not prescriptive in that I’m not saying, ‘These foods are bad and you should never eat them again.’ It is a learning experience. It’s a short-term experiment designed to teach you how the foods you are eating are impacting you.”

Which, even for the skeptics, sounds relatively reasonable. Is less “hippy insane diet” and more “figuring out how your body reacts to avoiding certain foods.” And after all, it’s just a month.

This all sounded great, but you don’t reverse your imbalances without a bit of preparation. A few days before I began the program, I connected with a group of friends who were organizing a Whole30 support group. The main organizer had provided and directed us to the free, online resources the program provides, which prepared me with the literature I needed to read, the shopping lists I needed to reference, and the recipes I needed to prepare. I joined the group because I needed to be held accountable, and I needed to know I wasn’t alone.

Also, I needed to be validated for the times when I felt like literally crying because I couldn’t have some Ben & Jerry’s after a stressful day.

“Food is so emotional and we have so many attachments to it,” Hartwig says. “And it’s so polarizing. If you can get to a place where you feel like you are in control of your food, where the food you are eating is working for you in the best ways possible, there is no area of your life that that will not go over into. Self-confidence, your intermittent relationships, your desire to socialize or put yourself out there more. It just carries over into everything.”

With the pieces in place, I decided to take the leap. My real problem (or at least so I’m told) is that I like cheese Danishes and red wine “too much.” Don’t get me wrong, I practice yoga regularly and enjoy every vegetable known to man, but I do have some vices that have caused me time-collapsing afternoon crashes and cravings so strong I could be persuaded to take candy from a stranger.

Could I survive a whole month with neither pastries nor alcohol? We would soon see.

Week 1:

After the first hangover of the year, I was ready to fill my shopping cart with all things Whole30 compliant that also seemed relatively delicious. I followed an Instagram account that posted photos of specific ingredients in certain stores available in my area: Martins, Aldi and even Walmart and Target. This cut down on hours spent reading labels and Googling the names of hidden sugars.

Though I was motivated and determined, the first week was hellish. I woke up feeling exhausted with only enough energy to go through my day in a haze. My productivity levels dropped dramatically and I had to put exercise on hold all together. Whole30 says to expect this and “honor it.” Your body goes through a dramatic detox of its dependence on sugar for quick energy and, as anyone who’s ever quit anything knows, no detox is a walk in the park.

“Sleep a lot. Make sure you’re eating enough. Drink plenty of water. Take naps. Take a half-intensity week in the gym or use some gentle yoga classes instead of trying to run six miles. Your job is to help your body get this transition period because by the end of the second week, things will be rocking,” Hartwig says.

Whole30 has received a great deal of criticism because of this detox process, but that criticism seems just as extremist as the plan it criticizes. Working out or running a marathon isn’t great every day of the year. In order to make progress, hard work and uncomfortable moments are required. If we think of our food as fuel, wouldn’t you expect your body to run differently when you suddenly make a drastic fuel change?

If it didn’t affect me differently, I would eat cheeseburgers for every meal for the rest of my life. Incidentally, cheeseburgers are another thing I thought about during this first week. A lot.

“Give your body the time and space it is asking for right now to make this transition as gracefully as possible,” Hartwig suggests. “You know your body wants to get back into this place of balance. It wants to re-learn how to run off fat for fuel. And it wants to regulate blood sugar more effectively. You’ve got all of these elegant systems in place in your body to help you do just that and we’ve been throwing those off with the foods we’re eating.”

So I stocked up on good fats and gritted my teeth. My breakfasts were by far, my favorite: two scrambled eggs, half an avocado, chicken apple sausage, and half a grapefruit. Easy enough.

I had prepped a tray of roasted vegetables with extra-virgin olive oil and balsalmic vinegar and baked marinated and spiced chicken breasts for my lunches and dinners. I’ll admit this would have been nice paired with some rice, but I served it over some mixed greens or baby spinach (gotta mix it up a little), and it created a warm salad that was nothing less (or more) than satisfying during the first week of January.

Week 2:

I began feeling relief during the second week. My energy levels were up, and I felt like I was properly fueling my body with enough good fats. I started attending my normal yoga classes and felt sustained through the entirety. I was excited about the meals I was creating and having fun experimenting with new recipes. I was also just generally pumped. I felt like I was starting to gain control over my eating habits and establishing healthier routines. I’d started feeling like myself again.

Week 1 was by far the hardest week to get through. Once it had passed, I felt like there was little to no reason I could see myself stopping. Having a group of ladies going through the exact same ups and downs made me feel less alone, and I felt more motivated than ever to continue. My excitement of trying new things also carried me through pretty strongly this particular week. I’d gotten comfortable in the diet change, and felt confident that I’d be able to take on the next two weeks.

I also prepared emergency snacks which I armed myself with before I headed into work. My favorites were Sabra guacamole packs with plantain chips or a Blueberry RXBAR. If I was really hungry, I’d snack on an apple and Justin’s Almond Butter.

Week 3:

Week three moved by with some ease, but I started to bore of my go-to meals and emergency snacks. I’d really slacked on my preparation, and it came back to bite me. I was late for my weekly Aldi run, so for a few days I had to scrounge in order to keep my meals compliant. I’d spice up some ground beef in taco seasoning and slice up an avocado and some tomatoes, topping it with the remaining broken plantain chips to add a little crunch to the pathetic taco salad.

I recommend not putting yourself in this situation, but I’m sure you all already know not to do that. I, however, learn things the hard way.

I took specific note on days 16 and 17, when I noticed insane energy spikes. I woke up clear-headed, I spoke without stumbling over my words, and I worked diligently through my normal afternoon crashes. At times I would have felt like I needed to recharge my battery just a month before, I was now on some energized bunny trip. More changes? My body felt less bloated and my stomach shrank in softness.

Caffeine also became more gentle. I’ve always felt sensitive to caffeine, limiting myself to two cups of coffee a day. My heart starts racing, and my caffeine crashes are so intense, I often cry. Seriously. Throughout the program, I continued my caffeine intake with unsweetened almond milk lattes or black coffee, and felt no crash whatsoever. Also seriously. Sugar, it seems, was the real culprit all along.

For years I’d been associating the rough afternoon crashes with the amount of coffee I drank earlier in the day. The Whole30 made me realize the caffeine interaction with sugar seemed to give me this effect. Same amount of coffee, no more crashes. It’s as if coffee and I went to therapy and we found the deep-rooted problems in our relationship. We’d worked through them. We are now stronger than ever.

Week 4:

Ending the program was bittersweet. I’d found such comfort in Whole30 that I actually felt reluctant to stop. I liked how mindful I became toward food prep and (what would have normally been) mindless snacking. I liked that I knew exactly where to go in a grocery store instead of meandering around, wondering what to conjure up for dinner. In short, the program had given me a sense of control; one that felt positive and not obsessive.

This was also the week I really began to reflect on my cravings throughout month. As someone who eats primarily healthy food, but likes a daily treat (or two), I had close to zero cravings at the end of the 30 days. There had become a clear difference between a craving and a thought. I found myself thinking about how I wanted to try Halo Top ice cream, but had lost all sense of needing to have it.

The psychological associations I had with food seemed more manageable, too, so the barrier had become more of a bump in the road rather than total derailment. The associations were still there, and will take work to continue undoing, but they didn’t bring me to a complete standstill any longer.

Final thoughts

So, now that it’s over, what do I think? Yeah… I liked it. It’s definitely an entire lifestyle change, but it’s only 30 days, and critics need to understand one important point: the Whole30 isn’t designed to be a long-term, sustainable or realistic diet. It’s used to reset, rebalance and help regain control over your relationship with food and reinstate positive patterns in all aspects of your life.

It did that for me.

Though difficult at times, the Whole30 has helped me gain that control I’d felt I lost. I no longer had an association of guilt with food because I was nourishing my body with good, whole and healthy foods. I was mindful of everything I put in my body, and in turn, I was mindful with how each bite made me feel: physically, but also psychologically.

Am I missing sugar? That’s a complicated answer. Sugar is like a wild party. It’s enticing, it’s addicting and it’s is used for immediate satisfaction. The hangover is only sometimes worth the party, so we try to not engage in the situations on a regular basis. But, like a really good party you’ve been to, it’s also really fun, so you’re constantly drawn back (even when you know it’s bad for you).

With that being said, I’m going to take this mentality with me even now that the 30 days are over. I know sugar affects me negatively, so why would I want to continue consuming it? Here’s why: because it’s just nice sometimes. And I’m a human, not a machine. Have you ever had a cheese Danish?

I’m going to allow myself to enjoy a beer after work with some friends or have a grilled cheese paired with some tomato bisque on a cold day. That won’t stop. For the majority of the week, though, I’ll continue to focus on consuming whole foods and limiting my overall sugar intake. I know I can eliminate it for 30 days straight, so I also know I can moderate it as my normal diet.

And you know what? If you want, you can too.