Whole 30: What I Learned My First Time on the Clean Eating Program
By Jessica Hamlin and Kristin Myers Harvey
Although I consider myself (Jessica here) to be a pretty healthy eater—mostly organic, no dairy, lots of vegetables and plant-based protein, little to no cane/refined sugar and limited wheat, grains and inflammatory oils when I’m at home—I have yet to delve into the popular Whole30 eating program. But I appreciate anyone who can commit to the seemingly very strict and involved 30-day plan without going too crazy. Granted, sometimes that’s what happens when we first decide to make a drastic healthy change in our life.
Meet Kristin Myers Harvey, a UX designer (user experience designer for websites) and married mom of 1 who decided last year that it was time to try the Whole30 eating plan. She’d heard about the program for a year or so, but after recognizing the toll that years of stress had taken on her and her body and wanting to help her husband who is losing his vision, Kristin chose to jump on the Whole30 train.
Started in 2009, Whole30 is a way of eating designed to help your body “reset” in 30 days. Then you gradually reintroduce certain foods to see how they affect you and if perhaps you need to limit or eliminate some of these foods in your diet.
The plan focuses on anti-inflammatory eating. FYI, chronic inflammation from certain foods, stress, environment, etc. can wreak havoc on your health. Like the paleo diet, which some people do long-term to avoid foods that cause allergies and unwanted symptoms, Whole30 is about getting back to simpler, purer foods that truly nourish us and ditching those that may disrupt our gut health, cravings and energy. But since much of our modern food has been grown or processed in harmful ways and has added inflammatory sweeteners, oils, and other fillers, eating simply seems to have gotten more difficult.
Even if you eat “healthy” Whole 30 takes food awareness to the next level. Here are a few basic “rules” of the Whole 30 eating plan:
- No: Grains, dairy, alcohol, added sugar (real or artificial), legumes (beans, lentils, peanuts, peas, soy), carrageenan, MSG, sulfites, baked goods, junk food or treats, even those with “approved” ingredients (aka, no paleo pancakes).
- Yes: Moderate portions of meat, seafood, and eggs; lots of vegetables; some fruit; plenty of natural fats; and herbs, spices, and seasonings. Eat foods with very few ingredients, all pronounceable ingredients, or better yet, no ingredients listed at all because they’re whole and unprocessed.
While I’m not sure if I’ll ever do Whole 30—it may trigger an unhealthy relationship with food and weight I’ve had in the past—I’m thankful to live vicariously through people like Kristin and hear about their journeys. Everyone’s situation, needs, body and relationship with food is different and we all learn in different ways.
Kristin graciously shared with us the experience she and her husband had before, during and after a round of Whole30 and what they learned. She also did a second round of Whole30 recently, which we’ll share with you in another post soon.
What was going on in your life before you decided to try Whole30?
My mother-in-law told us that [my husband] Eric and I are coming off three years of pretty intense stress and transition. I hadn’t thought of it like that, but Carole tends to be right. I just know that despite my best efforts, I did not consistently take care of my body through several chapters: Miscarriage, grad school, pregnancy and welcoming [our daughter] Jane, promotion, then a decision to quit, more grad school, and a cross-country move to get a new job. All with a baby, dog, and husband who is losing his vision. He’s now learning accessibility tools and tricks to finish his PhD dissertation. When I stop to think about it, it’s pretty crazy. No wonder my swimming had slipped and I prioritized sleep, comfort foods and beer. I’ve steadily gained 30 pounds over the past 10 years, and 15 of those in the last 3 years. My acne was back and I was not willing to grow out of another set of clothes.
How’d you hear about Whole30 and what made you decide to do it?
I heard about the Whole30 through friends on Facebook a year or so ago - I researched it and filed it away as “someday.” It seemed extreme (no rice or beans!?), but also intriguing. I knew my habits should change, but they were coping mechanisms I wasn’t ready to give up. It wasn’t until Eric starting researching anti-inflammatory diets, such as the Whole30, and found they might slow vision loss and give him better sight days. Yea. That was all the motivation I needed; after my last class finished up, we moved into our own space, read the books, and set a date: June 2016.
What was it like during Whole30?
I was completely committed to jumping in, which got me through frustrating trips to the grocery story to find new ingredients. It was also depressing to see how much sugar is in everything. Salad dressing. Bacon. Beef Jerky. Sauces. Even Garlic Salt has sugar! But we were on our way.
Week 1: Great for me - the first week flew by, and I was enjoying the variety from following the Whole30’s first week meal plan. My acne disappeared almost immediately. I was impressed. But Eric who does 98% of our cooking felt exhausted. New recipes, and everything had to be made pretty much from scratch - even mayonnaise which is the base for ranch, and other amazing sauces. We can both whip up a batch now, [but] it took awhile to get there.
Week 2: They have a term - “carb flu” - when your body starts to transition to burning your fat stores when you stop eating quick burning sugars you’ve taught it to crave. This hit me hard, and there were a few nights I felt like I had spent the day backpacking in the High Sierras instead of working from home. But then, my pants were looser.
Week 3: I had the food dreams - I really didn’t think I’d dream about the foods I wasn’t eating, but I did. And I felt so guilty for dreaming I put cream in my coffee. Eric dreamed he ate brownies. This was when the cravings were real. I was fine without most of it - cheese, grains, even beer and wine. But damn, I wanted pancakes.
Week 4: It doesn’t feel like we’re doing anything particularly special now. My cravings for sweets are pretty much gone - replaced with new habits like drinking natural calm (magnesium) and sparkling water. I am a bit nervous to come off this plan actually - and have the ability to make my own call.
Her husband’s experience: Eric was excited and hopeful initially going into it. Afterward he felt a marginal difference with increased energy, but didn't notice a big change to vision. There were great things about it, but it was unsustainable in the long run.
Whole30 Pros and Cons
What were some Whole30 advantages?
We’ve broken habits. The nightly alcohol, why-not desserts, eating empty calories during the day, etc. This is worth it all, right here. To get out from under these rituals that had me feeling trapped. But we’re adults, and we do have a choice. I feel empowered!
Less food waste. Our purchasing became completely meal plan based, so more strategic (though not cheap - more on that later), but we were actually finishing bins of spinach and bunches of green onions.
Shape. My clothes are not dramatically looser, but they do fit better. I can get into pants I couldn’t before. so when I weigh my self tomorrow, I don’t think there will be a big dramatic shift. But I know if I can keep this way of approaching food, I will be better for it. Oh, and acne thing - clearer skin is a huge win!
Energy. They talk about “tiger blood” and a “magical” increase in energy. Sure, I don’t feel as tired in the morning, and I did go for that jog one night. But it’s not what I was expecting. It’s slow and steady - I’ve started swimming. and want to get my old bike out. This pace is actually perfect, and I’m quite happy with this.
Bottom line - we did it. We kept going, even when it was hard. Meal planning, getting everything cooked - we almost stopped around day 6 as it was all just a bit much. But we didn’t wan to to start over, and just kept going. Eric is the real champ here who made it happen in the kitchen.
What were some Whole30 drawbacks?
Eating this way is not cheap. This is the biggest hurdle as we needed to stock a new house with basics, and our meat consumption shot through the roof with Whole30. They encourage you, of course, to eat organic and non-factory farmed meat if you can. But … those things cost much more money. I had $700 budgeted, but we spent around $1200 this month stocking up with a mix of conventional and organic meats from Costco, fresh fruits and veggies each week, and a range of nuts and oils. Of course, much of this will carry us into next month, but this is simply not sustainable for us. I think we were a bit too committed … at any cost. So now we need to really make this work for us. I would love any tips or tricks from people who eat Paleo/Whole30ish - how do you keep it affordable?
The Post-Whole30 Rollercoaster
What’s it been like since your first round of Whole30?
I tend to live life in phases depending on the season, what's going on and who I'm around. I found a whole new set of phases post-Whole30:
Phase 1: Reentry
I didn't follow the program's reintroduction plan because I was so ready to be done. This wasn't a conscious, ‘I'm SO going off the rails! Wahoo!’ type of decision, but just the reality of a strict approach. I wanted my food freedom back again, and I wanted to eat what I loved, missed and (literally) dreamed about. It felt like I had done my ‘healthy’ time ... now I get pancakes. And cake. And bread. And beer. And chocolate. Right? Yes. Bring it on.
Phase 2: Confusion
After that initial run back to my favorites and trying to find a new normal, I went through a few months where I was just confused. I think it made me frustrated and almost angry. I would look at our favorite meals and habits and wonder, ‘So, are we eating beans? Rice? Dairy? What should I meal plan and buy now? I don't even know. This is RIDICULOUS!’ I realize now this was because we didn't do the reentry properly to identify what makes us feel less than optimal. THAT self-exploration should be what guides your long term eating.
Phase 3: Realization
But when the holidays rolled around - I realized I was actually making long term changes that I wouldn't have otherwise. I had started to opt out of the excess holiday sweets. For example: I didn't make fudge at Thanksgiving (don't worry, we still had pie). Fudge was something I made because I grew up with it ... and I LOVE it. But this tempting plate of fudge sits out before dinner, and no one can stop eating it ... so it's gone. Then we're all dealing with sugar shock before the meal even starts and there are pies waiting. It's just too much and easy to cut. When I didn't make it ... no one said, ‘Hey where's the fudge?’ It just wasn't missed. I look for these easy wins now as different seasons pass. Homemade popsicles with 100% real fruit are my favorite summer treat right now.
The Good Stuff.
We asked Kristin about some of her favorite things (besides fudge).
Fave workout/way to move: Walking my dog is my daily go-to for movement, but I really love swimming when I can get to the pool.
Fave wellness practice: I just started keeping my phone in the living room when I go to bed - and am using my iWatch for an alarm. This keeps me away from a screen in the last few minutes before bed - so I don't "just check one more thing" and slip into the device vortex.
Fave self-care practice: I usually take Sunday afternoon naps when my 2 year old is napping. They are pure bliss.
Fave hobby: Right now? Embroidery. But this changes every month!
Fave food: Pancakes
Fave drink: Craft beer (or coffee ... probably coffee)
Fave snack: Any ripe summer fruit like peaches.
Fave kitchen gadget/appliance: My coffee maker - it grinds and brews!
Fave place in the world: California. My family has been here for 6 generations, and I don't want to live anywhere else.
Who or what inspires you? I am a transformation junkie. I am so inspired by those who take on challenging changes/projects/work to make themselves and the world a better place.
Fave quote/saying/mantra and why: Today Decides Tomorrow - this is actually my college's motto (Chico State in Northern California - go Wildcats!). I love the truth of it. Our/Intentions/Goals/Preparation/Action (or lack of) puts tomorrow's outcomes in your hands - good or bad. I see this as a glass half-full motto: No matter what else is happening there is always something I can do today for a better tomorrow.
Fave podcast: This week? I'm HOOKED on the Game of Thrones podcast to keep up with Season 7 in real time. So many details and theories!
Fave workout song: I don't really listen to music currently, so I'm afraid this is so dated, but I still love Galvanize by the Chemical Brothers
If you had a theme song, what would it be? Don't Stop Believin' by Journey
Fave book: Jane Eyre
Fave website: Personal Capital - focusing on my net worth has been a fundamental shift in achieving my financial goals.
Fave movie: I am with my two-year-old daughter here - we are all obsessed with Moana. "You're welcome!"
(Thumbnail Photo: Kristin Myers Harvey)
Jessica Hamlin is an LA-born and bred journalist and editor who started taking pictures of food back when everyone used film cameras. A graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition’s health coach training program, she’s passionate about wellness and enjoys making and discovering delicious and healthy food. Her work has appeared in Clean Plates, NPR affiliate KPCC, AOL, and Eater LA.