Let me preface this post (again) by saying that I am a person who gives 100% to whatever it is I am doing. If I commit, I'm in it to win it. This can have unfortunate consequences in the area of, say, relationships (when I fall, I fall hard) or, say, boxes of granola (Wait . . . this was supposed to be 10 servings?!). But in most areas of my life, my ability to set a goal and then focus all of my energy on achieving it (while doing lots of other stuff too) is an excellent quality. So when I reflect upon my experience over the last thirty days, you can rest assured that I followed this incredibly strict diet to a T.
I'm going to start off with the things I appreciated about the Whole30 Challenge. Here they are:
#1. Eating (almost) no processed food. No one can argue that this is not a good thing. Foods that come in plastic wrap or live in vending machines are generally poor choices. Whether you are a caveman, a vegan, a Weight Watcher, a scientist, a nutritionist, or whatever--there is no way that you think heavily processed foods are actually good for the human body. It makes sense. During the Whole30 challenge, pretty much every single processed food is totally off-limits, including plenty of foods with a "healthy" connotation, like Smart Pop, Special K, Yoplait Light, and Progresso soup. Lara bars, almond butter, coconut water, and certain products at Trader Joe's (a shrimp stir-fry in the frozen section, a tuna curry, the Tahini sauce) were fine, but otherwise, I was looking at whole foods as the sole contributors at meal time. And I loved it.
I loved it because I love to cook, and taking something raw like a butternut squash or a piece of fish and transforming it into something delicious is fun for me. I also loved it because eating whole foods is satisfying. It is easy to tell when you are full and food that is fresh tastes good. That's not exactly rocket science, but in the age of additives and preservatives, it can be easy to forget.
#2. Dramatically reducing sugar intake. This experience was by far the longest I have ever gone without any added sugar whatsoever. I don't have many vices (I'm not a big drinker, I think cigarettes are disgusting, and I stopped biting my nails five years ago), but I was (and probably still am...) a sugar addict. That's such an ugly term, but it is the truth. I am aware of it, and I have gone through phases in the past where I would try and limit myself to, say, one 'dessert' per day. Yes people, it is that serious. So this aspect of the Whole30 was by far the hardest for me.
And that is a good thing. Because even though I was a little crabby about not being able to eat any ice cream or having to turn down a homemade cookie from a friend, this was an excellent exercise in willpower and self-control. It was a big step for me. And while I didn't magically stop craving sugar, I did come to realize that if I don't give into those cravings, nothing happens. I don't get headaches, or start shaking, or throw temper tantrums. And that simple piece of knowledge has done wonders for said self-control. It is much easier for me to "just say no" when I don't need to be eating something sweet. (Which is, sadly, most of the time.)
#3. Forming healthy habits. This is one of the best side effects of the Whole30 Challenge. Going on such a restrictive diet forces you to be aware of every single thing you are putting into your body. So naturally, I got into the habit of reading food labels all the time (and usually scrapping the item because it contained some kind of "evaporated cane juice" or "soy lecithin"). Having done a 30-Day Vegan Challenge in the past, I wasn't as shocked by all of the added ingredients in every day processed foods as I might have been otherwise. But it is still disappointing to me how many "healthy" things contain ingredients that are anything but. Other good habits include avoiding sugar (as discussed above), being prepared (packing snacks, planning meals ahead of time), and completely cutting out things that I tend to avoid anyway because they really do not contribute to overall health (soda, the bread basket before dinner, sweetener in my coffee, etc).
#4. Getting creative in the kitchen. The existence of this blog is evidence that I love to cook. So any type of "diet" that encourages me to scour the internet for new recipes to try is going to be fun (at least at first). Also, my never-ending love affair with vegetables continued as I attempted to make them the star of every meal (rather than the meat, which I am not as into).
Here's a "recipe round-up" of my favorites, and some that I haven't tried yet but want to:
Stuffed Acorn Squash (Original recipe here)
Mediterranean Meatballs (Original recipe here)
Pork Stir-Fry (Original recipe here)
Chicken Chorizo "No Potato" Hash
Coconut Ginger Chicken with Mushrooms
And here are links to a few of my favorite sites and articles related to the Whole30 Challenge or Paleo in general:
The Clothes Make the Girl
Life After Day 30
Exercising Radical Strength: Powerful strategies to strengthen your Paleo willpower
My Paleo Diet and Why I Do It
5 Painless Ways to be a Paleo Social Butterfly
#5. Feeling satisfied without the carbs. Bread, pasta, rice, potatoes . . . These are not food groups. Yes, they taste good and they make up a significant (too significant) portion of the average American's diet. And while I personally don't see a problem with eating these things in moderation or on special occasions, limiting our intake of them is very good for weight loss and for building lean muscle mass. Unlike the whole "no sugar" thing, I didn't find this one overwhelmingly difficult. Once you get in the habit of ordering salad instead of a sandwich, or fish with vegetables instead of pasta, it gets pretty easy. The bottom line is that carbohydrates do not really contribute much to feeling full--protein does. So while I mentally may have wanted that crusty piece of sourdough to dip in my soup, I didn't actually need it to feel satisfied. Great success!
#6. Consciously ordering out at restaurants. This was a bit harder for me to get used to. I am not a picky eater, and I hate being "that person" at a restaurant who asks a million questions and orders the cheeseburger with no bun, no cheese, a side salad instead of fries (no dressing--vinegar and oil on the side), and a grilled chicken breast instead of the burger. But hey, you gotta do what you gotta do. I definitely became that person whenever I ventured outside of my own kitchen during the Whole30 Challenge. Surprisingly, people were nice! I did of course have to go to fancier restaurants (oh darn), because let's be serious, the menus at Applebees or TGIFriday's aren't very flexible (and let's be serious again, I never eat at any of those places anyway). But overall, waiters and chefs were very accommodating and did not commit any eye-rolling or sighing in my presence. And now I am much more aware of what is actually in most salad dressings (so. much. sugar.) and marinades (you guessed it: so. much. sugar.) and am better informed about my options when eating out.
BUT. You knew it was coming . . .
Not everything about the Paleo Diet agreed with me--both in terms of how I felt physically as well as from a mental perspective.
From what I have read online, in magazines and in books, the only thing that is absolutely clear is that scientists do not unanimously agree on the specifics of a "healthy diet." What that says to me is that "proof" of one diet being better than another is in the eye of the beholder, and that individuals have to figure out what works best for them. When I use the term "diet," by the way, I am referring to the overarching way in which we eat, not to a "quick-fix" solution used solely for weight-loss purposes.
So with that in mind, here are some of the issues I personally had with the Paleo Diet:
#1. No dairy or legumes. Yes, I have done the reading about insulin release in the body and how these two types of foods affect that process. So I went without them for thirty days, sure that when I re-introduced them into my diet, I would suffer the consequences. And re-introduce them into my diet I did, because I need alternative protein sources (see bullet point #2). Want to know what happened? I feel better. Better than when I was following Paleo strictly (see bullet point #3), as a matter of fact. What I have changed about my consumption of dairy, at least, is to look carefully at labels and choose products with no refined sugar or other extraneous ingredients (which is particularly applicable to yogurt). I check the ingredients on products containing legumes as well, because many of them also contain grains, which I am still avoiding (most of the time). But hummus and and skim milk, welcome back! I have missed you.
#2. Excessive meat consumption. I don't need to say much on this, because I've written about it before. A diet based on eating "lots" of meat (for me, this means eating meat every day, which I try not to do) is simply not sustainable. It's not sustainable for me personally, and I don't think that it is sustainable for our planet either. If you are exclusively eating local, organic meat products, then I am impressed. But more likely than not, you are like me, which means you try to buy organic where possible, but you don't always succeed. So until I am able to say that the meat and animal products I consume are coming from very happy animals that also happen to live nearby, I am going to focus my efforts on eating less meat. That doesn't mean that I think we should replace meat with, say, corn products or extra servings of whole grains. But I think that if everyone participated in Meatless Mondays, the world probably would be a better place. Agree to disagree, Paleo community. Agree to disagree.
#3. Persistent stomach pain/discomfort. This was perhaps the most disappointing part of the Paleo challenge. Like I said, I followed this thing to a T. No cheating. I got all the "yucky" gluten out of my system and was ready to experience the transformation that is renewed gut health. I will spare you the details but that is not what happened. You will just have to trust me on this one. And now that I have transitioned into a low-carb way of eating that includes dairy and legumes (but shies away from sugar and grains), I feel awesome. I am eating less meat, my energy levels are still being maintained AND I don't have any more stomachaches.
One last note about this point: I mentioned earlier that I have done a Vegan Challenge in the past. Comparing that experience with the Paleo one, I have to say honestly that I felt much better physically when I went vegan vs. going paleo. I know that that will shock and awe all of the cavemen and dinosaur-women out there, but it's true.
But hey! Guess what?! I don't want to be a vegan. I don't want to be a cavewoman. I want to be in great shape, make progress on my fitness goals, and eat healthy food that is good for my body (with occasional treats that are good for my soul). So that's what you'll find me continuing to do in my life and continuing to write about on my blog. If you are still reading this, you are probably my mother. (Thanks, mom!) If you're still reading this and you are not my mother (or you are), leave me a comment and let me know what you think!
Have you ever gone on a Paleo diet or a Vegan diet or a Gluten-Free diet or some other diet that claims it will change your life? What happened? What did you learn? Have you stuck with it?