You guys, I have some terrible news. I decided to film my workout last night and my bubble is BURST. I had grand delusions of how great my push up and squat form had gotten, and when I watched them on video I nearly laughed out loud (nearly because it’s hard to laugh when you’re choking back tears). Seriously. It was bad. Takeaway: video is your friend when it comes to strength training. Even former athletes who think they’re pretty good at judging their body position can be wildly wrong. WILDLY. Just sayin.
But this post is not about embarrassing push ups, it’s about the Whole 30. I wrote this post about my journey with food issues a while ago, but I wanted to write specifically about the Whole 30 because I’ve been seeing more and more buzz about the program lately, and because my Whole 30 played such a key role in turning my health around.
If you’re not familiar with the Whole 30, it’s a 30-day program where you cut out any foods that are known to cause poor physical and mental health: all grains, legumes, dairy, alcohol, and added sugars (even natural sweeteners) are out. The book It Starts With Food explains why each of these food groups may cause damage to your body, either because they promote an unhealthy psychological response, or cause an unhealthy hormonal response, or cause problems for your gut/digestion, or cause an immune reaction and inflammation (or several of the above). If you’re interested in learning more about this, I can’t recommend the book strongly enough: it goes through the science in agonizing detail with abundant citations. In a good way.
The Whole 30 gets a lot of flack for being too strict. Health professionals insist that some of the foods the Whole 30 bans are actually healthy, and people like to whine a lot about the rule that you re-start your 30 days if you eat something that’s banned under the Whole 30 rules. But here’s the real key, so stay with me: the whole point of the Whole 30 is to find out how YOUR body reacts to the foods that you eliminate. Because you’ve probably never gone 30 days (or 3 days) without eating the food groups that are off-limits, and because your body might have no problem with them, OR it might have a big problem with them. Without eliminating them for a while, you’ll never know.
The key to the 30-day window is to give your body enough time to recover and heal from any reactions you may be having to foods your body doesn’t like. After that amount of time, your system has been reset and you can actually see how your body reacts to different food groups by reintroducing them one by one and seeing how you feel. (A lot of people finish up their 30 days and quickly binge on all the things they’ve been missing at once, which really, really misses the point and robs you of the magic, in my opinion.)
When I started the Whole 30 I knew that I was sick. I wouldn’t have committed to that 30 days if I had been feeling well, honestly, a lot of those off-limits food groups included my favorite things before I did the Whole 30. But I had gotten to the point that I was either sick to my stomach or battling a migraine (or both) at least four or five days a week. That’s not normal for a 25-year-old, and I was desperate to find a solution. I was certain I didn’t have any problems with gluten or dairy, since I ate yogurt basically every day and saltine crackers were my go-to when I was feeling nauseous. But I was willing to give the Whole 30 a try, and I stuck to the rules. I finished my Whole 30 in January of 2015.
I actually felt pretty terrible during the Whole 30, which I now recognize was my gut healing. It was a different kind of terrible than I was used to—instead of being physically sick, my stomach felt sort of bloated and brick-like, but I wasn’t actually getting sick anymore. By the end of the 30 days, I knew that my problem had to be food-related, because I hadn’t gone a month without being sick in over a year (and by that point the bloated, heavy, swollen feeling had subsided). I was curious to find out what the problem might be, and I followed the program’s recommendations for re-introducing food groups.
What I learned in the weeks following my Whole 30, and in the year and a half since then, is that my body does not tolerate gluten or dairy. It’s a bummer, really, because I like those foods—but feeling as great as I do now is more than worth the trade-off. I also learned that my body doesn’t always react immediately when I eat something that makes me sick—it’s not like I start feeling nauseous as soon as the meal is over, or even hours later—sometimes it’s the next meal, or even the next day when I see the real reaction. The first time I had a few pieces of toast for breakfast, nausea woke me up in the middle of the night (15 hours later) after feeling fine all day. And now, when I’ve basically eliminated gluten and dairy entirely from my diet, my stomach swells up when I eat them to the point that I look several trimesters pregnant.
For me, the Whole 30 was truly the key to identifying my food issues. In the time since I finished the program I’ve fine-tuned that knowledge and learned the hard way that I really need to stay away from my problem foods, but I never would have gotten there without Whole 30, particularly because it never would have occurred to me that the foods that were making me sick might have been foods I ate twelve hours ago, rather than the thing I just put in my mouth.
So what does all this mean for people who aren’t constantly ill or suffering from migraines or autoimmune issues? What if you feel generally ok? Here’s the answer to that: you absolutely don’t have to do the Whole 30 if you don’t want to, and I won’t even strongly encourage you to do it. But what I will tell you is that you may have symptoms of food reactions that you would never recognize if you didn’t try an elimination program. Tons of people suffer from less-than-ideal digestion (that’s why Activia sells so well) and lots more people suffer from joint pain, or skin problems, or poor sleep quality. Those things might not be caused by a food sensitivity…but they might be. And if you go 30 days on this program, you might be shocked to see improvements that you never thought were possible, and the elimination of symptoms that you never dreamed were associated with your diet. So yeah, I guess I am encouraging you to give it a try. Unless you already feel bright-eyed and bushy-tailed all day every day. Then you’re good.
And, because you probably opened this post wondering about weight loss, I did lose weight during the Whole 30, and I've kept it off since completing the program (because, for the most part, I still eat mostly protein, fruits and vegetables and limit my intake of sugar and grains). But the creators of Whole 30 insist that isn't the point of the 30 days, and I wholeheartedly agree. Seeing how great you can feel when you're well fed (and realizing how crappy you felt before without even realizing it) is far more valuable than losing a few pounds of fat. Pinky promise.