Look hard enough at any diet plan, and its true motive becomes clear. Is it trying to sell you manuals and seminars on how to adhere to the lifestyle? Or maybe it’s hawking snack bars and pre-packaged dinners that fall into their narrow definition of a square meal? Or, in the case of Whole30 (whose popularity has grown since its 2009 inception), is it trying to sell you the lifestyle itself—the whole kit and caboodle of self-denial that at its best can help you achieve personal health goals, but at its worst can turn you into a dietary evangelist, striking down all added sugars that cross your path in the name of the Clean Eating gods?
It’s been a year since I spent 30 days on the plan designed to “transform your health” by removing alcohol, added sugars, grains, legumes, dairy, or anything processed. As a veteran (or victim?) of programs like Atkins and Weight Watchers, I went into Whole30 with my eyes wide open: skeptical, but curious about its potential benefits. Having spent 12 months reflecting on the diet, and being that person who sends long e-mails full of advice to anyone considering it, I offer you the takeaways from my month in culinary exile.
It begins, naturally, with the don’ts:
Don’t read the comments. There’s very little of value that you can glean from Whole30 forums, which tend to attract the most hardline and scolding adherents. These people have been known to gang up on newbies not just for eating fruit, but for craving sweet foods at all. (Fruit is perfectly allowed on Whole30; these disciples just think that craving anything sweet denotes weakness.) If you’re seeking internet resources about the diet, just read this, and avoid the sermons of random posters. You have to wonder about anyone who chooses their diet plan based on how much sanctimony it affords them. On that note...
Don’t believe your own hype. Stay humble. You’re eating veggies for a month, not joining a monastery. The moment you think of Whole30 as a “cleaner” or “better” way to live, you’ve set up a dangerous precedent to judge other people for their food choices—and you’ve laid the groundwork for feeling bad about yourself when you inevitably start craving the junk foods of yore. If this were an empirically ideal diet, its goalposts wouldn’t have moved so much over the years. Case in point: the addition of white potatoes to the list of acceptable foods after years of haranguing from grouchy dieters. The Whole30 team, like a beleaguered mom, is just trying to balance people’s favorite foods with healthy ones. There’s no perfect system out there.
Don’t go into this expecting to lose weight. I don’t own a scale and generally think that weighing oneself with any regularity is worthless, and while you might fiercely disagree with me (which is fine!), ditching the scale on Whole30 is a must. It’s really about how your body feels as it moves throughout the day, rather than the digital readout at the start or end of a day. If you commit to the initial few days of headaches and fatigue and cravings, you might as well do it for something more intrinsic than a number only you can see.
Don’t live for Whole30. This is not a lifestyle! Contrary to what the forums would have you believe, I can’t imagine that this diet in its purest, strictest form would be a healthy (or remotely sociable) way to live. Use it instead as a way to gain a “clean slate,” then add back in whatever foods make you feel good. It’s a reset button, not a religion.
After all that, there are in fact some “do’s,” or recommendations for making this an interesting and worthwhile endeavor (because I can’t bring myself to call it a “journey”):
Listen to your body. Whole30, for all its restrictions, really does open up the line of communication between the stomach and the brain. By cutting down on all the usual “noise” inside the gut—which is usually kept busy with metabolizing booze, digesting dairy, and figuring out what the hell to do with Sour Patch Kids—it’s easier to decide how you really feel after a meal. Are you satiated? Are you craving sweets out of hunger or boredom or habit? Giving your body a month to work with limited input lets you investigate your relationships with all types of food.
Plan for a relatively antisocial month. I chose April, a month in which absolutely nothing interesting or fun happens. It worked great. Set yourself up for success by positioning your 30 days as far from holidays as possible. Don’t trust that you can go to a restaurant and tailor your order to be Whole30 compliant. You cannot! Sticking close to home will temper cravings and eschew temptations. If you’re seeing friends, maybe offer to cook a meal at your place. (Personally, I’d rather crawl into a hole and die than ask someone to show me the ingredient label on their salad dressing, but everyone’s different.)
Stay conscious of all the little advantages. Once you make it over the first week’s hump—headaches, fatigue, the mental recalibration of how to de-stress without pinot noir—you’ll begin to notice neat little benefits everywhere. Without the evening sugar rush of dessert or cocktails, my sleep patterns evened out beautifully. Advance meal planning consolidated a week’s worth of food decisions into a single day, and took away the daily stress of thinking about what to eat (and the rhetorical gymnastics of justifying the junk I wanted to eat). I got grocery trips down to a tight seven minutes, picking up only those foods I knew to be Whole30-compliant. Best of all, when you eliminate added sugars, your remaining snacks really step up their game: vegetables, I was delighted to find, become sweeter. Carrots are like carrot cake! Red Bell peppers are your Red Vines! Taken together, all these advantages made it feel possible to orchestrate significant change inside my own body, and I didn’t regret my month of militancy for a moment.
That’s the biggest takeaway of all, I think: You probably won’t regret it. If you schedule it well and commit yourself to seeing how those four weeks feel, you’ll be left with at least a handful of interesting data on the only body you’ll ever own. But this is all merely a pep talk for the already curious. If you are instead someone who spots a Whole30 cookbook at Barnes & Noble and wonders what kind of weirdo would do this, then this is all to say I am that weirdo, and if I’m ever conspicuously absent from your life for a few weeks, you should know it’s just because I’m sparing you my tedious questions about salad dressing.