What I Learned from the Whole30 Diet
Let me start by assuring you that this isn’t one of those testimonials about how the Whole30 (or some other diet, cleanse, or food-reset program) permanently — perhaps even magically — transformed my eating habits and my relationship with my body.
Not that I’m discounting the power of these testimonials; I appreciate them and am even inclined to trust the people who write them. I sort of wish I could be one of those people. But seeing as how I sat in front of the TV eating an entire sleeve of Oreos by myself the other night (secretly justifying my behavior as “research” for writing this article), I‘m afraid I lack the necessary qualities required for said testimonial-writing.
I decided to tackle a new eating plan a little over a year ago, shortly after my second daughter turned 1. I hadn’t carried a baby inside my body for more than a year, yet my stretched-out belly still looked “pregnant” to me (and to a host of others who had asked if I was “expecting” again).
I felt unsure of how to dress or even exist in my new, rounder body. And with the stress of caring for two small children around the clock, I found myself turning to food as a source of comfort and escape. Unfortunately, the immediate comfort of overindulging in food almost always gave way to feelings of guilt and shame and a general sense of unwellness. I needed a change, a reset, a new way of relating to food and caring for my body.
Enter Whole30, described on its website as “a short-term nutrition reset, designed to help you put an end to unhealthy cravings and habits, restore a healthy metabolism, heal your digestive tract, and balance your immune system.” The program requires you to eliminate the following food groups and beverages from your diet: grains, legumes (beans and lentils), dairy, sugars (even those naturally occurring in things like honey), alcohol, and any other processed foods. No bread, no cheese, no wine, no crackers, no cookies — not even any hummus — for 30 days.
If you’re thinking, “That sounds hard,” you would be right. Parts of it were quite hard. Even though I was already a person who spent a lot of time in the kitchen and was accustomed to prioritizing fresh, healthy foods for myself and my family, the work of preparing and cooking three meals a day, every day, for a month felt overwhelming and exhausting at first. And, of course, I missed the ease and familiarity of many of the restricted foods.
There were also parts of the program, though, that were not so hard, especially as they became more a part of my routine. I learned how to be smarter and more disciplined in meal planning and grocery shopping, how to be more efficient with prepping ingredients and dressings in advance. I learned to expand my ideas about what constitutes a healthy breakfast, including leftovers from dinner the night before. I learned that vegetables can be filling and delicious, that the sweetness of spaghetti squash with meat sauce is sometimes more satisfying than a plate of pasta. I learned that sugar is shockingly addictive, and once it was out of my system for a week, I missed it less than I missed most of the other foods. I learned to enjoy a cup of cinnamon tea in the evening. Rarely was I hungry; often I felt satiated and energized.
These lessons, and others, have stayed with me well beyond the Whole30, which I did complete. At the same time, many of my previous habits around food trickled back into my lifestyle after those 30 days ended. Often over the past year, I have asked myself whether my Whole30 was successful. I am glad I did it; I gained insight and knowledge about healthy eating and what my body really needs. But many of my prior behaviors and negative attitudes about my body remain as well. Why?
The Whole30 plan addresses some reasons why the system might not work for some, and I am sure that some of those reasons apply to me. Yet I have come to suspect that the answer that I am looking for doesn’t lie on a website or in a program. It most likely lies in the very place I have been conditioned to dislike and mistrust: inside my own body.
As the wise Anne Lamott says in her latest book, Almost Everything: Notes on Hope: “There is almost nothing outside you that will help you in any kind of lasting way, unless you are waiting for a donor organ… Peace of mind is an inside job.” I’m convinced that loving your body is, too.
When I started the Whole30, I was mostly in search of a healthier relationship with my body by way of my relationship with food. I am beginning to think that I had it backward, that perhaps the only way to a healthy relationship with food is through a healthy relationship with my body.
What if instead of treating my body as a problem to be solved, I treated it as a divine gift to be appreciated? What if I learned to look for beauty in myself instead of flaws? What if I said to my body, which has run a marathon and given birth to two babies, “You are strong, you are a miracle, you are just right — not too much or too little — but just right. Thank you.”
Perhaps the more I practice loving my body — attending to its needs and hungers and appearance with compassion and patience and gentleness — the more I will be able to nourish it well.
This task of loving my body might very well include some of the lessons and practices of Whole30, but it will likely need more than that and will surely take more than 30 days — probably a lifetime. For now, I’m trying to embrace the truth that God chose to enter the human experience in a body — through his Son, Jesus — and to trust that God continues to enter the world through my body, too.