When I told friends and family I was going on the Whole30, I got mixed reactions.
“That’s so great you’ve decided to do it,” exclaimed one incredibly excited and pro-Whole30 friend. “I have a bunch of recipes you can use—but you have to prep for the whole week beforehand, or else you’ll cheat!” This interaction was followed by an email thread with the subject line “WHOLE 30 RECIPE HAUL!!!!!!”
“But you’re already skinny,” said another, less excited friend. “And it’s just another restrictive diet that demonizes food groups and could cause an eating disorder. Not a fan.”
I also got a lot of “that’s dope,” “LOL why,” and “what’s Whole30?” texts. There was no singular sense of approval or disapproval from my circle. Truthfully, more often than not this announcement was met with an air of obscure and uncertain validation of this new interest of mine, likely because many don’t know that much about Whole30 in the first place.
The Whole30 program was created in 2009 by certified sports nutritionist Melissa Hartwig. She began blogging about a dietary experiment in which she eliminated foods like dairy, sugar, grains, legumes, and other processed foods for thirty days to basically reset her body’s natural functions. That meant no cheese, no added sugar (which is literally in everything), no bread. Melissa claimed that the program helped improve her sleep and energy patterns, change her relationship with food for the better, and could even go as far as helping heal ailments and injuries just by eliminating certain food groups.
Honestly, when I first heard about the program a few years ago I thought it was a total hoax. Their claims are pretty out there, especially if you haven’t already tried eliminating certain food groups to treat ailments like acne or migraines. And they’re claiming that they can heal allergies and injuries—stuff that has been proven to be cured by actual Western medicine? It all sounded a little too far-fetched for me to believe.
And yet I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the whole program. Between the numerous testimonials on their website, the entire Reddit threads dedicated to Whole30, and the people in my life who swear by it, I had to give it a shot. I had already tried cutting out dairy to help curb my hormonal acne, and it worked. How hard could cutting out a couple more things be?
The answer: pretty freaking difficult!
For the first week, I had withdrawals from the sudden elimination of sugar. From days one to about five or six, I had a dull headache and was irritable and tired. When I asked my friends who had done Whole30 if that was normal, they confidently reassured me it was part of the process; my body had to adjust to not being reliant on the intense amount of sugar found in American food. The withdrawal-like symptoms I experienced in this first week are not unlike those of the so-called “keto flu” people get during their first week of the ketogenic diet.
Once I hit day seven, things started to look up. And to my surprise, I did start to feel the benefits of eliminating these certain foods. I felt less bloated, I was sleeping better, and walking up the stairs to get to class was suddenly a lot easier.
I did cheat, though. Three times. The first time was about two weeks in, when I snacked on two handfuls of peanut butter pretzels. I almost immediately felt nauseous after eating them. The second time was about four days later when my partner and I went out to sushi after work one night. It wasn’t completely breaking the Whole30, but I did have one of his rolls that had rice in it. I didn’t feel ill or anything after, which I mostly attribute to the amount of ginger I had eaten in an attempt to coat my newfound intolerance to processed grains. The last one was a bit more of a doozy—I went out for vegan pizza and had dairy-free ice cream on day 30. A bad idea? Yes. Even though there wasn’t any dairy in either of the meals, both had a lot of processed grain and sugar in them. As a result, the next day I felt like I had a hangover.
It’s for exactly that reason that the Whole30 program suggests slowly reintroducing certain food groups back into your diet. It’s recommended that you take each eliminated food and introduce it to your diet for three days before adding another food. I saw that rule and basically showed it my greasy middle finger. And I paid for it.
Ultimately, this diet plan isn’t for everyone—many doctors are weary of it because of the psychological impacts that food restriction can have. Doctors are also suspicious about these more far-fetched claims about what the program can cure, especially considering many of their claims aren’t actually backed by any studies.
If you do choose to go against the grain (literally and figuratively) and dive headfirst into the Whole30 program, do your research. Figure out why you truly want to do this program, and make sure to always have your vegetables washed and prepped beforehand.
Annie Walton Doyle
Ameerah de Chabert