Following my father’s cancer diagnosis, an overworked quarter working in the digital news spectrum, and the aftermath of a could-be love affair turned sour, I no longer recognized my own reflection. During this dark period, I put on quite a bit of weight, using food as cushion and comfort, my safe escape from it all. I wasn’t myself, I had no energy, and I felt uncomfortable nearly all the time. But after a tough talk with my mom who gently expressed her concern, I knew my diet needed to shape up. Not only had I let my eating habits fall to the wayside, but I hadn’t worked out in months. I needed a change.
So when my then-roommate suggested completing a round of Whole30 together, promising to rid me of my late-night binges and snack attacks, I jumped on the opportunity. It was the kick I needed to get back on track and feel better about myself. Nearly four years later, many of the Whole30 lessons and principles I gained impact my now-daily diet. It’s not possible for me to currently stick to the super-strict regimen 24/7. But the process of cleansing my body of what it didn’t react well to proved meaningful in the long-term, especially once I realized how much better I felt—and yep, looked—when I made smarter, healthier decisions. Here’s how Whole30 changed my approach to food, forever.
I don’t have unrequited love affairs with foods.
As the name suggests, when you try Whole30, you cut out specific food items for 30 days. These include dairy, gluten, refined or added sugar, legumes, and alcohol. You’re left with non-GMO foods, lean meats, vegetables, some nuts, and some small servings of fruit. I won’t lie: the first week felt a lot like torture. I battled incessant hunger and headaches while my system detoxed. But it gets easier as your body adjusts. Soon, you just start to feel better from the inside out.
Once you’ve made it through the month, you gradually add these groups in one by one, allowing your body to acclimate slowly. The first time I completed Whole30, I added back wine first—and all was well. Then I nibbled on freshly-baked, gluten-filled bread. That turned out fine, too. But when I had dairy for the first time again, I actually became sick for a few hours.
Since then, I haven’t dared to drink milk, and I vastly limit my intake of cheese or other dairy products. Though it was difficult to walk away from my love affair with ice cream, the difference in my skin and my digestive track is immense. I apply this mentality to any new food I consume (and ahem, to men I date). If it doesn’t love me, I don’t give it any more attention or thought—or another bite.
I feel better when I eat well.
I’ve learned to base my dietary decisions on how I feel, not how they’ll affect my weight. The times when I overindulge in not-so-great foods, I find myself losing control over my eating habits, growing gradually hungrier for unhealthy dishes. This causes me to make up an excuse to skip a workout, bail on friends, or even snooze my first alarm in the morning. If I’m not eating well, it seems to leak into every other facet of my life, too.
During each of my three rounds of Whole30, I experienced an impressive surge of energy. I slept more soundly, pushed myself harder in fitness classes, and felt a stronger sense of self and happiness. Even though I don’t adhere to every rule from the Whole30 guidebook, I remind myself that what I eat directly impacts my mood and my productivity.
I don’t have to cook boring dishes to feel fulfilled.
The first time I completed a round of Whole30 was in the dead of winter in New York City. It snowed nearly every single day, encouraging me to purchase more groceries and hole up inside with my pup. At the time I dreaded seeing another below-zero weather forecast. But, in hindsight, the freezing temperatures made me more creative in the kitchen. When you’re limited to specific ingredients for 30 days, you have to figure out ways to spice up and elevate every meal.
Before this experience, I always found ‘eating clean’ to be a boring task. Now, when I prepare nutritional meals for myself, I’m often amazed at how satisfying they can be, even without any of the gluttonous elements. I’ve become a master at gluten-free, dairy-free Shepard’s pie and pizzas, breakfast spreads that leave you full for hours, and creative salads with a cornucopia of seasonal fresh fruits and veggies. In fact, my meals have even impressed my friends who had their doubts about Whole30. Hands down: Healthy food doesn’t have to be boring.
I don’t have to be perfect to stay healthy and fit.
Though the last year has been a bit of a wash because I’ve been traveling for 11 months—I still tend to make healthier picks from every corner of the world, thanks to Whole30. When I’m in a more consistent place, I adhere to the 80/20 rule. I give myself room to drink and splurge for nights out, celebrations or, well, when I just want to. Because I’m much more secure in my ability to lead a healthy life, I don’t pressure myself to be perfect. And if I have some pasta, an oversized cookie, or one-too-many margs, I don’t beat myself up about it. I know I have the tools to always get back on track.
Like many folks who sing the praises of Whole30, I tried a lot of crash diets before landing on this lifestyle. And that’s exactly what it is: a lifestyle, not a diet. Because fad crazes tend to burn out, the goal of Whole30 is to teach principles and nutritional standards that carry throughout your normal routine. For me, the program’s greatest gift was more confidence in my health, my food choices, and myself. Whole30 provides the groundwork—your determination to feel better, stronger and happier is what pushes you to the finish line.