October 8, 2015

My Whole30 Odyssey: I ate real food for 30 days; here's what happened.

Have you ever been in a relationship that makes you miserable, in which you consistently make terrible choices, but you're unable to detach because I love him! or She's my best friend! - and then you finally take some time apart, see the situation with clarity, and realize you were being a fool?

Do you ever run so many programs on your computer that it starts slowing down, crashing, whirring, and the only solution is to hold down the power button, wait a long minute, and start fresh?

These two metaphors come to mind as I reflect on the last month. My toxic relationship was with food, and my body was the tired computer that needed a hard reboot.

I had gained 20 pounds in 6 months. Some of it was residue of a fun summer of travel and socializing. Some of it was due to mindless snacking and joyless overeating. All of it combined to make me feel tired, run-down, and defeated. I wanted someone to tell me exactly what to do, and so I turned to this program I'd heard rave reviews about.

What I Did
I bought the book "It Starts With Food" and followed the Whole30 program for a month: Plenty of vegetables and protein at every meal, with some fruit, nuts, and healthy fats. No sugar, artificial sweeteners, grain, dairy, legumes, alcohol, or heavily processed foods. 

I snacked a little bit more than the plan recommended, I once bought bacon with a trace of sugar in it (because the only compliant bacon is sold at Whole Foods 20 miles away), and I checked my weight occasionally, but otherwise I followed the program as written. 

For 30 days, I cooked almost all of our meals from scratch. I tried new recipes and some familiar favorites, and I kept them organized on a Pinterest board. I made dinners big enough to create leftovers for lunches. The slow cooker got a steady workout, the dishwasher was running almost constantly, and I upgraded our frying pans midway through.

Breakfast veggies!

It was occasionally tiring, and there were a few nights when we "gave up" and bought a pre-cooked rotisserie chicken from the grocery store (check the label for sugar!), but mostly, cooking from scratch was incredibly satisfying. I learned some fun new techniques like spiralizing zucchini, clarifying butter, and making homemade chicken broth. I learned to enjoy vegetables with my breakfast, and I discovered that I like avocado.

I eased up on running, which had been my primary exercise throughout the spring and summer, and instead began going for evening walks in my neighborhood. It sounds counter-intuitive, but I had heard enough about running and stress hormones to try a different approach. I also went to my gym once or twice a week for strength training or group classes.

Sam followed the program with me, which was huge. His support and stubbornness were major components of our success. Quitting was not an option. 

I also have an online support group, run by my friend Amy at Giveme90, who eats like this every day and looks fabulous. A couple of friends texted with me for support and commiseration. I followed Whole30 groups on Facebook and Reddit for recipes and inspiration. These online support groups helped mitigate the feeling of isolation I sometimes experienced in the "real" world, where I felt self-conscious about the fact that I wasn't eating the same food as everyone else.

How Difficult Was It?
Physically, the first four days were the hardest. I experienced headaches and near-obsessive cravings for the foods I had given up, mostly sweets. On the fifth day, I woke up feeling healthy and cheerful, and my body began to thank me for the changes.

After that initial detox, the biggest challenges were social, not physical. The world I live in is not Whole30 compliant: Donuts in the break room. Popcorn at the movies. Entire restaurants with no valid choices on the menu. I found myself becoming a bit of a control freak, counter to my normally easygoing nature. I insisted on choosing the restaurant when my coworkers went out for lunch, I negotiated my friend's dinner invitation into an outing at the amusement park, I asked the priest for a gluten-free wafer instead of communion bread. None of these were a big deal, but they were big for me. I'm a Minnesotan, pathologically afraid of inconveniencing other people.

The Numerical Results
I lost 22 pounds in 30 days. I lost 2.5" each from my waist and hips, and 5" from my bust (womp womp). Six months of weight gain is gone, and I can fit back into my regular clothes.

The Non-Scale Victories (NSVs)
My complexion has changed. My skin feels clearer, smoother, and brighter. I took this selfie on my way home from work Friday after I looked in the rear view mirror of my car and was surprised by my own face. Normally, I look 10 years older at the end of a busy week.

I promise I wasn't driving at the time.

I found myself smiling more and often feeling overcome with the joy and beauty of simply being alive. It's a quiet joy, a sense of well-being that feels natural despite its novelty, like perhaps this is how it feels to have one's hormones in balance and to experience the world as it is meant to be. This feeling is the strongest when I'm out in nature, but it follows me. My energy level is consistent, with no post-lunch crashes or late-night second winds. I'm waking up refreshed and energized, except after the occasional nights when I didn't get enough sleep; I can trust my body to accurately tell me when it needs rest.

I can also trust my body's hunger signals. I had been eating for so many reasons that had nothing to do with nutrition - pleasure, boredom, social norms, procrastination, habit - that I had lost touch with my own feelings of hunger and satiety.

What Now?
I'm going to slowly reintroduce some of the foods I've avoided, starting with this cup of coffee with cream.

I missed you, cream. Artificial sweetener, you can stay lost.

If I still feel good eating dairy, I'll try bringing some grain back into my life this weekend. Also, wine.

The Whole30 program is too strict to be sustainable long-term, but I want to keep many of my new habits. LaCroix instead of diet soda. A fridge packed with fresh vegetables. That tandoori chicken recipe. This sense of wellness and strength.

Honestly, I'm a little unsure of my footing, like a single cookie might send me hurtling off a cliff and back into the shame spiral of overeating and weight gain. This is when I remind  myself that I just did a hard thing. I can do other hard things, like stopping at one slice of pizza or saying "No thank you" to the cookies at a work meeting.

It was only 30 days, but I plan to carry this experience forward for many days to come.

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