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Fad diets with celebrity endorsements and cult followings are as common as Instagram models, saturating our culture in weight-focused “wellness.” With so many to choose from, and so many being bogus or even harmful, it can be incredibly frustrating to navigate the weight loss scene. As someone who adores food (I would happily label myself a Foodie in an unironic way), all of these diets seemed too restrictive, and simply not for me. That being said, I decided to jump into the world of diet culture and do the hard work for you! In this review, I will take a look at the Whole 30 nutrition plan, and take you step by step through my 30-day journey, even the painful beginnings.
First off, what is Whole 30?
Whole 30 is a nutrition plan made by a husband and wife team who wanted to cultivate a way of eating that could be long term and beneficial in many ways. They don’t promise that you will lose x amount of pounds or inches, they only claim that this program will change your life. Clearly, that is still a lofty promise. The way this program works is that for a solid month I will only be eating proteins, fruits, and veggies. This means that I cannot eat any grains, legumes, dairy, processed foods, or any food with added sugar. The purpose of Whole 30 is to immediately detox on sugar, so even natural sugar like cane sugar, maple syrup, and honey are off limits. After the first month, I can slowly reintegrate some grains and dairy back into my diet, but processed foods and sugar should be out of my system by the end of the 30 days, and I should work to keep it that way going forward.
Why Whole 30?
Due to some mild medical problems, my doctors have been urging me to make a nutritional change for a while now, and after looking over all of the options, this program seemed like the one that was the most geared towards long-term success rather than fast, but not permanent, weight loss. I also liked that for the duration of this program you are not allowed to weigh or measure yourself at all, and there are no counting calories or restricting how much or when I eat. It’s all about food groups, and the quality of the food that I am putting in my body, which is something I can get behind!
My Journey to Wellness
The beginning of my journey was almost all prep work. I went to the grocery store, and stocked up on plain nuts, fruit, salad, chicken, and frozen veggies. With this new variety of groceries now in my possession, I went home to clean out my fridge and cabinets of potential cheat foods. In the fridge, I hid away all the condiments and other items that would last 30 days in the bottom bins of my fridge. I threw out or donated all my dairy products, and any bread that wasn’t going to keep. In the cabinets, I put all my crackers, soups, baking supplies, and pasta into a box that I labeled “Food Jail”. Next, I went through my spice rack and placed anything with sugar in it into food jail as well. I was actually shocked at how much of my food contained sugar, I had no idea canned soups had so much!
I was really excited to start my day with one boiled egg, a bag of nuts, and a banana. However, lunch was not as great as I had only brought a salad with asparagus, and no protein. I quickly learned that if I was going to survive this plan without my stomach growling all day, I would need to add more protein into my diet. Day 2 also brought on massive headaches from the sugar detox. The Whole 30 website warned that sugar withdrawals would not be easy, and my training in neurobiology has taught me that the brain views sugar as a hard drug. However, I was still not prepared for the absolute weight of the sugar cravings right away. It was almost a visceral need for chocolate.
The sugar detox seems to have moved into a new phase where I am really sweaty, and still having mild headaches, but the cravings for sugar are not nearly as bad as they were yesterday. I came more prepared with chicken on my salad for lunch, and that seems to have filled me up a lot more effectively. I am actually starting to notice some good things about my body as well. My stomach feels less bloated than usual, perhaps there is something to this sugar-free diet after all?
This was my first attempt at a Saturday, I even decided to torture myself by going out to eat at a restaurant with friends. I am not going to lie to you, this was probably not a good move. I almost broke down into tears at the sight of all the items on the menu that I could not order (something I would like to blame on the sugar detox, and not my own fragile emotional state…). However, it was completely doable. I ordered a steak and dutifully ignored the bread basket as I angrily chomped on ice from my water glass. I think the lesson here was not to bring an addict right into a dispensary, but I ultimately was able to stay strong with the help and support of good friends.
The headaches and sweats are completely gone now. The meal prep bug has bitten me hard though. I have been searching recipes and making full use of my crock pot all Sunday. I made my own pasta sauce, spaghetti squash (which I am happy to report makes a good breakfast with a fried egg over it too), browned up chicken sausage, boiled batches of eggs, and even a pot roast. All of which are now residing safely in my fridge ready to be my lunches and breakfasts for the week. I think my future self will thank me. I’m not sure where all this energy is coming from, but I like it.
To my surprise, the cravings are starting to pass. I walked past a Dunkins on this fine Monday morning to find myself not in a foul mood, craving iced coffee with 12 pumps of syrup, but with a little pep in my step as I breezed right past. I am actually excited to eat all the home cooked foods I packed for myself today which is pretty unusual. I hope this trend continues as well as this nice burst of energy I’ve found. That’s not to say I’m not a little sleepy, but it’s not a Monday blues type of I’d-rather-be-dead exhaustion, more of an it-would-be-nice-if-I-could-sleep-another-hour type of sleepy. As the day went on I found myself pleasantly full after lunch, I didn’t eat a single afternoon snack I packed, and I was able to get home and make chili lime shrimp with sautéed shishito peppers and mushrooms (the best dinner I have made yet).
I’ve been told time and time again that the first week is the hardest, so I have officially passed my first major milestone. That being said, I woke up this morning sick as a dog. My stomach is all out of whack. I’m not sure if my body isn’t used to processing this much protein, or if this is still some side effect of the sugar detox, but I am very uncomfortable and have been getting ill all morning. I took some time this morning, between getting sick and rushing to work, to stand in front of the mirror. I certainly don't notice any changes but I am still feeling good about this plan.
This week started with a bit of a scare, because I started to get lazy and apparently the fruit that I was living off of was not enough calories to sustain my body, and I got really faint and weak. While this is mostly my fault, it also highlights my earlier point of how diets can be really dangerous if you aren’t careful. I started tracking my calorie intake with an app to help me see if I am eating enough calories throughout the day. This week has been a roller coaster between wanting to quit and being really down about this diet, and feeling full of energy and wanting to keep going. I will say, I am learning so much about my body and the foods that successfully fuel it. I don’t think I ever put any thought into the kinds of foods that would give me the most energy or the kinds of foods that really make me feel full. If this is all I take away from this month, then I think I have gained some insight into myself! On the cravings front, I am no longer dreaming of chocolate, now it is a hardcore craving for cheese. This cheese cravings are giving me pretty serious depression. I knew cheese made me happy, but I hadn’t realized the opposite would also be true.
Three words: vegan cream cheese. While this may not be fully in the spirit of Whole 30, I needed to find some kind of acceptable cheese-like substitute before I completely lost my tenuous grip on sanity. Most vegan cheese is actually made up of hard to pronounce chemicals and soy proteins which are a no-no on Whole 30, however, Kite Hill vegan chive cream cheese has been my one saving grace. Not only is it made up of only a handful of ingredients (that are all allowed on Whole 30), but the chive flavor actually covers up the lingering taste of almonds, which makes it taste even more like real cream cheese. I have been making lettuce wrap burgers, BLTs, and other creative ‘sandwiches’ with my new found love (Kite Hill), and they have been curing my depression big time. Since my mood has mostly returned to normal I have a feeling that I will be able to crush my last week, and continue being really successful on this nutrition plan.
Going out to eat continues to be the absolute worst. When I go to my favorite places I want to eat the dishes that I normally associate with that restaurant, like their pizza or pasta, or whatever cheesy carby thing I can’t have. Eating dinner at home is much easier, because I am limited to the approved ingredients that I have in my fridge. I have gotten a system down of making fast, easy chicken burgers over mashed potatoes for the past week. While some people might consider this repetitive, I am seeing it as a nice, easy way to not have to put any thought or much prep time into my dinner. I also finally sprang for some expensive Whole 30 approved mayo from Primal Kitchen. While I did not want to cave and spend this much for a single small jar of mayo, it has really made me happy and been a good addition to my lazy chicken burger meals. I have noticed a shift when I am grocery shopping too, I am already geared towards filling my freezer with chicken and chicken products (like my burgers) and I can see myself continuing this trend in the future. I didn’t even realize how devoid of protein my normal eating was pre-Whole 30. I will say this diet has definitely revolutionized my eating, and changed the way I look at food. As far as weight loss goes, we will have to see, I’m still not feeling much different, but there are some small changes that I might be seeing in the mirror? Or maybe it’s just me wishing for changes, who knows.
I cannot believe I did it. I survived 30 days with no pizza, no bread, no hummus, no cookies, no pasta, and no quesadillas. But I made some pretty cool and fun recipes that I will keep in my back pocket. I learned a lot about my eating habits and gained some really good new habits like eating protein at every meal. The real moment of truth for me was waking up this morning and getting on that scale for the first time in 30 days. So what did I find? Drum roll, please... I am down 11 pounds. I honestly did not expect that at all. While I am proud of the weight loss, I am more proud of my new eating habits and my will power!
Next Steps for Me
The next step of Whole 30 is to slowly start adding in some of the food groups that were off limits during the 30 days. This is actually a super important step, because you can test each food group one by one, and see how it impacts your body. For example, if I try to put black beans back in and I get super bloated and sick then this is a sign that my body doesn’t want black beans anymore, and I should avoid that food going forward. There is a set pattern for how you should add back in food groups, but I might switch some of them around to get back to my favorite foods faster, like cheese.
Do I recommend this diet after going through the initial 30 days?
This is the section that I’m sure everyone really came here for, and I will tell you: it really depends. If you are just looking for something to lose a little weight without putting in any kind of effort then this honestly might not be for you. If you are looking to completely overhaul your diet for health reasons like I have, or just for personal reasons, then this is certainly a comprehensive plan to fully detox from all the negative ingredients and mindless eating practices so commonly associated with the American diet.
This diet takes work, it takes a lot of thought and preplanning. If you are a hardcore foodie, and food is the one thing that really fills the emotional void of your depression, then be prepared for some really nasty downward spirals. There were certainly times on this diet that I was so mad about not being able to get a pizza that I would rather have gone to bed without eating than eat more baked chicken. If you have serious food anxiety, or have struggled with an eating disorder, I would not recommend this diet to you, because it does require a lot of vigilance which can activate old anxieties. It also stirred up some of my old body dysmorphia, while I spent time staring at myself in a mirror feeling like not a single thing had changed.
Ultimately, I proved that your average Joe can do it. Was it worth it? For my health, yes. For my mental health, maybe not as much. But I did walk away with a lot of new information about how my body reacts to different foods, and what foods I should continue eating going forward, which is amazing and life-changing, to say the least. I would say the diet followed through on its promise, and I am feeling really good about my new found health and nutrition, so take that for what you will.