The Extreme Diet I Would Do Again — & Again

whole30_challange_slide1_annaIllustrated by Anna Sudit.
The first time I heard of Whole30, I thought it sounded awful. It's like Paleo, but worse: harder, stricter, more exact. It's only meant to last 30 days, but that’s 30 days of "no." No added sugar, no grains, no dairy, no legumes, no white potatoes, no alcohol, no processed food, and no cheating. It's 30 days of nothing but organic meat, eggs, vegetables, fruit, nuts, and seeds. I didn't think I could do it — and that's exactly why I wanted to.
I’ve never been good at saying no to food. Snacks call out to me; leftovers taunt me. And, if candy and I are both in my apartment, one of us must go. Self-control, I always thought, was for other people — people who let logic trump emotion, who successfully create and follow to-do lists, and who do not leave nail polish on until it just grows off. But, I had already given up processed sugar and gluten a few months prior, and the benefits were obvious. I was sleeping more soundly and waking up more easily. PMS symptoms had become nearly extinct, and my skin took on a whole new clarity. I wanted to see what more I could do. How much better could I feel? What else could I deny myself?
Ask the Internet these questions, and it will lead you to the door of Whole30. The detox diet was created by a trainer and a nutritionist duo, Dallas and Melissa Hartwig, and was made famous by social media. It promises to not only jump-start healthy eating, but also to change your mind, your body, and your life. Forever gullible when it comes to such unrepentant optimism, my mind, my body, and my life were all intrigued. Plus, the Whole30 site is full of promise but also no-nonsense — sort of like how goop might sound if Gwyneth Paltrow were writing it from prison.
But, all that fervor serves a purpose: to get you to on board, completely and fully. Because, once you start, nothing is to interfere with you and Whole30. There is no tasting or testing or trying "just one" of something. A zero-tolerance policy is in effect. If you do slip up, you're supposed to go back to day one. Because — and this is what no one will tell you up-front — Whole30 is actually a high-stakes game of Chutes and Ladders.
Shira Lenchewski, an NYC/L.A.-based nutritionist, says there are benefits to a back-to-basics diet like Whole30, but she questions its restrictive nature. "When clients are looking to jump-start a healthy routine," she explains, "I often recommend eliminating inflammatory foods: added sugar (which often creeps in as evaporated cane juice), gluten, and refined carbohydrates (like white potatoes and white rice), alcohol, and processed food. I don’t, on the other hand, recommend giving up legumes, Greek yogurt and yogurt cheese, or gluten-free whole grains like certified gluten-free oats, quinoa, and brown rice." None of these, however, are permitted during Whole30.
Luckily, the better your diet, the easier the transition to Whole30. Or, at least that's what its site tells you. I was still off gluten when I began, but I had slipped back into sugar. And, in my days leading up to Whole30, anything could (and did) happen: chocolate, ice cream, frosting on a fork — my own little sugar rumspringa, before I took my virtuous-eating vows. And for that I paid.
It was like babysitting a two-year-old at first. Every other minute, I had to tell myself "no." No, I could not touch those chocolate-covered, salted almonds. No, I could not eat that gluten-free cereal. And, no, almond milk (which Whole30 considers "too processed," unless you plan on making it yourself) does not make a latte okay. But, each day got easier, and by the end of the week I was in — a believer, a black-coffee drinker.
whole30_challange_slide2_annaIllustrated by Anna Sudit.
It required a lot of planning and even more money. But, I already had a bad Seamless habit before I started Whole30, so I figured it would all even out. I had to make two to three trips to Whole Foods per week to keep up, and I quickly became one of its most insufferable customers. Carefully combing through the aisles, I deemed things such as local, non-organic produce and all-natural, antibiotic-free meat not good enough. I can even tell you, with great confidence, that at the Whole Foods in Brooklyn, every single type of bacon — even the artisanal ones that look like they're from a pig that was alive and well this morning — has some sort of sugar in it.
I never caved on sugar-laden bacon, but I did succumb to antibiotic-free chicken that wasn't organic. Even Whole30 concedes to a good-better-best system when choosing food. Lenchewski agrees organic is best, but doesn't think you need to eat it 100% of the time. "If you can’t go all the way, I recommend spending the money on organic produce with edible or thin skins, like apples, berries, spinach, lettuce, kale, cucumbers, and bell peppers," she said. "It’s also worth checking out the Environmental Working Group’s website, which publishes its annual Dirty Dozen that identifies the fruits and veggies with the highest ranking in pesticide residue."
While so many things are off-limits on Whole30, nothing is worse than sipping seltzer and lime when your friends are drinking cocktails. I found myself leaving gatherings early, tired when not buzzed — and I skipped one barbecue altogether because I didn't want confront the things I couldn't have. But, I was not perfect. A smoothie addiction formed, and while the ones I ordered were technically Whole30-approved, they all were made with fruit, which the diet indicates should be moderated. I also learned to (sort of) make Seamless work for Whole30, but it led to several questionable choices and a few tiny cheats.
I did not start over, though. Not when I accidentally ate a burger that was "grain-finished." Not when I purposely dipped chicken in chipotle mayonnaise, which was surely made of canola oil and dotted with sugar. And, not when I did it again the next day. Whole30 says one slip can undo it all, but I just can't go that far. My experience might've been better if I had been better, but it was still good. A high, really. A good high.
Within a week, I felt the benefits: a heightened version of what I experienced when I gave up gluten and sugar. Every morning, I woke up, wide awake, like I had emerged from the longest, deepest sleep. My concentration level was high. My energy was even. And, my skin had magical healing powers: A patch of stubborn eczema disappeared in days, and red bumps that had annoyed my arms forever — keratosis pilaris, I later learned — faded into nothing. And, my clothes got bigger. (I don't know how much weight I lost exactly, but it was probably more than five pounds and less than 10). By the end, I was calm, focused, and happy. It was disturbing.
It's easy to be cheerful when food no longer has a hold on you. It took up no real estate in my mind. I ate when I was hungry; I stopped when I was full. Food and me were good. So good, I started to question moderation. Is everything really better in it? Or, is that just an idiom that won't quit? I wanted an expert to agree with me, but Lenchewski would not.
whole30_challange_slide3_annaIllustrated by Anna Sudit.
"Abstinence is generally easier than moderation in the short term. But, I don’t believe super-restrictive diets are sustainable; [they] can lend themselves to bingeing" she said. "It all comes down to learning how to trust yourself around food. Building that trust can take time. But, it is possible and, in my opinion, worth it."
Trusting food is a real thing — one that needs to go mainstream. When I first stopped Whole30, I was terrified of the freedom. I did not trust myself to have one thing without wanting everything. But, slowly I attempted life as a part-time Whole30-er, getting on and off the diet like it was some terrible tour bus. And, nothing has been harder than that.
Still, my relationship with food has changed for the better. It's hard to keep eating things that make you feel terrible. Sugar gives me a headache. Gluten casts a flu-like spell. And, the other day, I was eating tortilla chips when one leaned in and told me it hated me. So, why eat it? Why eat anything that does more harm than good? When you view food like that, it becomes easier to say no. After all, it's not restrictive if you never wanted it in the first place.

More from Diet & Nutrition

R29 Original Series