Whole 30 is quite a popular program these days. There is much to be said for it, and many people have seen good success while using it. If you’re not familiar with the Whole 30, essentially you take 30 days and eat clean. Really clean. You will eliminate wheat, gluten, grains, dairy, sugar, soy and processed foods and additives. It’s an excellent way of eating, really. It’s very nourishing for your body and very gentle. 30 days allows your body time to eliminate toxins without having new ones being constantly added back in. It’s actually a very ideal way to eat.
However, it is also very challenging for many people. Every so often at work I am asked to lead a Whole 30 challenge. After my first one, I hesitate to do it again. People generally start full of enthusiasm and motivation, but it’s quickly thrown to the wayside and frustration sets in. I thought I would talk about Whole 30 and the things I love and the things I struggle with regarding the program.
Let’s start with the positives. It’s a great program for cleaning up your diet and your gut. Its “no-nonsense-bare-bones-let’s-get-serious” attitude is a swift kick in the pants that a lot of us need. There are no gimmicks, no food substitutes, no sales pitches. This is real food, folks. Honestly, it does not get more real than this. To me, this is by far its strongest advantage. The fact that this program is nothing but real food is refreshing, and it is something you can sustain long term. The foods you eat on the Whole 30 are available to everyone, anywhere, at anytime. It is not cost prohibitive, and there is still a great deal of flexibility in how and what you eat.
Going through the program encourages and allows you to assess food sensitivities, break unhealthy food addictions, form new habits, and normalize your taste preferences. What do I mean by this? Well, removing the common food allergen triggers gives your body a chance to calm down. The foods removed through this challenge are the notorious inflammatory producers, so once your body passes a few days without them the inflammation begins to die down. Remember our talks about inflammation? If you need a reminder, check here: http://growingtheseed.com/inflammation-and-our-health/. Many of the foods that we crave happen to be foods our body doesn’t handle well. Ironic, isn’t it? But if you find you are constantly thinking about a food (candy, cookies, salty junk food…), it’s a possibility that you may be sensitive to it. Remove it from your daily diet, and your body slowly reclaims its natural dietary needs. It’s not sidetracked by unnecessary junk foods that leave little room for the real thing. And since these negative foods are not being eaten, this means you can discover new flavors and foods. It’s amazing how wonderful food tastes when you have eliminated additives and excess amounts of sugar.
But, let’s remember that this is a “challenge.” This program is not without its caveats. The Whole 30 is an approach that yields great benefits and great results, but it is strict. Some people do very well with strong restrictions. But most of us need to ease in a little more gently. Though I have eaten this way, for the most part, for a little over six years, I definitely did it in stages. Removing all of these foods is a shock to the system. And this is a good deal of what the creators intended, but that is for physical benefit. Mentally and emotionally the shock can be very unsettling. Many people who have tried Whole 30 have succumbed to social pressures and the desire for emotional connection. And that is valid. Our need to identify and connect with our loved ones is a big deal. Radically changing our diet can be very isolating. Friends and family may be very supportive but not understand how to offer that support. This wears on our mental wellbeing over time, and this is something that should be addressed throughout the program. Aligning yourself with partners doing the challenge is one great way to bolster yourself, but perhaps ahead of the challenge strategize how you will want to handle future situations. Have a plan at the ready. Don’t allow yourself to be caught off guard.
Another complication I have witnessed with the Whole 30 is the fact that it is a 30 day challenge. It’s finite, and it’s hard. So what is our automatic response? We look for the light at the end of the tunnel, which we equate with a return to normalcy. But the intent of this program is to educate participants about their bodies, their dietary needs, and the changes they should make with regards to that. This program is actually intended to be an introduction (or a refresher) to a cleaner way of eating and living. But what I experienced in my coworkers and friends is more of a whiplash effect. The first challenge we did at work, my teammates planned a party to celebrate the end. This is a great idea! Except for the part where the party centered around all of the foods eliminated by the challenge. Even though many of them experienced weight loss, muscle gains, energy and stamina increases, and improved mental focus, they focused on getting to the finish line so they could go back to their former eating habits. And the restrictive nature of the program led to a rebound binging effect.
So I no longer really encourage a Whole 30 program, unless it’s for an individual who is close to this eating style already. I prefer a more natural progression, eliminating one or two foods at a time and sustaining that for a good while. Once that has been mastered, you can choose another one or two foods to remove. Focusing on one or two removals at a time is not only more manageable, it allows you to see the exact effect the removed food(s) was having on you. This makes a more lasting impression and inspires you to keep this change in your diet for the long haul. And of course, if you’re keeping a food journal, you would have watched the evolution of this progress and only felt more inspired to keep your food journey going.
Big success is indeed flashy and eye catching, but small wins are pretty darn satisfying and more sustaining. Keep sight of your health goals and focus on the outcome, not the path. So be all for the 30 day challenge, but make it a 30 day challenge you can succeed with. And when that 30 days is up, set yourself up for the next one! And the next, and the next, and the next. True success is a compilation of little wins and losses all along the way. Keep that in mind, and remember that anytime you walk away knowing a little more about yourself than before, you have already won.