As a self-proclaimed health nut and the resident super-healthy black sheep of my family and friends, I’ve been known to squeeze in workouts on vacations and pass on pizza for salad. I love high-intensity workouts like CrossFit and if I’m going to do yoga, it’s going to be hot. I’ve been reading nutrition labels since high school, and though I’ve had plenty of slack moments (like all of college…), I’ve found a healthy balance by living without strict rules and eating a variety of carbs, fats, and proteins to feel good.
That’s why, when I first heard that my parents (ironically) were following Whole30—a 30-day eating plan that forces you to get back to healthy basics by eliminating sugar, alcohol, dairy, grains, legumes, preservatives, and processed foods and snacks—I didn’t think it was for me. I didn’t need a hard reset or rules. My diet was already healthy!
But when I visited home for the holidays, my attitude shifted. Having just completed their 30 days, my parents buzzed with enthusiasm and filled our meals with ‘compliant’ (a ubiquitous term for things you actually can eat on Whole30) foods. I was intrigued—and after my own 10-day stretch of indulging on holiday treats, I felt compelled to give it a shot.
Along with a small crew of friends and co-workers, I decided to go for it—and to say the next 30 days surprised me would be an understatement. Here are the five lessons I learned:
1. I hadn’t been eating as many whole foods as I thought I was…
As a self-proclaimed kale enthusiast (seriously, my boyfriend sometimes calls me ‘KALEsy’), I thought my vegetable and fruit consumption was in pretty good shape. When I started Whole30, though, I realized that I often sacrificed roughage in favor of protein. And I’m not just talking about swapping out greens for lean meat, but for a sugary protein bar or shake.
Before Whole30, I’d typically start the day with a bowl of oatmeal with protein powder stirred in, eat last night’s dinner leftovers for lunch, snack on a protein bar, yogurt, or protein shake, and then have a serving of meat with a grain and a veggie for dinner. All-in-all not unhealthy, but without grains, dairy, and packaged protein products, I had a lot of gaps to fill once I started Whole30.
Throughout those 30 days, I’d have eggs scrambled with kale, peppers, and onions for breakfast, a large salad with a serving of meat for lunch, nuts, fruit, or a ‘compliant’ bar (like an RXBAR or an Epic Bar) for snacks, and a serving of meat with a double helping of veggies for dinner.
With fruits and veggies now front and center, I was forced to try a wider variety of produce and different ways of making them, just to keep things interesting. I found a lot of new go-to’s, including a sweet potato soup (I used butternut squash instead) from The Whole30 Cookbook, which has become one of my all-time favorite sides. It added a nice sweet element to my mostly-savory meals and kept well in the fridge, so I could spoon it out all week long.
2. Sugar is in EVERYTHING.
This is another lesson that falls into the ‘what I thought I knew’ category. I knew sugar was hidden in most foods—I’d even written articles about it myself! But Whole30 taught me that knowing added sugar exists and living added sugar-free are two totally different monsters.
Once I started really combing through the nutrition labels on everything I bought at the grocery store, I realized just how sneaky added sugar could be. After all, it goes by more than 50 names other than just ‘sugar’! At first, determining whether a food contained sugar and finding Whole30-compliant alternatives took a long time—but it fortunately grew much easier with practice. Thirty days later, I’m basically a sugar-molecule sharp shooter.
Eliminating these secretly-sugary foods was a lot of work. At first I found myself reaching for RXBARs or Lara Bars to satisfy my sugar cravings, but the point of Whole30 is to break the habit itself, so I dug my heels in and tried to avoid using these ‘compliant’ foods as a crutch. Cutting out sugar was by far the hardest part of Whole30, but the farther in I got, the more I noticed and appreciated the natural sugars in fruits and vegetables. I couldn’t believe how sweet a cherry tomato tasted by the end of it!
3. My social life revolves around food.
It’s reality: A lot of socializing happens over food and drink. But on Whole30, birthday parties, date night dinners, and even happy hours became impossible trap-filled nightmares. And while some people are able to make it work—passing up on cake and cocktails, ordering very, very carefully at restaurants, and bringing their own food to get-togethers—I found it much easier to just avoid going out.
If that sounds lame, well, that’s because it was! To avoid completely dropping off the face of the earth, I scheduled workout classes or coffee dates with friends who weren’t on the Whole30 train. But after spending a lot of time (and money) traveling to see friends and family in the months before my Whole30, I was more than happy to take a few weekends off and just rest.
4. It takes a village to be healthy.
It may have been for lack of better things to talk about (see above about my rather nonexistent social life), but I talked about Whole30 to anyone who would listen. I even dreamed about it sometimes.
My boyfriend and I got truly excited to plan which cool new recipe to make over the weekend, and our indulgence became finding more elaborate dishes, like Chicken Cacciatore or that homemade butternut squash soup I mentioned earlier.
My coworkers and I traded tips for fighting cravings, and I chatted with friends about new compliant packaged foods we found (I totally blew my boss’ mind when I told her about RXBARs). Our lives were consumed by making Whole30 work, and since we were all in it together, it was easier to face the occasional office birthday party. I even hosted a few ‘compliant’ get-togethers at home!
Looking back, I don’t know if I would have survived alone. Being able to talk to fellow Whole30-ers really helped me stay on track, and it was nice to share my success with others who know how hard I’d worked once I was done.
5. There’s ALWAYS room to grow.
Even though it took a lot of planning, work, and will power, I really felt the benefits of Whole30, and they kept me motivated whenever I started to wane. Around the end of week two, my clothes felt a little looser, I slept better, and I had more energy throughout the day. The strange thing: I didn’t even realize that I could feel better. Since I already ate healthy, drank lots of water, exercised, and got eight hours of sleep a night before Whole30, I didn’t expect that there would be room to improve until it happened.
Despite how difficult Whole30 was, I totally recommend it—even if you’re already a self-proclaimed health and fitness fanatic. The experience helped me redefine ‘healthy food’ (read: low- to no-sugar) and pull myself out of a major boredom rut with my meals. Not to mention, it taught me a lot about my own eating habits—especially my reliance on protein bars. Now if I itch for a protein-heavy snack, I’ll pick up an Epic Bar, which tastes more like food and less like candy.
I’m not going to continue eating in a totally-compliant manner all the time (even the founders recommend you only do it for 30 days), but everything I learned—especially about avoiding sneaky sugar and preservatives—definitely stuck.