On April 20th, I blogged about my love/hate relationship with the Whole30. I had barely made it to Day 10 of my second attempt at the thirty-day elimination diet, and I was struggling, to say the least. Within a few hours of posting my concerns, the encouraging comments came rolling in. “Stick with it!” “You’ve got this.” “It’s all going to be worth it at the end!” (Thank you for those, by the way.) Since then, a few of you have asked about my progress: how the whole shebang turned out, if I was able to make it through the thirty days, and what I learned in the meantime. I wanted to respond thoughtfully on my experience, so I waited until I had something of substance to say. At last, I’m sharing Part II of my previous post (which you can read here), both as an overdue answer to your questions and as an honest reflection of how the Whole30 affected me personally.
Deep breath. Here goes.
I’m a little sad and somewhat ashamed to report that, despite your kind words of encouragement, I threw in the towel not long after publishing my conflicted cry for help. The next day, to be exact. (Sorry to disappoint.) I’m not sure what it was that did me in—a warm, crusty piece of bread, possibly?—but I remember feeling much better about my decision to quit than I thought I would. Probably because it wasn’t a purely impulsive decision. I had thought long and hard about whether I wanted to continue, and when it finally came down to it, my answer was an emphatic “Nope!” And then I ate that metaphoric slice of bread, slathered generously in butter and garlic, without restraint.
Sure, we can chalk my “failure” up to a lack of willpower. And maybe that’s all there is to it: I simply wasn’t strong enough to resist my favorite treats for an entire month. Trust me, I wouldn’t lose sleep over that conclusion. But what’s more interesting to me is what happened in the month that followed my clean eating experiment.
Scott and I hosted a pool party at our apartment complex the Sunday after I gave up on the Whole30 for a second time. Even though I was so over the strict diet, I resolved to continue eating as healthfully as possible, “with everything in moderation.” I hoped that by establishing an 80/20 rule, I would reach a happy medium that was both wholesome and sustainable. And for a while, I was confident it was the perfect plan. But by the end of the party, I had a belly full of baked goods, potato chips, and beer—and not much else. I felt sick from eating so much junk, but my new regimen had me believing that the only acceptable time to enjoy those kinds of foods was on a special occasion or at a social event—when everyone else was, too. That’s moderation, right? The problem was, once I had tasted the sweet and salty treats that I had been avoiding for weeks, I couldn’t stop.
That night, once everyone had gone home, I silently panicked. If diets didn’t work for me, and “eating moderately” was even worse, how was I supposed to happily lead a healthy lifestyle?
It occurred to me, then, the plain truth about my predicament. I was caught in a vicious cycle—the same one that manifested as an eating disorder in high school and then as a constant pattern of yo-yo dieting throughout college. As was par for the course, the cycle would begin again the next day: I would cut out the “bad” stuff for a week or so, feel confident enough to adopt the 80/20 approach, and then blow it by binging on junk food as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Rinse and repeat, repeat, repeat.
Knowing full well that I was on the verge of sliding down a treacherous slope brought on by my deep-rooted food anxiety, I vowed to try something completely different. Instead of restricting my calorie intake to make up for my indulgent day, I’d just let it be. I would put aside everything I’d ever read or heard about what it means to “eat right,” and simply listen to my body—what it craved, how it felt, what it needed, etc. No more labeling foods as “good” or “bad.” No more turning down dessert on principle, or using exercise as punishment. No more prescribing to gluten-free, dairy-free, or sugar-free fad diets. No more rules whatsoever. None of them had ever worked for me, anyway.
I was almost scared of Monday to arrive, not quite sure how I would handle this newfound freedom. Would I completely let myself go or spiral out of control?
Turns out, my worrying was in vain: the month of May ended up being a much-needed kick in the booty, self-love style. For the first time in years, I didn’t deny myself any of the foods I craved. Nor did I allow guilt or anxiety to affect my food choices. Breakfasts consisted of scrambled eggs topped with full-fat cheddar cheese and a large glass of orange juice. On several occasions, fresh-baked banana bread served as the perfect afternoon snack, washed down with a frothy whole milk cappuccino. Scott loves pasta, and for once, I didn’t complain about the “unnecessary amount of carbs” on my plate when he made it for dinner; his Roasted Red Pepper Alfredo was to die for, and I didn’t think twice about going back for seconds. I scanned the grocery store shelves for the freshest ingredients available—grass-fed butter, seasonal fruit and veggies, local milk, raw chocolate—enjoyed the spoils of my dad’s hunting trips, and collected dozens of pastured eggs from my grandfather’s farm. I made my own bread, and then devoured every crumb—whether in the form of French toast with maple syrup or an almond butter and strawberry jam sandwich (my fave). As for my dinner of choice, I couldn’t resist a hefty filet of wild-caught salmon, slathered in pesto and paired with grilled asparagus. If I was in the mood for something starchy, a side of creamy mashed potatoes or a fluffy rice pilaf would do the trick. Nothing was off limits.
Seems counterproductive, right? Perhaps a bit arbitrary?
It’s been over a month since I’ve started eating intuitively, and not once during that time have I felt the desire to binge or the need to deprive myself. I joked with Kristen the other day about how much I love my new “diet,” what I’ve facetiously coined The Parisian Plate. Bread, wine, cheese—all of the good stuff included. Portion sizes don’t concern me, because I eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full. And then if I’m craving something sweet, I treat myself to as much dessert as I want—making sure to savor each and every bite. Period. It’s very hard to overeat when you are fully satisfied by what you’re eating, when you’re in tune with your body and guilt is not part of the equation.
In case you’re wondering, I haven’t gained a pound since April. (Shocker!) But that’s sort of beside the point. In giving myself the freedom to eat what appeals to me when I’m truly hungry (without overthinking it), I’m finally on my way to finding a balance that I can be proud of, and more importantly, to healing my complicated relationship with food. Truthfully, I’ve never felt healthier, happier, or more at peace with my body than I do at this moment. And isn’t that the silliest thing? That all it took was stepping back and starting over, forgiving my past struggles, and choosing to view the food on my plate—yes, even the bread—as delicious nourishment rather than excess calories and potential pounds?
It’s all so simple, really. Embarrassingly so. But in a world where food is reduced to nutrients, diets are trendier than runway fashions, and eating disorders affect millions, simplicity has a way of eluding us. Having spent countless years of my life as a nutrition-obsessed serial dieter, I should know.
“So what?” you might be thinking. What does this all have to do with the Whole30? Well, in many ways, the Whole30 did in fact change my life. It made me realize how destructive my behavioral patterns were when it came to food, and what I ultimately needed to do to alter my perspective, once and for all. Even though I now understand why restrictive diets—even for a short period of time—aren’t for me, that’s not to say that someone else wouldn’t benefit from a program like the Whole30. Many people already have. But what I’m learning on my own health journey is that everyone is different, and it’s up to each of us to listen to our bodies (there’s that hippie-sounding phrase again!) and decide what works. For me, it’s a no-rules approach.
While I can’t imagine a time when I won’t be fascinated by nutritional studies and wellness theories, I can surely stop relying on health “experts” and fad diets to tell me what my body needs. Because, at the end of the day, only I can know that.