On the heels of my Jazzercise 45 classes in 60 days challenge (which I accomplished on Dec. 30), I found myself heading into another challenge. I wasn't actively searching for one - it just sort of fell into my lap.
My former health and nutrition counselor, Kathi Fader, now a nutrition consultant at the Ryan Ferns Healthplex in Benwood, mentioned a program on her Facebook page called Whole30. The program was created in 2009 by Whole9 business owners and authors of the book "It Starts With Food," Dallas and Melissa Hartwig. On the whole30.com web site, the program is described as a "short-term nutritional reset, designed to help you put an end to unhealthy cravings and habits, restore a healthy metabolism, heal your digestive tract and balance your immune system."
For some people, certain food groups - specifically sugar, grains, dairy and alcohol - can cause inflammation, aches and pains, digestive or skin ailments, and negatively impact health in other ways. By stripping these food groups from your diet for 30 days, you "reset" your body, allowing it to recover from whatever nasty effects they may have had on you. After the 30 days, you then reintroduce each food group one at a time and pay attention to how you feel after you eat it. From there, you can determine if a certain food is "worth it" based on the way it makes you feel.
I was intrigued, as for a long time I'd contemplated doing a program called the 21 Day Sugar Detox, but this sounded a lot better. I kept reading and was blown away by the benefits the Whole30 program claimed to give people. Across the board, most participants reported higher energy, better sleep, improved focus and mental clarity, better athletic performance and an overall happier disposition. Another benefit that some reported that was of particular interest to me was clearer skin. As someone who's dealt with acne since my youth, I was searching for something other than pills and prescription creams. For a long time, I suspected dairy was the problem, as I'd followed a real food/Paleo type of eating regimen, but never did give up dairy. Consequently, my skin never improved.
The program sounded challenging, and I was up for it. What can I say? I like structure, and I like to push myself.
Here's the kicker, though. While I didn't doubt the science and theories behind the challenge, I was a little turned off by all the testimonials and statements that this program "will change your life." Sure. ALL the programs say that. Sometimes, I think a lot of these people are paid product endorsements, just to pull you in.
But something about this seemed real to me. My gut told me to trust my instincts (my gut also told me to help it feel better!), and I trust Kathi as well. I've known her for nearly 10 years and I know she wouldn't promote something unhealthy. Plus, I really wanted to see if the elimination of dairy and grains would improve my skin. The increased energy also sounded pretty good, too.
When Kathi mentioned that she was getting a group together at the Healthplex to do the Whole30 program, I jumped at the chance. Having support or a buddy is one of the biggest keys to sticking with a challenge. That was probably one of the reasons why I never did motivate myself enough to do the sugar detox. I didn't want to do it alone, and it's not helpful if you hit a snag and have nobody to share encouragement and ideas.
I began the program on Jan. 20, and I dove in head first. The program's meal template consisted of eating one or two palm-sized servings of protein, plenty of vegetables and one to two servings of healthy fat at each meal. If you're wondering what is considered a healthy fat, things like coconuts, coconut oil, macadamia nuts and walnuts, avocados and olives are all healthy fats. It was a little odd at first, because my meals seemed so big.
I'm not going to lie - the first 10 to 14 days on the program were AWFUL. Luckily, many, many people have gone through the Whole30 program and lived to tell about it. All of them concurred that the early feelings of unwell occur because your body is detoxing from all those problem foods. How much of those foods you ate prior to eliminating them is a factor in how long it takes your body to get through this phase.
The program also required a lot of cooking. A LOT. When I wasn't working or sleeping, I was cooking. "Prep days" were highly encouraged, and now I see why, but I really didn't want to spend my entire Sunday in the kitchen either. As the 30 days wore on, I learned to prepare large amounts of various side dishes at once and then on evenings, I usually only had to worry about preparing the protein.
Whole30.com also posted a handy timeline to give you an idea of what things you could expect to feel on certain days. According to the timeline, by days 12-15, you should feel two things: boundless energy and cravings.
Cravings? Yes, I had cravings. I dreamed I was eating bread and soft pretzels. I don't even really eat that much bread in real life! I wanted to "accidentally" fall face first into a Mehlman's coconut cream pie. Coconut is Whole30 approved, right?
Boundless energy? On what planet did boundless energy exist? The timeline says you might feel like "Tigger the bouncing tiger" now. Really? I felt a lot more like Eeyore, with the dark rain cloud over my head. I felt sluggish and sleepy. And angry. This was an awful lot of work to not get that energy pay off I wanted. When a program claims to give you "Tiger Blood," that's pretty lofty. Kathi created a closed Facebook group for the Whole30-ers, and I posted there, wondering why I didn't have that energy. I also consulted Google and read up on others who have had similar issues. Seems I wasn't the only one, and it seems there was a pretty simple solution: I needed to eat more fat.
What?! But we've always been taught that fat is bad for us! Well, yes, bad fat is bad for us, but when you think about how you've eliminated your body's sources of easy energy access (carbs and sugar), your body needs to fuel itself with something. By giving your body healthy fat as fuel, and because you aren't full of carbs and sugar, guess what your body is going to burn off? That's right - fat! How can that be? Eating healthy fat doesn't make you fat? It actually does the opposite?
I added a bit more healthy fat to each meal, and I instantly felt better. I can't say that I ever felt like I reached the "boundless energy" level, but I felt pretty good. I also noticed during my workouts that I could push myself a little harder.
Days 16-27 on the timeline are described as the "Tiger Blood" phase. Tiger blood? Not really, but I did have more energy. And I definitely felt more focused. I ate three meals a day and never felt compelled to eat in between meals. After each meal, I was full and satisfied, but never once did I have that "gotta loosen my belt" feeling. My digestive issues were gone. And I noticed that my skin had a healthy glow and looked clearer.
When Feb. 19 - Day 30 - rolled around, I came to a stunning realization. Whole30 - gulp! - changed my life. Yeah, I know! Maybe those testimonials weren't fabricated after all.
But how did it change my life? And what happened when I began reintroducing those food groups? How about I tell you about that next week?