I just completed a month-long food experiment with the Whole30 program.
I wasn’t trying to lose weight. The ten pounds I lost a year ago after giving up bread, pasta, and other unhealthy carbs has stayed off for the most part.
But another problem had cropped up in recent months, driving me to distraction: sugar cravings. I don’t take sugar in my coffee and I don’t drink soda, so I’m ahead of the game there. But I found myself heading to the freezer to sneak spoonfuls of ice cream during the day, something I’ve never done before. And if I had a small bowl of cereal — even “healthy” whole-grain cereal — I would end up eating the whole box.
When it comes to food, I’m what Gretchen Rubin calls an “abstainer.” I can’t eat just one tiny square of chocolate from a chocolate bar. I can’t eat only one piece of bread from the basket at the Italian restaurant. It’s either the whole chocolate bar or nothing; the whole loaf of bread or nothing; and, apparently, the whole box of cereal or nothing.
So when my sense of self-control was in shambles with these sugar cravings, I decided I needed a body chemistry reboot. Some friends from my running group had recommended Whole30, a 30-day program that cuts out added sugar of any kind, grains, legumes, dairy, alcohol, sulfites, MSG, and carrageenan. All I needed was the information on the website — no purchase of books or supplements or prepackaged food necessary (though a book is available if you want one).
Yes, it sounds a little extreme, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I had already done the harder work a year ago of breaking my chemical addiction to wheat flour. And as I described in Blooming into Mindfulness, fear of increasing my risk of breast cancer recurrence whipped me into shape when it came to my wine habit.
The first question is “What CAN you eat on Whole30, then, other than air?”
Meat, seafood, eggs, lots of vegetables, and some fruit, preferably organic if you can afford it. You learn pretty quickly that anything in a package is likely to have sugar or other ingredients that Whole30 nixes. Every bacon I checked, for example, with the exception of one Paleo-approved brand at Whole Foods, has sugar added. Even the fancy “artisan” bacons. Who knew?
My biggest concern about taking on the Whole30 challenge was the no dairy rule. One of the few food addictions that I embrace openly is taking half and half in my coffee. Just plain old organic half and half, no sugar or artificial flavor added. I had told myself I would never let anyone take this away from me.
My tight bond with coffee (and the story I have concocted around that bond) is tied to everything I gave up when I had breast cancer–a breast, alcohol (for the most part), my anti-depressant (not needed anymore since I exercise enough), and unconscious assumptions that I would always be healthy. The oncologist’s assurances that coffee wouldn’t hurt me was like a life preserver thrown to me in the midst of rough seas.
So I’ve protected my morning coffee ritual, which includes a splash of half and half (a splash that has, if I’m honest, increased in size over the years to become more like a heavy pour). Whenever I heard my friends talking about Whole30, my response was, “I could NEVER give up my half and half!”
This quote from the website’s “tough love” section gave me the courage I needed:
It is not hard. Don’t you dare tell us this is hard. Beating cancer is hard. Birthing a baby is hard. Losing a parent is hard. Drinking your coffee black. Is. Not. Hard. You’ve done harder things than this, and you have no excuse not to complete the program as written. It’s only thirty days, and it’s for the most important health cause on earth – the only physical body you will ever have in this lifetime.
I realized that I have beaten cancer. I have birthed a baby. I have lost a parent.
And you know what? Compared to those and other challenges I’ve overcome, drinking my coffee black for 30 days actually wasn’t hard. It turns out that my attachment was to the story, rather than to the half and half itself. I’ll be writing more about other lessons I learned from the Whole30 challenge. Spoiler alert: mindfulness played a big part in completing the program successfully!
A quick summary of my results: my sugar craving is gone; I lost five pounds (that was starting from a healthy weight, but a little more fat was released and I feel better than before); I am once again enjoying my steel-cut oats with berries in the morning; I’ve come to enjoy my coffee black or, to switch things up a bit, with a sprinkle of cinnamon (a proven anti-inflammatory and cutter of sugar cravings).
I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll go back to half and half in my coffee. I know I don’t “need” it anymore. If I do, it will be with more intention, perhaps just when I’m having coffee with friends.
I’ll leave you with a few photos of some of the meals I made for myself over the course of the month, with the caveat that I am not a food blogger or food designer, so apologies for whatever sloppy photography mistakes the pros might notice.
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