I started my journey to better health in June 2017 when I completed my first Whole30. At the time, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. I accepted that my energy was less than ideal. I didn’t worry about my slow weight gain. Having high glucose levels wasn’t a major concern for me. I wanted to be healthier but didn’t feel like I knew what to do because I tried many things in the past that didn’t work.
One day, my best friend and roommate Annie told me about this “thing” she wanted to do called Whole30, and I thought, If she’s doing it, I’m doing it. So I jumped headfirst into this thing. This thing called Whole30 that changed my life.
That first week was HARD. I completely removed many of the mainstays from my diet including gluten, grains, sugar, dairy, and alcohol – all completely cold-turkey. I didn’t really know how to cook and had to look up how to do even the simplest things, like how to cook chicken on the stove. As the month went by, it got easier, and I noticed many positive changes. Stable energy. My clothes fit better. A more positive attitude. The ability to say “no” to foods that before, I would always crave and eat with no thought. I started to enjoy cooking. My food tasted better. And then my clothes didn’t fit at all because they were too big.
After that first round of Whole30, I knew this “thing” was something I wanted to keep in my life. I started the foundation of healthy eating habits. But really, it was so much more than that.
Now, as of October 1, 2020, I’ve done Whole30 ten times. And this is what I’ve learned.
1. It’s not one and done.
I’ll be the first to admit it, 10 Whole30s is…a lot. Not everyone needs to (or wants to) do this many rounds, especially in the timespan (a little over 3 years) that I did. It’s definitely not necessary to do this many rounds to benefit from the program.
So why did I do so many Whole30s? I am an “upholder” in Gretchen Rubin’s four habit tendencies, which means I do better when I have set rules of “yes” and “no.” The Whole30 works really well for me because of this, but it also makes it more difficult for me to navigate my food freedom. There are less rules, which makes it more difficult to figure out what exactly is worth it to me. It takes a lot of work and mindfulness for me to create healthy habits around food. If I feel my habits slipping, or if my energy, productivity, and sleep has worsened, I go back to Whole30 for a round or mini-reset to help me get back on track.
Each time I do a round of Whole30, I get stronger in living my food freedom. Whole30 brings me back to a baseline from where I can choose which foods to bring back in and which ones to leave out.
Healthy eating is not a “one and done” process. You can’t just eat Whole30 for 30 days and then never eat healthy again for the rest of your life. Whole30 gives you the tools to figure out what foods work for YOU.
Eating healthy is similar to exercising. You wouldn’t do just one 30-day bootcamp, then never exercise again in your life. You have to continually work on your exercise routine in order to stay healthy. So say you do the bootcamp, establish a healthy exercise routine, and this routine helps you move forward with exercising on your own. If you find your habits are starting to slip and you’re missing your workouts, you can do another bootcamp.
This is how Whole30 works, too. When you do a round of Whole30, it gives you the tools to move forward into food freedom. If you start to feel like you let in too many not “worth it” foods, your cravings come back, or you start skipping breakfast again every day, it might be time to do another round or mini-reset. Whole30 is meant to be for 30 days, but the program allows you to go back time and time again to reinforce your healthy habits. It’s not one and done.
2. You have to put in the work – every time.
Your first Whole30 can be a lot of work, especially if you weren’t used to reading labels, cooking, or being specific about what you ate. It is a HUGE learning curve. It takes time and effort when you’re just starting out.
After you’ve done multiple rounds, your ingredient-reading skills and understanding of what is compatible with the program becomes old-hat. You’ll have some go-to Whole30 staple meals that you keep in rotation. But that doesn’t mean now you can slack off in the planning/prepping/cooking department. You still have to put in some effort, even if it’s your tenth round.
I struggled at the beginning of my tenth round because I did not put the upfront effort to meal prep or plan my meals in advance, so I ended up eating a lot of the same things over and over again. I ran into food boredom pretty early and realized I needed to switch things up.
It’s a good thing there are A TON of incredible Whole30 recipes – from the Whole30 cookbooks, to Pinterest, to Instagram, and more (just make sure to double-check the ingredients of any online recipes that don’t come from the official Whole30 program). Once I started looking ahead to plan and prep new meals, this upfront effort made my Whole30 much more enjoyable. It took time and effort to be successful. You have to put in the work – every time.
3. Find what works for you.
You might be thinking that Whole30 wouldn’t work for you. You might already have a way of eating that works well for you like intermittent fasting, calorie counting, or vegetarian. I’m definitely not saying that doing Whole30 is the ONLY way to be healthy. The best way to find out what works for you is to experiment, and if you’re looking for a program that guides you through this process, Whole30 is a structured way to do it.
Once I complete a round of Whole30, I systematically reintroduce the foods that I eliminated during the month to see how they affect me. This helps me determine if eating a food is worth the potential negative effects. Through this experimentation, I have learned a way of eating that works best for me.
Before I did Whole30, I tried a variety of different methods to try to be healthier or lose weight. Through this experimentation, I was constantly hungry, had low energy, and never found a way of eating that was sustainable.
Even after I completed a few rounds of Whole30, I tried calorie counting to try to lose weight more quickly. This didn’t work for me because I wasn’t focusing on the quality of foods or the ingredients in the food I ate, just the calories. So I went back to Whole30. I also tried intermittent fasting, which was hard on my digestive system and caused my energy levels to take a downturn. So I went back to Whole30.
It’s not bad or wrong that I tried these other ways of eating. This experimentation led me to complete more rounds of Whole30 and realize the true power of the program. Whole30 helped me form sustainable healthy eating habits that I will continue for the rest of my life. And if I feel my healthy habits starting to slip, I know I always have the Whole30 to come back to. I’ve found what works for me. Find what works for you.
4. The perfect Whole30 doesn’t exist.
The “perfect” Whole30 is a beautiful idea. You wake up. You have time to cook a delicious breakfast. Your avocados are ripe to perfection. Your lunch is packed, it’s a new recipe you made the night before. You have ample time to eat all your meals, slowly and mindfully. You come home to a crockpot of your favorite stew. After dinner you make yourself some sleepytime herbal tea and are in bed by 9 pm. Life is good.
Some days of Whole30 are like this. But some are not. You can’t be disappointed in yourself if you go to bed without dinner because you are just so TIRED. You’re not a failure if you eat an Epic bar and nuts for lunch because you are caught up at work. Don’t be hard on yourself if you give into sugar cravings by eating a serving of apples with almond butter after dinner. Give yourself grace, and realize that you are taking steps to positively change your life.
Your only job is to eat 100% Whole30 compatible food. That’s it! Don’t try to live up to the ideal of a “perfect” Whole30. The perfect Whole30 doesn’t exist.
5. It’s more than just food.
Whole30 starts with a simple premise: eat real food. You’ll find that through the journey, it is so much more than that.
Before Whole30, I didn’t realize the role that food played in my life. I didn’t put the pieces together that if I ate a certain way, it would give me the ability to be better in so many other aspects of my life.
For example: I am more productive. I do better work. I don’t get sick as often (a HUGE deal for me). I am more positive. I don’t need to take naps as often. I am more confident. I sleep better. I have other health goals, including exercise and self care. I am stronger. I connect better with others.
Eating real food is the foundational habit that spreads into all other aspects of my life. Once I was comfortable in my healthy eating habits, I was able to build from there in creating other healthy habits like movement, meditation, gratitude, and journaling. Whole30 helped me create a healthier lifestyle overall. It’s more than just food.
6. Every round of Whole30 round of Whole30 brings about learning and growth.
My first Whole30 brought about DRAMATIC changes. Like dropping two pants sizes and losing 18 pounds in 30 days. My 10th round was much different because it was more about the changes you don’t see. Like feeling more confident speaking up in class and not even weighing myself because it’s not about the weight anymore.
Yes, there were times when it was hard. I said “no, thank you” to lunchtime pizza at work more times than I can count. Every time that phrase was spoken brought me closer to building sustainable healthy habits. I completed Whole30 rounds through family weddings, concerts, the start of grad school, birthday parties, celebrations, and more. These occasions taught me how to stick to my healthy habits in different social situations.
I NEVER regretted doing a round of Whole30. Every round brought me positive change, whether it was visible or not. Every round of Whole30 brings about learning and growth.
7. There are so many ways to treat yourself without food.
Food is established as a go-to reward starting in childhood. Candy is given for answering questions in class. Ice cream is earned for good behavior. Then as an adult, a glass of wine is a reward for getting through the workday. Whole30 teaches you that there are other ways to reward yourself – without food.
Whole30 makes it almost impossible to reward yourself with food. Sure, you could try by eating some nut butter or a sweet-but-compatible RX bar, but that’s just the kind of habit you are working to remove. Whole30 creates space for you to figure out what types of things you can do to treat or reward yourself without using food as the medium.
Rewards can actually help you grow stronger in your healthy habits. For example, I have rewarded myself for completing a Whole30 with a new yoga mat. I felt a sense of reward for getting my mat and it also helped me get more excited about going to yoga.
“Treats” can look different depending on the day. Some days you’ll want to treat yourself by going by a walk by yourself, and others you’ll want to treat yourself by calling up a friend. Some of my favorite non-food treats are: cuddling my dog, watching an episode (or two) of The Office, taking a yoga (or Barre3 or Orangetheory) class, buying a new kitchen tool, drinking a glass of kombucha, spending time with my family, buying a new pair of athletic wear, taking space to be by myself, doing my nails, going golfing, and grocery shopping. There are so many ways to treat yourself without food.
8. Food is not “good” or “bad.”
I used to label food as “good” or “bad.” Salad: good. Cookie: bad. Those adjectives ended up describing me and how I felt after I would eat that food. You are what you eat, right? So if I ate a cookie, it was bad, and I was bad for eating it. This labeling would create a sense of guilt around the food I ate.
Yes, some types of foods provide more nutrition than others. But Whole30 taught me that food is not good or bad. Food is just food. And a person should not associate themselves as good or bad for eating a certain food. Whole30 gave me the power to release any guilt I carried around eating certain foods and allowed me to enjoy them even more.
From the outside-in, it might seem like Whole30 reinforces the idea of “good” and “bad” foods. However, if you read into the spirit of the Whole30 program, this is definitely not the case. Whole30 does not use language labeling foods as good or bad. They use the words “acceptable” and “compatible” for foods that you can eat on the program, or “not acceptable” and “not compatible” for foods to avoid during the 30 days of the program. They teach that the foods eliminated during the 30 days of the program are not bad, they are unknown. Whole30 is a 30-day experiment where you can find out how you react to eating certain foods.
The way Whole30 helps you find out if a food group works for you is to eliminate it, reintroduce it, and compare your experience. It gives you the structure to figure out your perfect way of eating. Whole30 is not a lifelong restricted diet that assigns foods as good or bad. Food is not “good” or “bad.”
9. The Whole30 community is full of love and support.
I wouldn’t be where I’m at today without the love and support of the Whole30 community. Whole30 brings people together through a shared love of food, health, and self-growth.
I created my Instagram account (originally @whole30emken) after my first round of Whole30 as I was heading into my second round. I wanted to connect with others, share my experience and love of Whole30, hold myself accountable, and hopefully give inspiration to those trying to be healthier. I’ve been connected with some of the same people for YEARS, and that is so special to me. The entire community is about helping each other, lifting each other up, and cheering each other on.
I felt supported when I was just learning the Whole30 ropes as much as I do now as I share my years of Whole30 experience with others. The Whole30 community is full of love and support.
10. It’s just 30 days. But it’s also the start of the rest of your life.
The Whole30 program is for 30 days, but it’s not really about those 30 days. It’s about how you use what you learned during those 30 days to create lasting habits into the future. You will create healthy, sustainable habits that will last a lifetime. But you’ve got to put in the work.
And you can do it. It’s just 30 days. But it’s also the start of the rest of your life.