10 critical lessons from my Paleo/Whole 30 experience

In February, 2015, I started my first Whole 30—a 30 day elimination diet based on the principles of paleo eating: no alcohol, no grains, no dairy, no soy, no sugar and no chemical additives and/or preservatives such as carrageen. Whole 30 was strict, but it promised both a chance to find out which food groups might not work for me through a process of reintroduction after elimination and a chance to lose weight—and inches—while following a defined eating plan.

It’s 3.5 months later now, and I’ve done 75 days of Whole 30, lost 15 pounds, lost 15.9 inches, shrunk 2 pants sizes and 3 shirt sizes, and feel amazing. Even better, I’ve found a way to eat that I can work with even when I’m not following the Whole 30 diet 100%—and it works for me.

On vacation in Boston, this week, for example, I’m going 85% paleo/whole30: In the past 4 days, I’ve had 11 meals, and gone off the food plan 5 times for small amounts of wine, sugar (ice cream), burrata cheese. and scones/bread (2X). But that means I’ve stayed off all other grains, dairy, etc for most of my trip—focusing on meat, greens, and fruit, most of the time. Even better, it shows me that this eating style is something I can stick with, even when I’m not cooking for myself at home and that I feel good enough eating this way that I can keep doing it.

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What are some of the lessons of paleo/Whole 30 that have made this food conversion work? What is it, after so many years of so many diets, that going Paleo feels so right?

1) I feel better
Last night at dinner, it was easy to have 1/2 a glass of wine, leave food on my plate, and skip the dessert my friends ordered and shared. As much as I want treats, I’ve learned that I feel better if I stick to the core plan 95% of the time. Eating too much, having too much sugar, drinking wine I don’t crave just adds calories and leads to an upset tummy, added pounds, and/or a headache.

2) I can eat without counting calories
Making a plate Whole30 paleo style means making sure there are lots of vegetables and greens, some fats, some protein, and some fruit. If I plan out my meal to include the right sizes of these things (including a small fist full of protein and a cup or more of veggies, I can have a good meal, enjoy it, and feel great. Whether it’s a chicken or a steak, I don’t need to pile the quantity on to have enough, and I can complement with salad, veggies, and a little fruit.

3) I’m shrinking
2014 was the year where I started working out at the gym 3-5 times a week for 60-90 minute stretches. Even as my cardio, strength-training, and overall endurance training increased, I didn’t lose much weight. Maybe 6 or 7 lbs?

Since I started Whole 30 at the end of February, I’ve lost another 15 pounds, plus 14 inches off my waist and 4 inches off my ribcage. I’m down 2 pants sizes, 3 sizes in t-shirts, and 1 size in Bras. Without starving myself, my size is going down.

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4) It helps me actually burn calories as I eat them
I’m Eastern European, of Russian/Polish. Hungarian Jewish descent, and I have that gene that meant my ancestors survived hunger in the shtel by retaining fat all winter (no, really!).
So it’s been amazing to recognize that when I eat bread and pasta the calories go straight into my fat cells and stay there, but when I eat vegetables and protein, they’re consumed right away by my body. This is a basic tenent of Paleo, but I didn’t believe it until I experienced it first hand.

5) Planning my meals has led to better portion control
Whole30 makes a big thing out of planning every meal so you have plate of food that is what you eat. No seconds, no snacking. It’s about figuring out the right amount of food—including fats—you need from meal to meal and eating exactly that. One of the big benefits of my first and second Whole30s was getting into that planning mode where I had to decide what went on the plate before I ate it (and photographed it, in my case).

Somewhere in month 3, I suddenly realized that I had now trained myself to not automatically go for seconds. For a volume eater like myself, this was BIG.

6) Chewing. Take smaller bites. And putting the fork down. And leaving food on the plate
As I’ve acclimated to my new eating style, I’ve also made more of an effort to do things I didn’t focus on before— chew the food more slowly and longer, maybe 30 chews per bite. Take smaller bites. And put the fork down and take a breath before going for the next shovel-in (even better, quit the shovel in and eat slowwwwwlllllyyyy.) It’s both diminished my mindless eating, and increased tastebud pleasure.

7) I can separate out what I consider a treat because I used to think that but will make me feel bad from what is a positive treat today

Used to be, I used a meal in the family of sushi, candy, ice cream, croissants, coffee cake, nuts, pizza, and salami to be reward foods I’d treat myself with at the end of a workweek, or to make the close of a stressful day. “Ive earned this,” I’d tell myself, “I deserve the treat.”
I’m finally starting to quit doing this, because most of these food don’t make me feel better after I “treat” myself to them, and in fact, they can make me feel worse.
Now, I’m way more focused on treats I can really enjoy—a great green salad, fresh home-made chicken salad, ripe fruit (like peaches) or a nice sweet date. It’s very freeing to have my ideas of what a treat are really change—and I loved the moment in the airport this week, when, tired after a long trip, I stared hard at the Gummy Bears next to the water in the airport coffee shop and decided, “ Nah, I’ll pass.”

8) Food tastes better
Amazing what happens when you remove most processed food, sugar, and wheat/grains/pasta/cheese from your diet—what’s left has more flavor than it seemed to have before.

9) Meal prep is a worthwhile (if annoying) habit
A big factor in making the Whole30/Paleo eating style work for me is planning ahead. I not only need to stock my cupboards and fridge with compliant ingredients, I am going to do better if I can spend some time on the weekend roasting sweet potatoes, boiling red potatoes, roasting chicken thighs, cleaning and prepping kale and making greens and slow-cocking a pork shoulder or some no-beans chili.
With planning ahead, I can have omelets with kale and sausage, quick and easy chicken dinners with salads and sweet potatoes, and lunches I can pack ahead and bring to work, often a salad with some protein and a side of fruit.

10) My body feels so much better
Did I say I felt so much better? I do—and that means all of me feels so much better. It’s not only the positives, like the better energy and lack of 4 PM fatigue(no bread!), it’s the way I’m more regular, don’t get stomach aches, don’t feel bloated, etc. Thank goodness for an improved digestive track. I love that. And I want to keep it that way.

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When I decided to start Whole30, I chose it because it had a lot of empirical data, had been tried by more than 100,000 people, was developed by professionals, seemed worth a try and was free.
I liked the honest tone, the emphasis on reintroduction after 30+ days, and the detailed explanations. I also liked that there were closed support communities on Facebook that I could join. How bad could it be for 30 days? And how difficult? I’m determined.

But what I didn’t imagine was that Whole30 would become so important in my life. The new ways of eating, the new attitudes toward compulsive eating, the healthier recipes, the learning what NOT to eat, ever, and what to indulge in sparingly—it’s been a major game changer—and the way I plan to eat going forward.