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I Tried the Whole30—And Here’s What Happened

9 min read

Five years ago, I was stuck. I’d worked with a natural doctor for a few years with much success. I transitioned from a medication I no longer needed, solved a migraine problem and step-by-step learned to heal naturally from things like headaches, colds and the flu. All this was phenomenal for me since I didn’t grow up with garlic and ginger baths, or an understanding of how our body can fight disease and sickness.

However, I had chronic issues wearing me down. After multiple inconclusive tests from Western medical doctors and a growing awareness of how food was making me feel, I struggled to trust myself with what changes to make and whether or not it would make any difference.

Keep reading to find out what happened when I tried the Whole30 and how it impacted the way I see food and health today.

My problem: Achy Joints and Muscles, Injuries, Fatigue and Problems with Digestion

I wasn’t interested in a diet or a restrictive way to eat that was not sustainable and all about pounds + or – on a scale. I had been there and done that (unsuccessfully), and while some would say weight was my problem, I intuitively knew that the issues I had now had been with me at different sizes through my younger and adult years, pre and post pregnancy. While I felt labeled and misunderstood by many well-meaning professionals, I wanted to find answers that aligned with what I already knew and trusted about my health story.

I began looking for a tool that would help me understand my body and food. In the span of only one week, the Whole30 came up at a dinner party, in something I read and a conversation with a stranger. Because I was skeptical of diets, gimmicks and false promises, I found the Whole30 website helpful. I didn’t have to buy anything, the information was clear and available, and because the original intent didn’t seem focused on weight but framed as a reset, it felt like the experiment that I could use as a guide.

The Solution: The Whole30

Within a week I jumped in and started. I didn’t even buy the book until halfway through, but the Whole30 website had all the information for me to start plus this incentive on black coffee versus cancer that quite honestly pushed me to do it. The fact that it was a 30-day experiment fit since I didn’t plan on making permanent changes unless they were right for me. I hoped I would know myself more so that I could make some sense out of why I didn’t feel good on the daily.

The plan? Eat whole, unprocessed foods like vegetables, fruits, meats, seafood, herbs and spices but refrain from all sugar, grains, legumes, soy, dairy, alcohol and additives like MSG, sulfites and carrageenan for 30 days. You can find all the guidelines here.

Photo courtesy of @cookbycolor.

My Experiment: Follow the Whole30 Diet and Pay Attention to Food + Emotions

Hunger hit hard by day two or three, even though I didn’t follow any restriction on amounts of food. If there were portion guidelines at the time, I tuned that out. My intuition told me then, and I know more now thanks to research and learning from others, that hunger is a signal to honor. I’m glad I didn’t also choose to restrict portions unnecessarily. I trusted myself, and if I was hungry, I ate something.

But eating only whole foods is tricky when it comes to grabbing something quick and satisfying. Anything I wanted to eat took a lot of time to prepare and by week two, I knew I needed a better plan. I meal-prepped vegetables and the parts to some of my favorite salads, a variety of proteins because I was already sick of chicken, and a fresh salsa or a special sauce. This fresh salsa, chile sauce and mayo were on repeat. The habit of making homemade sauce and salad dressings has stuck with me as it can jazz up any meal of protein and vegetables.

By week three, I needed breakfast to change from dread to satisfaction. While eating vegetables in the morning was not a habit for me, I knew I needed a recipe that would inspire me and fill me up. That’s when I discovered sweet potato breakfast hash. It’s the perfect side to eggs, sweet and savory, filling and satiating. To this day, my family eats a version of this hash a couple of days a week (and sometimes more).

Before this month-long experiment, I had started working out consistently for the first time in my life. But while on the Whole30, I struggled with enough energy to do the same kind of workouts. I would feel light-headed and weak, and so I stepped back to fewer workouts for the 30 days and tried different snack combinations—but in just a month, I didn’t solve this problem. Now I know I do best with more carbohydrates, including grains, in my diet to support workouts.

Each week, I revamped the week before. What worked this week with food and self-care? Do I need something more or less? Taking the time to ask these questions and prep my mind and kitchen for the week became an ongoing practice for me. To come to the week prepared was the difference between a week of feeling strong and capable, and a week of exhaustion and an inevitable meltdown come Friday.

Photo courtesy of @les_mcdonald.

The Results: Less Pain, Better Sleep + Hormonal Shifts

Less Pain

About halfway through, I started noticing my joint pain begin to fade and not bounce back and forth. Along with my digestion calming down and becoming consistent, the changes were affecting my body’s aches and pains. What a relief! Experiencing pain-free days was informative for me and based on my data, something had changed enough to show me that I didn’t have to live with as much discomfort.  

Better Sleep

My circadian rhythm started working better. I was sleeping through the night without waking up and also going to sleep and waking up at consistent times. I’ve struggled with sleep interruptions since, but I know what an ideal rhythm is and I’ve embraced being a morning person. Likewise, when I wake up unrested, or my sleep is interrupted, I know something is off.

Emotional Awareness

I felt quite sensitive for the first weeks of Whole30. At the time, I chalked this up to emotional eating, and that the food I had previously consumed must have been masking my feelings. I believe that feelings are important, so it felt like something to pay attention to. But the truth is, emotions were never very buried for me, so the fact that I lumped this into the emotional eating category at the time probably had more to do with a diet culture message about comfort foods being taboo. I have since come to own that eating for health and comfort are both good and don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Hormonal Shifts

When my 30 days were up, I was also going on vacation. While at the time I thought I was careful, I didn’t reintroduce sugar, grains, legumes, soy and alcohol one by one. I ended up getting quite sick and my period came a few days later, but wouldn’t stop. My hormones were out of whack. My functional medicine doctor and Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner helped me understand that my body was over-producing estrogen as a result of changes in my composition or hormones, and they helped me get my cycle back on track.

While Whole30 now gives guidance to food reintroduction, I didn’t follow this critical step. Having bungled the learning opportunity, I tried another round of Whole30 a couple of weeks later, and when the second cycle was over, I slowly added one thing back in at a time and recorded my results as it related to how my body felt.

Confirmed Gluten Intolerance

After round two, the instant red flag for me was wheat. And when I looked back, things made sense. As a child, through adulthood, I was sick every time I ate an ice cream cone, pizza or pasta. It felt like a regular part of eating for me, this sickness, or a personal flaw I’d gotten used to living with. When I finally felt better, it shocked me to admit I’d been sick daily for years. Whole30 was a tool that helped me understand my entire history when it came to my intolerance of gluten and gave me the information I needed to own this going forward.

Photo courtesy of @melissa_hartwig.

The Takeaway: Whole30 Gave Me Insight Into My Body

It’s been five years since both of my Whole30 experiments, and while I never did another one, it became the first time I truly understood food’s role in how I felt daily. To realize that my body was sensitive to gluten was information that helped me make a change and find other great options.

I’ve also become active and stronger without constant injury to my joints and fear of injury. I went skiing for the first time in more than years this past winter. Ten years ago, I would have said that part of my life was over.

While on the Whole30, I missed foods that were family favorites and fun to make and eat. I love creating delicious food for my family and friends. I’ve since come to understand that true food freedom for me means that all meals have a place at my table and on my plate, even if they bring less nutrition at times and offer comfort. Food is intended to satisfy, and when you’re filled, habits are sustainable. But I’ve also learned to love eating more vegetables, proteins and fruits because they are delicious and make me feel good and strong.

For me, Whole30 was a beginning. It was an experiment to see if changes in my food would make me feel better in a couple of concrete ways. And they did. Food can help us heal. Was food my root problem? Except for wheat at this point in my life, I don’t think so. I’m still discovering why my body hurts at times and what additional things, both emotional and physical, could be impacting my best health. For me, being well and finding freedom isn’t about a list of restrictions but about finding flexibility and openness to try new foods and practices. The best tools have helped me listen to my intuition, and when I have, the next step is usually right in front of me.

For more I Tried stories about whole foods, see what this writer says about her 14 days with the  Conscious Cleanse.

About The Author

Heather Bursch

Heather Bursch

After teaching first graders for seven years, Heather Bursch went from creating reading lessons to designing dinner parties as a personal chef. She credits her three kids with teaching her how to eat well as they've lived and learned together about how good food makes them feel. Heather believes food is for health and pleasure and works to celebrate both the daily greens and seasonal desserts. She writes at shemadeitshemight.com, WELLinsiders.com and you can find her posting @heatherbursch on Instagram about food, life, cooking classes and all things in between.

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