Even by the standards of fad diets, the Whole30 appears pretty extreme.
No grains. No dairy. No sugar. No fake sugar. No alcohol. And no cheating. It’s not even a diet, really. It’s a 30-day challenge, designed to “reset” your body and eating habits, and it makes no particular claims about weight loss. Why stop at your beer gut when you can change your whole life?
This is the appeal that may have filled your Facebook feed with friends’ tales of attempting the Whole30 since the book, by then-couple Melissa and Dallas Hartwig, hit the best-seller list.
It has also raised the ire of more than a few dieticians, like those on the panel of experts involved in US News & World Report’s 2017 rankings. Of the 38 diets the panel considered, Whole30 finished Whole38th, with experts citing a lack of independent research, a program that was “extreme” and “restrictive” and full of “nonsensical claims.”
But I was overdue for some extreme, restrictive nonsense.
In the last year or so, I’ve toured greater Boston in search of the best gas station and convenience store food, wolfing down taquitos over a 7-Eleven trash can. I’ve scoured the city for the best handcrafted chocolates for Valentine’s Day, and hit up every brewery taproom in greater Boston. I’ve reviewed a steakhouse that specializes in giant piles of prime beef you eat with your hands, and taken down lobster ravioli served on a plate the size of a hubcap at Rino’s Place. At my annual physical, my doctor suggested that instead of eating a piece of cake, maybe I could eat a handful of nuts . . . but I hadn’t said anything about cake.
Most importantly, my wife wanted to do it.
And so we — ok, mostly she — embarked on the seven-step Whole30 preparation plan, which involves studying the regimen like a postdoc poring over an ancient scroll, taking a flamethrower to your pantry, and posting about your embarrassing decision to undertake this on social media. The Whole30 is like an eating plan developed by decluttering guru Marie Kondo’s malevolent opposite: Cram everything that sparks joy into the garbage disposal and feast on whatever sad business is left.
In truth, though, most of what’s left is not that sad at all. Whole30, as the name implies, emphasizes so-called “whole” foods — fresh meats, vegetables, and fruits. Anything packaged should have as few ingredients as possible — and none you can’t pronounce. I’d quibble with the restrictions on legumes and whole grains, but generally this is a pretty good way to live.
So why is it so hard? Well, a single grain of sugar or bite of bread sends you right back to day 0, so the stakes are high. And a timeline of what to expect on the Whole30 website describes the typical acolyte’s attitude on days four and five of the diet as “Kill ALL the things!”
“Why did you do this to me?” I asked Melissa Hartwig, a Nashua, N.H., native who now lives in Utah.
She laughed. “In the first 10 days that would have been a reasonable question,” she said.
Criticism like the U.S. News rankings misunderstands the Whole30, she said. Comparing it to 37 other diets doesn’t make sense, since it isn’t a diet and isn’t focused on weight loss. The idea, rather, is to break your bad habits for a month and then carefully reintroduce things, figuring out which foods are worth whatever they cost you in calories or stomach aches or hangovers.
It is decidedly not, Hartwig said, “me telling you what to eat every day of your life.”
Hartwig said she’s gone through the Whole30 routine eight times since 2009. There are plenty of reasons people turn into rage monsters early in the process. Maybe, she said, I was used to eating too often (guilty), or getting a lot of my energy from sugar (also guilty). Maybe I was relying on food for comfort (currently serving a life sentence).
Whatever the reason, the rage is real. By midway through the first week of strict adherence to the diet, I was hovering somewhere between depressed and unhinged, my foul mood punctuated by wicked headaches.
Someone left a trash-can sized tub of chocolate covered popcorn on the table behind my desk, and I skulked past, chomping raw almonds like a smoker with a fistful of nicotine gum. All of a sudden, the newsroom was full of free sandwiches and delicious doughnuts and invitations to lunch. The Whole30 strategy for avoiding these temptations — taming your sugar dragon, as the plan describes it — involves deep breathing exercises. What could be more natural than doing lamaze routines over a box of crullers at the office?
Useless advice like this seems to be sort of a cottage industry on the fringes surrounding the Whole30 empire. A Forbes list of tips “entrepreneurs can use to stick to Whole30 on a business trip” includes mindblowing pearls like “pack snacks” and “order seltzer.” And if you, imaginary entrepreneur undertaking this nightmare diet, find yourself at an imaginary business lunch? Then “don’t be afraid to ask for modifications to your meal.”
I will never do that. Literally never. The day I become the guy in a restaurant using enhanced interrogation techniques on a waiter to find out whether anything involved in the scallop ceviche has ever brushed up against a soybean will be the same day I embark on a fatal hunger strike.
So restaurants were out entirely.
By week two or so, I was eating directly from giant bags of kale and “juicing greens” at my desk for lunch (it turns out you can juice them just fine with your own mouth). I grilled six chicken breasts at once, doling them out all week, and waited by the window for my delivery from Walden Local Meats. Along with my monthly supply of pasture-raised beef, chicken and pork, the delivery van brought an assortment of necks and shins and meaty knuckles I needed to make the next batch of Whole30 approved bone broth. My wife said the word “compliant” so many times that it lost all meaning.
On the weekends, I was able to branch out. I smoked beef ribs rubbed with coarse salt and pepper or roasted pork shoulders and potatoes (yes, potatoes are allowed). There were nights when it was almost possible to forget I’d given my WholeMonth to this cause.
Still, a glass of wine would have been nice. Or a bottle. I hadn’t had a drop of alcohol in weeks — I’ve taken to calling this OcSober — so why was I waking up every morning with a puffy hangover face and a desire to sleep another nine hours?
A couple weeks in, my mother texted us.
Mom: How’s the Whole30?
Person to whom I am married: It’s so great!
So is it working? It’s hard to say. Whole30 forbids taking measurements, but I’ve won back one hole on my belt. More importantly, the stiffness in my back that ruined many mornings disappeared almost immediately, and for the first time in months. I started thinking about staying on the plan a while longer. But Hartwig was down on that idea.
“It’s actually not advisable,” she said. “It’s the Whole30, not the Whole365.”
This is probably for the best. On Day 26, as leftover sandwiches in the work kitchen called to me, my lunch was a microwaved sweet potato and a “horse carrot,” which is a regular carrot, but horse-sized.
“I admire your willpower,” someone said as I wandered the hall with half a horse-carrot in my chubby hand.
But this isn’t willpower. Willpower would be not eating that whole hubcap full of ravioli in the first place.