Lunch burritos were a ritual. My fridge was packed with flavored yogurt, beer, greasy leftovers and half-empty bottles of ranch dressing and Frank’s RedHot. My afternoon snack was a handful of fun-size candy on sale (using the honor system) at my office; breakfast, if I ate it, was usually a bowl of yogurt laced with honey.
So I was more than interested when a co-worker told me she was about to go on Whole30, a 30-day "food cleanse" in which you eat nothing but unprocessed, unrefined, sugar-free food, while also cutting out entire food groups such as dairy and grains (and booze).
My relationship with food has never been what one would call healthy, so a chance to hit the reset button? I’m listening.
The point of Whole30, which was founded by Melissa Hartwig in 2009, is to “end to unhealthy cravings and habits, restore a healthy metabolism, heal your digestive tract, and balance your immune system,” its promotional materials say. Whether that's what actually happens physiologically, who knows. Everyone's selling something.
But after completing a 30-day run -- without cheating, for the record -- I can say it’s a life-changing, body-changing wonder of experimental trendy dieting. (With maybe a dash of Placebo effect thrown in there.)
Emotional eaters (like me hi hello nice to meet you) use food to augment an emotional state. Bad day? Get a calzone and a Kit Kat. Feeling great? Get a calzone and a Kit Kat. This was both my comfort system and my reward system growing up, and it continued into adulthood.
So the immediate result of removing all pleasure foods from my diet after a lifetime of eating mostly pleasure foods is that, surprise, I thought a lot about pleasure foods.
Two days into my Whole30, which I began in mid-September with a co-worker and my girlfriend, the sight of a Snickers made me desperate for it. The cravings got worse before they got better, and after about two weeks I was actually dreaming about eating donuts and candy.
This seems to be a common side effect; Whole30's Web site even says it may happen.
But about a week in, things started happening to my body that hadn't happened in years. I woke up easier and felt less groggy in the morning. My afternoon fade at the office began disappearing. Coffee became less of a necessity, and I didn't collapse from exhaustion the moment I got home.
As the weeks went on, I started to look a little slimmer in the mirror. "You look so skinny now!" my girlfriend would say. In the month and a half since I started, I've lost 15 pounds, and two full inches off my waist.
My best friend became zoodles -- a wonderful foodstuff that is simply zucchinis in the shape of noodles made with a spiralizer -- and, making my mother particularly happy, I finally learned to cook and made almost every one of my meals. (Hi mom!) I just felt ... good. And not ... bad. Which was different and wonderful.
By week three, I was cruising, sugar cravings gone and cooking game sharp. I could whip up a Whole30-friendly chicken pad thai for four in 35 minutes flat while driving you nuts with a speech about how fantastic I felt. I darted around my office with boundless energy that last from morning to night.
Then week four came. The end was in sight, but a new dread was appearing: How does one go back to normal eating after this? That idea gave me more anxiety than anything leading up to embarking on this. Am I betraying my body by going back to a normal diet? Have I earned the right to eat pizza again after a cleanse? Am I going to completely miss pumpkin beer season?
I never settled on an easy answer, and still haven't. I'm in limbo; if you offered me a piece of candy corn, I'd probably say no, but if it's the weekend (say, one in which a yearly costume-themed holiday falls), all bets are off. Where I'll eventually land, who knows.
I should probably figure that out. Maybe over a slice of pizza. Maybe over eight slices of pizza.
For any adventurous eaters (or nutritional change-seekers) interested in taking on this challenge, however, it's not all sprightly mornings and fresh veggies for lunch. If you absolutely hate cooking, move along. If post-work happy hour or drinks on the weekend are mandatory, skip.
You will be grumpy four days in and probably have a nonstop headache for days. And if you can't handle your friends rolling their eyes at you any time you shoot down their restaurant suggestion because "it's too hard for me to eat there right now," don't even bother. (Sorry, guys.)
But if you've ever taken a realistic look at your diet and thought, "Wow, I've been been treating my stomach like a garbage compactor," maybe it's time to hit that reset button.