Never in my life have I coveted vegetables. Never have I stared longingly at a plate of scrambled eggs. Never before have I thought to myself, “Man, I could really go for some spaghetti squash right about now.” But here I am, devouring salads like they’re pasta, inhaling plain grilled chicken breast like it’s chocolate cake and sipping on my cranberry kombucha like it’s a fine red wine dreaming about the dairy-free pesto “pasta” dish I’m going to make when I get home.
I’m doing the Whole30. And I’m doing it while traveling.
Actually that’s not entirely true. I’m doing an even more limited version of the Whole30, as per my nutritionist’s orders, making eating on the go, while visiting other cities and attending conferences, very very very very (did I already say very?) challenging.
What’s the Whole30?
I won’t get into the very long specifics of the program; you can find out more here and here and here and if you google it, you’ll find a million blogs where people document their experiences. The tl;dr version is: a diet consisting only on real, whole foods, eliminating those that have negative impacts on the human body, focusing on non-scale health victories (i.e. no calorie counting or weigh-ins). This means: no grains, no added sugars, no booze, no legumes, no dairy, no MSG or sulfites, and you’re not supposed to try to recreate baked goods or junk foods with compliant ingredients.*
Why am I doing this?
Our physical and mental health begins in the gut so if the gut isn’t healthy then we’re not healthy, and my gut isn’t healthy. My amazing nutritionist, Ana, (who I highly recommend) wanted me to do a total body reset through an elimination diet, and work on improving my gut health through supplements. Thankfully, she eased me into all these changes since I had a weeklong vacation to Mexico (pictures forthcoming, I promise!) and I’ve been able to wean off of some bad stuff (caffeine) and ramp up to some good stuff (anti-inflammatory shake, glutamine, kombucha, new vegetables, etc.), so I thought starting my modified Whole30 wouldn’t be that hard to get into. (I was wrong.)
So, along with tons of brave souls out there, and thankfully my bestie (who started it at the same time I did) I’m eating healthier than I ever have in my entire life — and liking it! (Mostly.) Additionally, Ana took me off eggs, caffeine and potatoes (I’m liking this part less), and told me to add fermented foods (such as kombucha) and a few supplements (glutamine, probiotics, an anti-inflammatory shake, fish oil and digestive enzymes).
The Whole30 is no joke; it requires dedication, commitment, strength of mind. Actually, come to think of it, it requires the very thing my grandmother always used to say to me that I never understood: Patience and fortitude.
Patience and Fortitude
I wholly admire every single person who has ever taken on a paleo-esque or Whole30-compliant lifestyle. The Whole30 requires patience and fortitude in droves. And the modifications I have to include make it even more challenging. Complying with all of the rules is hard enough to do in your own kitchen with food you buy from the store, but I decided to start this whole thing right before leaving town for 10 consecutive days. Good going, Ashley.
Days 6 and 7 of the Whole30 are supposedly some of the toughest, and I got to spend those surrounded by friends in Chicago, seeing Hamilton. Sounds good, right? For the most part, yes, because I was often distracted from the gnawing salt and sugar cravings. But those two days were also mentally draining because everywhere we went, every restaurant, every bar, every corner we turned in Chicago, I was surrounded by food. Sweet, salty, fatty delicious foods. Coffee and french toast, sandwiches and waffle fries. Chicken wings and tacos, and candy and donuts. Pasta and pastries and bread and butter and cocktails and chocolate, and even foods I normally find disgusting were singing their siren songs in my directions.
It hit me pretty hard on Saturday when I was sitting in between my husband and my best friend from college, Bryan, holding his sweet baby boy. His lovely wife was chowing down on some amazing looking french fries (tbh they were probably frozen but I did not care) while my friends Liz and HG, to my left, were noshing on something called Irish nachos, which were not something I’d ever order but had me salivating. In front of me was a plate with a plain piece of grilled mahi (no butter) and four of the largest pieces of asparagus I’ve ever seen (I mean, like, an inch thick). I salted the asparagus. I cut the asparagus. I put a piece of the very large asparagus into my mouth and closed my eyes in delight as the salt touched my tongue. It wasn’t a chip, it wasn’t a fry, it didn’t resemble what I actually wanted to put into my mouth but it was salty and crunchy and was literally all I could eat off the menu.
Do you have any idea how badly I wanted to reach over, grab Sylwia’s plate of fries, and shove them in my face?
Keep in mind, we’d already gone to a hip coffee joint where I skipped the java (sadface), opting for herbal tea, and ate at this cute brunch spot called Hot Chocolate which had the most delicious reading menu. Everything sounded so good. French toast. Home made donuts and sticky buns. Scrambled eggs. Omelets, quiche, quinoa bowls… things I don’t even like! But no, I was good. I had herbal tea, and fresh squeezed orange juice, and a bowl of fruit.
By the time we got to the Irish place I was hungry but still following the rules. After the Irish place, we bar hopped to a couple different locations, and while the not imbibing wasn’t bothering me, the not being able to indulge in ANYTHING was starting to wear on me. Normally, when I’m DD (or just being responsible), I’ll satisfy other cravings — usually for something starchy like a sandwich or potatoes or pasta or chips or fries or lord just a piece of bread! I just want a piece of bread! — but not that night. That night I was snacking on my Larabar and sipping my club soda with mint and lime (or as I like to call it a faux-jito) and keeping a smile on my face even though I was exhausted. At 7 pm I was ready to crawl into bed and sleep for three days. Apparently this is normal, and Tina, my fellow sufferer was going through the same sugar withdrawals as I was. The difference is she got to cuddle with her cats and binge some Netflix. I had to pretend like I was having a good time with my friends.
As I watched the (super skilled) bartender mix two drinks with her right hand and shake another in her left, I felt the uninvited sting of tears in my eyes. My husband turned to me, smiled, asked if I wanted another drink (just how much club soda am I supposed to drink?!) and that’s when I felt the tears drop. I rushed to the ladies room, trying to quell the flow, but they wouldn’t stop. I wasn’t upset, nothing specific had triggered or even warranted this physical reaction, but I was so so so so (did I say so?) tired and could not stop crying in the women’s room at Moneygun in Chicago.
As our group grew when some of Bryan’s friends joined, plans were made for the next bar. At this point, it’s like 9 o’clock and I’m on the verge of tears or falling asleep sitting up or both. I tell Justin I’m going to get a Lyft home so he can go out but he insists on coming with me, which makes me want to cry even more. He’s so sweet.
This is For Me
I don’t want MY dietary restrictions to interfere with anyone’s plans. Yes, they are hard, and yes, I am now a pain-in-the-ass to eat with, and yes, I appreciate everyone’s support but I don’t want to inconvenience or put anyone out. This is totally selfish. It’s for me. I am making positive strides with my health, taking control of what goes in my body and redefining what my ‘normal’ looks like so I won’t give up, and I don’t want people to feel sorry for me, or apologize for eating in front of me. My husband has been unwaveringly supportive thus far, and though he might not see it as so, going home with me that evening meant a lot.
Today is Day 10 and I find myself, along with my husband and two of our co-workers, at the Learning Solutions conference in Orlando. At a hotel. For six nights. I can’t eat the box lunches provided by the conference, nor drink the free cocktails at the expo reception. I can’t partake in the free coffee or mid-afternoon pick-me-up snacks they put out. Instead, I drink my morning shake, make some a cup of Dandy blend and fill my purse with compliant snacks knowing I’ll get a full, healthy, compliant meal at dinner time. (Tonight it was a salad with a compliant herb vinaigrette topped with beautifully grilled salmon.)
If I were doing this diet just to lose weight, I would have given in to my cravings long, long ago. I’d probably cave and say “Oh just let me taste your fries” or allow myself just ONE cup of coffee to wake me up during the 8:30 am workshop. But I’m doing this for a much more important reason than just losing weight, so right now the reward looks much sweeter (and saltier and fattier and soooo much more delicious) than anything I could eat right now (and believe me, I’m dreaming of eating EVERYTHING).
I feel really good right now. I haven’t felt this good in…. years. My symptoms have lessened by 80% or more. I wasn’t expecting such a drastic improvement already. I don’t wake up every day wondering how my body will react to foods that day. I just get up and go, living the day like a normal person, and it’s marvelous.
Despite the improvements, my motivation, and my husband’s and friends’ (and therapist’s and nutritionist’s) support, eating like this while traveling is CRAZY HARD. I can not wait until we get back home next week, and I can cook for myself (and by “cook for myself” I mean “have my husband help me not make a disaster in the kitchen”), because frankly, I’m getting really sick of salads.
In five days I’ll officially be halfway through with the hardest part of this whole thing. On day 31 I get to add eggs back into my diet…. woohoo! Even then, I still won’t technically be doing the Whole30. I don’t yet know when I’ll get to add back in the other things, but you can bet your ass I’m super psyched about those eggs. I can only imagine the day I get to eat a potato again…. I don’t even need the whole potato. Just a couple bites. Until then, I’ll be over here, snacking on a Thunderbird bar, drinking my seltzer water, day dreaming about chips.
Have YOU done the Whole30, a paleo diet or something similar? What is the toughest health challenge you’ve ever faced? What are your favorite paleo/Whole30-compliant recipes?
*Thank goodness Ana didn’t make those same stipulations and even suggested I try making my own grain-free bread, add almond butter and mashed raspberries to create a modified version of my childhood favorite (PB&J).