changing my relationship with food

Today is my last day of the Whole30 challenge and I have to say, it’s been an eye-opening experience. When I started, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but what I’ve discovered has been really valuable.

See, I love to eat. I love the experience of cooking food and eating it, I love trying new foods and mixing new flavors, and I love sharing food with friends. I love food as nourishment, food as pleasure and indulgence, and food as celebration. And while I love all of these things about food, I recently started wondering if I need to take a look at my love affair with food a little more closely.

A little more than a month ago, I was noticing that my relationship to food wasn’t where I wanted it to be. I had made a habit of mindlessly eating dinner while watching old episodes of 30 Rock. My brain usually insisted on an afternoon pick-me-up in the form of a grande chai, oatmeal cookie, or other similar sweet treat. When my workmates brought in treats to work, I wouldn’t eat just one. I’d eat one, then another, then another, then… how many did I just eat? Ugh. I knew it possibly went deeper than this (that maybe my diet was also the reason I was so tired all the time), so I wanted bring attention and awareness to my eating habits and see what came up.

Around the same time, I read one of Maija’s blog posts that mentioned something about the Whole30 challenge and its positive effects. So I did a little research. The Whole30 requires you to eliminate sugar (including honey and agave), dairy, grains, legumes, and alcohol in order to help reset the way your body processes food (namely, sugar and fat)  and give it a rest from many foods known to cause inflammation. Essentially, you eat whole foods like vegetables and fruit, along with pasture-raised meats and eggs. I felt like I had been eating those things pretty much anyway, with a bit more emphasis on dairy and legumes. So I thought the Whole30 might be a good challenge and require me to think more about my food choices than I had before. Plus, it scared me to give up dairy (I love cheese) and all sugars (did I mention my sweets habit?), so I took that as a sign that I should definitely go for it.

And go for it, I did. I began the challenge on September 1, not knowing what to expect, but hoping for the best. The first few days were… interesting. Well, the first day, I felt great! I was eating lots of whole foods and good meat from the farmer’s market. I felt clean and healthy and efficient. But then the next few days came. A dull ache took root in my forehead and I wanted to just kind of lay around, take a nap, and do things slowly. (So I guess maybe I hadn’t been eating as well as I thought!) I spent the first week trying to navigate recipes and making good food choices in a number of different situations (it was a real test to have two work functions that first week that featured foods like pizza, mac and cheese, and plenty of cookies, ah!). I felt hyper-vigilant about everything I was eating and every ingredient that went into something I was considering purchasing at the store or ordering off the menu.

Things I did get to eat: Spanish Sweet Potato with Chorizo, Peppers, and Fried Egg

Oh. And my brain wanted sugar basically all the time. Every night I dreamt of eating cookies, fancy lattes from Starbucks (which isn’t usually my style), cake, pie — I’d wake up in a panic, thinking I’d ruined my Whole30, only to be immediately relieved that it was just a dream. Apparently this happens a lot to folks in their first week of the Whole30. I also had to wrestle with my afternoon ritual of a sweet treat. How do I reward myself now that sugar is off the table? (And dang, I realized just how much/often I was using sugar as a reward.) Instead, I walked. I walked around the neighborhood and had an inner dialogue argument with myself about why I was not partaking in sugar. My mind usually had a mini temper tantrum and tried to persuade me otherwise. I reminded myself it was just 30 days, and in the span of a lifetime, 30 days is not a very long time to give up sugar. Somehow, I won the mental battle.

It wasn’t always perfect. I’ve definitely had days where I’ve used fruit to temper the sugar demon, so I’m still examining my drive to eat sweets. I’m thinking it might be best to continue to keep sugar out of my diet perhaps for another few weeks. Or create a “sugar is acceptable in these scenarios” flow chart of sorts. I know I need a better decision guide than just my brain and my taste buds (and my emotions, which play their part).

Sugar proved to be the biggest issue/hurdle for me, but I’ve gained a few other great insights and effects from the Whole30.

  • Better sleep. I used to wake up every night between 1-3am and, depending on my level of stress, would either go back to sleep fairly quickly or stay up for the next hour or so, my mind running a hundred miles. In this past month, I’ve slept like a baby. Out like a light and have had pretty vivid dreams to boot.
  • Sustained energy throughout the day. Instead of a daily 2pm slump in which all I want to do is shove work aside and take a nap, my energy level remains steady, which means I’ve been able to focus better on projects. I’ve also felt more emotionally level and less prone to mood swings.
  • Greater eating awareness. I’ve learned to ask myself, why do I want to eat this? Am I really hungry? If not, what is really going on? Which has been really helpful to begin to uncover what’s at the core of a craving and figure out how to address it. The awareness while eating has also helped me feel more grateful for the nourishment I’m able to give myself.
  • Clothes fit better. While I didn’t track weight or any measurements (it wasn’t a priority this time), I have noticed that my pants fit a little better than they have in the past. Kind of a nice bonus.
  • Food is less of a focus. At social events, my mind usually wants to say, “Hey let’s see what tasty things are at the buffet!” which then leads me to grazing at the food table for the rest of the night. At the social events I went to in the last 30 days, I knew most, if not all, the food would be off limits, so I found myself focusing on the people and event more. I gave my full attention to my conversations with people instead of having a mental running commentary of “When can we get back to the FOOD?” in the background. (Something that is hard to admit.)

Overall, participating in the Whole30 was a really helpful experiment for me and now I’m looking forward to reintroducing foods to see how they make me feel. I suspect that sugar is what makes my energy level dip in the afternoon, but I’m interested to see if anything else has an effect. I’m not really interested in completely going back to the diet I had before, especially knowing that I can maintain steady energy throughout the day. I’m not ready to let that energy go.

I’m really grateful I stumbled on the Whole30. I think it’s definitely worth trying if you’re interested in seeing how a diet change could affect the way you feel overall. I found it was really helpful to read It Starts with Food (the Whole30 book). I also supplemented this challenge by reading Eating Mindfully and incorporating many of the mindful meditations into my eating routine.

I’d be curious to know if you’ve had any interesting revelations in your own relationship with food: how you came to them, how they might have changed your habits. It’s so interesting to me that food can be much more than food and have effects we may not even realize.

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  • Reply Maija October 1, 2012 at 10:51 am

    Lydia, congratulations on making it through the Whole30! I remember having those dreams too, so afraid I’d blown it. The Whole30 also made me even more keenly aware of my emotional attachment to food. Stress = me wanting to eat. It isn’t necessarily unhealthy food, but I wasn’t eating because I was hungry, which was the point. I have continued to eat very close to Whole30 after discovering that my body was just not down for grains & dairy like it used to be, and I am totally OK with that! Why? Because I still sleep like a ROCK every night, and I think that is one of the greatest benefits alone. I also feel a lot better and have seen positive athletic effects at CrossFit and as part of my rowing training, not to mention my 2+ years of elbow tendonitis was suddenly gone and my acne cleared up! So obviously there is no temptation for me to go back to my old ways, for sure. The only ‘sugar’ I introduced back into my diet was in the form of raw honey, which I have used on a few occasions to make paleo treats. But the sugar demon is a bear, and I too have to watch my fruit consumption to make sure I am not feeding the beast!

    Oh, I am so, so proud of you for doing the Whole30 and glad you had a great experience. If only I had known you were doing it I would’ve been cheering you on. It is so liberating to actually eat real, whole food and actually listen to your body. I am so glad I stumbled upon it too, it has been so life changing. Thanks so much for sharing your story!

  • Reply Katie @k8tlevy October 1, 2012 at 11:12 am

    Congratulations on making it through the 30 days, Lydia! I did my first Whole 30 last winter and experienced similar results. I also noticed performance gains in CrossFit that were above and beyond what I’d typically experience, which was awesome.

    I’ve always had challenges with my relationship with food. I’d make rules that had no basis to try and manage how I looked and felt, which turned into huge problems when I was younger.

    Since the Whole 30, I definitely haven’t been strict about my diet, but have generally tried to stick as close to the model as I can. I can say the “general eating awareness” concept has been one of the biggest takeaways I’ve had. Like you, I understand that I have a choice to eat or not to eat what’s in front of me, and I have to weigh the pros and cons of eating something like a cookie. But it’s not based on what it’ll do to my appearance; it’s based on how it’ll make me feel. That was a revelation for me.

    Again, kudos, and thanks for sharing :)

  • Reply lydia October 1, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    Maija! Thank you for the wonderful words and thoughts! You know, speaking of the fitness front, I’ve just started noticing that running has been easier in the last two weeks or so. I wonder if (I bet) that’s related. Have you tried bringing in agave or maple syrup? I sometimes use those things in addition to honey, and I’m curious to know if/how that might change things. I suspect that it would just appease the sugar beast. Hm. I’ve loved catching up on your blog (I just recently discovered it!) and I’m interested to read/hear your thoughts on eating while hiking/climbing/outdoorswhathaveyou.

    Katie! Yes, absolutely yes about the eating for the way it makes me feel. That is a fairly new concept for me, but I can’t wait to experiment with that more. Do you think you would do another Whole30?

    To both of you, tell me more about these performance gains. What did that look like for you? More reps of things? More strength? Ha, probably tricky to tell to a girl who has not done CrossFit before (though, I’m considering putting it on the list!).

    Thank you for the comments. I’m so glad to hear from both of you and about your experiences.

  • Reply chad October 2, 2012 at 9:56 pm

    Hey Lydia,
    Very interesting! What did you eat for breakfast? I currently eat raisin bran every morning, but have been wanting to switch to seomthing else. That is probably my most carbohydrate filled meal of the day.
    What I came up with was omelets (or at least the ingredients for omelet even if not assembled) and possibly meats.
    The biggest barrier for me is the time component. Pouring a bowl of cereal does not take long. I suppose I could make a large omeletish thing on the weekend and eat it during the week.
    It is interesting to me that breakfasts from many different cultures often contain quite a bit of carb, so that is not much help.
    This interview is what got me interested in cutting back on carbs:

    Bye! Chad.

    • Reply lydia October 2, 2012 at 10:10 pm

      For breakfast I’ve been eating eggs in various forms as well as banana-berry-almond butter-coconut water smoothie (which is not something that’s totally loved by the Whole30, but was pretty much the only fruit I had each day). I would make hard-boiled eggs ahead of time and eat those with some salt. When I didn’t have those, I’d whisk an egg or two with a fork and microwave it if I didn’t have a lot of time. Or I’ve made mini quiches (in muffin tins, without the crust), which are a great way to get more vegetables in the mix. Those are great to make on the weekend and heat up through the week. I’ve got these in the fridge now:

      I’m interested in listening to that interview! I do think my blood sugar levels were much more steady during the 30 days. Thanks for the note!

  • Reply Andrea December 1, 2012 at 11:45 pm

    Great job, lady! I also have major issues with sweets and sugars. I remember you mentioned the Whole 30 a while back. I’m scared to try it. It seems especially complicated and expensive since I’m responsible for feeding three now, but I really need to work up the courage and give it a shot.

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