An update to our original (and wildly popular) Whole30 Timeline article by Whole9′s Robin Strathdee, for those new to the Whole30®, and veterans who simply need a reminder.
When the fine folks of CrossFit Springfield (my home gym, and a Whole9 Nutrition Partner) embarked on their first Whole30® program, I was asked to provide a little perspective on what participants could expect during their 30 days. As I sat and tried to come up with a paragraph that would cover all the key elements, I noticed some trends in the emails, comments and personal accounts I was getting. That led me to create what the Whole30 community has come to know as The Timeline. Since then, I’ve noticed some new patterns and experiences that warranted an update.
As with any process that involves personal experience, your results may vary, but it’s my hope that this timeline will give you a hint (and a chuckle) at what you can expect during your Whole30 program.
Day 1: So what’s the big deal?
It’s 3 p.m. on day 1. You had a guilt-free plate of steak and eggs for breakfast, breezed through the morning with coffee and coconut cream by your side, and had a nice big salad for lunch. Your body is telling you it’s snack time, so you grab a handful of almonds and an apple and head back to your desk to finish out your day. You’ve got a slow cooker full of chili infusing your kitchen with a heavenly smell, and right now you can’t see why anyone thinks this is hard.
This delusion is somewhat akin to the first episode of any given reality show on which the contestants are herded together and forced to live in one house. At the end of the first episode, everyone can just tell they are going to be best friends for life. Those of us on the other side of the screen know better, though, don’t we? No one really believes this mess to be true, but everyone humors it… because how long can it last, really?
The truth is that you’re feeling empowered by making one good choice after another, all day long. And you should! Take note of that Rock Star feeling, stash it away and bring it back out when days get rough. Because rest assured that after a lifetime of suboptimal choices, things are going to have to get worse before they can get better.
Speaking of rough…
Days 2-3: The Hangover
The alarm rings on day 2 and you pop out of bed expecting the same kind of Charlie Sheen winning feeling you had yesterday. Instead, you get the other side of Charlie…you know – the pounding-head-cross-eyed-can’t-see-straight side. You know you didn’t down a fifth of tequila in your sleep, so what the heck happened?!
Remember the pre Whole30 bender you went on? Pizza, cookies, Jim Beam, jelly beans (oh, the jelly beans)? Yeah. This is when it comes back to bite you in the butt. (And the head.) And it is definitely true that the amount of suck you experience in this phase is directly proportional to the amount of crap you consumed before you began the program. Especially if you consumed it consistently. This phase is especially hard for the habitual Diet Coke (and Diet Dr. Pepper here in my part of the world) drinkers. You know who you are.
Many Whole30ers report headaches, fatigue, and general malaise during this part of the program. This, my friends, is completely normal. Your body is working its way through a whole host of junk it stored from the foods (or food-like-products) you used to eat. This process lasts a day for some folks, but for others it can take a few days longer. Relax, drink a lot of water, and keep making good choices. And do your best to earn sympathy and support from friends and family, because…
Days 4-5: Kill ALL the things!
Day 4 dawns and you tentatively step out of bed, expecting to feel like you took a strike from Thor’s hammer in the temple. Instead, your head is surprisingly clear. Your limbs all feel functional. This could be a good day! You walk into the kitchen and as you’re greeted by the smiling face of your significant other you are suddenly overcome…with the desire to punch them in the face for smiling this early in the morning. Congratulations! You’ve made it to day 4.
Now, I have no clue why this phase happens, or why it happens here (and not on, say, day 14).* I just know that it happens. Often. Even experienced Whole30ers (myself included) go through this phase. Every nerve is lit, temperance is non-existent and the only solution to the problem seems to be to Kill All of the Things.
This phase, too, will pass. Beg your spouse, children, parents, co-workers, for patience and forgiveness – as nicely as you can (and no, “shut up and leave me alone!” does not count as nice). Take a deep breath and eat some sweet potatoes. I promise, you’ll feel better soon.
*It’s probably because your brain is never very happy when you tell it that it CAN’T have something, and take it out of it’s habitual and accustomed comfort zone. An unhappy brain is a stressed brain, an anxious brain, a fearful brain. No to mention your hormones are desperately trying to keep up with your new food choices, your gut is trying to heal, you’ve had a headache for the last three days, and you REALLY MISS YOUR DIET COKE. So yeah, maybe we do know why this is happening now…
Days 6-7: I just want a nap…
Okay, so its day 6 and you made it through the last phase without smiting anyone. The thing is, today you don’t feel like you could smite anyone if your life depended on it! It’s 10 am and all you can think about is crawling under your desk for a catnap. As the day drags on, the surface of your desk is morphing, from hard wooden surface to snuggly warm pillow, right before your eyes. You hit the gym, but only halfheartedly, unable to face the barbell with any kind of conviction. You crawl into bed at 8 p.m. only to drag yourself out eleven hours later feeling no more rested than you did the night before.
So what’s the deal?! Isn’t eating like this supposed to increase energy levels? Yes…in the long run. Right now, your body is learning that it can’t rely on all those easy access energy sources it used to know and love. Gone are the days of cinnamon crunch muffins and Frappuccinos. Now your body is learning to efficiently burn fat and protein as its fuel sources, and that takes more effort – and some time. If you can hold out just a bit longer, you’ll definitely reap the benefits. (Besides, you could probably use a day off from the gym anyway, right?)
Day 8-9: For the love of Gosling, my pants are TIGHTER.
You’ve made it through the Hangover, and managed not to kill ALL the things, and you’re starting to feel like things are back on level ground again. Then, you put on your pants. They’re just pants, completely normal pants. In fact, they’re the pants you wore just three days ago. (You were too tired to wash them. It’s okay, we understand.) And three days ago, they fit. But this morning you had to take a big deep breath to get that button where it ought to be. What gives?!
The same processes that ran over you like a truck a few days ago are still working their magic in your body. Your body composition is not actually changing for the worse, we assure you. The enzymes that digest your food and the millions of bacteria that live in your gut are adjusting to your new intake of meat and vegetables, and the lack of easy-access sugars. This is something they do naturally, and these adjustments have contributed to humanity’s ability to flourish throughout our history. However, these adjustments can be a bit… uncomfortable. Bloating, constipation, diarrhea, or all three may appear as your gut starts to heal, rebalance, and process this new food effectively. The good news is that most people find this phase passes relatively quickly, and their pants are easy to button again within a week or so.
Days 10-11: The Hardest Days.
Fact: you are most likely to quit your Whole30 program on Day 10 or 11. By this point, the newness of the program has worn off. You’ve made it through most of the unpleasant physical milestones, but you’ve yet to experience any of the “magic” the program promises. You’re still struggling to establish your new routine (read: you’ve eaten eggs prepared ten different ways over the last ten days), and while you’ve been trying really hard to have a good attitude, today you are incredibly aware of all the foods you’re “choosing not to eat right now.” Everywhere you look, you see the things you “can’t” have: the melted cheese on a greasy burger, the creaminess of that double-scoop cone, the cold beer in your best friend’s tailgate cooler. Dammit, this is hard! And right now you’re wondering if the results will really be as good as “they” all say it is.
You’re cranky, you’re impatient, and you’re really, really tempted to just eat the stupid cheese.
This is where you really start to experience the psychological hold that your food habits have on you. You’ve put in a lot of effort to get to where you are right now, but you’re still waiting for the results you’re hoping to see. Your brain tells you that you deserve some kind of reward (don’t you?) and, of course, we’ve been conditioned to think of food as the best reward out there. Right now, you’re craving that ice cream, beer, or whatever treat you think would make for just the right reward. But, instead of that treat, you’re standing face to face with the realization that you have 20 more days of deprivation ahead of you.
The key here is to redefine your idea of reward. Think long and hard about the foods you’re grieving and ask yourself what need you’re expecting them to fulfill. Are you feeling anxious and looking for reassurance? Are you feeling sad, and looking for something to cheer you up? Are you worried you won’t successfully finish the program, and it’s easier to self-sabotage than fail? Remind yourself that food cannot fill that void for you—cannot make you feel truly accomplished, comforted, calm, happy, beautiful. Then, find another way to fill that need that does not involve those foods. Prepare yourselves for these days, knowing that all you have to do is see them through to the other side before things get much, much easier.
Days 12-15: Boundless energy! Now give me a damn Twinkie.
Hurray! The slump is over! Your pants fit again! Your energy levels are better than normal – you’re downright Tigger the bouncing tiger! But something weird is happening. You’re dreaming. Not crazy nightmare or strange surrealist dreams, either. Incredibly normal and realistic dreams – about donuts. Or Twinkies. Or Snickers.* In your mind, sometimes you get caught and feel guilty. Sometimes you just brazenly eat the contraband. But then, the feelings start following you into the waking hours. Suddenly, you’re craving things you don’t even like. (For me, it’s Diet Coke and Twinkies, for Melissa Hartwig, it was fast-food cheeseburgers!) Your co-workers’ heads transform into giant Girl Scout Cookies as you gaze on in disbelief. Seriously, you’ve almost hit the halfway mark, and now this?!
All joking aside, though, this phase gets really intense and for some people. This is the part of the program where our minds try to drive us back to the comfort of the foods we used to know. Our food relationships are deeply rooted and strongly reinforced throughout the course of our lives and breaking through them is really big deal. Journaling can be especially enlightening and helpful during this phase, and helpful for reflection later. Take some time to jot down what you’re craving, how you’re feeling and what tools you’re using to work through the cravings.
*The cravings people get, and the dreams they often have, rival those of pregnancy. One person told me they craved pickles and Doritos (together) during this phase!
Days 16-27: Tiger Blood!
You’ve hit the downhill slope of your Whole30 and life is beautiful—which means different things for different people. For some (generally people who came to the program eating well, exercising regularly, and feeling pretty good to begin with), Tiger Blood means someone flipped a switch and turned on the awesome. Energy is through the roof, cravings are under control, clothes are fitting better, workouts are stronger.
For others, this Tiger Blood stage feels more like a real sense of self-efficacy. It doesn’t mean things are perfect (or even easy), but you’re proving to yourself that you can do this, things are getting better, and you’re seeing improvements (small or large) almost daily. Your energy is steadier, you’ve got a firmer handle on the cravings, and you’re experimenting with new, delicious foods. You may notice that your ability to focus is keener, your body composition is changing, your moods are more stable, you’re stepping up your exercise, or you’re just plain happier these days.
Of course, this may not happen like magic at the halfway point. There are a huge number of factors that influence which benefits you see and when. If you’re one of those folks who has hit the halfway mark and isn’t seeing or feeling the dramatic changes others have reported*, know this: You’re not doing it wrong. If you began the Whole30 with a medical condition, a long and rooted history of unhealthy food habits, or a chronically stressful lifestyle, your “magic” may take longer to appear, and probably won’t be a “light switch” moment. Don’t stress about whether you’re feeling honest-to-goodness “Tiger Blood”—be patient, and be on the lookout for small, gradual improvements to keep you motivated. Slow and steady still wins this race.
*There really is no such thing as a “typical” Whole30. Honestly. There are just trends and common occurrences.
(Interlude) Day 21: I am so over this.
You’ve solidly settled into week three of the program at this point. Your clothes fit better; your skin is clearer; your inner awesomeness is shining through. But despite the many benefits you’re seeing, you went to bed last night dreading the thought of breakfast. You weren’t much more excited about it this morning, either. Come to think of it, you’re not thrilled with any of your meal options right now. In fact, if Iron Chef Bobby Flay were to walk into your kitchen right now and offer to cook you any Whole30 compliant meal you wanted, you’re not even sure you could think of one. Just about anything sounds like more fun than sitting down to a big plate of Whole30 grub. You’re loving the way your body is responding to the program, but you’re just not sure if you can make it through 9 more days. And if you see even one more egg, you are going to scream.
Somewhere in the third week of the program, serious food boredom sets in. For some folks, it gets so overwhelming that they lose their appetite altogether for a few days. Don’t let the food fatigue overtake you – plan ahead! Get to work in week two and hunt down some new recipes to keep the fire burning! Find inspiration from our recent meal plan round-up, cruise the Whole30 section of Chowstalker or The Foodie, or pick up a new cookbook (like Well Fed 2…wink wink, nudge nudge). Find some exotic produce in the grocery store, try some exotic recipes – do whatever you can to get over this little speed bump. Being bored and hungry is just a recipe for disaster, and this, too, shall pass.
Day 28: 28 is as good as 30…right?
It’s day 28. DAY 28! You’ve almost made it! You pushed through all the rough spots, fought off the food boredom, and you’re really loving where you are right now. You’ve had a solid breakfast, packed a delicious lunch, and planned a stellar new recipe for dinner. You’re primed to make it through day 28 without breaking a sweat. But then you get to work. Today is your department’s monthly birthday celebration, and at the mid-morning break a co-worker teases, “You’ve been so good for 28 days! Isn’t 28 as good as 30? Just have one cupcake with us to celebrate.” You brush the comment off – you’re used to them at this point – but it really gets you thinking. What have you got to lose at this point? What benefit could two more days possibly bring you? Isn’t 28 days just as good as 30?
The answer is a loud and resounding NO. 28 days is NOT as good as 30, and we’ll tell you why: You owe yourself 30 days. You made a commitment to give yourself 30 full days of Good Food and improved habits. When you make a commitment to self-improvement, it’s a big deal! If you cop out now, you’re telling yourself that the commitments you make to yourself are open to compromise. You’re telling yourself that you are not important enough to honor your commitment to you. But that’s not true, is it? You ARE important. You ARE worth a full commitment. Require that of yourself and celebrate with a renewed sense of integrity, not a cupcake.
Days 29-30: HolyOprahIt’sAlmostOverWhatAmIGoingToEatNow?!?!?!
It’s day 29, and you’re still rocking. The thoughts you had yesterday of throwing in the towel are gone. You cruise through the day and as you crawl into bed you have a small thought that then grows into full-blown cold-sweat panic. Holy crap. Tomorrow is day 30. The last day. What the hell are you going to do after that?! You worked so hard, fought through all the anger, the naps, the cravings to get to the awesome you’re feeling now. The rules have been your backbone, your lifeline, your excuse for being “that person” in social situations. Are you just going to give them up on day 31? No. You firmly resolve that there will be no deviation on day 31. If it ain’t broke…
It’s totally normal to feel a twinge of panic as your Whole30 comes to a close. For the past month, you’ve lived, breathed, and literally eaten the rules. You feel incredible in your new high-octane body. It’s natural to hesitate at the thought of making any changes – even if the change is a return to what was “normal” for you before. And, the truth is, you don’t have to go back to the way you used to eat. But keep in mind that the Whole30 was intended to be a reset, an introduction into the world of Good Food. I know it’s scary, but keep an open mind, okay?
Day 31: Deep breathing. And maybe some ice cream.
Your sanity returned at some point on day 30 and you realized that eventually, you will have to come out of your perfect Whole30 bubble. Try as you may, you won’t always be able to make life fit inside the Whole30 rules. Does that mean you’re headed off-road at 90 miles per hour? No. But it does mean that you’ll give the reintroduction protocol (in It Starts With Food) the same attention you gave the last 30 days and be honest with yourself about your reactions – physical and emotional – to food. And tonight, that might just mean a bowl of ice cream. And that’s okay.
We don’t expect you to live your life Whole365. We do expect you to take what you’ve learned and use the information to carefully evaluate how the foods you were eating before make you feel now that you’ve eliminated them (and any of their negative effects) from your body. We do expect you to listen to the feedback your body and mind give you and change your food relationships. And we do expect you to make conscious choices about when and how to go off-plan…and when you do, enjoy it!
Your Mileage May Vary
Of course, no two people’s Whole30 experience is the same, and you may find you breeze past some of these phases while being stuck in others for longer than you anticipated. Either way, we hope you use The Timeline to help you prepare for your first Whole30, or to look back on after your Whole30 and reflect on whether we were more right than wrong here.
Have you done a Whole30? How spot-on is our Timeline? Want to propose a new phase, or modify a phase we’ve written about above? Share it in comments!
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