August 1, 2016

Dear Melissa: My Sugar Dragon is Still Breathing Fire

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Welcome to Dear Melissa, where I answer your questions about transitioning into or completing a Whole30, successfully sticking to your new Food Freedom habits, and figuring out how to make this lifestyle work in the real world. Today, I’m helping an Argentinian woman struggling with the end of her Whole30, faced with a Sugar Dragon still breathing fire.

Dear Melissa, I am on day 54 of my Whole60. By Day 15, I could feel clearly how my knee – which had been hurting for a year and a half – did not hurt anymore! That was wonderful and it was one of my two main objectives. The other one was tame my Sugar Dragon. When I got to Day 30 I felt I had to extend my Whole30 because I dreamed – figuratively and literally – about eating tons of Oreos dipped in chocolate. So I decided to go a bit further, but I’m on Day 54, feeling that I have not tamed it one bit. I still cannot wait to eat chocolate, I still dream about a large pizza and a glass of Coke, a cup of ice cream or a Snickers bar… As the day approaches 60 I’m considering extending it to 90 days, as I do not feel I have mastered that part of myself. I do not feel I’m in control of myself regarding sugar and carbohydrates, and I have fear of returning to the same compulsive and addictive behavior I had before. Please help. –Jane, Argentina Dear Jane, First, I want you to take a deep breath. You are doing AMAZING. You’ve made it through nearly 60 days added-sugar free, successfully telling your Sugar Dragon, “NO, you are not in control today.” That is incredible progress. That having been said, there could be a few things at play here that will help you feel like you can come off the Whole30 and start reintroducing off-plan foods while still staying in control. (By the way, questions like yours are the entire reason I wrote Food Freedom Forever, coming out October 4! The whole book is designed to help people find balance, sustainability, and freedom from out-of-control cravings and food-related compulsive behavior in life after the Whole30.) But October is still a few months away, so let’s talk about what may be going on here.

Are you eating enough?

First, are you eating enough food in general, specifically enough carbohydrate? If you’re under-fed and limiting starchy carbs (like potatoes) and fruit to the extreme, your body may just be reacting to that—saying “I need energy!” And the fastest way to get more energy is through sugar; cue the cravings and chocolate-covered-Oreo dreams. If you’ve been dramatically limiting carbohydrate in an effort to quiet your Dragon, you may be making it worse, not better! Try adding more carbohydrate from vegetables and fruit to your meals—a fist-sized portion at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as part of the meal and not “dessert.” In addition, make sure you are eating enough calories in general, especially from fat. (See our meal template at

Are you still feeding your Sugar Dragon?

Second, have you been propping up your sugar cravings during your Whole60 with technically compatible sweet stuff? You may be feeding your Sugar Dragon and you don’t even know it—and if you are, no wonder it’s still roaring. If every time you have a sugar craving, you satisfy it with frozen grapes or pan-fried plantains, dried fruit, or some other sweet-but-compatible treat, you’re not actually changing that habit… which means the cravings will continue. If that’s the case, you need to find another way to get through those cravings and not give in with sweet stuff! First, ask yourself if you’re actually hungry, or just having a craving. My favorite technique for this is to say to yourself, “Am I hungry enough for grilled chicken and steamed broccoli?” If the answer is yes, go eat a meal or mini-meal! If the answer is, “No, but I’d eat some grapes/dried mango/pan-fried plantains” you’re just having a craving, and it’s time to put your Sugar Dragon in a time-out. Distraction techniques work best here, as the average craving only lasts 3-5 minutes. Go for a quick walk, tidy up your kitchen, pay a few bills, answer an email, phone a friend, read a few pages of a good book, or brew a cup of tea. Before you know it, the craving is gone, your Sugar Dragon is that much weaker, and you’re one step closer to getting back in touch with your body’s true “hunger” signals.

Are you thinking about the Whole30 like a traditional diet?

Third, it’s very common for cravings to get worse the closer you get to the “end” of a diet. I write about this in Food Freedom Forever in great detail—you’ll see lots of references to “the plane landing,” so be on the lookout for that section in October for more helpful information. The summary is that how you are choosing to think about the Whole30 could be playing a role in how much you crave as you get closer and closer to the “finish line.” If you’re thinking about the Whole30 like any other diet, where you restrict, use willpower to see it through, then come off the plan and rebound back into old habits because you’re under-fed and willpower-depleted, then it’s no wonder your cravings are going to kick in as you get closer to “the end” of the program. Remember, this is not that! You’re not dieting, you’re not deprived, you’re not calorie restricted, and you’re learning to change your habits from the inside-out, not just using willpower to white-knuckle your way through a craving.  Try thinking about Day 60 not as the “end” of the Whole30, but a gentle transition into Phase 2 of the Whole30—reintroduction. (It’s not ending—it’s just changing form slightly!) Then, follow the Slow Roll reintroduction template as outlined in The Whole30 to ease back into off-plan foods, leaving out any sugary treats or things you know may be a “gateway” to binging or out-of-control consumption until you are feeling more confident.

Do you need more help here?

Finally, your last line—“I have fear of returning to the same compulsive and addictive behavior I had before”—set off a warning bell for me. If this is truly your context, and you’re coming from a place of food addiction or serious emotional issues around food, you may need more than just a dietary intervention to address what’s happening behind the scenes. The Whole30 is an incredible tool to reset your health, habits, and relationship with food, but you can’t expect 30 (or even 60) days to totally override decades of bad habits or a dysfunctional relationship with food and eating. I highly encourage you to seek the counsel of someone trained in this area—a therapist, a group, or a doctor—who can help you talk through some of your food-related anxiety and fears, figure out where that might be coming from, and (along with a healthy dietary strategy) help you find coping strategies that work both in the moment and long-term to keep you feeling in control, healthy, and happy. It’s possible that emotional or psychological reasons are keeping you from the kind of food freedom you want (and deserve), so find someone who can help you a battle your Sugar Dragon from another angle, and see if the combination of a healthy Whole30-ish diet plus some good talk therapy and change strategies can get you there.

Return to Your Reset

And remember, if you ever feel like you need a little extra help staying on track while you work through this stuff, the Whole30 will always be here for you. You know the program works to keep you feeling your best, physically and mentally, and there is no shame in coming back to the rules if you need a little extra support while you navigate your food freedom journey. Best in health, Melissa Food Freedom Forever is available for pre-order now, and will arrive on your doorstep on October 4, 2016. Stay tuned for more previews from the book, and book tour information.

Got a question for Melissa? Submit them here.

Remember, we aren’t answering questions about the Whole30 rules via this column (use the forum!), nor are we able to offer you specific advice about your medical issue, health condition, or body composition. 3-15a small Melissa Urban is a Certified Sports Nutritionist, and the author of the New York Times bestselling books It Starts With Food and The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom; and the upcoming Food Freedom Forever. She has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Details, Outside, SELF, and Shape as the co-founder of the Whole30 program. Melissa lives in Salt Lake City, UT. Photo credit: Marie Carmel Photography