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 a healthy, sustainable lifestyle work in the real world. Today, I’m helping so many of you who seem to get stuck in a chronic Whole30 failure loop.
I went from a great relationship with food to a terrible one when I gained weight. I then went on stupid diets (where I actually gained more weight), and even resorted to restricting and binging. I want to get back to a healthy place, so I’ve been trying to complete the Whole30. However, I’ve been “trying” multiple times for a whole year without ever finishing! By Day 3, I always give up. Why can’t I get this right? –S., via Snapchat
This is actually such a common situation I’m surprised I haven’t written about it already. While the vast majority of Whole30’ers are able to get through the program straightaway, there’s still a subset who share your story: trying again and again, but never making it past day the first few days.
And it’s not because your mom keeps forgetting to tell you there’s honey in the dressing.
Over of these stories, there hovers an air of self-destruction. You don’t just forget to read a label, you violently hurl yourself off the Whole30 cliff into a ravine of wine/cheese/cake/pizza. You abort aggressively, but there’s a major piece of you that really doesn’t want to—and more often than not, you don’t even enjoy the experience. In fact, it only spins you back into the old cycle of overconsumption, guilt, shame, and self-recrimination; feeling out of control and wondering how you’ll ever find true food freedom if you can’t even finish the damn program. What’s wrong with you, that you can’t just get through this thing?
Nothing is wrong with you, my dears, but there is obviously something going on under the hood. Let’s take a look at what’s probably happening.
Step 1: What Really Happened?
For every situation in which you started a Whole30 but aborted a few days in, I want you to examine what actually happened. Hint: “I was offered a beer and just said ‘yes’” isn’t what actually happened—there were reasons behind the scenes that drove you off-track. Here are a few things that could have gone wrong:
Failure to Plan (Physically): You were stuck somewhere (at work, at a bridal shower, in traffic, in the airport) without emergency food, and you got so hangry that you caved. Or, you didn’t meal plan/grocery shop/food prep well enough, and the same situation happened at home.
Failure to Plan (Socially): You encountered a social situation that left you feeling unprepared, and you caved to peer pressure/conformity/pushback from friends, family, or co-workers.
Failure to Plan (Emotionally): Something happened (a tough day at work, a fight with your partner, pants that feel too tight) and you caved to the habit of comfort food to relieve your stress, anxiety, sadness, or loneliness.
Are you seeing a theme here? Remember, the brain loves a plan (see page 111 in Food Freedom Forever for more details). In all of these instances, had you planned more thoroughly there’s a good chance you would have had healthy food on hand/the self-confidence to stand firm in your commitment/a healthier non-food-related coping mechanism at the ready.
Step 2: Make a Plan
Now, having gone back through and identifying which of these factors (or combination of factors) were at play in your failed Whole30(s), it’s time to make a plan so they don’t happen when you try again. Because you WILL try again, and you WILL succeed.
Go back to the If/Then Plan structure outlined on page 26 of The Whole30 and page 111 in Food Freedom Forever. Identify what went wrong (the “if”) and create a course of action for how to correct it in your next Whole30, making any preparatory notes to help you succeed with the plan. Here are some examples:
IF I get stuck at the office well into dinnertime, THEN I’ll eat the EPIC Bar, apple, and almond butter I have stashed at my desk. (Note: buy Barefoot Provisions Whole30 Kit, stock up on fruit, veggies, nut butter, coconut flakes, and olives for the office)
IF I am invited to happy hour with the group, THEN I’ll go, quietly order mineral water and lime, and enjoy the socializing. (Note: I’ll say “No, thank you” if offered another drink, but practice my Whole30 elevator pitch* if people ask why I’m not drinking.)
*See page 184 in Food Freedom Forever
IF I find myself feeling anxious at home, THEN I’ll start calling people on my Reset Support List, talk it through, then cook myself a delicious, nourishing meal. (Note: secure support from friends and family using the techniques in Chapters 11-13 in Food Freedom Forever.)
The more robust you make these If/Thens, the more comfortable your brain will be with the idea of getting past those first few Whole30 days, because this time, you have a PLAN. For anything. For everything. Which means you’ll have no excuses for not kicking all the Whole30 ass.
You Don’t Really Want to Finish the Whole30
You hate this one, but I have to say it, because if there is one thing I learned in therapy, it’s that we don’t do something unless it serves us in some way. Tough love time: There may be something going on emotionally that is holding you back from completing the program. Fear of failure (so you sabotage), fear of success (yes, this is a thing), fear of taking responsibility for your current health condition… the reasons are many and I’m not a psychologist, but if all you wanted in this whole wide world was to finish your Whole30… you’d finish your Whole30.
Working with a trained counselor is the best way to identify these issues and work through them, but in the meantime, a little self-assessment never hurt. So ask yourself this one question:
What is your biggest Whole30-related fear?
Trying to get to the bottom of your resistance to completing the program starts with acknowledging what you think you’re gaining by continuing to “fail.” Maybe figuring this out, then admitting that your fears aren’t anywhere near as scary as the prospect of continuing to be stuck where you currently are is what you need to propel you forward.
Here’s the thing… I know you can do this. You’ve got all the support, motivation, and encouragement you need right here in our community, and all the resources you need to be successful via our website and social media feeds. And the fact that you continue to try tells me all I need to know about your drive, determination, and character.
YOU just have to believe you can do it, heart emoji.
Best in health,
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.
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; Food Freedom Forever; and The Whole30 Cookbook (coming December 6, 2016). She has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, 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