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, we’re answering the #1 question on everyone’s mind, in three-part format. (Need a refresher? Go back and read Part 1 and Part 2 first.)
How do you eat?
In part 1 of this series, I mentioned that just because I eat this way does not mean you should eat this way. In fact, I think I made myself perfectly clear when I said, “You should not eat what I eat.” In part 2 of this series, I laid out the specifics of what I’ve learned from my Whole30 programs—the foods I keep on my everyday plate, the less healthy foods I’ve deemed “worth it” from time to time, and the things I never, ever eat, even if Ryan Gosling made them by hand. Please make sure you read both of these installments before you continue—the context matters.
Feedback from my second article was overwhelmingly positive. People were thrilled to hear that (a) I wasn’t a robot, (b) I didn’t eat Whole30 all the time, and (c) it’s actually possible to find a happy, healthy balance in life after your Whole30.
But people also wanted to know how I made it seem so easy.
15 May, 2014 at 12:43 pm
You make it sound so easy! I mean that in a complimentary way. How long did you have to really consciously eat this way on purpose before it just became “the way you eat?” I’ve completed two Whole30s and am currently a few days into my third. And though the process is much easier each time, after reintroduction I still feel like I’m having to avoid things *on purpose,* like I’m making a decision to be on-plan or off-plan, that I’m having to fight everyday not to eat certain things. I know you’ve been doing this for a long time, but – when did it start feeling natural?
15 May, 2014 at 11:53 am
I loved the transparency here. Thank you! One question I have – did it take you months, years to get to this point? I finished a Whole50 back in February. I found that after a few weeks I went back to my old habits. Perhaps I didn’t do the reintroduction phase correctly ? That was my 2nd Whole30. I started today, again.
So, I really didn’t intend it to sound as though I’ve reached this effortless place of perfectly balanced eating every second of every day. Yes, this is how I generally eat on a regular basis, but I still have struggles, flops, and fails, just like these two ladies (and probably all of you, too). So here are a few things that I didn’t include in part two—some of the subtext and background of my relationship with food as it looks today, more than five years after my first Whole30.
Lesson #1: This is a life-long process.
First, it took me about three years to get to this point. This is how I eat today, not how I ate after my first Whole30. I’m always learning, always trying to be honest with myself and hold myself accountable, and always refining what I decide is worth it and what isn’t.
I wasn’t in this place after my first Whole30. Or my second. Or my third. It took time, and there is no end to this pursuit—I’ll always strive to find the way of eating that works best for me, that provides me with maximum health, maximum pleasure, and minimum stress. And since my context is always changing (stress, activity level, health, priorities), my nutrition plan should always be changing, too. Sometimes I make changes quickly and dramatically, sometimes it’s more subtle over a long period of time, but my diet is always evolving, because I’m always evolving. We all are.
None of our Whole30 and life-after roads are a linear climb straight up to perfection. They’re messy and winding and littered with obstacles. You’ll have periods of healthy balance followed by periods of eating frosting right out of the can. You’ll feel on top of the world and strong in your resolve on Day 31 and wondering what happened while eating chili-cheese fries two weeks later. (Hint: stress happened.) You’ll feel like you’re either “on” or “off”—that a happy balance is simply out of reach for you.
It isn’t. It just takes time, dedication, patience, and grace.
I never aimed for “moderation” because, like so many others, that concept just doesn’t work for me. I simply decided to learn from my food-related behaviors and experiences (positive and negative), return to the Whole30 as often as I needed for a reset, and never again beat myself up about the choices I made with food.
Eventually, by following the same advice we give to you (make conscious, deliberate decisions about less healthy foods; savor them when you do indulge; embrace that there is no guilt—only consequences; and return to the Whole30 as often as needed), I arrived in this really awesome place. Yes, you’re saying, but it took you three years. Seriously, who’s counting? Three years from now, you’ll still be eating. And if you start now, you’ll immediately be one giant step closer to a new relationship with food, your body, and your self-esteem.
Lesson #2: Because stress.
Just because I’ve found this great balance that works for me in the here and now doesn’t mean I don’t fall off the beam from time to time. Sometimes, I fall so fast I smack my head on the way down. I’m human, I’ve battled the same unhealthy relationship with food that you have (food as comfort, food as reward), and no matter how good my diet is, in the face of stress our Sugar Dragons all rear their ugly heads.
Things I have done with food in the last year:
- Eaten an entire bag of potato chips mindlessly. (Salt plus vinegar equals someone cut my brake lines.)
- Eaten candy in secret, alone. Maybe in a bathroom.
- Ate a gluten-free cupcake I didn’t really want, but since I told myself I could…
- Finished eating something even though I decided one bite in it definitely wasn’t worth it.
- Used food to comfort myself when I was feeling anxious.
- Ate nothing but potato chips and coconut milk ice cream covered in fudge sauce for dinner when Dallas was out of town, not because it was special but because it felt deliciously naughty.
So, you know, I still have my moments, and if you were hoping I could be your shining light of food perfection, you’re going to be disappointed. While these incidents happen way less frequently than they did before my first Whole30, and are nowhere near as severe when they do happen (it’s a cupcake, not a three-day Carbapalooza), I still make poor decisions. These things tend to creep up on me when I’m underslept (hi, 14-month-old baby) and over-stressed.
In fact, this is a critical point—in the face of stress, the body undergoes physiological changes that make you crave sugar. It doesn’t matter how good your diet is, how much you feel like you have a handle on your habits, or how long you’ve been eating healthy—stress affects us all the same way. It’s a fact of nature and biology, and even Buddha himself would crave a Krispy Kreme under pressure.
Even though my Sugar Dragon is generally small and cute and doesn’t play a role in my day-to-day life, it goes from gecko to Godzilla when I’m under major stress. Most of the time I handle it well, but sometimes I fall victim to old habits, impulses, or the promises of relief, comfort, and pleasure whispered by the salt, sugar, and fat found in a bag of kettle corn.
Does that mean the Whole30 didn’t work, or that I’m not as “healthy” as I thought I was? Not at all. It means I’m a normal person subject to the rules of nature and the body, just like everyone else. It means that habits created decades ago never really go away, and that under stress, my brain (just like yours) wants to revert to what’s the easiest, most familiar, and most rewarding. It means that I’ve not transcended this plane to arrive at Zen food enlightenment and nirvana.
I am okay with this.
I don’t need to be perfect. I’m not trying to live up to that unrealistic expectation, and I’m sharing this here so you don’t try, either. Each food fumble is nothing more than a symptom—the trigger for me to take note of what’s happening in my life (you’re under-slept, you’re working too much, you’re letting anxiety get the best of you). And it’s a lesson, an opportunity to make a change and do better. Sleep more. Take a day off. Go see one of my therapists. (I have a few.)
The best part is that if and when I do fall off the beam, I know exactly what I need to do to climb back on. I do Whole3’s and Whole7’s often. Every time I feel like I need a reset, I jump right back into what I know works better than anything else to get me back to a healthy relationship with food. And it works every. Single. Time.
Isn’t this all good news?
You aren’t going to be perfect. You will fall back into old habits. They are valuable lessons that will trigger you make even more healthy changes. And you know exactly what to do to get back on track with your food—return to the Whole30 framework for as long (or as little) as it takes to regain your balance.
This is food freedom. I’ve found it, and I hope you find it too, with the Whole30.
Best in health,
Got a question for Melissa? Submit it using this handy form.
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; 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