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 answering a question I received during a recent seminar about strategies for completing the Whole30 around a stressful job and comfort eating tendencies.
I’ve tried to do the Whole30, but I can’t seem to finish. My job is really stressful and hectic, I eat bad foods when I’m stressed or exhausted, and I ended up failing halfway through. But I really want to do a full Whole30. Any advice? –Nice guy in the back row at my CrossFit NYC seminar
Dear Back Row Guy,
It’s not uncommon for people to have a few interrupted programs before they actually complete a full Whole30. In fact, in a survey of more than 2,300 Whole30 participants, 11% said they had one or more false starts before finally making it through the full 30 days.
What I’m trying to say is that you’re not alone, and it’s okay, because the Whole30 is hard and if you’re not prepared for the challenges ahead of you, your brain will force you back to old, easy, rewarding habits (hashtag science). What we have to do now is create a good plan. (Remember me saying the word “plan” like 723 times at the seminar?)
So let’s identify the issues you had during your last false start, and think about what you can do to remove, mitigate, or plan around them during your upcoming Whole30.
Issue #1: Busy job
Your job is hectic. Join the club. I didn’t catch the details of what you did or why things are so crazy, but this is a factor you can totally work around during your Whole30. It’s easier to plan for the things you know are going to happen, compared to planning for the unknown! Your job is busy. It will likely continue to be busy. Let’s make a plan.
Stock lots of on-the-go emergency food. If your job keeps you hopping all day, you know you’re not always going to have time to sit down and eat a home-cooked meal. Stock up on Whole30 Approved emergency food so you’ll always have healthy fuel on hand for busy days. Try EPIC bars, RxBars (code “whole30” saves you 10%!), Primal Pacs, Chomps Snack Sticks, or order some Pre-Made Paleo frozen meals to keep at work so you can have a healthy, satisfying lunch in under 5 minutes. You could also have hard-boiled eggs, canned tuna, or canned salmon; some veggies and fruit; and guacamole, olives, or your favorite homemade mayo-based dip in your fridge at work (or your cooler under your desk) for quick and easy ingredient meals.
Get confident dining out. If your job requires meals out with clients or co-workers, you’ll want to build confidence in your restaurant skills before your Whole30 even begins. First, download our Guide to Dining Out and read through our recommendations. Then, make a plan. If you frequent the same restaurants over and over, pore over their menus, call them to ask a few questions about their ingredients or preparation methods, and identify a few Whole30 options before you even set foot in the place. If you have the option of choosing your location, pick someplace you know will have basic Whole30 options (a steakhouse, versus a pizza place). If your location is a mystery until just before you leave, do a quick check of their online menu and get the lay of the land—you can figure out what to order when you get there. Finally, even if you’re stuck eating nothing but a burger (no bun) and a garden salad with olive oil and lemon, know that you have emergency food back at the office to fill in any hunger-holes.
Find another at-the-office stress release. If you rely on caffeine and sugar to comfort you throughout your busy day, you’ll want to create a new routine to replace that habit. Think about what else you can do when things get crazy if the latte and Snickers bars are off-limits, write them down, and place them in a prominent place on your desk or in your office. (Remember that social interaction, exercise, music, and “green spaces” are all powerful mediators of stress!) Try heading outside for a few minutes, walking downstairs to chat with a co-worker, calling your spouse, kids, or best friend to see how their day is going, scrolling through old photos of fun vacations or family events, popping in your headphones and blast your favorite song, heading to your office gym or empty conference room for a few quick push-ups or a handstand (that’s what I used to do—only if I was wearing pants), or sitting quietly and practicing your one-moment meditation. Choose from this list every time you get the urge to stress-eat.
Eat something. If you’re early in your Whole30, you may still experience that 3 PM slump that used to have you reaching for the latte and Snickers bar. Your body isn’t very good at managing blood sugar for the first week or two of your program, so you may actually need some energy between lunch and dinner. First, figure out if you’re really hungry, or just craving. Our favorite technique? Ask yourself, “Am I hungry enough to eat a hard-boiled egg/chicken sausage/hamburger right now?” If the answer is no, you’re just having a craving—employ one of your new stress-relieving techniques. If the answer is yes, eat something! Make sure it’s a mini-meal and not a sweet treat substitution—a Larabar isn’t appropriate in this situation. Have some of your emergency food, leftover lunch, or cooler-packed hard-boiled eggs and carrot sticks to tide you over until dinner.
Issue #2: Comfort eating at home
Your 9-5 is only your first challenge—often, it’s what we do between the hours of dinner and bedtime that really trip us up in our Whole30 journey. Guess what we need here? A plan, of course.
Clean out your pantry. Seriously, do this. If you don’t have junk food at home, you are highly unlikely to change out of your comfy clothes, put on shoes, track down your wallet and keys, drive to the nearest 7-11, and buy the candy bar. If you have others in your family not doing the Whole30, put their junk food in a separate cabinet or fridge drawer, and give them strict instructions they are not to let you raid their stash under any circumstances. (Put your spouse or kids in charge of this—they’ll love that.)
Eat a good dinner. Make sure your dinner is hearty and satisfying, to assure yourself that those “hunger pangs” between 7 and 10 PM are really just cravings. A crock pot may be your best friend—after your meal, take 10 minutes to prep for tomorrow night’s dinner, toss it all in the crock pot before you leave for work, and dinner is served just after you walk in the door. (We love The Paleo Slow-Cooker by Arsy Vartanian.) Pre-Made Paleo is also a winner in this situation: throw it in the fridge to defrost in the morning and reheat a delicious, filling meal in ten minutes after work. Finally, make a list of three go-to dinners you could make in 15 minutes or less, with stuff you always have on hand. (Think scrambled eggs, frozen vegetables, and a drizzle of your favorite mayo-based dressing; the No-Fuss Salmon Cakes from It Starts With Food, or frozen shrimp and veggies in coconut milk with a squeeze of lime juice). Place the list on your fridge so you’ll have a firm plan for those nights when you get home late, hungry, and cranky.
Find another at-home stress release. What else can you do at home (besides eat ice cream or drink wine) when you want stress-relief or comfort? Repeat the same process for home as you did with the office. Write down some activities (brewing a cup of herbal tea, watching a movie with a loved one, reading a good book, taking a long bath or shower, going for a walk, playing with your dog or kids, having sex, planning your next vacation, chopping vegetables or cooking, playing a card or board game), and choose from one of those when you’re feeling the urge to munch.
Issue #3: A stressful job
Minimize stress at the office. Do as much as you can to minimize stress at the office. Do you say “yes” to every optional assignment because you’re a people pleaser? Stop that right now—only say yes to tasks you’re excited about, or you feel will further your career more than they’ll stress you out. Are you disorganized, leading to lots of wasted time? Read some books or ask a co-worker or management to help you streamline your workspace and time. Do you procrastinate until the deadline is hanging over your head? Learn some basic project management techniques or ask a co-worker or management to give you milestones to meet to keep you on track. Do you attend every happy-hour function, only to struggle with cravings for the rest of the night? Suggest a different event (like a trip to the bowling alley, local coffee shop, or trampoline gym), or politely decline until you feel like you’re more in control of your cravings. (Just buy yourself a week or so—we don’t want you to become a Whole30 hermit.)
Control the things you can control. You may not be able to control the stress of your job. If you’re a night shift worker, an ER doctor, or a stay-at-home mother of three young kids, some pressures are here to stay—which means it’s time to look at other areas of stress, and control the things you can control. The Whole30 is a huge step in the right direction with your diet, but what else can you do? Practice better sleep skills; stop running, biking, or CrossFitting like a madman 6 mornings a week; improve your recovery practices; and practice other stress management techniques. The more you can reduce the amount of “withdrawals” from your health account, the better you’ll be able to manage your cravings, and the easier it will be to stick to your Whole30.
One last tip
Finally, one last tip. Many people take on the Whole30 as a 30-day program, but sometimes, you need to eat the elephant in smaller bites. If you have to take the Whole30 one day, one meal, one bite at a time, that’s okay. Do whatever you need to do to get you through just this one day, and you’ll find each day gets easier as you reduce your stress, build your Good Food confidence, and get past that oh-so-common Day 10-11 sticking point.
Also, hint hint, I’d love an email in February letting me know that you rocked your first Whole30. Remember, accountability plays a huge role in helping people stick to challenging habit changes! So, no pressure or anything, but I totally have your email address and I may be checking in with you in a few months. You’re welcome. (And for those of you I will not be contacting personally, our Whole30 Daily subscription service has built-in accountability at the end of every day, and 93% of subscribers say it helped them stay committed to their Whole30 program!)
Best in health (and best of luck to you!),
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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 Hartwig 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