Friday, June 29, 2018

How Whole 30 Changed My Life Forever (and Why I'll Never Do it Again)

Whole 30…have you heard of it? Well, it’s a diet plan that is all the rage with the Fitness/Trendy/Healthy Lifestyle communities. Now, don't get confused...I'm not actually a participating member of any of those groups...but that doesn't mean I didn't want to still at least attempt to jump on the bandwagon. If only for the cliché Instagram pictures of my food.

Kidding. Mostly.

It's been almost two years since Dustin and I attempted (and completed!) our first Whole 30, so while this isn’t the most timely post I've ever written, Whole 30 was a total game-changer for me, so I feel it's worth it to document my experience.

So I present, a post two years in the making:

How Whole 30 Changed My Life Forever and Why I'll Never Do it Again
First of all, if you've made it this far already and don't know what Whole 30 is, let's fix that right-quick. We can get in super deep, but the gist is it's an eating program designed to be followed for 30 days. It's "clean eating" incorporating basically just "whole" foods. The main rules are:
  • no grain
  • no dairy
  • no alcohol
  • no sugar (or artificial sweeteners)
  • no legumes (including peanuts)
  • no fun (unofficial rule)
Outside of that restricted list you can pretty much eat anything you want, whenever you want, however much you want. (That's right! Unlimited carrot sticks!! Binge on raw almonds! One time I ate an entire cucumber like I was on some sort of wild vegetable bender!)

There is a zero tolerance policy for concessions, cheats, substitutions, or "slip-ups". The basic philosophy is that if you want to change your life, you have to put in the effort. No compromises.

So why in the world did I want to do this?

Simple: I was getting plushy.

And by that I mean, I am vain, didn't like the way my Summer body was looking, and wanted to do something semi-drastic to change that (but not as drastic as like...exercise...I'll leave that to Dustin). I've never been great with the whole willpower thing, and tend to do better under strict rules, with copious accountability. So Whole 30's high bar, and tough love sounded nearly impossible, and likely just what I needed. I figured I'd do a month of clean eating, lose a few pounds and enjoy the ease and luxury of buttoning my shorts without having to lay down on the bed first.

I expected it to be hard, and annoying, and another thing to chalk up in my long list of Stuff Courtney Doesn’t Think Through All the Way, but Ropes Dustin in Anyway and Then Refuses To Back Down Thereby Ruining Both of Our Lives…And I was pretty much right about all that.

But also- I really did come away from this challenge feeling changed. And not just my dress size (because…here’s the bummer…I’m not sure that actually changed at all). I know that sounds a little bit ridiculous, but I was truly surprised at what I learned. Like most things, the value wasn’t in the results, it was in the act of going through the process. Unfortunately, I can’t transfer all the enlightenment I found directly to you…but I can at least share what I uncovered about myself through a month of whole eating.

My main takeaways:

1: I Might Have a Problem
Now, I don’t want to make light of addiction, so I am saying this in all seriousness... Whole 30 shed some light on some unhealthy relationships I have with eating and drinking. Want to know if you have a drinking problem? Try to stop drinking. You'll see really quickly the role it does (or doesn't) play in your life, and how easily (or not) you're able to cut it out. I don't consider myself a heavy drinker by any means...honestly I didn't even consider myself a frequent drinker, but all of a sudden when the option was off the table (literally), I realized how much I liked it. And looked forward to it. Maybe not needed it? But a liiiiiitle too close.

And honestly for me this even extended to (just) Coke Zero. I had a very steady 1-a-day habit with it. Harmless, maybe (or maybe not...I'm aware the chemical cocktail that is diet soda probably isn't the best choice) but it had become nearly mandatory for me each day. Without that shot of caffeine in the afternoon, my head hurt and I struggled to make it through the rest of the day. It had also become synonymous with "me time". It was something I could treat myself to, a little break, a ritual and something I strangely felt I deserved. Again, not the worst thing I could be "indulging" in, but also just not necessary. (and not at all helpful in regulating my sleep patterns, or fighting off sweet-cravings).

And there were a lot of these messy correlations with emotions and food too. This new way of eating and forced me to examine the ways I had been relating to and relying on food without even realizing it. TV watching was always paired with a snack. Spending time with friends centered around food. Rewarding my kids meant having a treat. Food was wrapped up in my social and emotional life. And while I don't think it's bad at all to share good conversations over good food, or to celebrate your kids' achievements with ice cream, it crosses over into shady territory when someone suggests going out with friends, or having a party, or taking the kids somewhere, and you think: Why bother if I can't even have _______? At that point, you might just have a problem.

2: Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail
Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Poor Performance

(Somebody put that on a letterboard)

You can't just do Whole 30 on a whim. Well, actually you can start Whole 30 on a whim; I totally did. But you won't finish a Whole 30 unless you get your act together real quick. I don't know what your life/pantry is like, but I'm not typically just overrun with hordes of vegetables, non-dairy ranch dressing and sugar-free nut-alternative butters. Eating "clean" required me to think about things. And plan them. And buy them. And prep them. And cook them. And store them. And pack them. And do it all again about 50 times a day oh my gosh how is it time to eat again already I'm so hungry and so tired this so much work when are we done herrrrrrrrrrre...??

For a month, our entire lives became about what we were going to eat. We spent our evenings choosing recipes, and prepping yet another pan of chicken + sweet potatoes + brussels sprouts. We had to plan ahead before we went to a friends' house, or out to eat...what would our options be? How would we compensate? How much longer can I really survive on a Larabar and a LaCroix?

The truth is I hated this part. It was just so much dang work. Some of it was kind of fun (making zoodles! I still love my spiralizer big time!) some of it was daunting (how do you go to the fair all day without cheating?) but most of it was just the tedious repetition of adulting, day in, day out.

But...surprise...that was good for me. Being forced into meal planning helped us avoid the lazy/unhealthy/expensive habits of eating out constantly, and created a rhythm where we put more effort into what we put into our bodies. It was mandated discipline, and it showed me that a little (/lot) more effort now, really does pay off later.

A post shared by Courtney Bowden (@bowdenisms) on

3: Public Accountability is My Friend
I already said I’m not really a willpower person. But I am a stubborn person. And someone who thrives on achievement. And a person who very much cares about what other people think. So making a promise to myself is probably not going to stick. But if I make a promise out loud, involving other people, I’m going to be much more hesitant to break it. Not because I don’t want to let them’s more that I will do almost anything to avoid being wrong or looking dumb. It’s a pride thing, and while that’s probably not my best character trait, I figure I might as well harness it for good if I can.

I told basically everyone I know that I was doing Whole 30 (like veganism, or Crossfit, oversharing to hordes of uninterested people is practically a program requirement), and while I am sure that no one cared, the idea that if I cheated, everyone would know was super helpful in keeping me in line. I didn’t want have to admit my weakness, or explain my inadequacy, so I stayed super strict. There were no real consequences at play, (after all, it was a self-imposed challenge) but my aversion to failure provided the extra motivation I needed whenever I was questioning the whole dumb thing.

4: I Can Do It

This is a biggie. 

There are a lot of areas in which I believe in myself. I’m good at a fair number of things, and as a general rule, I tend towards the self-confident (or at least blissfully naïve about my own limitations) end of the “Can I Do This?” spectrum. But for some reason, I don’t think that about wellness. I tend to think of health and fitness as “other peoples’ thing”. Isn't that so dumb? Like everyone else has the market cornered on making good choices? But that’s what’s in my head.

Exercise isn’t really my thing.
I could never diet, I just love food too much.
The healthy food world is too hippie-ish and complicated.
I'd never make it through the entire month, what's the point?
Before I even tried Whole 30 my brain was filling in blanks in a thousand self-defeating ways:

I could never...
give up caffeine/stop eating ice cream/go to bed earlier/cut out alcohol

because I...
have an 11 month old/love it so much/have so much to do/love it so much

But the truth is I CAN. I COULD. AND I DID.
I stuck to the plan for all 30 ding-dang-days. I made my own mayonaise, declined fried-cheese-on-a-stick, managed to hold down a job + raise children without even a drop of the sweet nectar of the (soda) gods...and did a zillion other things that I didn't know I could do.

It may not seem like a big deal. It's just food, after all. But setting a goal in an area that you don't think you can succeed at and then ACTUALLY DOING IT is powerful. I don't want to get too dramatically self-congratulatory and "I can do hard things" about it...but this meant something to me. It meant that all of the reasons I couldn't do it, all the ways I thought I would fail, all the inadequacies I saw in myself were wrong. 

So I learned, and I grew, and I changed. But not just that month. It has stuck with me.

No, I don't still eat clean, or paleo, or whatever. Well, sometimes I do. Lots of times I do-ish. And most times I don't. Since we completed that Whole 30, we've done another month of a modified (aka loosey-goosey) plan dubbed WholeIsh 30, and then more recently I came up with completely original (and utterly random) month-long healthy eating challenge. I loved Whole 30, I learned from Whole 30, and I frankly, don't need to do it again.

I realized I love cheese more than I'll ever love being thin, so for me, living my best life is going to include dairy.

I confirmed that trace amounts of sugar in my balsamic salad dressing are not the reason I'm not meeting my fitness goals, so there's no reason to be a label-Nazi.

I know that clear, non-negotiable rules work for me- they take the constant decision-making (and cop-out compromises) out of things and simplify my process. BUT- I don't have to do so many rules at once. It's not all or nothing. And giving myself grace doesn't mean allowing myself to fail.
A post shared by Courtney Bowden (@bowdenisms) on

So I'm not going to be doing another Whole 30 diet any time soon. But doing the diet again doesn't even matter, because food isn't really even the point. These four lessons impacted in ways that have nothing to do with eating.

I have learned that as I approach any significant challenge:
  1. I need to be honest with myself
  2. I have to have a plan
  3. I will need help
  4. I can do it (even when it's really stinkin' hard)
Probably a lot of "no duh" in that list at first glance, but knowing something in your head, and knowing something from experience are two very different things. These lessons became truths for me that I embedded in my heart. And now when I embark on a challenge, I sub-consciously reference them.

- Do I want to stop looking at my phone so much? Well first I probably need to face the fact that I've got a problem, and it might go deeper than just a mindless habit. Am I avoiding something? Seeking validation somehow? How would it feel to give up my phone? What does that mean?

- Am I trying to get in shape? Let's figure out a specific exercise regimen and think through how I'll manage the inevitable obstacles. Where will I look for motivation? What "hacks" can I employ to make consistency easier? Is there a way to make it more fun? 
- If I'm thinking about trying a 100 Day Project... I better commit to it, tell people about it, and post publicly along the way if I want to go the distance.

And most important:
Is what I'm going through right now (whatever, and whenever that may be) hard? Yes.
Can I do it? Also yes.

I am sure of that...and sure of myself...with my Whole heart.


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