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It is January 13th. I am almost 30, gainfully employed as a senior editor at Eater, and, as of tomorrow, I have been a San Francisco dweller for a full week. Other vital intel: I just ate a bowl of Goldfish (cheddar) for breakfast and the only other food in the still-empty apartment I share with my boyfriend are leftovers from a Mission Chinese Food delivery order and some sliced almonds. Sounds like a perfect time to start a Whole30, the no-sugar-no-dairy-no legumes-no-stop-crying elimination diet your one annoying co-worker won't shut up about.
The scary part is taking a month off from the restaurant fare I adore. It's kind of my job to go out.
When I told some of my coworkers about my plan to do Whole30, I got a lot of pushback. Truth be told, that has been my lifelong experience: Tell anyone who isn't my mother that I'm dieting, get a barrage of reasons why I shouldn't/can't do it. But committing to a diet that focuses on whole foods is obviously good for you. And a month without pasta? I'll be fine. The scary part is taking a month off from the restaurant fare I adore, the work of chefs whose businesses I obsessively chronicle for money. It's kind of my job to go out.
My number one goal is to lose a little weight. In the past five months I've eaten multiple tasting menus, a lot of fried chicken (so good), and way too many Red Hot Blues chips. In that time I stopped and started some gym routines, but nothing stuck. I definitely need a reboot. Whole30 doctrine forbids weighing and measuring during the month, so I won't, but I'm hoping to see my clothes fitting differently.
I would like to be a person who can commit to something like this for 30 days.
I would like to be a person who brings lunch to work without it being a Big Deal. I would like these changes to my diet to make me feel so wonderful that I change my relationship to food even after the 30 days are over. I would like to be a person who believes they can feel said changes. When I quit smoking a few years ago, I thought I would feel more air in my lungs, better-rested, more on top of things, more likely to start running. The truth is, I didn't feel "better" beyond the money saved and the knowledge I wasn't deliberately accelerating my death.
Most of all, I would like to be a person who can commit to something like this for 30 days.
Five minutes after posting my first #whole30 breakfast Instagram on day one, a food editor tags me in photo of a nice-looking grilled cheese with a kissy-heart emoji. "Thinking of you" it says. This is what I am up against. I respond with a series of x's and o's.
I go to the mani/pedi I booked as a reward for getting started, a reward that has nothing to do with food. Past rewards have regularly included: celebratory sushi dinners, let's-make-it-a-special-Sunday morning brunches, impromptu lunch delivery to spice up a tough writing day, on-trend ice cream shop visits, and any sort of doughnut, even the Dunkin kind.
I open the door to the salon and nearly trip over a plastic table filled to the edges with dim sum and bagels. It's weird and not hard to abstain. Why is it here? And why are there off-brand Twizzlers near the drying station? Is this a San Francisco thing?
As I wait for my toes to dry, I wonder about whether l will lose all of my Instagram followers once I stop posting restaurant food porn. I immediately hate myself for wondering. Of course I am wondering.
By the end of the week, I’ve successfully attended a media preview dinner at a hot San Francisco restaurant that graciously accommodated my dietary restrictions, cooked steak like a goddamn champion, and invented the greatest breakfast treat of all time: the Elvis bowl (see sidebar for more on that).
I’m also dreaming of forbidden food. I dream I accidentally had a bite of a bagel while on a photoshoot at Russ & Daughters in New York City; another night I dream I’m waitressing at a cafe where I didn't know the menu (classic former-waitress anxiety dream), but the menu was definitely toast-based. I find my mind wandering to doughnuts on the regular.
Otherwise known as the week I cry in a shopping mall. After seeing Star Wars (so good, right?), I turn my phone back on to see a text about the bridesmaid dress I’ll be wearing in a wedding this summer. I’m convinced I will look like a shimmering marshmallow. Why oh why would you put beaded sequined semicircles over your stomach and hips? Even the model looks kinda big through that area!
What is it about bridesmaid dresses that make you feel like shit about yourself, even before you've tried them on? Is it because your size costs more money than the size 4 girl you're sharing altar space with or is it because you know how to dress your body and would like a fighting shot at looking your best or is it because there is literally no dress that looks good on five women? Yes. Unlike some people, this insecurity does not make me want to diet harder, this makes me want to quit.
This meltdown happens on day nine. Per Whole30's timeline, day 10 is the day most people give up. I get it now. I've been doing all of this for 10 days, and don't really look or feel particularly different. Still. I said I'd do 30 days, and my editor probably won't pay me if this just turns into a food diary of me breaking various Whole30 rules and eating my feelings. Incidentally on day 10 I also get my period, so I can conveniently chalk the whole thing up to PMS. Yeah, PMS made me do it.
This is also the week I cave and try bone broth. It's fucking delicious.
On day 15, the midway point, Whole30 is starting to feel less like a diet and more like a ~lifestyle~. A lifestyle in which my boyfriend and I never ever go out to dinner and, since I mostly work from home, I don't leave the house enough. But also a lifestyle in which I feel extra competent for cooking all the. damn. time. Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner.
When I do go into the office, I buy overpriced, compliant salads. Making lunch for the office still eludes me, but when I work from home I use my 30 minute break to whip up dishes like kimchi fried cauliflower rice or gigantic kale and broccoli salads.
A midway assessment:
I am not sleeping better, which is a Whole30 fan-favorite "non-scale victory." Sleeping has never been my strong suit, and unfortunately this diet has yet to stop my mind from nightmares and waking up often during the night.
I don't think I've lost major weight. I don't really notice a difference in how my clothes are fitting, which, without weighing myself, is the only guide I have. Because I’m afraid of scales (lol), I didn't weigh myself prior to starting either, so clothing fit is all I got.
Whole30 is starting to feel less like a diet and more like a ~lifestyle~.
On the bright side: I have fewer stomach aches, indigestion issues, and general digestive health is noticeably improved. I've had a long history of stomach distress, so this feels like a pretty big win. Big enough to make me think more seriously about figuring out which of the eliminated foods was the culprit in my past diet.
Day 16 through 27 is supposed to be my "tiger blood" — Whole30 talk for increased energy and general feelings of awesomeness — and I’m fighting the skeptical voice in my head. I WANT TO BELIEVE.
A few days later I try on two of my snugger t-shirts. (I am not a medium, but insist on getting mediums in any shirt with a band logo). I have to admit, they fit better. I am obviously not one of those people who will finish their Whole 30 down 15 pounds, but I will take better-fitting t-shirts. Not sure if it's tiger blood, but I am walking more.
I am basically sick of all my go-to meals, except for various riffs on the Elvis bowl, which continues to be a perfect breakfast I will eat forever. The three weeks I've been putting off interacting with non-compliant restaurants is starting to catch up with me. PR folks in town know I'm on Whole30, and I'm already getting invites for pastry deliveries to the office.
I do an interview and photoshoot for my Breakfast Week edition of Eater Elements, profiling the story of how the San Francisco patisserie Craftsman & Wolves developed their mega famous Rebel Within: a soft-cooked egg hidden inside a cake-like sausage and cheese muffin. I didn't eat a single bite at the end. This is a huge change for me. Eating the egg-stuffed meat cake is not 100% strictly necessary to the writing, but I would feel more #authentic if I had done it. Sigh.
The thing that's really on my mind is life after Whole30. I can follow rules, and this month has proven it. I've basically dealt with all the restaurant food my life usually includes by eliminating it nearly completely. This is most definitely a temporary fix. I can't hide from restaurants forever. But there's nothing in the Whole30 book about life after Whole30 when you have to re-incorporate regularly dining out.
And there's the rub. Even though I haven't lost a huge amount of weight, by following the rules I made a huge lifestyle change. I cook every day (but I still can't figure out bringing lunch to the office, preferring instead to mostly work from home). I haven't had a single grain. I learned to live without chips. But that's the thing with rule-based diets, isn't it? Following rules is pretty easy. What's hard is knowing which rules I can let go as I get back to my normally scheduled eating, and which I should really keep obeying.
The first day after Whole30 I stayed compliant for breakfast and lunch, then went to a well-regarded Italian restaurant for a pasta and pizza dinner with a single glass of red wine. Fun to eat, not so fun to feel the stomach pains I'd gotten used to living without. The next day I feel sluggish and hungover. As I experiment with foods, I don't discover any allergies per se, but I definitely feel better when I keep the dairy and processed carbs in check.
Fun to eat, not so fun to feel the stomach pains I'd gotten used to living without.
As the weeks go by, I continue to eat a modified Whole30: Soy sauce, Sriracha, and occasional whole grains like farro find their way into my home cooking. I'm keeping my number of restaurant meals to one or two a week, and I try my best to make them count and not go crazy. I change meetings from lunch meetings to coffee meetings, and pat myself on the back when I don't get a snack at said meetings. But there's a test on the horizon: About four weeks after finishing Whole30 is the Charleston Wine + Food Festival and I am going.
The festival was last weekend. There were cocktails, multicourse dinners, grits, biscuits, and so many fried chicken legs. And while I certainly stuffed my face and didn't regret a minute of it, I noticed a difference: I was able to listen to my hunger levels more clearly.
I was able to listen to my hunger levels more clearly.
I didn't force myself to finish more than I wanted out of a sense of carpe diem or a misguided sense of politeness to the chef. I sought out healthy breakfasts, and chose to walk instead of drive whenever I could. It might not sound like a lot to you, but to me, this proves the success of the program. Now that I'm back home, I'm back on a modified Whole30. Eating so much that was out of my diet for so long made me feel like crap.
While Whole30 is not, for me, a magic bullet weight loss diet, it did give me something valuable: a new perspective on who I am. I am a person who tries to do better for herself. I am a person who handles it when other people don't want her to succeed. I am a person who makes big changes. Thanks to Whole30, I can see that I always was.