A few months ago, I was in a rough spot.
For the past year, I’d been recovering from a horrific breakup and a job loss, which led to a major bout of depression and anxiety that brought with it a lot of extra emotion and physical weight. I took a lot of comfort in food. I never thought twice about treating myself to pizza or tacos or Whataburger, ironically because I was trying to be kind to myself.
I thought I’d treat myself to unhealthy foods because I “deserved it” because everything else in my life felt so awful. All it did was cause me to gain more than 30 pounds over the course of a year, which left me feeling worse than ever. I needed a change.
So, on Feb. 1, I embarked on a journey to “food freedom,” slang for “not having an emotional connection to your food” in the world of the Whole30. What is Whole30?
I hesitate to call it a diet, because it goes a few steps beyond just telling you what to eat, but it’s a lifestyle program that encourages eliminating “psychologically unhealthy, hormone-unbalancing, gut-disrupting, inflammatory food groups” from your body for a full 30 days.
The program is aimed to help pinpoint which foods may have a negative impact on your physical and mental health by eliminating certain foods and then gradually reintroducing them after the 30 days are up.
The forbidden food groups? Grains, dairy, legumes, added sugar, alcohol and a handful of banned additives, including MSG, sulfites and carrageenan. It’s no easy feat. I was checking labels constantly and had to be the girl who disrupted brunch to ask questions like, “What type of oil do you cook your vegetables in?” It also meant eating three full meals a day and a lot of cooking at home, which was extremely new for me.
Though losing weight was certainly an issue on my mind, my main motivation behind trying this program wasn’t to shed inches or pounds. I did it to work on changing my eating habits and my relationship with food and myself, and I got what I asked for. Here’s what I learned:
Food plays a huge role in mental health (and vice versa).I have what my doctors initially called atypical depression, which is a type of major depression. It usually includes symptoms like weight gain, increased appetite, excessive sleep and fatigue (as opposed to decreased appetite, weight loss and the inability to sleep, which is referred to as melancholic depression).
The other big indicator of atypical depression is frequent mood swings brought on by external circumstances. Basically, that means I can fall into a depressive mood if even the smallest bad thing happens throughout my day, but my mood can easily improve if something positive happens.
During my Whole30, I found myself having way more good days than bad ones, and it wasn’t a coincidence. The connection between food and mental health has been heavily studied.According to Mental Health America, mental health can be negatively affected by habits like skipping meals, having too many sugary or caffeinated drinks or consuming high-fat dairy or fried and refined foods (all of which I was guilty of doing before the program). Since my body was feeling healthier, my brain started feeling healthier too. Since I felt happier and more clear-headed, I wasn’t craving my go-to comfort foods anymore. It was a delightful healthy cycle.
Support is vital in any huge lifestyle change.Two of my close friends, Melanie and Brittany, joined me in this monthlong journey. We started a group text that pretty much didn’t stop for the whole 30 days, and we stayed in constant communication, sharing recipes and food photos and “God, I could really use a cheeseburger” struggles. It was invaluable. And while these girls and I were close before, the experience brought us together even more. They were my sisters in this journey, and I couldn’t have done it without them. So often, women are pitted against each other when it comes to body image, but this process made me feel incredibly lucky to have friendships full of emotional support and encouragement rather than jealousy or spite.
Sugar is everywhere, and it does weird things to your body.Y’all, there is sugar in everything. Everything! (OK, just about everything.) I read hundreds of labels and had to say no to dozens of foods during this process, just because everything has added sugar. I didn’t realize how reliant my body was on all this added sugar until about two weeks into the program, after my sugar detox headaches went away. I was sleeping better and sleeping deeper (which also led to some really vivid dreams, apparently fairly common in this part of the process). Despite the crazy dreams, it felt like that was how my body was supposed to operate: sleeping when it was tired, not being propped up by sugary drinks to help me stay awake or empty calories to give me fake “energy.” By the end of the 30 days, I had more energy than I ever did when I was pouring sugar into my body.
Think your body can process dairy? You’re probably wrong.Y’know how your parents always told you to “drink your milk”? Maybe they shouldn’t have. It turns out our bodies aren’t really great at processing dairy.According to a report from ABC News, doctors say it’s actually really common to be lactose intolerant.
Less than 40 percent of the entire world has the ability to process dairy, which means that your body is probably sensitive to dairy even if you don’t know it. I found this out the hard way, when post-Whole30 I reintroduced dairy into my diet in the form of a few spoonfuls of yogurt, and, well, I nearly had to call in sick to work that day.
Yes, milk contains nutrients like calcium, potassium and vitamin D.But according to WebMD, some doctors believe milk actually contains too much potassium. It’s also relatively high in calories, and for those whose stomachs don’t really love breaking down dairy (like mine), it may be better to get your calcium and potassium elsewhere (eating lots of fruits and vegetables helps with this). So, while dairy isn’t exactly bad for you, it’s not great for you, either.
Social outings are still fun without alcohol.On the first day of my Whole30, I went to a Surfer Blood show at the Parish with my best friend. I was nervous about not being able to have my requisite tallboy Lone Star (it’s more of a social crutch than anything else — I need something to do with my hands!) so instead I opted for a Topo Chico with lime, and I still had a great time. So many social outings are focused around alcohol, but I’ll trade my Lone Star tallboys for waking up without a hangover any day.
Eating more doesn’t mean you’ll gain weight.I ate so much food during the Whole30. Since the program advises against snacking, I wanted to make sure my meals were big enough to tide me over until it was time to eat the next meal. I felt uncomfortably full sometimes, especially after eating a large breakfast (I was used to not eating breakfast at all), but I rarely felt hungry. And I still lost seven pounds, so don’t let anyone tell you that cutting calories is the only way to lose weight.
Doing dishes is the least fun of all the household chores.I didn’t mind doing dishes before. Now, the thought of washing dishes sends me into a blind rage. I probably washed the same pans 90 times in a 30-day period. If somebody can recommend a dishwasher that loads and unloads itself, I’ll spend my life savings on it.
There are an infinite number of ways to cook an egg.Poached, scrambled, hard-boiled, soft-boiled, omeletted—I tried ’em all. And I got kind of good at it! I’ve never been a particularly skilled cook, but I surprised myself every day with how delicious the food tasted. I felt like Bobby Flay in my kitchen. I only burned a few dishes and only sliced my fingers open a few times, so that’s a success in my book.
My willpower is way stronger than I ever thought.I said no to more doughnuts and cookies than I ever thought I’d be able to. If you don’t work in the journalism industry, you may not know that a newsroom is really not the best place to try to be a healthy eater. At least once a day, a newsroomwide email slides into my inbox with a title like “Doughnuts in metro” or “Cookies by the features department” — it’s basically just Mad Libs: “Come eat the (sugary food) in (newsroom department)” — it’s so hard to turn down. But every time I said no, I felt a little stronger.
Thirty days with a new habit can change your life — but it doesn’t end there.I’d be lying if I said I’ve eaten like a perfect paleo angel after the Whole30 ended. I’ve had more than a few beers and more than a few cookies. I ate Tater Tots covered in queso and washed them down with a Lone Star (my stomach hated me afterward, so I paid for it in full). It’s proof that I can still enjoy the finer things in life without going overboard (I mean, I would’ve never ordered a hamburger with lettuce instead of a bun before this experience), but it’s also proof that changing your eating habits is a lifelong journey, and there’s no “quick fix.”
I enjoyed the results from the Whole30 so much that I’m embarking on my second round of it this week. I’m not looking forward to the dishes, but the clarity of mind, energy of body and general feeling of health? I’ll take that.
Slow-Cooker Pork Lettuce Wraps With Spicy Peach Salsa
The peach salsa in this dish really shines when peaches are at their sweetest and juiciest in the height of summer, so if you can’t get ripe peaches, serve thiswith homemade salsa. Many store-bought brands have added sugar, which is off-limits on the Whole30.
For the pork:
1 large sweet onion, cut into thin wedges
1 tablespoon chili powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon garlic powder
Pinch of cayenne pepper
2 pounds boneless pork shoulder
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup chicken broth
For the salsa:
1 ripe medium peach, peeled, pitted and chopped
1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons finely chopped shallot
1/2 to 1 small jalapeño, seeded and finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
Pinch of salt
8 to 12 large butterhead or Bibb lettuce leaves
Place the onion wedges in a 3 1/2- or 4-quart slow cooker. In a large bowl, combine the chili powder, cumin, salt, garlic powder and cayenne. Trim the fat from the pork shoulder. Cut the pork into 2-inch pieces and add to the spice mixture. Toss gently to coat.
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the pork, in two batches, in the hot oil until browned on all sides. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the pork to the slow cooker. Pour the broth over the pork. Cover and cook on low for 8 to 10 hours or on high for 4 to 5 hours.
Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, combine the peach, cilantro, shallot, jalapeño, lime juice and salt. Cover and chill for up to 2 hours.
Use a slotted spoon to transfer the pork to a cutting board and use two forks to shred the pork. Place the shredded pork in a bowl. Remove the onion from the cooking liquid and add to the pork. Skim off the fat from the cooking liquid. Add enough cooking liquid to the pork mixture to moisten. Spoon the shredded pork into the center of the lettuce leaves. Top with the salsa. Serves 4.
— From “The Whole30 Cookbook: 150 Delicious and Totally Compliant Recipes to Help You Succeed With the Whole30 and Beyond” by Melissa Hartwig (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30)
Sausage, Kale and Spaghetti Squash
Most varieties of winter and summer squash pair well with intensely flavored ingredients, like the fresh chicken sausage you can buy at the butcher counter, because the fleshy squash skin soaks up the seasoning, fats and aromas from everything around it. In this paleo- and Whole30-friendly dish, Rebecca Bohl, author of Paleo Grubs (paleogrubs.com), serves otherwise bland spaghetti squash with a saute of greens, onions, garlic and kale. Don’t skip some kind of crunchy and herbacious garnish to add more complexity to the dish.
1 medium spaghetti squash or 2 small spaghetti squash
1 bunch kale
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 yellow onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 pounds Italian chicken sausage, casings removed
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons pine nuts, roasted
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Place squash on a plate and place in the microwave. Cook on high for 3 to 4 minutes to soften and, using an oven mitt to handle the squash, carefully cut the squash in half lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds and discard. Place the halves, cut side up, on a rimmed baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and roast for 45 to 50 minutes, until you can poke the squash easily with a fork. Set aside to cool.
While the squash cools, cut out the stems of the kale and then tear or cut up the leaves. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat and add the onion and garlic. Cook about five minutes. Add the sausage and break apart with a spatula to crumble. Cook for 10 to 12 minutes, stirring regularly. When the sausage is cooked through, add the kale, stir and cook until just wilted. Remove from heat and set aside.
Shred the insides of the spaghetti squash with a fork and add to the skillet. Toss to combine, and season to taste with salt and pepper. You can serve the mixture in one of the squash shells or in a bowl. Top with pine nuts and parsley to serve. Serves 4.
— Adapted from a recipe by Rebecca Bohl, author of Paleo Grubs (paleogrubs.com)
Pork Egg Roll in a Bowl
Kyndra D. Holley, author of Peace, Love and Low Carb, createdthis pork egg roll in a bowl recipefor her website, and it was a go-to dish during Psencik’s first round of Whole30. Holley says you can use tamari or soy if you don’t have coconut aminos in your pantry.
2 tablespoons sesame oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup onion, diced
5 green onions, sliced on a bias (white and green parts)
1 pound ground pork
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
Sea salt and black pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon Sriracha or garlic chili sauce, more to taste
14-ounce bag coleslaw
3 tablespoons coconut aminos
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
In a large skillet over medium heat, heat sesame oil and add garlic, onion and the thicker white portion of the green onions. Saute until the onions are translucent and the garlic is fragrant, and then add ground pork, ground ginger, sea salt, black pepper and Sriracha. Cook, stirring frequently, until the pork is cooked thoroughly.
Add coleslaw mix, coconut aminos and rice wine vinegar. Saute until the coleslaw is tender. Toss with remaining green onion tops and sesame seeds. Serves 4.
— Adapted from a recipe by Kyndra D. Holley, author of Peace, Love and Low Carb (peaceloveandlowcarb.com)