Our Sassy Mama contributor, Fionnuala resets her health through good eating habits and says goodbye to processed foods with The Whole30
I think many of us would agree that life in the 852 can be one of extremes. As much as I love Hong Kong and all it has to offer, from free-flow brunches to junk boat Sundays, 5 years in this crazy city has left me feeling less than my best self. When constant bloating, stomach pains and fatigue became my normal day to day existence, I knew that something had to change.
As someone who exercises regularly and eats a relatively balanced diet, I’d always had a sneaky suspicion that food intolerances may be the culprit behind my tummy woes. But after trying out an elimination diet a few years ago, I was left feeling overwhelmed, hopeless and starving. As a person who was raised in an ‘everything in moderation’ household, introducing an eating plan so drastically restrictive was impossible for me to get my head around. On top of that, our culture of dieting, juice detoxes and calorie counting goes against everything I believe about healthy eating, so that was never going to be an option for me. I had all but given up hope of ever finding a solution until a friend introduced me to The Whole30.
What is The Whole30?
The Whole30 is an eating plan designed by Melissa and Dallas Hartwig that aims to push the reset button on your health, eating habits and your psychological relationship with food. Put simply, you must eat only whole, non-processed foods for 30 days and eliminate potentially inflammatory foods that may be having a negative impact on your health; which in Whole30 terms means no added sugar, alcohol, dairy, legumes or grains. At first I was wary, there was that word again… elimination! Cutting out food groups for 30 days! But in focussing on the foods I could eat rather than the foods I couldn’t, the idea of eating simply, fresh and clean for 30 days was became more and more appealing. After all, what did I have to lose?
Week 1: Preparation, preparation, preparation
I’ve read the book, pinned the recipes and reassured my panicked boyfriend that potatoes are allowed on the Whole30 (we’re Irish… enough said!). I’m ready!
Task 1: Grocery shopping
Do set aside some time for your first Whole30 grocery shop. We all know that supermarkets in Hong Kong are lacking to say the least, so be prepared that you may have to visit a few different chains to source compliant ingredients. Essential items you’re going to need are Ghee (clarified butter) for cooking, coconut or olive oil and compliant stock cubes, all of which I found in Nature’s Village on Lyndhurst Terrace. For everything else, Marketplace stocks a good selection of organic fruit, veg, meat and eggs, as well as tinned tomatoes and coconut milk with no added sugars. Learning to read labels for hidden nasties is one of the more daunting aspects of food shopping, but the good news is that once you discover a compliant brand, the hard part is done and you know where to find it for the rest of the programme.
Task 2: Meal Prep
If you’re anything like me, then the possibility of having nothing to eat when the wolf is at the door will fill you with anxiety! Setting aside an afternoon for meal prepping will ensure this doesn’t happen and will allow you to hit the ground running with your Whole30.
With Tupperware at the ready, fill one with chopped veggies – peppers, onions, courgettes, mushrooms and anything else you fancy. These can be tossed into omelettes, chillies, stews and salads, saving you time slaving over meals every day. Fill another with chopped fruit so you have an immediate healthy snack to keep wandering hands out of the cookie jar! Next, buy a thermos and make a big batch of soup once a week so you’ll always have lunch on the go. I also found making a batch of tuna or salmon fishcakes a game changer. They’re simple to make, easy to transport and really yummy and filling. Lastly, cook up a batch of Whole30 chilli, stew or curry, so you’re armed with a few guaranteed healthy dinners.
As with any new challenge, the beginning is always tough. During the first few days I had headaches and felt tired and drained from the sugar withdrawal. But this phase passes quickly and is completely manageable if you’ve done some planning and are well prepared.
Week 2: Tiger Blood!
The Whole30 book describes Tiger Blood as “feeling like someone flipped a switch and turned on the awesome!” And they’re not kidding. By the middle of week two, I was like a new person. I was waking up every morning feeling rested and refreshed. I was thinking more clearly and being more productive in work. My post lunch time slump, which I’d come to think of as normal, completely disappeared as I experienced a huge surge in energy. I was feeling lighter and starting to lose weight, which was not my main motivation for starting the Whole30, but who am I kidding? Yay! I was no longer feeling hungry between meals and was enjoying a pain-free, bloat-free tummy for the first time in years. My only regret is why didn’t I do this sooner?!
Week 3: Tea, chocolate and wine… that’s why!
It was all going far too smoothly, and during week three I had a major wobble that came in the form of a head cold. Feeling run-down, exhausted and generally crappy, I started to crave my old comfort foods. I honestly would have sold my firstborn for a cup of real tea, with real milk and a bar of Cadbury’s. Enter my Whole30 ladies and lifesavers! Luckily, I wasn’t on my Whole30 journey alone, but had started it with two of my girlfriends, something I highly recommend to any potential Whole30ers. A desperate SOS text to our WhatsApp group, and they had talked me down off the ledge with words of encouragement, empathy and advice. Many high five emoji’s later, I had mustered the will power to make myself a batch of Thai chicken chowder; spicy, warming and super easy to make, it is the ultimate Whole30 comfort food for feeling under the weather. This small victory during my Whole30 low point left me feeling unstoppable, and I harnessed my smugness and new found confidence to sail through to week four!
Week 4: It’s almost over! Now what?
The mix of feelings that hit me coming into my final week of the Whole30 caught me off guard. I was expecting to feel ecstatic and overjoyed that the end was in sight… and I was. I had never felt so happy, so healthy and so confident for as long as I can remember. By week four, my weight loss was noticeable, my tummy flatter, sugar low was a thing of the past and I was in control of my cravings. As a dancer, I noticed an improvement in my performance and my increased energy levels made me feel positive, powerful and motivated in everything I did. So understandably, the thought of putting an end date on those feelings filled me with dread. I knew I couldn’t go back to my old eating habits, and thankfully with The Whole30 reintroduction plan, I didn’t have to.
Life Post Whole30
The Whole30 offers two methods for reintroducing off plan foods, the fast track and the slow roll. The fast track reintroduces food groups one at a time over the course of two weeks, the idea being that you can quickly figure out your problem foods and adjust your diet accordingly. However, the thought of introducing so many off plan foods in such a short period of time, and the side effects I would experience, was something I wasn’t ready for, hence I decided to go for the slow roll approach. The slow roll reintroduction allows you to continue eating mostly Whole30 while relaxing the no added sugar rule, until you encounter a food that you decide is worth indulging for. You can have the off plan food and evaluate the effects at your own pace. This has worked beautifully for me, as I’m learning something new every day about my food intolerances, I have wine and chocolate back in my life, all while continuing to enjoy the benefits of eating mostly Whole30.
To anyone considering The Whole30, all the information you need is available through The Whole30 website. You can sign up for free and they will even send you weekly emails with recipes and advice. For detailed meal plans, reintroduction schedules and tons of recipes, I found “The Whole30” book to be an invaluable resource. Or if you’re interested in the science behind the program, then try “It Starts with Food” also by Melissa and Dallas Hartwig. There is a huge Whole30 community you can tap into through online blogs, and Pinterest is ideal for sourcing recipes. With that, you have everything you need to start your Whole30 journey. Go for it… a happy tummy awaits!