Exit “The Dragon” – A Journey Through Whole 30

Exit “The Dragon” – A Journey Through Whole 30

Exit “The Dragon” – A Journey Through Whole 30

I came across a new study recently that suggest that sugar hidden in junk food is eight times more addictive than cocaine. A separate study ranked the top five most addictive foods as ice cream, chips, chocolate, cookies and pizza. Pizza was actually ranked at the top of the addiction list, due largely to the amount of sugar added to the pizza sauce, with one slice having more sugar, on average, than an Oreo cookie. That made me recall another article I read a while back suggesting that Oreos have a chemical reaction in the brain similar to opiate drugs. I suddenly realized I was seeing a trend. Food “addiction” has been a somewhat controversial subject over the last few years, but seeing these recent studies has only reinforced what I have recently discovered over the course of the last couple months, namely that I am an addict. A sugar and junk food addict. I learned a great deal about myself and my relationship with food over the past couple months and gained a new perspective on eating and its effect on my health.  I have had plenty of interest in health and healthy eating over the years and have tried tons of different plans at various times (Zone, Body for Life, Schwarzbein Principle, Weight Watchers, etc.), but inevitably I would always return to my old ways, which basically meant I would eat and drink whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted it.  Stress eating?  Check. Celebratory eating? Check. Down in the dumps eating?  Check.  Late night pop and chips 5-7 nights a week?  Check.  Eating junk food because I just happened to pass by it?  Check. Eating fast food every day for weeks on end?  Check.  Whether ignorant or living in denial, I never really appreciated that my relationship with food contained many hallmarks of addictive behavior.  I thought addiction was reserved for drugs and alcohol, but this winter I came to realize that there was very little difference between my behavior and relationships with food and that of someone struggling with addiction to those substances. So how did I come to this realization?  By giving it all up - for 30 days.  I’d like to say this was a conscious decision on my part, a concerted and focused effort to take back control over my health and well-being. But the truth is that I owe this newfound realization entirely to my wife, Jessica, who decided to start a program called Whole 30  If you’re a guy like I, you eat what your wife makes, so I was sort of unwittingly dragged into this Whole 30 journey with the option to either eat whole foods or starve. Whole 30 is a program set out in a book called It Starts With Food written by physical therapists Dallas and Melissa Hartwig, who is also a certified nutritionist.  The Hartwigs’ underlying philosophy is that what we put into our bodies is either nourishing or harmful, and the Whole 30 directive is to consume only nutrient-rich, nourishing food for 30 days. In the Whole 30 world, sugar is known as “The Dragon” and the program is designed, in part, to allow us to gain control over sugar-cravings. By eating Whole 30, we reduce chronic inflammation, hormonal imbalance, autoimmune disorder, and thereby greatly reduce our incidence of chronic disease and food-driven malaise.  Whole 30 is not a weight loss program, although weight loss is a side effect of the program.  While the book goes into great detail about the reasons for eating the foods recommended and avoiding those that are not, in a nutshell, the program requires you to quit sugar, grains, dairy, legumes (i.e. beans, peanuts, etc.), alcohol and all processed foods for 30 days.  There is absolutely no cheating allowed.  If you have a bite of an Oreo, a sip of pop or a nibble on a piece of cheese, you have to start all over. Cold Turkey is the only way to go on Whole 30. After 30 days, you begin to add legumes, grains and dairy back into your diet under certain guidelines in order to determine your particular sensitivity to these food categories, so you can eat accordingly moving forward after completing Whole 30.  So for 30 days my wife and I ate some combination of meat, eggs, vegetables, some fruit, certain nuts and lots of healthy fats (i.e. avocado, coconut, olive oil, ghee, etc.) for every meal. Now, please appreciate that going into this, it was simply inconceivable to me that I would be able to give up all the foods that I absolutely loved.  No DiCarlos?  No Figaretti’s? No Golden Chopsticks?  No Mountain Dew?!?! Are you kidding me?  Yeah right! If I can’t have those things, what’s the point of life?  That lifestyle was never going to be practically feasible for me. In fact, the first thing I said on Day One was, “I just can't comprehend the fact that I can never eat pizza again.” I was simply trying to be a supportive husband in the beginning, humoring my wife while harboring every intention of returning to my old ways within a week at the latest. But something happened once I started. I quickly found that it was much easier to eat Whole 30 than any other program I had ever tried.  The food was delicious, because it was mostly protein and fat which are incredibly satiating. So I didn’t find myself hungry 30 minutes after I ate. I also quickly discovered why I could eat a whole family size bag of chips and drink a Big Gulp in one sitting.  Junk “foods” don’t satiate, but instead insidiously trick the brain into being able to eat way more than the body is otherwise equipped to handle, which happens to be great for business if you’re a junk food producer. My wife, Jessica, had more difficult days in the beginning (she’s way more food sensitive, in general, than I), but also quickly found it easy to eat Whole 30. But although eating the food was easy enough, this is not to say the program was a breeze. Two things made it tough. The first hurdle was shopping.  I quickly discovered that if it’s at the store and is not a fruit or vegetable, it has added sugar in it.  I was absolutely floored to discover that literally every packaged food on the grocery store shelves is laden with added sugar in one form or another.  From lunch meat to canned vegetables to beef and chicken stock, even nitrate-free bacon, it all has sugar.  So there was a bit of a learning curve, and a lot of label reading, to find foods that were Whole 30-compliant in those first couple of weeks.  But this was a very manageable challenge and fortunately, Kroger and Riesbecks’ now offer a lot of organic options.  Trader Joes in Pittsburgh is also your friend (it’s like the Aldi of organic food).  Their prices are amazing, and it’s well worth a trip to stock up on staples like tuna, cashew butter and coconut products (all good on Whole 30). The second, and bigger, challenge was meal preparation. There are very few options for eating out on Whole 30, although it can be done (Thank you, Cilantro Grill. But meal prep. is a must, and that is time consuming any way you slice it. Recipes are no problem. We have found tons of delicious options and have a list of things to try that will last us years. But we have had to diligently plan, prep on weekends, and do dishes twice a day. Jessica did the cooking almost exclusively, while I helped with prep and was in charge of clean-up, and to be honest we are still challenged to find the best balance for this lifestyle. But here’s the thing. Hardly anyone simply has the time for dedicated meal prep in today’s society, so we have to make the time. Attention to your health simply has to become a top priority in your life.  Difficult I know, but if we can do it so can you.  We have tremendous demands on our time, young kids, and a steady helping of unanticipated monkey wrenches like everyone else, but so far, we have been managing to make this work by making it a focal point of our daily lives. Plus by eating healthy, you should have much more steady energy throughout the day, be better able to focus and concentrate and, as a result, the quality and timeliness of your work will hopefully improve to more than make up for diverting an extra hour or two a day to food prep. And there are so many free resources on the net to help with planning and preparation that it really is easier than ever. By and large, the meal preparation has actually been a fun and enjoyable, albeit challenging, experience. I have learned new ways to cook and am way more attuned to the particular health benefits of different foods. I’ve been eating “Whole 30” now for a couple months, and I can say it has made a tangible difference. By the end of that first month, I found myself no longer craving the things I thought I could never, ever give up. I mean, I truly cannot imagine anyone craving and loving junk food more than I, and I was as skeptical as they came in terms of believing I could ever stem these cravings. So I truly believe that if I can do this, so can anyone else. I sleep much better now, my energy levels are consistent all day – no more mid-afternoon Cokes to stave off the inevitable post-lunch crash, and I feel much improved physically and mentally.  Oh, and I also lost 20 lbs. in that first month.  I can honestly say that my taste buds have changed.  Foods that I was previously lukewarm (i.e., sweet potatoes, olives) or completely averse (i.e. tuna) to have now become favorite staples in my diet. Since completing Whole 30, we’ve basically just continued the lifestyle.  It’s feeling more and more like a part of our household, which is perhaps the biggest difference I’ve noticed over other programs I’ve tried in the past.  Those other programs always felt like short term solutions, whereas this feels more sustainable. Think of Whole 30 as a precursor to a paleo-type lifestyle. After Day 30, “cheating,” or in Whole 30 parlance “nutritional off-roading,” is allowed when something just absolutely seems worth it to not pass up. So I’ve had some offroading during my second month. DiCarlos and I still hook up occasionally.  But the big difference so far for me has been that, instead of an “off-road” meal triggering a fast-track return to old habits, these choices now make me want to quickly return to putting healthy food in my body. However, that’s not to say I don’t enjoy these indulgences.  The thing about eliminating the junk from my daily diet is that when I have indulged, I make my decision, savor it, and move on with no regrets or guilt. The biggest difference is that I am now much more selective of what I deem as worthy of my pleasure. Some of our other cheats have been much healthier options of indulgent foods we love – chocolate chip cookies made with almond flour, coconut oil and honey, for instance, which now taste like the most delicious cookies ever.  In contrast, my 3-year-old, who has yet to adopt a Whole 30 lifestyle, thinks those cookies are gross and won’t touch them because he’s used to sugar-laden junk foods. I can’t blame him.  I would have felt the same way two months ago.  Because I was unwittingly riding that Sugar Dragon as hard as I could without realizing the way that the sugar and food processing had reconditioned my brain and taste buds to react to processed foods. Am I in for a relapse?  Probably.  Relapses are part and parcel of addiction.  But I feel like I have finally found a blueprint for good health to which I can return if I do revert to my old habits.  For now, I am immensely grateful to my wife, once again, for dragging me into Whole 30, kicking and screaming, but opening my eyes to a whole new way of eating, living and feeling. Again, it’s difficult to express in words, the skepticism I had towards being able to abandon the comforting food habits upon which I grew so dependent. To be able to undo a lifetime of unhealthy programming in just one month seemed utterly unfathomable to me.  But so far, so good, and the Dragon remains at bay. If you’re interested in a Whole 30/Paleo lifestyle, here are some additional links to learn about these programs.