Sweet potato noodles with cashew sauce
Nearly 30 days ago I wrote about starting a vegetarian version of the Whole30 diet. I’m here to report back on how my attempt went and what I thought of the program.
First things first. Did I complete all 30 days of the Whole30?
YUP! (Subject to the notes below.). There were a few times when I thought we might just throw in the towel (umm hello delicious pizza restaurant on day 27) but my husband and I both persevered. (I ordered roasted veggies at the pizza place and made eggs when I got home; my husband had a garden salad with chicken added.)
What is the thing I missed the most on Whole30? Peanut butter. And carbs stuffed with peanut butter (Uncrustables, pretzels with peanut butter)
What things have I eaten on Vegetarian Whole30 that are not permitted on regular Whole30? Tofu, soy sauce, unsweetened soy milk. Plain organic Greek yogurt. A few peas in some Indian food. A serving of kidney beans. A bowl of white bean soup.
What have I eaten that is not permitted on Vegetarian Whole30? A few unauthorized oils, such as cashews roasted in peanut oil and butter-flavored Pam (also contains small amount of dairy). I had a few bites of a new product at work that contains some banned legumes and rice. I wouldn’t be surprised if something I ate at a restaurant had a drop of added sugar, but I certainly did not eat anything intentionally with sugar as an ingredient.
What have been my Whole30 weaknesses? Nuts and fruit. I’ve had to be careful not to overdo it on these, especially at night on my yogurt (my go-to dinner when I was feeling lazy). Most of the few times when I felt like I “over-did it” involved cashews.
What else could I have done better? I definitely could have eaten more veggies. For instance, I had so many eggs but rarely threw veggies into the pan. Eggs are just so much better without veggies, and veggies are work! I did tend to eat veggies at restaurants — either roasted or in salads — because that was what was usually available. And we made a few good veggie dishes at home, such as roasted brussels sprouts.
Did I follow the optional food plan in the Whole30 books? There is a suggested Whole30 meal plan involving three solid meals per day, no snacks. Rather than follow this plan, I just ate as much as I wanted in proportions that seemed right to me. Maybe I ended up snacking a little more than I needed to, but I think part of my “success” on the plan was due to the fact that I only had to focus on one aspect — prohibited vs. permitted foods — without thinking about portion control and timing. Also, based on my review of the meal plans, I don’t think they would have provided enough food for me. In particular, the pre-workout and post-workout meals definitely would not have been enough to fuel a long run or a hard Orangetheory class. Might be fine if you are someone with a lower metabolism and not doing hard workouts.
What items did I rely on most heavily? For protein: eggs, tofu, unsweetened soymilk, and plain organic Greek yogurt. For carbs: frozen blueberries, bananas, and potatoes (white and sweet). For fats: cashews, almond butter, and coconut oil. For spices: lots of salt and Flatirons Spice Company’s green chili flakes (given to me). Here is a sample of my less creative staple meals:
- Eggs fried or scrambled in coconut oil
- Tofu cubed and baked at 325 until crispy and dried (seasoned just with salt/pepper or with soy sauce, garlic, and ginger — tofu is so versatile)
- Organic Greek yogurt with frozen blueberries, almondmilk, and a splash of soymilk
- Bananas, nature’s perfect to-go snack, with a handful of cashews
What have been my most creative Whole30 meals? What are my favorite vegetarian Whole30 recipes? I made a delicious coconut curry with coconut milk, vegetarian broth, onions, garlic, red peppers, riced cauliflower, chili flakes, cumin, coriander, ginger, lemongrass, salt, coconut oil, potatoes, and tofu. My husband had the sauce and veggies with chicken. This was a really nice, flavorful meal. Honorable mentions go to (1) some ramen made with kelp noodles (which I’m not sure at 100% in the spirit of Whole30, in hindsight), and (2) roasted potatoes with a green enchilada sauce (read those labels!) and eggs, and (3) an Indian spice seasoning packet (intended to be used on kidney beans) added to coconut milk, sweet potatoes, kale, tofu, and garlic. I also made some kale chips at my husband’s request and they were very good even though I used way too much lime juice. Just coated some kale in a blend of salt, cashews, lime juice, chili flakes, and garlic powder and cooked very slowly (200 degrees) until crispy.
Sweet potato, tofu, and kale with Indian spices
Vegetarian Whole30 Ramen
What is the biggest challenge on Whole30? Finding satisfying foods when traveling or eating at restaurants. I wanted to be lazy sometimes and this diet made it tough to pick up something on my way home from work or when out with friends or after a run. And I definitely wanted a breakfast sandwich at the airport when I was traveling. Instead I went to the sit-down restaurant for a cheeseless mushroom omelet — the only thing I could find in the whole airport that would have been compliant for me while offering me the calories I needed (so, like, not a fruit cup). And at the ski resort? I had to pass up pizza and curly fries! GAH SO HARD. Luckily I did find some vegetarian white bean soup that was really satisfying, and my friend who had the pizza said it wasn’t even good!
Eggs, banana, and plain yogurt while traveling
What was my biggest fear about Whole30? Losing my muscle. I tried to preempt any muscle loss by eating as much protein as possible, as in like 8-10 eggs daily plus other sources of protein. As for running, fueling was tough. Really tough. Definitely the biggest downside to Whole30 for me. But I tried to feed myself enough carbs so that my body didn’t start eating away all my muscle and I could at least get through my runs.
How did my Whole30-fueled runs go? I did my first long run on day six of Whole30 — the Boulder Three Peaks Loop, which is 16 miles of trails and nearly 5,000 feet of gain. WOOOF. It was so hard. I ate a few eggs beforehand per the Whole30 pre-workout instructions I’d read online (have some protein and some fat). In my pack, I carried two bananas, almond butter, and salt all mixed in a plastic baggie. I couldn’t use Nuun because of the added sweetener, so I just drank water and hoped the salt in my snack would be enough. Well, by the end of the first peak, I’d eaten almost all of my banana-almond mixture. On the second peak, my stomach was rumbling, and on the third peak I was feeling lightheaded. Through it all, my legs were cement. My friend who was running with me said she could tell I was struggling more than I typically do. On our third summit, one of my fellow runners pushed an RX Bar on me, which complies with Whole30 but is only meant to be used in emergencies. This was an emergency. After just a few bites, I started to feel better and was able to finish the run. (Also, can we talk about how good RX Bars are?!) But, long story short, that run was really rough. The next weekend (Whole30 day 13) I’d learned my lesson! I ate some carbs beforehand, and I brought bananas, almond butter, boiled potatoes with salt, AND roasted sweet potatoes with pumpkin pie spice seasoning. My pack was full of whole food fuel. That run was the Boulder Skyline Traverse, which is 19 miles and over 6,000 ft of gain. It went a lot better but I was still feeling really fatigued with heavy legs. Eating carbs during my run couldn’t make up for the depletion my body was going through longer term. Plus, the real food — the potatoes, in particular, I think — gave me heartburn for a portion of the run. Still, definitely an improvement over my terrible first run. Shorter runs felt tough in the beginning of Whole30, and perhaps marginally less tough towards day 20, and pretty normal by day 30. But all in all, I did not find that Whole30 was great for my training, and I definitely would not want to race while doing Whole30. Perhaps if someone does Whole30 for several months they will adapt, but I don’t think 30 days was quite enough for me.
Running fuel for my second long run
Were there any other negative side effects of Whole30? We had headaches in the first few days of the program. Not sure if that is caused by the lack of sugar, lack of carbs generally, or a lack of salt from not eating processed foods. We tried to add in some more carbs and salt and the headaches went away after a day or two but we couldn’t pinpoint the root cause. I also struggled the first week or so with determining when I was hungry. I was trying to listen to my body while also ignoring what were likely cravings or emotionally-driven “hunger.” But it can be hard to tell the difference! I’m still not entirely sure what real hunger feels like and at what point one is supposed to listen to that hunger — how bad is it supposed to get before I should eat? This remains life’s biggest mystery.
Did I beat my “sugar dragon”? I was successful in following the added sugar ban during the 30 days. WOOHOO! This still sort of shocks me. But you know what? After all 30 days, when I walk past 4-day-old donuts, I STILL think I might need to eat them. My brain still goes ga-ga when I see a co-worker eating Reese’s Pieces Rice Krispies treats. Sure, I understand that these are silly, temporary cravings not driven by real physical needs. I am hoping I can stay thoughtful going forward when I see these treats. I’m not expecting that I’ll never indulge again, but I want to be a little more… picky. Furthermore, I think Whole30 helped me rein in the ups and downs of my blood sugar. I was hangry less while on Whole30, and woo boy I am known for my hanger. And while I was definitely hungry at times when I couldn’t find convenient compliant food, (except for during the aforementioned run) I didn’t feel lightheaded the way I often do when I haven’t eaten for a few hours. Some nights, in fact, I’d come home from work feeling only marginally hungry rather than completely ravenous.
Did I get “tiger blood”? Um, no. I was super, super tired for the first 17 or so days of Whole30 and then started to feel better. Day 28 was a highlight in terms of energy and feeling like my shorter run went well, but I don’t think I felt my body go into overdrive compared to my normal diet.
Did Whole30 eliminate emotional or mindless eating? Eliminate? No. Reduce? Yes. Whole30 recognizes the concept of “food without brakes,” which I think is maybe the most genius aspect of the whole diet. Whole30 eliminates most foods that people mindlessly crave and eat without the ability to stop. We all know that feeling. So Whole30 cuts out the cereal, chips, and sweets that often have “no brakes.” As mentioned above, I probably snacked a little more than I needed to, especially with nuts and a mixture of yogurt, frozen blueberries, and almond butter; the Whole30 blog specifically warns about fruits and nuts being used as a crutch for the craveable foods we are used to. So I was conscious of this and tried to nip it in the bud. Evenings were hardest, of course. I will also admit that a couple of times during the 30 days I thought, “Ugh, I probably didn’t need those last few bites” or “I should have had some eggs instead of fruit and nuts.” BUT! BUT! I’ve had food guilt and frustration and disappointment almost every single day of my life since I was 12 years old. So having a small twinge of regret a couple times during the month was a huge change for me with Whole30. And in that sense, I really found the idea that “I CANNOT eat that [brownie, Indian buffet, bag of chips, etc.]” to be liberating.
Did Whole30 cure my ____? I was lucky that I didn’t come into Whole30 with chronic health issues, major pain, or terrible skin. For some people, Whole30 is said to cure lifelong issues such as these. For me…
- I had about the same amount of acne (hormone driven) whether on Whole30 or not. My husband said that my face looks smoother, but I don’t notice a difference.
- At times throughout my life, I have had some itchy skin spots on my legs, which I treat with a topical steroid, and I have always wondered whether the inflammation was caused by a food sensitivity. I can report now that Whole30 did not eliminate the itching (but the steroid does, luckily).
- I found that I was maybe slightly less bloated on Whole30 but it wasn’t a cure-all. Newsflash: I still passed gas on Whole30. Same for my husband who was doing true Whole30 (without beans and dairy).
- I haven’t noticed any difference in muscle or joint pain, but as said above, this wasn’t really something I’ve struggled with chronically.
Did I lose weight on Whole30? The Whole30 rules explicitly say that you should not weigh yourself during Whole30. PUH-LEEZ. I did wait about 10 days and then my curiosity got the best of me. I was down 3-5 lbs depending on what I count as my starting point. By the end of the 30 days, I was down 6-8 lbs. from where I started. BUT. This is a big BUT. Most people have 3-5 lbs. of glyogen and associated water weight that they shed when they go on a lower carb diet. (In fact, totally eliminating the glycogen in your body can cause weight loss of 7 to 10 lbs!) I am not sure how much glycogen I lost (I have been eating a lot of fruits and potatoes) but I am guessing that a portion of my “weight loss” was due to glycogen and water loss. At least at the beginning of the process, my long runs sure felt like I was depleted! So when I go back to a higher carb diet, I am going to remember not to beat myself up about “undoing” some of my Whole30 progress — it is probably just water weight and my muscles getting running-ready again! That all said, I will give credit where credit is due — my clothes are fitting better and I am noticeably leaner now than when I started Whole30. Nothing dramatic, but I can tell a difference.
So speaking of the future, am I staying on Whole30 forever? I don’t think so. I need that peanut butter! But Whole30 did offer me a chance to reflect on what my body needs to stay strong and feeling good, and it turns out that is a lot less junk than I’d been feeding it. So I’m going to keep some aspects of this diet, 95% of the time. Here are some guidelines I’m considering:
(1) Bread: Avoid except for naan bread (necessary!), sandwiches in unavoidable scenarios, post-run veggie burgers, and Uncrustables while adventuring/skiing/running.
(2) Cereal: Avoid all cold cereal. Oatmeal permitted when in the mood.
(3) Chips, Crackers, and Fries: Mostly not worth the way they make me feel. Avoid except while running (love chips during races!). Air-popped popcorn OK. Occasional chips and guac or fries permitted (no more than 1X per month).
(4) Rice and Pasta: Reduce consumption compared to previous diet and opt-out when possible in favor of veggies, protein, and legumes. Permitted for carb-loading.
(5) Beans and Legumes: Permitted but consider reducing frequency because of bloat caused by beans. Peanuts OK, thank G.
(6) Dairy: Unsweetened yogurt permitted. Cheese permitted as a condiment or portion-controlled snack. Incidental milk or cream in other products OK (dahl makhani I’m coming for you!). Casein and whey protein a-OK.
(7) Baked Goods (Including Pancakes): Limit to 1X per month except for while in the act of running. Not to be used as a reward. Avoid in-office treats.
(8) Added Sugar: Avoid in condiments, baked goods and processed foods, soymilk, and candy. Permitted in small doses on special occasions or when running.
(9) Ice Cream: Limited to 1X per month.
(10) Artificial Sweeteners: Permitted.
What is my #1 tip for a successful Whole30? Find a partner! There is NO WAY I would have stuck to this for all 30 days without my husband doing it with me.
Guest interview: what did my husband think of Whole30? My husband wanted to clean up his diet and try something new, not lose weight (he is not a big guy). He completed the standard, non-vegetarian Whole30. Here are his thoughts afterward: “I see why people do it. I think there are other things you can do to achieve many of the same benefits without feeling as restrictive. There is no point when I felt superior to how I felt before. Probably lower highs and higher lows — very much a neutral ‘meh.’ It’s probably good for people who do not want to have to think about portion control. Once you figure out how to do it, it’s pretty easy to do.” I don’t have his official numbers, but he also lost some weight on Whole30 — which, again, he wasn’t trying to do. Notably, he does not eat a lot of fruit and therefore probably had significantly fewer carbs than I did.
Anything else to know?
About halfway into Whole30 I found myself longing for something more than just my beloved peanut butter and donuts… Yeah, it’s weird, but I was missing RP
. Whole30 felt very random to me — like, why can I eat cauliflower and potatoes but not chickpeas or quinoa? Why am I instructed to eat protein and fats before I work out, rather than carbs? Where’s a girl supposed to get her probiotics on this diet? RP, on the other hand, felt so practical, thought-out, and scientific. I never felt utterly depleted while running on RP the way I felt while running on Whole30. So I guess I’m getting back on the RP train in the near future. Somehow, after a month of Whole30, RP sounds easier. Eating at restaurants will be easier. Having some healthified treats will be easier. Fueling my runs will be easier. (We’ll see if I still think it is “easy” in a few weeks…).
Have you tried Whole30 as a vegetarian or non-vegetarian? What was your experience? Are you thinking about starting? I’m always happy to answer any questions!