Food challenge: a month without sugar, alcohol, grains, dairy and more

The popular Whole30 diet requires you to eat 90 meals consisting only of meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruit and nuts

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 June, 2015, 6:16am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 June, 2015, 4:05pm

Could you rise to the Whole30 challenge? That means eating meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruit and nuts, and nothing else for 90 meals straight. No sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes and dairy - in short, no fun - for a month.

The Whole30 challenge was created by sports nutritionists Melissa and Dallas Hartwig and outlined in their New York Times bestseller, It Starts With Food. Since 2009, many thousands have taken up the challenge.

Fans claim it relieves digestive troubles, banishes migraines and aches and pains. Positive effects include a tightened tummy, a good night's sleep and a lightened mood. Some believe the Whole30 diet even treats more severe conditions such as diabetes and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Before you yawn and say "another fad", consider that the Whole30 is more of a self-experiment than a diet.

"Certain food groups like sugar, grains, dairy and legumes could be having a negative impact on your health and fitness without you even realising it," the Whole30 website says. "There is no food neutral; there is no food Switzerland - every single thing you put in your mouth is either making you more healthy or less healthy."

And all the foods on the Whole30 banned list are deemed "bad" foods, charged with upsetting hormones and gut flora, encouraging emotional eating, affecting immunity or causing inflammation.

By removing these foods for a month the authors reason you will gain a sense of what works for you and what doesn't, and change your relationship with food forever. At the end, begin reintroducing foods based on your experience.

The rules are tough. You're also banned from stepping on the scales or counting calories. What's more, a splash of milk or a cheeky bite of chocolate and your efforts are scrapped and you have to go back to day one.

Nutritionist Tanja Guigon-Rech of Nutrition Nation believes the Whole30 has its benefits. "It essentially teaches not to eat processed foods and eat more whole foods, and everyone can do that."

But she frowns on its restrictive nature. "There is no single diet for everyone; everybody is different, has different nutritional needs and processes food differently," she says.

Also, she doesn't agree with the way some foods are demonised. Grains, one of the first foods to get the boot, "are not bad when you consume the right grains and in moderation," she says.

Another concern is the elimination of entire food groups that form the basis of a healthy diet. Dairy products, for example, are packed with calcium, vitamin D and protein, while legumes such as beans and chickpeas are inexpensive plant-based sources of protein.

But there are legitimate reasons driving such austerity. About 20 per cent of adults have food intolerances which go largely undiagnosed - with dairy and grains the most common culprits. Food intolerances can lead to digestive upsets and systemic inflammation in the body, among other ailments.

However, some believe the Whole30 promotes an unhealthy approach. "Stressing about what we should and should not eat, or having to lose weight to be happier, puts our bodies into a stress response," says Nora Senn, an eating psychology health coach trained at the Institute for the Psychology of Eating. Stress causes our digestive system to shut down, so we store fats instead of burning calories and building muscles.

There is a benefit in testing how our bodies feel when we eliminate certain foods
Nora Senn, eating psychology health coach

That said, "there is certainly a benefit in testing how our bodies feel when we eliminate certain foods," she says.

I was curious about the Whole30. I relish my post-workout grain-fuelled carb binges, and a full cheeseboard is my idea of heaven. I'd prefer to run more than eat less of what I enjoy.

But I have my troubles: cravings, bloating and intolerances. I get tired. And despite a regular exercise regime, I've always struggled with those last few kilograms. Over the years I have cut out gluten, yet still suffer. I've always suspected there were other food culprits that affected me.

"Even cutting out grains for 30 days is OK," says Guigon-Rech. With her blessing I stripped my cupboards of non-Whole30 compliant food and accepted the challenge.

Here are my five conclusions.

1. The Whole30 diet is possible There are a million reasons why you wouldn't want to do the Whole30: a birthday, an important dinner or a holiday, or just that, like me, you like all the foods on the "no" list. But that doesn't mean it's impossible. During my 30 days I was training for a 100km endurance run. Ever tried carbo-loading without pasta or toast? I hadn't, and the prospect scared me. Instead of gorging on toast and pasta, I ate sweet potato, lots of bananas, roasted potato and other starchy vegetables. And I felt like I had more energy than ever.

2. No grains doesn't mean no carbohydrates I initially mistook the Whole30 for a low-carb diet, wrongly assuming that no grains meant no carbs. But I quickly learned that one cup of sweet potato has almost the same amount of carbohydrates as two slices of white bread (27 grams versus 30 grams). One medium potato has 37 grams of carbohydrates; and the trusty banana has 27 grams. A diet abundant in fresh fruit and vegetables for most people easily satisfies our carbohydrate requirements. This is the point: what do you really know about your food?

3. Sticking to the challenge is hard Keeping within the strict rules of the Whole30 takes time. I had to cook practically every meal at home, or prepare meals in advance. Going out was difficult. "Many restaurants and kitchens use partially hydrogenated oils or other additives in the cooking process, and ready to eat foods fitting within the rules are not common in Hong Kong," says Guigon-Rech.

4. I use food as a crutch Paying close attention to my diet, I learned just how often I eat when I was bored, rather than hungry. I also tend to eat when stressed or emotional. The Whole30 doesn't just ban sugar, it also bans pseudo-baking that combines acceptable ingredients to make a treat - think sweet potato pancakes, date and raw cacao brownies and banana muffins. Although "healthier" treat options are better for you, they're still treats, warns Guigon-Rech. "They shouldn't be eaten every day, at most once or twice a week." Replacing treats with more satiating foods, I was able to fine-tune my bad habits over the month.

5. Eating these foods causes weight loss I lost almost 2kg and went from a BMI of 22.5 to 21.7 during the 30 days. More significant was the visual reduction in bloating. Weight loss is unsurprising says Guigon-Rech. "It is essentially a restrictive diet," she says. But I experienced other benefits, like an increase in energy and an improved emotional state. Most valuably, my mindset shifted and I'm more aware of what I'm putting in my body and how it affects me. But like any way of eating, it needs to fit into your lifestyle. Some days cooking for two hours is not possible; enjoying a meal with friends is what life is about.

I would recommend the challenge, but moving forward, I'll take the best of the diet, upping my veggie and protein intake while still allowing room for the occasional nutrient-rich legumes, wholegrains and dairy, and an occasional treat - and make it a year-round, sustainable effort.