Update, 2022: Hi! This post is gaining traction once again, likely due to New Years Resolutions. And I am here to tell you that the Whole30 is a diet, and that I was deeply in the worst time of my eating disorder when I did this diet and wrote this blog. I honestly don’t think you should do a Whole30, let alone a vegan Whole30, which is extremely restrictive.
“But I’m doing it for my health!” If you are doing a Whole30 as an elimination diet to test for food intolerances that may be exacerbating autoimmune conditions or other medical issues, please work closely with a doctor or nutritionist to ensure that the restrictive nature of this diet does not detract from you getting the amount of calories you need to actively fuel your body. If you are doing a Whole30 for any other reason, you are on a diet without a medical need, and I encourage you to stop.
What is the Whole30?
Have you heard of it before? You can get the complete run-down on their website but here’s the basic premise:
Health starts with food. Everything you put in your mouth either helps or hinders your health. Many food types (such as dairy, legumes, grains, sugar, and alcohol) can cause chronic inflammation of the body. The Whole30 removes these questionable foods for a full 30 days and reintroduces them in a slow, controlled manner afterward so that you can test your observations and understand any unknown food intolerances you might have.
2022 Caitlin here: The Whole30 is a diet. It’s a diet, it’s a diet, it’s a very restrictive and expensive diet.
- No sugar or sweeteners of any kind (no maple syrup, agave nectar, honey, coconut sugar, sucanat, cane juice, stevia, xylitol, etc.)
- No alcohol
- No grain (wheat, rye, barley, oats, corn, rice, quinoa, etc.) or grain derivatives (rice oil, corn oil, cornstarch, rice syrup, etc.)
- No legumes (beans, peas, lentils, peanuts, soy)
- No dairy
- No carrageenan, MSG, sulfites (common additives)
- No making “healthy” or “compliant” treats or foods made with approved ingredients
That last one confused me at first. Why can’t I make banana ice cream, dang it? But their reasoning is really good:
Continuing to eat your old, unhealthy foods made with Whole30 ingredients is totally missing the point, and will tank your results faster than you can say “Paleo Pop-Tarts.” Remember, these are the same foods that got you into health-trouble in the first place—and a pancake is still a pancake, regardless of the ingredients. – See more at: http://whole30.com/whole30-program-rules/#sthash.bF9lEqrQ.dpuf
2022 Caitlin: “Old, unhealthy foods” is a bullshit phrase. Food is food. Bananas are food. Ice cream is food. Stop putting morality on food. “These are the same foods that got you into health trouble” is just fearmongering. Please do not do this diet, I beg.
The final rule was one of the hardest to follow: NO MEASUREMENTS OR SCALE FOR THIRTY DAYS. Yes. You can weigh yourself on Day 1 and Day 31, but no weighing in or taking measurements for the duration of the program. It’s about health, not weight loss. (On a related note, I lost over 9 lbs).
2022: Again, I had an ENTIRE. EATING. DISORDER. when I thought this was a good idea. If you are here wondering if you should do a vegan Whole 30, please book a free 30 minute consultation with me and we can talk about diet culture.
Most people on the Whole30 or a paleo diet rely on meat. Vegans and vegetarians typically use legumes as a plant-based protein source, but I would be without those staple food items for my 30 day adventure.
2022: And that is a terrible idea, you need more food than this allows on this diet.
Where do you get your protein?
This question is the bane of vegan/vegetarian existence. It is the most commonly asked question from meat eaters when someone mentions their plant-based diet.
For the duration of the Whole30, I ate plenty of nuts, seeds, and seed butter for protein and fat. Also, many plants have a good amount of protein! Green veggies such as spinach and kale, broccoli, brussels sprouts, and asparagus have high protein content, and mushrooms are also a good source of plant-based protein. Green beans, snap peas, and snow peas are “approved” legumes on the Whole30 plan because they are in a green pod and are considered more veggie than bean.
Here is a question for you: Where did your grass-fed beef get all its muscles?
2022: Note to my past self, I am so sorry. You deserved to feel full and eat food that tasted good.
Can a vegan do a real Whole30 or is it modified?
The official recommendations of Whole30 say you can’t technically do the recommended Whole30 plan while vegan, because they recommend a moderate amount of animal protein. They include the following suggestions to doctor the Whole30 to minimally impact gut health while doing a Whole30-ish plan on a vegan diet:
If you simply choose to include off-plan dairy or plant protein in your Whole30-ish plan (this also applies to vegans, save dairy), here are our best tips:
Dairy: Prioritize pastured, organic, fermented sources like yogurt or kefir. You could also use a whey protein powder from grass-fed, organic sources, which would provide the protein you need with fewer downsides than other dairy products (including cheese). You may want to experiment with goat’s milk or sheep’s milk, if you know cow’s milk products aren’t well-tolerated.
Legumes: Your best choices are minimally processed, fermented soy products like tempeh or natto, or organic edamame (soybeans). You can also include non-fermented, organic soy (like extra-firm tofu) and various legumes in rotation. Avoid non-organic soy, processed soy products (like “burgers” and “cheese”), and peanuts.
Grains/Pseudo-Cereals: Avoid all gluten grains, including seitan (which is made from wheat gluten). Pseudo-cereals like quinoa are less likely to cause disruption to the gut or immune system than other grains.
Protein Powders: A hemp- or pea-protein powder is also an option for you, although you’d have to include quite a lot of it in your diet to get any substantial amount of protein. Read your labels carefully to make sure these protein powders include as few inflammatory ingredients as possible.
– See more at: http://whole30.com/2015/06/veg-whole30/#sthash.vOTVhyva.dpuf
But I like to go all in. I followed all Whole30 food restrictions and completed the thirty day experiment with no plant sources beyond those I already discussed. However, I did make a few adjustments to the plan due to my plant-based diet.
Snacks: The official guidelines advise you to have three meals a day and not have snacks. But let me tell you what happens when you eat only vegetables: they take up a lot of room in your stomach without a lot of calories. To get enough calories to function, I had to eat more frequently throughout the day. Check out this representation of caloric density:
Totally filling myself up with veggies or fruit would result in about 400-600 calories per meal. In order to eat 1800-2000 calories per day I needed to eat a couple snacks. My go-to snacks were trail mix (mixed raw nuts with raisins and coconut flakes) or an apple with nut or seed butter. Sometimes I would have a sweet potato or baked sweet potato fries as a snack as well, if I was feeling under-carbed.
2022: Your brain literally requires glucose, which comes from carbs. Also, 2000 calories is not enough to maintain most adult bodies — our thoughts about calories are super fucked up and very very incorrect, based on modern diet culture.
Fruit: Official Whole30 recommendations advise limits around fruit. They’re not concerned with the sugar or calorie content, but if participants lean on fruit as a sweet treat, then they aren’t getting to the underlying habits and cravings the Whole30 can address and correct. However, following a plant-based diet means that my options for food are fruit, vegetables, seeds, and nuts. I ate a lot of fruit for breakfast every day. It gave me whole-food calories with plenty of micronutrients! Favorite breakfasts were sliced bananas with blueberries, melon chunks, pineapple chunks, or banana smoothies toward the end of the Whole30 when I desperately needed a change.
The Whole30 guidelines also recommend you eat fruit WITH your meals, not alone as a snack. My issue with this is that fruit tends to digest faster than other foods, so I typically try to eat it on an empty stomach to avoid gas and bloating from fermentation in my stomach or digestive tract as the fast-digesting fruit gets stuck behind slower-digesting vegetables and starches. No thanks! I usually eat my fruit for breakfast on an empty stomach.
My Experience and Results
My experience of the Whole30 was basically this:
- First week: Massive “sugar hangover,” tired, sluggish, cravings, weird dreams about bread
- Second week: Feeling REALLY GREAT about all food options available to me, creative meal planning and recipes
- Third week: Coasting. Same old-same old on foods I knew I liked and could cook easily.
- Fourth week: Boredom. Ready for this to be over. Not because I can’t wait to have a bean-rice-pizza binge but because this is expensive and I want to be able to eat other things
- Bonus: I don’t crave sugar anymore. I get plenty of natural sweetness from fruit and have no desire to run back into the sugar bowl for solace.
Yes, I spent more on food than I usually do. In a typical week I spend $50-$75 on groceries to happily feed myself and my boyfriend. On a typical Whole30 week I spent an average of $100 per week. Some of that was random one-off stuff like buying a jar of tahini to make some truly terrible squash based hummus. That is ten bucks I’m kind of mad about. But I am hoping to make actual chickpea hummus with it later so I reserve judgment. (Can you return an open jar of tahini to Whole Foods? Let me know).
Could I have done the Whole30 on a budget? Yes, I think I could. If I do it again, I will be much more careful about my meal planning and grocery budgeting and try to do it on about $50-$80 per week instead of $100+.
I did my grocery shopping at the following places:
- West Side Market: LIFESAVER. Were it not for the market I could have easily spent twice as much money on produce.
- Earth Fare
- Whole Foods
Exercise and Sleep
I didn’t stick to a workout regime on the Whole30. When I start juggling lots of balls at once, I have a tendency to stress myself out, over-fixate on perfection, and go down the path of disordered eating or thinking. I worked out if I felt like working out, and I slept in when I felt like sleeping in. My main focus of the Whole30 process was to (1) get control of my food habits, and (2) integrate healthy sleep habits into my routine.
2022: No shit.
I feel pretty great! I had highs and lows in my mood as anyone would throughout a month. I was a little irritable in week 1, but not the evil scary monster I expected myself to be. I felt well rested and energetic most days. I feel “lighter” in spirit and body.
2022: This was a lie. I felt hungry. Just hungry, all the time.
I noticed in the mirror that my belly bulge was going away. Starting the Whole30 at 213.8 pounds, I expected a few pounds of fat loss but wasn’t holding my breath for a big change. Color me surprised when I weighed in on Day 31 to see the number 204.2 staring back at me! That’s a 9.6 pound loss in 30 days with minimal exercise, just focusing on healthy food and sleep.
2022: I was starving myself. I lost weight because my body was breaking down fat stores to fuel itself, which is what bodies do, and why yo-yo dieting results in weight gain as your body thinks you are in an unstable famine state and may be back to starving at any time. Cyclic dieting also vastly increases your chances of stroke, heart attack, diabetes, and death (those things we blame fat itself for). Stop dieting! It will save your life.
The reintroduction phase of Whole30 allows you to slowly reintroduce potential problem foods one at a time and notice any changes or symptoms. Here’s the sample 10-day reintroduction schedule from Whole30:
- Day 1: Evaluate legumes
- Day 4: Evaluate non-gluten grains
- Day 7: Evaluate dairy
- Day 10: Evaluate gluten
After each day, go back to Whole30 eating for two days while noticing any symptoms or effects from the food. Decide how, how often, and how much to incorporate these foods back into your diet, if you choose to continue eating them at all.
Since I don’t eat dairy as a vegan, I get to evaluate my foods in the reintroduction period over a seven day period. Here’s my plan:
- Day 1: Evaluate legumes (peanut butter with breakfast, chickpea falafel with lunch, black beans with dinner)
- Day 4: Evaluate non-gluten grains (oatmeal with breakfast, corn with lunch, rice with dinner)
- Day 7: Evaluate gluten (sourdough bread with breakfast, Field Roast meat substitute for lunch, non-dairy pizza for dinner)
For a couple of years now, I’ve been largely gluten free. However, I do occasionally have some sourdough bread (the fermentation of the starter helps to break down the gluten to make it easier to digest) or sprouted grain bread (same deal, easier to digest). These foods don’t typically cause me any symptoms that I have noticed. I have had accidental gluten to varying effects, sometimes experiencing bloating and gas afterward and sometimes not. So I know something is going on with gluten and me. In the spirit of trying things, I’m going to reintroduce it to note its effects once and for all.
2022: I was tested for celiac and gluten intolerance, and I literally do not have it. My gluten related “symptoms” were psychosomatic aspects of my eating disorder. I eat gluten now with no issues.
The Sugar Dragon
My primary goal for this Whole30 process was to eliminate sugar from my diet and destroy my sugar cravings. Before the Whole30, I was eating oatmeal with brown sugar and maple syrup once or twice a day, having dark chocolate several times per week, and enjoying other sugary snacks. For me, sugar is a really tricky food item. It’s 8 times as addictive as cocaine and I have a hard time keeping it in “moderation.” I can quickly become obsessed. For me, sugar is not a healthy food. I don’t plan on reintroducing sugar to my diet anytime soon. If I figure out a safe moderation steam-release on my sugar dragon, I will report back. For me, I think I will stick with fruit.
2022: “It’s 8 times as addictive as cocaine” WHAT THE FUCK. So this statistic comes from a study done with rats to see whether they preferred sweetened water over cocaine. But do you know what happened when I allowed myself unmitigated access to sugar? I realized I don’t even really like sweets. I rarely eat sugary desserts and foods – the cravings for sugar I used to have went away when I started eating enough to actually fuel my body. When you are starving, your body will crave (and crave VERY STRONGLY) the easiest form of energy it can break down: sugar.
Soy: Friend or Foe?
There is a lot of research out there on soy. Some sources sing its praises as a heart-healthy, protein-rich superfood. Other sources say it is full of phytoestrogen and gives you man boobs. Since there is so much soy controversy, I plan on keeping my intake limited and not relying on it as a staple food item.
Can’t stop, won’t stop.
Since I can only focus on one giant project at a time without treading the edge of mental dysfunction, I didn’t spend a lot of time focusing on exercise during the Whole30. Afterward, though, I am planning a new fitness regimen that I am very excited about! I’ll be training for a 5K using the Couch to 5K program as well as doing strength training three times a week. The combination of long cardio and strength should help to bust me out of the plateau that the Whole30 helped me break!
2022: Again, past me, so sorry for this constant moving of goal posts to keep you losing weight at all costs. You did not deserve that. I love you.
Onward and Upward!
Is a vegan Whole30 possible? Yes.
How does it make you feel? Like an unstoppable plant-powered badass.
Would you do it again? I am really not sure. I think I might do a Whole21 or a 30 day sugar detox instead of a complete Whole30.
2022: Please don’t do it.