My Whole30 Experience as a Marathon Runner
I have just completed the Whole30 programme one month before my marathon race and I am keen to share what I have learned. Before I wrote this blog, I did a quick search for Whole30 and read a few reviews ranking the Whole30 and Paleo bottom of all diets. Why on earth would a holistic health coach and a marathon runner want to go on a programme that skips wholegrain and dairy? Was it really worth the time and effort going through such a strict regime, if at the end of the day, I might even yoyo back to my original way of eating?
A month was probably the shortest reasonable time for any nutritional programme to show meaningful results. I was pretty sure the benefits would be more pronounced if one could stick with it for another week or two. But honestly anything longer than 30 days would be hard to sustain, especially my weekly mileage increased with a marathon approaching. The programme was designed to allow 30 days for the body to heal and reset. During this period, one can experiment and establish a habit of eating more whole foods and hopefully tame the sugar-dragon, other addiction or unhealthy habits. Such a restrictive way of eating was never meant to be permanent. At the end of the programme I was pretty happy with the results and I have started to incorporate some of Whole30 practices and elements into my lifestyle.
Whole30 has brought me some unexpected benefits like better sleep quality, mental clarity and greater energy levels, but these positives also came at a price. I found myself spending all day thinking about food and planning my activities around meals. I would offer my encouragement if you are interested to try it. Know that meal planning is so important if you want to succeed. Please do research, understand, consult your doctor and decide for yourself what is suitable for your health and lifestyle. Use your own judgement, do not take my word or any one article or a single scientific research at face-value.
Benefits from the Whole30
Whole30 has made me more conscientious about what I put into my body. I have paid far more attention to the quality, the freshness and nutritional content (vitamins, minerals, fibre) of food beyond counting the macros (carbs, fats and proteins). I didn't count a single calorie and was more concerned about getting more healthy fats into my food. I have learnt more about the difference between grain-fed and grass-fed beef, organic-farmed versus conventionally farmed versus wild-caught fish, and omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio from fats in our diets. By about ten days into the programme I was sleeping better, feeling stronger and more energised. For the first time in my life, I experienced mental clarity like a fog has been lifted from my eyes like never before. My bowel movements were significantly better too, which was a big advantage for any runner.
So what is the Whole30?
Firstly, it is not a weight loss programme. Whole30 focuses on how we feel rather than how we look. It is an elimination diet that targets food cravings, dietary habits, our physical and psychological relationship with food. Whole30 is aimed at changing and challenging our dependence on food as a way to reward ourselves, to satisfy our emotional needs, or to distract ourselves from the real issues in other aspects of our lives. Have you ever cleaned up a whole bag (or more) of crisps, popcorn, skittles, chocolates, or a tub of ice-cream in front of a TV or at a movie when you were not even hungry to start with? Why and what for? Whole30 teaches people how to deal with similar situations and how to listen to their bodies.
What did I want to get out of the programme?
For me, Whole30 was a means of reducing inflammation, getting my skin cleared up (which unfortunately didn't quite work), raising my energy levels and improving athletic performance.
How does Whole30 work?
The programme basically involves an elimination that lasts for 30 days and a reintroduction period that lasts for a couple of weeks.
The programme eliminates six food groups from your diet, in order to create a clean environment for your body to heal and recover from potential disruptions, such as inflammation, allergies, headaches, acne, skin rashes, stomach cramps, body aches, joint pains, indigestion and bloating. If you suffer from any of these symptoms, Whole30 may help you figure out which of these food groups are causing troubles.
After 30 days, each food group is reintroduced back into your diet one at a time. You can then carefully observe and record how each type of food affects you physically and emotionally. There are a multitude of elimination diets beyond the Whole30, and any elimination diet can take from two weeks to several months to identify the specific foods that are problematic for the individual.
Say if you always feel bloated after eating pizzas, do you know if it is the cheese or the dough or both that give you trouble. The Whole30 programme helps to identify your body's response to each food group one at a time. One day you will reintroduce dairy only, then you observe how you feel for the next two days as you go back to Whole30 for the body to reset and recover. On day 4 you can reintroduce the next item, such as gluten-free wheat, and observe for potential symptoms and reactions for the next two or three days as you follow the Whole30 rules. Then on day 7 or 8, you move on to third food group.
Once you figure out how each food group affects your body, you can decide how to manage your diet going forward. This new piece of information will allow you to make informed choices about the food you put into your body. You may decide to skip all the problematic foods to avoid all negative responses, or you may continue to eat them but will know what to expect and how to react accordingly.
Initial thoughts prior to the Whole30 experiment
I was pretty overwhelmed by how much food I would have to cut out. My usual food like oatmeal, quinoa, yoghurt, cheese, miso and soy sauce were out. I bought two Whole30 recipe books and searched for some more ideas from social media. I was really inspired by all the quick and easy-to-follow recipes. I felt confident that I could follow this for 30 days with some proper organisation, preparation and commitment. I could even have some fun with these new and tasty recipes and ingredients.
What are the Whole30 rules?
No Sugar or Artificial Sweetener (not even chewing gum)
No Alcohol (not even for cooking)
No Legumes (no miso or soy sauce but thank you for coconut aminos!)
No carrageenan, MSG, or added sulphite
No baked goods, treats, or junk foods, even if they are made up of whole30 compliant ingredients
Click here for more on the Whole30 programme rules.
In simple terms you are cutting out all processed foods laden with sugar, artificial additives and preservatives. You avoid all addictive and sugary treats like cookies, donuts, muffins, potato chips and foods made with highly processed oils. These are the "once you pop you cannot stop" type of "foods with no brakes" that are high in calories and low in nutritional content.
Why did I do it?
A few of my friends from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition were running a Whole30 campaign. I was curious to find out the benefits of Whole30. I wanted to develop healthier eating habits and find out how cutting out grains in particular could impact my marathon training. I also thought some of my health coaching clients might benefit from an elimination diet. It was important for me to experience this first hand, so I would be better equipped to provide support and recommendation.
When did I do this?
I completed the Whole30 from mid October to mid November, because I had two back to back marathon races in early October and early December. This time period also gave me enough clearance before my birthday at the end of November and the next marathon race.
What did I eat during the Whole30?
Vegetables, fruits, pasture-raised eggs, fruits, high-quality meats such as grass-fed beef, wild caught fish, natural fats such as coconut oil, ghee and extra virgin olive oil. Breakfast could be fried eggs with turmeric, scrambled eggs with onions and tomatoes, frittata, avocados, grass-fed beef sausages, sardines, salmon, spinach, arugula, and matcha with bone broth collagen. For lunch and dinner I would have grass-fed steak, pork chop, lamp chop, coconut amino teriyaki salmon, red snapper, coconut curry, roast chicken, sweet potatoes, stir-fry veggies, pumpkin soups, ratatouille, etc.
Did you eat a lot of meat during the Whole30 diet?
Yes I did eat a lot of grass-fed meat but I also ate a lot of eggs and vegetables. The Whole30 programme explicitly says "moderate portions of meat, seafood, and eggs; lots of vegetables, some fruit; plenty of natural fats; and herbs, spices and seasonings. It was not an Atkins diet, the Whole30 was much more focused on high-quality whole foods, and certainly no processed meats.
Did I eat lot of bacon and sausages?
No, I didn't have any bacon during Whole30. Most bacons and sausages were out of bounds during the Whole30 because they contained sugar, soy and preservatives. The majority of packaged bacon, ham and salami that I could find in the supermarkets were not Whole30 compliant. Just by eating a single slice of chorizo could break four of the Whole30 rules (no sugar , no grains, no legumes, no dairy). Fortunately I was able to find one brand of grass-fed beef sausages compliant with the Whole30.
What about wholegrains?
Wholegrains are rich in vitamins, minerals and a good source of fibre when they are properly prepared. They can be a healthy choice if you don't suffer from gluten sensitivities or any autoimmune disorder like Celiac Disease. However, wholegrains contain anti-nutrients such as phytic acid or phytates which bind to minerals (magnesium, calcium, iron, zinc) and prevent the body from absorbing them. That's exactly why grains (and legumes) require so much soaking, sprouting, fermenting and cooking before they are ready for human consumption. Just consider the amount of processing required to turn wheat into bread.
I was not worried about missing nutrients by skipping wholegrains (and legumes), because these same nutrients can be found in abundance in a Whole30 diet. Grass-fed meats, grass fed-ghee, fruits and vegetables are nutrient-dense foods that come without phytic acid, these nutrients are made easier for our bodies to absorb than they would have been in wholegrains.
See my blog on anti-nutrients here.
Did I miss grains?
Yes, I missed oatmeal and quinoa especially after my long runs. But I got more used to fuelling my runs with bananas, sweet potatoes, squash, pumpkins and fruits as they were excellent sources of carbohydrates, other nutrients and fibre.
What did I do to prepare?
I'd imagine most people would have to clean out their kitchen of cookies, chips, chocolates, ice cream, alcohol and soft drinks. I did not bother with any clean outs because my husband was not following Whole30. Our fridge was constantly stocked with beer, ham and cheese. It wasn't hard because I was never that attached to ham and cheese and I was having fun experimenting with this new diet. Occasionally my husband would have a beer with his dinner. When I ever got tempted, I would open a bottle of Kombucha.
Did I follow a meal plan?
A meal plan could go a long way (and even essential) for people with work and family. I did not follow any meal plans because I had the luxury of time and I was comfortable with cooking something simple inside of 20 minutes. When I felt lazy or rushed, I would eat canned tuna or canned salmon with some frozen spinach, which took less time than throwing a pizza in the oven.
How hard was it?
It was easier than expected. I had tried a bit of Paleo recipes and had been incorporating more whole food into my diet over the past year. I liked having fried eggs with turmeric powder for breakfast and there was a huge variety of leafy greens to choose from in Hong Kong, I did not run out of recipe ideas during the 30 days and I didn't mind repeating some dishes. I loved that I was sleeping so well, had higher energy levels, clearer mind and I was free from being hangry. With the money I didn't spend on dining or drinking out, I splashed out on organic vegetables, grass-fed meats and natural fats - all so delicious. Many Whole30 recipes were surprisingly easy and tasty.
How did I motivate myself?
I found it helpful to post pictures of my Whole30 meals on my Instagram story, which kept me accountable and motivated. I also liked plating my meals and taking in the colours, shapes and texture of my food to create a more mindful experience.
Did I have any cravings?
I didn't suffer from sweet cravings because I was never a big fan of sugar or candies. But I craved carbohydrates. I've had some hard times two or three weeks in when I craved bread and oatmeal. Those cravings subsided after a few days and improved as I focused on eating larger portions with healthy fats and a wider variety of proteins and vegetables to make sure I was getting enough to support my activity levels.
My best days were those days when I could eat wholesome and satiating meals without the need for snacks. There were obviously days when I was less prepared. I would snack on bananas, berries, unsweetened coconut flakes, hemp seeds, chia seeds, RX bars, raw nuts and fruits. I also loved matcha with collagen and maca powder.
Whole30 made grocery shopping straightforward, I could skip more than half of the supermarket and focus on buying fresh foods that didn't have any nutrition labels. The main challenge was when I had to get a few non-fresh items and had to read the food labels super carefully. A lot of food items acceptable on the Atkins or Paleo diets were a no-go for Whole30. Plenty of cured meats, bacon, smoked fish and nut milk contained sugar, corn syrup, soy protein and preservatives.
Eating out felt like the hardest part. It was hard when I spent a long day out and didn't have a plan for what to eat that day. The Whole30 programme offered tonnes of tips on eating out but most were centred around a Western diet. In Hong Kong, it was not easy to find an Asian restaurant that could pass as Whole30 compliant. Many Chinese and Japanese dishes contained grains, soy and beans. Thai chicken curry without rice could be an option but I never knew what else was in a curry pot so I didn't try. Every time I went out for a meal, I had gone for either a steak or a grilled salmon, or a buffet where I could be more selective.
Whole30 can be very challenging if you like drinking and socialising. I only went out twice during those 30 days. Each time I ordered sparkling water with lime and mint leaves. Of course it tasted bland like water but the sacrifice was short-lived. I was happy to sacrifice some instant gratification as I wanted to maintain my mental clarity and was keen to see some proper results from the Whole30 programme.
In all honesty, I would not be able to follow through with the Whole30 if I was travelling. I had taken a day trip once during those 30 days and I managed to stick to the programme because I ate breakfast at home and packed my own lunch. My packed lunch consisted of coconut aminos chicken drumsticks, baked sweet potatoes and carrots, a couple of whole-foods snack bars, some apples and banana. I just about made it through the day, but if I had to travel for any longer I would need more planning and mental preparation.
I didn’t have a habit of weighing myself so I was unable to tell whether I had any weight change. I was constantly thinking whether I was taking in enough calories for my marathon training. All my clothes fit as they always did, and I felt strong as ever and my running times were improving.
With much better sleep and higher energy levels, I definitely felt stronger during my workouts. I also felt less inflammation and joint pains as I did to prior to Whole30. Once I was dubious whether I could run all out during a track session, it turned out I was running just as well. I realised I didn't need a granola bar to fuel my runs, it was ok to fuel on sweet potatoes and bananas. I would admit this was probably not a fair or complete assessment, because I had chosen an easy period of my training cycle to go on this elimination diet. By the time my weekend long runs had reached 16 and 20 miles, I had already gone off Whole30 but I continued to avoid artificial sweeteners as much as possible and hadn't taken any Nunn tablets for the past six weeks. I had brought along and ate two Whole30 compliant RX bars for my long runs. Both times I felt totally fine and well fuelled.
My Take of the Whole30
If you would still like to give it a try, here are my recommendations:
Research as much as you can before you take on such a commitment, consult your doctor.
Really know the 'why' before trying the programme. Whether you want to fix a health problem, to detox, to cure a sugar addiction, to develop a healthier relationship with food, or something else.
Find a realistic 30-40 day period to give you enough clearance from important events in your calendar.
Before you commit to the programme, look up and try cooking some of the Whole30 recipes.
Before you commit to the programme, try to build up a habit of eating real, whole foods to replace processed foods, e.g. try to have sweet potatoes for breakfast to replace your usual piece of toast or oat
Instead of thinking Whole30 as a restrictive diet, try to incorporate a wide range of ingredients and recipes as much as possible.
Focus on the positives, think of the different, new, delicious and nutritious foods you get to enjoy.
Remember to eat mindfully.
Visualise how you can follow the programme without compromising your family, work and social life during these 30 days. Consider client events, business lunches, family gatherings, birthday parties and leaving dos, have some back-up plans available for unplanned situations, like doing some meal prep or freeze some pre-cooked meals.
Get support from your family, colleagues and friends
Whole30 is a strict regime, and it is not suitable for everyone. Whole30 requires a lot of thinking, even more cooking, meal planning and working around your routine and responsibilities. If you don't enjoy grocery shopping or cooking, and if you don't get the support that you need from your family and friends, it would be really hard. I think a possible option would be to eliminate just one or two food groups that are the most problematic for you. Consider going sugar-free or gluten free for a month, or maybe longer if you feel really great. These alternatives are more sustainable than removing all six food groups at once. I appreciate why the Whole30 programme is ranked so low amongst many other diets because it is arduous. That's why it is absolutely worth spending the time to investigate, understand the precise reasons for taking on this elimination diet and what you'd want to get out of the programme.
Over the past two weeks I have reintroduced all the foods back into the diet but try to limit my dairy and soy intake. I have lost the same level of mental clarity from the Whole30 programme. My sensitivities towards dairy and soy are manageable if I consume only small amounts at a time. I am tempted to give the Whole30 another go because I felt really great eating this way. But even if I don't try another Whole30, I am already making a few changes to my dietary habits and I feel strong enough both physically and mentally to go on a 16 miles run without the usual sugary supplements.
Next time I may consider a Whole 20 or Whole15 instead of a Whole30. One month is one hell of a project.
1. The Whole30 Programme Rules
2. Books on Whole30
3. A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef
4. Readily available sources of long-chain omega-3 oils: is farmed Australian seafood a better source of the good oil than wild-caught seafood?