Post-Whole30: What I learned after a month without dairy, grains, alcohol or sugar

Back in February, I wrote about my decision to embark on a new food journey: the Whole30. For those unfamiliar, Whole30 is a lifestyle program (I hesitate to call it a diet, because it goes a few steps beyond just telling you what to eat) which encourages eliminating “psychologically unhealthy, hormone-unbalancing, gut-disrupting, inflammatory food groups” from your body for a full 30 days. The program is aimed to help pinpoint which foods may have a negative impact on your physical and mental health by eliminating certain foods and then gradually reintroducing them after the 30 days were up.

The forbidden food groups? Grains, dairy, legumes, added sugar, alcohol and a handful of banned additives like MSG, sulfites and carrageenan—yeah, it’s no easy feat, and it meant checking labels constantly, and being the girl who had to disrupt brunch to ask questions like, “What type of oil do you cook your vegetables in?” It also meant eating a full three meals a day and a lot of cooking at home, which was extremely new for me.

I made these Whole30 pulled pork lettuce wraps with homemade spicy peach salsa one night for my boyfriend – he’s a picky eater, but loved them! Katey Psencik/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Though I’ve been on a weight loss journey for about three months now, my main motivation behind trying the 30-day program wasn’t to shed inches or pounds (though after seven pounds and about 10 inches lost in just one month, that was a serious added bonus). I did it to work on changing my eating habits and my relationship with food. I’m currently clawing my way out of a downward spiral into a bout of depression and anxiety that lasted more than a year, intensified by a horrific breakup and getting laid off from my job. I took a lot of comfort in food—I never thought twice about treating myself to pizza or tacos or Whataburger, ironically because I was trying to be kind to myself. I thought I’d treat myself to unhealthy foods because I “deserved it” because everything else in my life felt so awful. All it did was cause me to gain more than 30 pounds over the course of a year, which left me feeling worse than ever. I needed a change.

So, on Feb. 1, I embarked on this journey to “food freedom” (that’s Whole30 slang for “not having an emotional connection to your food”), and here’s what I learned:

Food plays a huge role in mental health (and vice versa).

I have what my doctors initially called “atypical depression,” which is a type of major depression. It usually includes symptoms like weight gain, increased appetite, excessive sleep and fatigue (as opposed to decreased appetite, weight loss and the inability to sleep, which is referred to as “melancholic” depression). The other big indicator of atypical depression is frequent mood swings brought on by external circumstances. Basically, that means I can fall into a depressive mood if even the smallest bad thing happens throughout my day, but my mood can easily improve if something positive happens.

During my Whole30, I found myself having way more good days than bad ones, and it wasn’t a coincidence. The connection between food and mental health has been heavily studied. According to Mental Health America, mental health can be negatively affected by habits like skipping meals, having too many sugary or caffeinated drinks or consuming high-fat dairy or fried and refined foods (all of which I was guilty of doing before the program).

Since my body was feeling healthier, my brain started feeling healthier too. Since I felt happier and more clear-headed, I wasn’t craving my go-to comfort foods anymore. It was a delightful healthy cycle.

Support is vital in any huge lifestyle change.

I mentioned before that two of my close friends, Melanie and Brittany, joined me in this month-long journey. We started a group text that pretty much didn’t stop for the whole 30 days, and we stayed in constant communication, sharing recipes and food photos and “God, I could really use a cheeseburger” struggles. It was invaluable. And while these girls and I were close before, the experience brought us together even more. They were my sisters in this journey, and I couldn’t have done it without them. So often, women are pitted against each other when it comes to body image, but this process made me feel incredibly lucky to have friendships full of emotional support and encouragement rather than jealousy or spite.

Picnik has a Whole30 menu, and it’s delicious. This is the harvest hash. Katey Psencik/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Sugar is everywhere, and it does weird things to your body.

Y’all, there is sugar in everything. EVERYTHING. I read hundreds of labels and had to say “no” to dozens of foods during this process, just because everything has added sugar. I didn’t realize how reliant my body was on all this added sugar until about two weeks into the program, after my sugar detox headaches went away. I was sleeping better and sleeping deeper (which also led to some really vivid dreams, apparently fairly common in this part of the process). Despite the crazy dreams, it felt like that was how my body was supposed to operate: Sleeping when it was tired, not being propped up by sugary drinks to help me stay awake or empty calories to give me fake “energy.” By the end of the 30 days, I had more energy than I ever did when I was pouring sugar into my body.

Think your body can process dairy? You’re probably wrong.

Y’know how your parents always told you to “drink your milk?” Maybe they shouldn’t have. It turns out our bodies aren’t really great at processing dairy. According to a report from ABC News, doctors say it’s actually really common to be lactose intolerant. Less than 40 percent of the entire world has the ability to process dairy, which means that your body is probably sensitive to dairy even if you don’t know it. I found this out the hard way, when post-Whole30 I reintroduced dairy into my diet in the form of a few spoonfuls of yogurt, and well, I nearly had to call in sick to work that day.

Yes, milk contains nutrients like calcium, potassium and vitamin D. But according to WebMD, some doctors believe milk actually contains too much potassium. It’s also relatively high in calories, and for those whose stomachs don’t really love breaking down dairy (like mine), it may be better to get your calcium and potassium elsewhere (eating lots of fruits and vegetables helps with this).

So, while dairy isn’t exactly bad for you, it’s not great for you, either.

Social outings are still fun without alcohol.

On the first day of my Whole30, I went to a Surfer Blood show at The Parish with my best friend. I was nervous about not being able to have my requisite tall-boy Lone Star (it’s more of a social crutch than anything else—I need something to do with my hands!) so instead I opted for a Topo Chico with lime, and you know what? I still had a great time. So many social outings are focused around alcohol, but I’ll trade my Lone Star tallboys for waking up without a hangover any day.

Eating more doesn’t mean you’ll gain weight.

I ate so much food during the Whole30. Since the program advises against snacking, I wanted to make sure my meals were big enough to tide me over until it was time to eat the next meal. I felt uncomfortably full sometimes, especially after eating a large breakfast (I was used to not eating breakfast at all), but I rarely felt hungry. And I still lost seven pounds, so don’t let anyone tell you that cutting calories is the only way to lose weight.

I made this dinner (lemon chicken, spinach, asparagus, sweet potato chips and cauliflower rice) for my dad and his girlfriend – they’d never had cauliflower rice before, but fell in love! Katey Psencik/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Doing dishes is the least fun of all the household chores.

I didn’t mind doing dishes before. Now, the thought of washing dishes sends me into a blind rage. I probably washed the same pans 90 times in a 30-day period. If somebody can recommend a dishwasher that loads and unloads itself, I’ll spend my life savings on it.

There are an infinite number of ways to cook an egg.

Poached, scrambled, hard-boiled, soft-boiled, omeletted—I tried ’em all. And I got kind of good at it! I’ve never been a particularly skilled cook, but I surprised myself every day with how delicious the food tasted. I felt like Bobby Flay in my kitchen. I only burned a few dishes and only sliced my fingers open a few times, so that’s a success in my book.

My willpower is way stronger than I ever thought.

I said “no” to more doughnuts and cookies than I ever thought I’d be able to. If you don’t work in the journalism industry, you may not know that a newsroom is really not the best place to try to be a healthy eater. At least once a day, a newsroom-wide email slides into my inbox with a title like “Doughnuts in metro” or “cookies by the features department” — it’s basically just Mad Libs: “Come eat the [sugary food] in [newsroom department]” and y’all, it’s so hard to turn down. But every time I said no, I felt a little stronger.

30 days with a new habit can change your life—but it doesn’t end there.

I’d be lying if I said I’ve eaten like a perfect paleo angel after the Whole30 ended. I’ve had more than a few beers and more than a few cookies. I ate tater tots covered in queso and washed it down with a Lone Star (my stomach hated me afterward, so I paid for it in full). It’s proof that I can still enjoy the finer things in life without going overboard (I mean, I would’ve never ordered a hamburger with lettuce instead of a bun before this experience), but it’s also proof that changing your eating habits is a lifelong journey, and there’s no “quick fix”. I hope to start my second round of Whole30 in April, after my friend’s wedding. And oh yeah, that bridesmaid dress I mentioned before? It’s too big now.

H-E-B to bring Luby’s fried fish to the freezer aisle

Last year, H-E-B announced it was bringing one of Luby’s most iconic dishes — mac & cheese — to its stores. Now you’re one step closer to recreating a LuAnn platter at home, because the grocery store is expanding its partnership with the cafeteria, bringing fried fish (a.k.a. “square fish”) to the store’s freezer aisle starting the week of Feb. 20.

According to Luby’s, the fried fish will be $7.95 for two filets that provide four LuAnn-sized servings.

Luby's is teaming up with H-E-B to sell mac and cheese in the freezer aisle of the grocery store. Next year, they'll add fish squares. Ralph Barrera/AMERICAN-STATESMAN/2006
Luby’s is teaming up with H-E-B to sell some of its products in the freezer aisle of the grocery store. Ralph Barrera/AMERICAN-STATESMAN/2006

“Whether you know it as fried or square fish, this piece of Texas culinary history is easily one of the most recognizable and most ordered dishes in the state. We’re proud to have H-E-B as a partner, making it any anytime meal for its legions of fans,” Luby’s Chief Operating Officer Peter Tropoli said in a statement.

The only thing missing from your LuAnn platter? Another side, of course, and a classic Luby’s roll. These aren’t available in the freezer aisle just yet, so in the meantime you can check out these slow cooker recipes for green beans and mashed potatoes and give these homemade dinner rolls a try.

Whole30 check-in: One-third of the way to food freedom

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from my colleague Katey Psencik, who — like my reporter friend Andrea Ball — is embarking on a new way of eating right now. She’ll check in with us in the coming weeks on her progress.

Captain’s Log, Day 10: I am so tired, and I could really use a beer.

Last week, I shared on this blog that I’d be doing a Whole30 in February, meaning 30 days without sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes, dairy or certain additives like MSG, among other restrictions. I’m officially 10 days in (one-third of the way through!) but it feels like it’s been way longer than that.

It’s not that it’s been exactly hard, though it hasn’t been easy either. I’ve been keeping a daily log of what I’ve been eating and how I’ve been feeling, so I’ll share some of the highlights from my journal and lessons I’ve learned over the past 10 days.

A typical Whole30 breakfast.
A typical Whole30 breakfast.

Cooking and eating

I thought getting up early and cooking breakfast daily, plus allowing time to prepare a well-rounded lunch to take to work, would be the death of me, but it isn’t! I’m actually waking up at the same time as I was before but spending less of my morning sitting on the couch watching Charlie Rose. As I mentioned last week, I’ve never been much of a breakfast person, but eating a really filling meal first thing in the morning has done wonders for my ability to focus at work, and since I’ve been eating balanced meals, I stay full a lot longer and rarely feel the need to snack. I don’t miss dining out, either, because the food I’ve been making is so delicious!

Here’s what has mostly been on the menu during the first leg of my journey:

  • Eggs, cooked every way imaginable
  • Avocados
  • Turkey or chicken sausage
  • Spinach and kale
  • Chicken and pork (baked and/or slow-cooked)
  • Spaghetti squash
  • Zucchini “noodles”
  • Roasted sweet potatoes and white potatoes
  • Bell peppers
  • Cucumbers
  • Cauliflower rice
  • Almond butter
  • Various types of fruit, in moderation

Basically, I’ve just been preparing all of these things once or twice a week and then throwing together various combinations for meals. I’ve been trying to focus my meal around a smaller portion of meat, with some form of fat on the side and then filling the rest of my plate with vegetables.  And I’ve been pretty good about the no-snacking rule, except for when I go directly to the gym after work, when I’ll have a pre-workout apple for a little carb boost.

Also, for those concerned, I found a Whole30-compliant coffee creamer that’s pretty good: Nutpods! No, they aren’t as good as my sweet creamer, but it’ll do for the next 20 days or so. I’ve been using French vanilla flavored Nutpods and adding cinnamon in my coffee every morning so I make sure I get my caffeine fix.

While we’re talking about drinks: Topo Chico, La Croix and unsweet tea with lemon have been my best friends this month. Shoutout to sugar-free beverages that still taste delicious.

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Saying “no”

Working in a newsroom presents a host of problems to somebody trying to stay on a diet. Y’all, there is food everywhere at the Statesman. Every day, sometimes several times a day, I get an email with the subject line “Tiff’s Treats” or “doughnuts” or “tacos” and then I have to watch everyone around me eating delicious things I can’t have for a few more weeks.

But saying “no” to these treats has been surprisingly easy. If I were doing a normal diet I would totally talk myself into a way to justify having “just one” cookie or doughnut, but something about the Whole30 helps me refrain from that. It feels like a challenge, and I’m very competitive. If I cave in to sweets or tacos before my 30 days are up, I will have failed myself and failed the challenge, and I’m not interested in either.

The Whole30-friendly salad I've been eating most days for lunch.
The Whole30-friendly salad I’ve been eating most days for lunch.

The first night of my Whole30, I went to see Surfer Blood at the Parish with my best friend/fellow music lover Sydnee and was nervous about not being able to drink. My usual tall-boy Lone Star was replaced with a Topo Chico, because having a beverage in my hand made me feel less awkward. And you know what?! The show was still incredibly enjoyable sans Lone Star. And much cheaper, too.

On day four, my boyfriend and I had to drive to my high school friend’s wedding shower in La Grange, where I was surrounded by all kinds of delicious food I couldn’t eat. My friend’s stepdad makes the best barbecue and everyone around me was partaking, not just in the food, but in copious amounts of beer and wine (because, hello, bring a bunch of small-town Bohemians together on a Saturday night … ). I goaded my boyfriend for drinking a Lone Star in front of me, but it wasn’t the beer that tempted me: It was the pinwheels. Yeah, of all the things, PINWHEELS. Tortillas filled with cream cheese, chives and other deliciousness, and there were two whole plates of ‘em spread out on the snack table. But I prevailed.

How I’ve been feeling

This really has been a journey. I’ve had a few headaches from the sugar withdrawals and a few stomachaches from my digestive tract adjusting to the new things I’m putting in my body. More than anything, I’ve spent most of the past week feeling so exhausted, like I can’t get enough rest even though I’ve been sleeping eight to 10 hours a night, which is way more than usual. According to what I’ve read online, this is pretty normal.

I took most of the first week off from the gym, worrying that I would be too tired or achy to work out. But this week, I resumed my regular workouts (I have a membership at The Barre Code on South Lamar) with ease. I’ve found that even though I’m often sleepy, I haven’t gotten tired during a workout as quickly as I used to, and I feel much stronger than before. I’ve also noticed my body hasn’t been as sore after working out, which is probably due to eating better and drinking more water. I’m sleeping better, and I feel healthier overall — and happier, too.

According to the official Whole30 timeline, days 10 and 11 are “the hardest days” when people are most likely to quit the program. Today, on day 10, I sure am feeling that. I spent about 10 minutes looking at this photo of goat cheese tartine from Blue Dahlia Bistro on the Austin360 Instagram page and I think I might have had tears in my eyes. A friend is in town from Dallas, and he invited me out to where he’d be having a beer tonight, even though “I know you can’t drink,” he said in a text. But I would do anything for a Live Oak Hefeweizen right now, so I’m going to drink La Croix out of a wine glass and find something great to watch on TV instead.

Today is the first really hard day, but I’ve had so many small victories that make this journey worth it. This morning, I grabbed my “skinny jeans” — everyone has a pair of these, the ones you have to shimmy into, then lay down on the bed just to get the stupid things buttoned — and put them on with ease. They even feel a little loose around my stomach, actually. And last night, a friend of mine who I haven’t seen in about a month came over to my apartment and the first thing out of his mouth was, “You look GOOD!” But more importantly, I feel good. And I’m ready to keep feeling good for the next 20 days, and hopefully forever.

Unfamiliar with Whole30? Read why I’m participating in the program

As always, I’d love to hear your recommendations for feeling good on the Whole30 or any recipes you may want to share. Shoot me an email at kpsencik@statesman.com or reach out to me on Twitter @psencikk.

I’m doing a Whole30 in February to reset my eating habits — here’s why

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from my colleague Katey Psencik, who — like my reporter friend Andrea Ball — is embarking on a new way of eating right now. She’ll check in with us in the coming weeks on her progress.

I’ve always loved food. I grew up here in Central Texas with my dad, who makes the best burgers, steaks, spaghetti and “homemade Hamburger Helper” (as we called it) I’ve ever eaten. It’s probably no surprise that as a nerdy, quiet girl who wasn’t good at sports and loved her dad’s homemade hearty meals, I was more than a little overweight as a kid – at least up until middle school, when I joined athletics and lost all the baby fat. From that day on, I was able to inhale Whataburger and Chick-Fil-A and Taco Bell to my heart’s content and not gain an ounce.

That all changed last year, when I gained an unexpected 30-plus pounds for reasons I still can’t really put my finger on. It probably had something to do with the fact that I was going through an earth-shattering breakup, during which I was diagnosed with depression and discovered that apparently I take comfort food to a whole other level when I’ve got the blues. It also probably has something to do with the fact that I’m not exactly a teenager anymore and my metabolism chose this time to turn on me. But regardless of reasons, the weight’s still there. And it’s been…weighing on me (weak, I know. Sorry).

Elizabeth Lindemann, who writes the blog, Bowl of Delicious (@bowlofdelicious, bowlofdelicious.com), shared her photo and recipe for a Paleo chicken salad that’s both mayo-free and dairy-free. It was the most popular recipe on her site last year and is a great fit if you’re on the Whole 30, a 30-day Paleo challenge from Melissa and Dallas Hartwig. Contributed by @bowlofdelicious
Elizabeth Lindemann, who writes the blog, Bowl of Delicious (@bowlofdelicious, bowlofdelicious.com), shared her photo and recipe for a Paleo chicken salad that’s both mayo-free and dairy-free. It was the most popular recipe on her site last year and is a great fit if you’re on the Whole 30, a 30-day Paleo challenge from Melissa and Dallas Hartwig. Contributed by @bowlofdelicious

So, when my friend Melanie told me she lost 12 pounds in November doing this fancy “Whole30” thing I’ve heard some people talk about before, I jumped on board. I kept picturing myself at my high school best friend’s wedding coming up this April, the fabric of the size 10 dress I’d ordered engulfing me and all the weight I’d lost. I got kind of obsessed.

Then I started reading more about the Whole30. It’s more than weight loss. It’s a total lifestyle change. According to the creator, Melissa Hartwig, the Whole30 program is all about changing your relationship with food and creating new habits. Since I read that, I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationship with food. I always considered it a positive relationship: I LOVE FOOD. That’s positive, right?! Maybe not the way I love it, though. Maybe all the food I’d ordered via Amazon or Favor or Postmates when I was too depressed to get to the store or cook my own meals, the food I called “comfort food” because I thought I deserved it when I was feeling down, wasn’t so comforting at all. Maybe it was my enemy. That was when I knew I had to make some changes. I’m undergoing treatment for my depression, so why not undergo treatment for all the negative habits my depression allowed me to form? So, here I am, ready to change the emotionally abusive relationship I have with food (and hopefully lose a few pounds in the process).

So what’s the Whole30 anyway? There are a lot of rules to abide by for 30 straight days. The highlights:

  • No sugar, real or artificial. This is going to mean a lot of label-checking in the aisles of H-E-B and Trader Joe’s.
  • No alcohol. Oh boy.
  • No grains. I love bread like Oprah loves bread, so this one doesn’t sound that fun, either.
  • No legumes, including soy. At first, this one seemed the most doable for me – beans aren’t really a part of my diet anyway – until I read that this includes peanuts, and therefore no peanut butter. I eat about two jars of peanut butter each week. I keep one in my desk drawer. This is so sad.
  • No dairy. This means no coffee creamer. Guess I’ll have to learn to like black coffee.
  • No carrageenan, MSG or sulfites. More label-checking.
  • Don’t recreate these banned foods with “approved” ingredients. These are basically placebos anyway, and are bound to make my cravings worse.
  • Don’t weigh or measure yourself. Somebody take my bathroom scale for the month, please.
  • Eat three meals a day and avoid snacking. This is probably my biggest issue — I’ve never been a breakfast person. I usually have a few cups of coffee and a banana or a granola bar, a small lunch at my desk and a larger dinner at home. Changing that habit is going to require a lot of cooking, planning and meal-prepping. I’ve been wanting to get better about cooking meals at home, so this should help!

Now that we’ve gotten what I can’t eat out of the way, let’s talk about what I can. February is looking like it’s going to be full of meat, vegetables, fruits and good fats. It’s a good thing I love eggs and avocados, because they’re going to be my best friends for the next month.

Another thing the Whole30 encourages: Support. Two of my friends, Melanie and Brittany, have graciously agreed to join me in this strange, harrowing journey. Misery loves company, right?

After talking to my friends about starting the diet together, I turned to Addie Broyles, fearless leader of this blog and the Statesman’s resident cooking guru, for help. She showed up at my desk five minutes later with the official Whole30 cookbook in hand, telling me to blog about my experiences living a dairy-free, sugar-free, bread-free life. I’ll be checking in on here once a week or so to outline my struggles and victories, share recipes and avoid thinking about how much I miss sweet cream in my coffee.

I could use your help, too! If you have any Whole30-friendly recipes you love, advice on how to survive these long 30 days or tips and tricks to finding compliant products at local grocery stores, please send them my way! Comment below or shoot me an email at kpsencik@statesman.com.