Last year I very publicly broke up with American Airlines and became a free agent. Free from the strictures of the Race for Status, I wrote a post about the main thing I needed to do to prepare for life in economy: namely, lose some weight.
I’ll tell you the reason I didn’t give you any updates about me losing weight. There are two reasons, really. On the one hand, I was a pretty crappy free agent and ended up with Executive Platinum status on American again. On the other hand, I didn’t really change any of my habits, eat better, or in any way go through any sort of realistic process that would result in losing any weight. In fact, I gained 10 pounds over 2019. Oops.
2020 happened, I had a great New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day full of carbs and alcohol and ice cream and happiness, when a friend from my CrossFit gym piped in on Facebook, “hey, who wants to do a Whole30 for January? Let’s start tomorrow.”
For some reason, I said I’d do it. What followed was an absolutely brutal month.
What is Whole30?
There are lots of good summaries of Whole30, but here’s how I’d describe it: an extreme elimination diet, cutting out alcohol, grains, dairy, legumes, and added sugar. For 30 days. Basically you’re reduced to eating “whole” foods like meat, vegetables, fruits, and some nuts probably (BUT NOT PEANUTS BECAUSE THEY’RE LEGUMES).
I can hear you saying (and Lord knows I agree with you) “that’s impossible! and ridiculous! are you freaking serious?!” It’s a little crazy, for sure. But so many people just focus on the restrictions of a diet without understanding the thought process behind it.
The thinking of an extreme elimination diet like this is to give your body time to “reset” and to also reset your relationship with food. If you’re more of a scientist, it’s about getting your body back to a control state. My diet was all over the place, there was no consistency nor good habits. I needed to get back in the swing of things.
My experience with Whole30 at home
I’m blessed with the ability to eat the same thing over and over again without getting tired of it. Knowing that about myself, I made the decision to eat almost the same thing for every meal, centered around a piece of protein, another piece of protein, and chucking some vegetables into my Vitamix. This usually ended up being chicken, eggs, veg, and some raspberries. I got that routine down and honestly it wasn’t that bad. They say to not weigh yourself during Whole30 but I did anyway so I’d have some more immediate feedback. The weight dropped off very quickly, on account that I started as a huge guy and carried a lot of “water weight” around. In the first few days I lost nine pounds! I’ve done something like this before and knew it would happen and things would plateau pretty quickly.
What I wasn’t prepared for was how Whole30 would affect my social life. I basically became a hermit, since it was much easier to stick with the program if I didn’t put myself in tempting situations (“HEY ANDY WE’RE HAVING A HAPPY HOUR AT THE ALCOHOL CLUB OH AND IT’S SPONSORED BY A CAKE AND ICE CREAM AND MACARON AND CARBS AND GLUTEN COMPANY GIVING AWAY FREE SAMPLES AND ALSO FREE SONY CAMERA LENSES TOO”). This wasn’t that big of a deal, I mean it’s just for a month, right? It was much harder than I thought. Especially with my girlfriend. My energy levels were all over the place and my desire to spend time with her came and went (which wasn’t fair to her). Sometimes it was just easier for me to just stay in the safe environment around me, I thought. I became almost obsessed with not doing anything wrong instead of motivated to do the right thing. In that respect, I think I missed the point of the program at the outset.
That said, the pounds were still falling off. Before I knew it, two weeks in I was already tightening my belt another notch. Mentally, I was thinking more clearly than before. It’s hard to explain but I just felt more present. I’m not a big-time drinker, usually 1-2 drinks in a week, but it was probably the longest consistent time I had been without a drink in quite a long time (I’m not sure why that’s such a big deal but sounds crazy/sad to me).
The Whole30 website does a good job of explaining what to expect during the program, summarized as follows:
- Day 1: False Confidence
- Day 2-3: Sugar withdrawals
- Day 4-5: Anger and Bad Moodedness
- Day 6-7: Tiredness
- Day 8-9: Bloatedness
- Day 10-11: Can I Really (*^$(*&^#@ Do This For 20 More Days-ness
- Day 12-15: Weird dreams about food
- Day 16-27: Routineness
- Day 28: Being so proud of yourself that you’ll be tempted to cheat-ness
- Day 29-30: EPIC [BAD WORD]ING VICTORY
Why do all those things happen? It’s pretty simple and logical, especially if you ate a crappy diet like I did before I started.
Your body is used to getting energy from certain sources. If you switch things up all of a sudden, your body won’t know what the heck is going on and will take some time to adjust to the new fuel it’s getting. Also, no matter how much I tried, I wasn’t eating the same amount of calories, so my body had to get used to making do with less. As stuff like your biome and your gut bacteria change out to consume all the plant-ey wholesome goodness you’re giving it (instead of Twinkies), yeah there’s going to be some side effects.
Anyway, things were going well, I got past days 10-11 (the most likely days someone will quit, according to Whole30 people), and I had settled into a nice routine.
Whole30 while on a 9-day work trip to London
London happened. Back home I live close to 3-4 different great grocers who sell quality products and I have a variety of kitchen things I use to cook a variety of dishes. In London I would have precisely none of that. I packed some emergency snacks to tide me over in case I couldn’t find anything healthy, and courageously went to the airport to fly across the pond.
Now, my normal airline lounge habits can charitably be called Recreational. I love having a few drinks in the lounge, a sampling of the desserts at the snack bar, and then continuing that onto the plane, pre-departure champagne being one of my favorite kind of drinks in the world. Plus, American makes one heck of a handmade ice cream sundae if you’re flying in business class (and I was).
I don’t think anyone would’ve blamed me for bowing out of the Whole30 thing before my trip. At this point, though, I was freaking committed. I also wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. From the airport to the Flagship Lounge at DFW to the entire business class flight to the London Heathrow Arrivals Lounge, I stuck to my plan. I actually noticed that I slept really well on the flight, which had never happened before, as well.
I wish I could tell you London was easy. It wasn’t. Whole30 is so restrictive. We had to carefully choose restaurants (my girlfriend flew over to see London with me for a few days) and made quite a few visits to Whole Foods Market, since I knew what I could get from there in the States. We went out to one of London’s hottest new restaurants, The Ivy Asia, and I felt bad for the poor waiter who had to answer all of my questions about what was in things while the cooks had to not use the sauces the dishes were famous for. Once my workweek in London started, I resorted to hermitage once again, going to the office after an approved breakfast at my hotel, then eating from a Chipotle down the street from my office because I knew it was good. It was one of the oddest work trips I’ve ever been on.
But I stuck to it. And, this morning, as I prepare to fly back to the States, I finished Whole30. I even went Full Nuclear Whole30 and didn’t have a single drop of coffee the entire time. Jet lag without caffeine, by the way, is an adventure.
Ok so that sounds ridiculous, but did it actually work?
It’s hard to answer that, for a reason I’ll get into. Physically, yes, it worked very well.
I lose 22.5 pounds. Oh, and that goal in the chart above was a weight I wanted to hit by my birthday, which is months away. I never thought I’d get there in less than a month. My pants have gotten looser (it takes two more belt notches to keep them up now). The few people who have seen me since I really started making progress have said I look great. Honestly, I can see the difference, and I feel good about myself! I also feel good knowing I committed to something kind of insane and pulled it off.
But, let’s face it: a diet like this is not sustainable. To their credit, the Whole30 folks acknowledge this. So, yes, the preceding paragraph told you I got some great results, but some of it is probably inflated because I was so restrictive for the past month. Part of the Whole30 program is the Reintroduction phase, which will take place over the next month. Since my body has adjusted to a new Healthy Normal, what kind of impact will bread have? I’ll eat my normal diet but throw in some toast for a day or two, just to see what happens. Then back to Whole30, then add in dairy, just to see what happens. Once I know what impacts these foods are having, I’ll be able to set myself up for the future better, my body telling me what it likes and doesn’t like instead of a book or blog.
And here’s something else: I worry that I was able to stick to an otherwise unrealistic diet for a month because it was so extreme. What will moderation look like for me? Once I got used to the guidelines of the program I found it easy to stick with it, but what happens when it’s “ok” to eat some less healthy foods again? How do you actually plan for moderation? Bringing this back to travel, I’ve done the same thing at times when I was addicted to traveling. What does healthy balance look like? I was good at eating All Crap and All Healthy but I still don’t know if I know how to eat just plain ol’ Mostly Healthy. It’s a battle that will likely be much harder than the Whole30 and one that I’ll probably fight for the rest of my life.
Wrapping all that up, I guess I don’t know if it worked. It broke me of extremely bad eating habits but replaced them with good habits that will be incredibly hard to maintain. I’m happy with the head start it gave me on weight loss and it gave me some space to think about these things. In my real job one of the lines I find myself using is “I’m not impressed with a process that can get something right once, I’m impressed with a process that cannot get something wrong”, and I wonder if Whole30 just got something right once.
Here’s what I didn’t like about Whole30
Whole30 used to say that you couldn’t eat anything but the “whole” version of whatever you were eating/drinking. No creamer in coffee, no fruit juice (rather just the fruit itself), no salad dressings beyond oil and vinegar. I actually really liked that, because you could revert to the base form of a food to see if you actually liked it or rather just used that food as a vehicle for a bunch of junk. That was me and coffee, for example. Coffee to me was nothing more than a sugar delivery vehicle, I actually can’t stand black coffee. Whole30 helped me realize this and I don’t think I’ll drink coffee for a caffeine kick anymore, opting for tea instead.
When I look at my experience with Whole30, I disliked some of my mindset during the program. It was so easy for me to lose track of the “this is a reset, you’re getting you’re body to a new normal” mindset because I was so focused on “HOLY CRAP WHAT KIND OF LECITHIN DOES THAT HAVE IN IT IF IT’S SOY MY BODY WILL CRUMBLE AND I WILL DIE” while reading ingredients. Don’t get me wrong, actually reading ingredients on food labels is eye opening, as you realize just how much freaking sugar everything has in it, but Whole30 can make you manic about it if you’re not careful. You become afraid of foods you’ve loved your whole life. I don’t think switching from extreme to extreme like that is good.
In my opinion, the Whole30 program has lost its way a bit and now allows for stuff like nut-based coffee creamers, Whole30-approved salad dressings, and things like that. I’m sure the Whole30 founders love the license fees they get from those arrangements but it doesn’t make sense to me. If your goal is to get back to the roots of you and food but still huck dressing on your salad, you’re just setting yourself up to go back to that habit in the future, it’s more product selection versus habit change. Maybe that’s the moderation that I felt was missing, though.
Why the heck are you reading about this on a travel blog? Now that you’ve lost some weight, do you feel like you’re going to be a better traveler?
I’ve phrased it this way before: sometimes I write posts about the Travel Blog in Andy’s Travel Blog, other times I write posts about the Andy. This is an Andy post. I’ve been blogging for 7.5 years now and consider my readers my friends, so hopefully you’ll forgive this departure from a travel post (although there was a business class trip to London in it). As far as my Free Agency Preparation Plan goes, my idea was that losing some weight would help me fit in plane seats better, and I will (still not well, mind you, but better than just a month ago). I will hopefully sleep better on planes, and be more present and able to think better (which is one of the things I love about flying in the first place, having time to think).
Wrapping things up, what’s next?
Whole30 was an adventure for me. It was good and bad. I alienated some people, alienated myself, spent hours unable to sleep looking at the ceiling of a hotel room, but managed to pull it off well, and the physical attributes shows that it was at least moderately successful. While I tend to dwell on the philosophical nature of the program probably a bit too much, I don’t think that was wasted thinking. If I had just blindly followed the rules and not pontificated about the Why then I wouldn’t be any better off than when I started and those 23 pounds I lost would be found in short order.
It’s important to give yourself time and space from the status quo from time to time, whether that’s eating habits, work, travel, or really anything. We live our lives in patterns and usually only pay attention to what we see changing around us, it’s just the way our brains work (for instance, you can always see your nose but your brain just ignores it since it’s always there) (you looked down at your nose, didn’t you). Whole30 gave me a lot of time to think about the foods I wasn’t eating but it was a struggle to think about why. Focusing so much on the negative has its good and bads, but maybe that’s what I needed in order to give myself a chance to relearn how to motivate myself to eat the good stuff now and look forward to a well-cooked chicken breast as much as I used to look forward to pizza.
Either way, I’m proud that I stuck to this insane program. Props go out to my gym mates who completed theirs today too, and the numerous friends who helped get me through this. A huge special thanks goes to my girlfriend who was so patient with me while everything was going crazy, she knew how important this was to me and couldn’t have been more supportive and encouraging.
As for what’s next? I want to lose 25 more pounds by my birthday, so I imagine I’ll go right back to what I know works once I’m back home in the States. I have a work trip to Chicago and most likely will be going to New Zealand in February, and I’ll try to eat as healthy as I can, but I won’t be afraid of having a beer if the situation calls for it.
Most of all I just want to Enjoy Life instead of being worried about Eliminating Bad Stuff. Life is about more than the lack of bad things, it’s about the presence of good things. I don’t know what that means for my eating plan going forward, but I’m going to go find out.
(oh, and if you’re wondering how I celebrated finishing, I did it in the most Travel way possible: a bowl of Cathay Pacific dan dan noodles and a Cathay Delight!)