One of the greatest ironies about fasting is that time can go so slowly if you keep thinking about food.
I’m writing this 21 hours into my first fast. I’ve read about fasting a lot recently. Mark’s Daily Apple has had some great blogs that have really delved deep into the benefits of fasting and the different methods available.
I lost a lot of weight (over a hundred pounds) following a conventional calorie restrictive diet back in 2006. That same year I took up running and weights which I’ve kept going in one form or another since.
I started taking paleo seriously during January 2011. I was frustrated at my inability to lose the last 20lb or so of weight. I was tracking calories and eating a semi-body building diet (lean meats, protein shakes, etc). The paleo lifestyle seemed really attractive: you didn’t have to track calories, you can indulge in fat and you get healthier to boot. The problem with such a broad statement is that it doesn’t factor in context and our different needs.
For someone who easily regulates their food intake, the paleo ‘hands-off’ approach is excellent. For those of us prone to overeating and with other food addictions it’s not so straight forward.
In the past year and a bit, I’ve maintained my weight (and there have been some alarming spikes between strict compliance and ..um.. less than strict compliance) and I feel much healthier. The main benefit has been more stable energy levels since going moderately low carb (less than 150g per day, sometimes as low as 50g a day) with fat making up the difference.
But, I could still eat a whole chicken and be back at the fridge within 30 minutes if I let myself.
More recently, I’ve gone back to tracking food and calories. I’m aiming for around 2000-2250 a day. I lift weights three times a week (and it’s strenuous!) and I also do two 30 minute HIIT sessions on the treadmill a week. But I still need to take better control of my eating.
This is where fasting comes in. Aside from the health benefits such as decreased insulin levels, increased fat burning and a bunch of other hormonal benefits, I was curious to see whether the simple act of not eating for an extended period of time would result in an increase in food awareness.
The short answer: yes.
I last ate at 8pm last night. I went to bed around 10:30 feeling fine as you’d expect. Ordinarily, I would have eaten between dinner and bed time. I woke up feeling fine. I wasn’t at all hungry. I left the frying pan on the side while I got Luke’s breakfast (“Daddy, why aren’t you having breakfast?”).
I jumped on the treadmill at about 10:00am and got through the HIIT session just fine. The first rumblings of hunger hit shortly after. By about 1:00pm my brain was strongly suggesting that I eat.
It’s now 5:30pm. Do I feel giddy and sick? Nope. Do I feel ravenously hungry? Nope. I feel like I’d enjoy my next meal for sure. I pulled out my stool and sat down at around 3:30pm - which is the first time I’ve ever sat down in the afternoon since switching to a standing desk. Apart from a little bit of mental fog drifting in the last hour or so I’ve managed to complete all my tasks at work.
I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve switched my thoughts to what I can eat next (is it nearly lunch time? Should I grab a banana?) before remembering that I’m fasting today. The amount of time my subconscious considers food is alarming. It’s actually been nice to deny the impulse.
Will I do it again? Definitely. I’d like to make this part of my weekly routine. I’m also interested in the Lean Gains method of fasting for 16 hours each day. Essentially this means you skip breakfast and your first meal is after you work-out.
I’ve quite enjoyed the challenge and it’s not been anywhere near as hard as I expected it to be. It’s got me really thinking about my eating and snacking habits. Do I need to eat after dinner in the evenings? Not at all. Do I need to raid the fridge several times a day? Definitely not.
Are you thinking about tackling your first Whole30?
SarahCrossFits is, and her re-blog yesterday got me thinking:
My fears? Well, the difficulty. I’m scared of coming face to face with my sugar addiction. Scared of the complexity of chosing foods and cooking. Scared of failing at it. And I’ve spent so long obsessing about food, I’m wary of finding a new way to obsess.
Is there anything I can offer that might help? I’ve completed four separate Whole30s and each one taught me something new about myself. The first was very daunting, though.
I had been eating “mostly paleo”. I hear this a lot: “I’m mostly paleo”. This meant for me that I skipped bread and grains but slurped protein shakes, ate dark chocolate, poured double cream over everything, ate beef jerky with more additives than a complex maths question, tore open packets of dried fruit and crammed it into my mouth. You know. Mostly paleo.
It was in June last year that I first came across the Whole30. I had become frustrated at trying to clean up my ‘mostly paleo’ diet and failing miserably. I fell into a cycle of optimism/failure/guilt. Rinse and repeat. I was encouraged by its strictness. I tend to do well if its all or nothing. I gave up smoking 8 years ago at my first attempt. I could do this.
I purchased the success guide and read through it. Each paragraph filled me with fear and dread. I made a laundry list of reasons I couldn’t do this in my head. This clearly wasn’t for me. I’m too out of shape. Too undisciplined. Too unfocused. Too many issues. This was something that others did; others with focus and discipline.
My fear had won. It convinced me I was bound to fail, so I shouldn’t even bother starting.
The seed had been planted, though. I kept coming back to the success guide and re-reading it. It was another month of frustration and guilt before I finally took the plunge and flipped the calendar over to ‘Day 1’. I had become so angry with myself that I figured I had nothing to lose.
I got through my first Whole30 but it took a few more before I really reaped all the benefits. Some people ace it the first time. Others it might take a little longer. There’s no magic dust here; all you need is determination and consistency.
Here’s a few things which might help you get started:
Don’t be scared and lock that fear down
The absolute worst that is going to happen is that you’ll eat something off the plan and you’ll have to decide if you want to start over, wait a few more months before re-attempting or continue. It’s vital that you remove guilty associations from food. Eating a brownie three days in is not the end of the world. You will learn just as much from failing as you do succeeding. I failed one of my Whole30s and re-started and that experience was just as valuable as crossing the finish line.
Be prepared to make changes to your lifestyle and habits
The first thing many new Whole30 participants do is look at what they currently eat and try and figure out how Whole30 will work in that framework. I’m not talking about paleo muffins (no paleo-fying food), I mean in terms of structuring your cooking and shopping. There are very few ‘packet’ foods that meet the strict Whole30 guidelines. The sooner you accept that you will need to cook and invest in tupperware the better. There are many strategies that you can use to reduce the total time in the kitchen. I’m a fan of Melissa Joulwan’s site which has some great advice.
Further reading: The five stages of food grief.
Don’t obsess over the details
Oh how we all love to obsess! Grass-fed organic beef. Organic farmer’s market vegetables. Should you only purchase these? Do you need to know the cow on first name terms before you can eat it? Should I eat 1/2 sweet potato or 2/3?
Put it all down! There’s plenty of time for all that fun stuff. Don’t allow the scope of making good choices put you off starting. Take the first step. The next one will follow.
Go organic where you can. Buy seasonal when you can. But if all you can get is frozen vegetables and supermarket meat then that is fine too.
Forget almost everything you’ve learned about ‘paleo’ and immerse yourself in the Whole9 website. There is so much conflicting information on the quak-o-sphere that you’ll go crazy trying to figure it out. Find one authoritative voice and trust it. If it all starts getting too confusing then stop and refocus on the only goal you have for the next 30 days and that’s to make good food choices. What could be simpler?
Further reading: Buying Seasonal, Paleo Poor: Your guide to the grocery store, Whole30 Gone Bad
Don’t rely on nuts and fruit
I have a massive sweet tooth and one of the hardest challenges was to control the ‘sugar dragon’. For my first Whole30 I snuck in nuts as a snack and ate fruit to satisfy cravings. I urge you not to do this. I only really nailed this on my last Whole30 but I wish I’d been stronger on my first. I simply don’t purchase nuts anymore and I limit my fruit purchases to bags of cherries. They’re not sweet enough to trigger cravings but are very portable and delicious. Reaching for nuts and fruit when you’re ‘hungry’ will only feed the hunger and the cravings. Reach for a boiled egg or a spoon of coconut butter.
Five minutes later
I find this a good strategy for when a strong possibly deal-breaking craving hits hard. Thankfully this rarely happens now but on my first round, it saved me a few times.
When you’re about to fall off the wagon, just pause for a second and consider how you’ll feel in five minutes time. Sure, the texture and taste of that chocolate will be awesome as it melts in your mouth. But once that moment has passed and that gloopy mess is working its way into your gut, how will you feel? Will you feel happy and content with your choice or will you feel disappointed that you caved? I don’t want you to try and summon feelings of guilt because that’s a bad motivator but just decide if you really truly want whatever is just in reach. I’m betting that in almost every instance you will decide that you don’t want it enough and the craving passes.
If you truly want to eat that chocolate and end up doing so, that’s fine too. Perhaps you’re not quite in the right place for the Whole30 and you can always re-start or come back in a month or so.
You are not alone
I recommend that you introduce yourself over at the Whole30 Facebook page. It’s a very supportive community of past and present Whole30 participants. Join in and share your experience!
Just do it already
If you’re serious about change then it’s very simple:
Read up on the Whole30. Consider purchasing the success guide.
Consider purchasing Well Fed. It’s a great little cookbook with loads of Whole30 compliant meals that are easy to make. It’s my favourite cook book right now. You’ll finally learn how to use spices properly!
Go shopping and buy enough for your first few days. If you really don’t know what to buy, then grab some meat and some veggies (along with staples like onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, garlic, greens such as kale and limes). Grab some spices. Get some salad vegetables. Grab a dozen eggs. Those basics should see you through the first few days. Don’t overcomplicate it and always read the labels!
Pick your day 1 and just go for it. Don’t expect everything to be perfect because chances are it won’t. Do your very best and to re-iterate my first point - the very worst that can happen is that you’ll eat something not on the plan. The sky won’t fall, I promise.
The thing that I love about the Whole30 is that it gives more than it takes away. Once you get past the first week or so you will likely feel much better than you have in years. Your skin will be clearing up, your joints will be less stiff and you’ll have more energy and optimism than you’ve known in years. For some, this process takes a little longer but you will get there. Enjoy eating fresh real food. Discover a love of cooking and feeding yourself and your family. Make new friends and build new habits. It’s an exciting life changing process that you’ll keep with you forever.
Thanks for reading and get stuck in today!
Disclaimer: I’m not attempting to speak on behalf of Whole9. For an official response on anything you have a question for, please post it on the official Facebook page.
Since July, I’ve completed four Whole30 challenges with the most recent ending on Valentines day. For those that don’t know, the Whole30 is a 30 day squeaky-clean paleo challenge designed to reset your body and mind. The usual non-paleo items are not permitted (grains, processed foods, sugar, etc) as well as any and all dairy with the exception of grass fed ghee (clarified butter). No sugar or sweetener is allowed at all. Not even in trace amounts which can make shopping for everyday items challenging at first. You’ll be amazed how many things contain sugar or its cousins (dextrose, honey, etc).
Each challenge gets easier and the sense of food awareness builds with each one. You really do become more aware of what food does to your body and until you’ve tried 30 days completely clean, you have no idea how great you can feel inside and out.
I read lots of concerns about eating saturated fat, eggs and lots of meat. I keep hearing that it’s making me unhealthy and it’s clogging up my arteries. I find that picture impossible to accept when my skin clears up completely, the bags under my eyes disappear, my energy levels go through the roof and my mood improves drastically when eating Whole30/paleo. That seems at odds with the ‘unhealthy’ picture people often paint. If I feel and look this good, how can it be killing me?
For my last Whole30, I cut out virtually all fruit with the exception of a handful of cherries every now and again. This proved really good for me in terms of dealing with sugar addiction and moderating energy levels and cravings.
Now if I eat a piece of sugary fruit such as a large orange or banana, I feel incredibly sleepy half an hour later and just want to crawl into bed. That’s the kind of awareness you just can’t buy.
After 30 days, you’re encouraged to start adding back in food groups one at a time to see how they affect your body. I started with cream. I have zero interest in adding back in sugars or grains so that only really leaves dairy to experiment with.
However, I’m not sure I want to keep cream in my diet. It’s OK in my coffee but not essential. I like the coconut milk I’ve been using for near on 6 months now. I don’t really want to pour it over a bowl of fruit as a treat because I don’t need it, I don’t really want it and I don’t really want to trigger off cravings again. So with the exception of being out and wanting a coffee-shop coffee, I think I’ll leave it.
I have no interest in consuming milk again. I don’t really enjoy the taste on its own and the only thing I really want to do with milk is pour it over breakfast cereal which is one of my biggest cravings. And I don’t want to convince myself that a box of gluten free cereal is “ok”. Because it’s not. It’s still heavily processed sweetened nutritionally devoid food.
It was an interesting experience shopping last night. I went with the intention of perhaps buying a few new things but ultimately left with my usual Whole30 shop (meats, veggies, cherries and water) plus a block of grass fed pure butter (yum) and a small block of hard cheese to experiment with. I can take or leave cheese, but it can enhance a few recipes which I want to try.
I picked up a few jars of sauces and out of habit scoured the ingredients and saw the usual suspects: sugar and vegetable oils and returned them to the shelf. I just didn’t want them anymore.
I did consider buying some honey but I wasn’t sure what I’d do with it. Squirt some in my green tea? I’ve not had sweetener of any sort in my hot drinks for over a year, so why start now? Make paleo muffins - sure, I could do that but I have no desire for them right now. Back on the shelf if went.
I did purchase a small bar of dark chocolate. I’m going to leave that in the fridge for a week because I’m in control.
I really thought that once this Whole30 was done, I’d go back to eating a little cleaner but being much more relaxed but the strange thing is that I’m completely relaxed now. My goal is still optimal health so why introduce things I have no strong desire for just because I can?
That said, if I squirt tomato sauce (contains sugar) onto my plate now and again, that will be OK. If I’m out and want a dessert, that will be OK too. But right now, I’m not desperate for either. And that makes me very happy.
Food freedom? From someone who loves food and has struggled over the last thirty years, this feels pretty awesome.