Whole30 and the Forever Problem

About 10 days ago, I started the Whole30 diet. Whole30 is a popular elimination diet that purportedly helps with everything from weight loss to chronic inflammation. I’m trying it because I’ve had stomach problems since May that haven’t gone away. I figured that a strict approach to food could help me discover how my diet is, or is not, part of the problem.

The Whole30 plan is strict: 30 days not eating or drinking any dairy, simple carbs (bread, pasta, crackers, rice), added sugar, legumes or alcohol. Plus you try to limit fruit to two servings a day. This boils down to every meal being some version of a protein and a vegetable, and I’m also eating a lot of tree nuts (no peanuts, they are legumes). Breakfast is particularly tough, since my staples of cereal or oatmeal or yogurt plus coffee with milk and sugar are all forbidden. In addition to everything I’m cutting out, it’s also a ton of food prep since everything prepared by someone else has either sugar or bread or butter in it.

While it’s not easy, it does seem to be helping me some. Plus, it’s an interesting experiment in resetting my body’s expectations around sugar, which is my biggest dietary vice.

Here’s what this looks like in practice: last week, I had back-to-back breakfast meetings. At Maison Kaiser, which has the most incredible baguettes and breads I’ve found outside of France, I had a half an avocado, a serving of bacon, and a cup of herbal tea. Then, at my next meeting in an open cafeteria, where I’d normally have gotten a Danish and a fruit salad, I had, instead, a cup of plain herbal tea. Fun.

At the cafeteria, my cup of tea steaming in front of me, I noticed the donut that the person I was meeting with was eating. I had a visceral subconscious reaction: unbelievable that someone would have a sugar donut at breakfast at 9:15 am!!

And then I checked myself, because six days ago I’d have had the exact same thing.

What struck me was how something that was brand new to me–this crazy diet–already felt permanent, enough that my subconscious mind was judging someone who was happily having a doughnut and a coffee just like I would have had a week ago.

This is what I’d call The Forever Problem, the feeling that whatever is happening to us right at this moment is real, true, and permanent.

With respect to adhering to Whole30, my Forever Problem does help me at times: with strict dietary rules, I enter every place where there’s food, from my pantry to a restaurant, differently. I skip past 95% of the available food, say “that’s not what I eat,” and move on.

But more often than not it hurts me.

When I’m hungry on this diet, or craving something, it feels like I will feel this way forever.

When I’m going through a particularly tough patch at work…you guessed it, forever.

Same thing for the last mile of a run…will this pain ever stop? Of course it will, but it doesn’t feel that way.

The Forever Problem often stands in the way of changes we want to make in our lives. Nearly all worthwhile change starts with discomfort, and we mistake temporary hardship—a jolt of fear, a sense of clumsiness when we try a new approach, a bit of shame when the new thing doesn’t quite work—for something permanent. We over-ascribe meaning to these missteps, thinking they represent something other than “this moment, right now, which is fleeting,” and we ultimately give up.

This is why success at making positive, lasting change in our lives is self-reinforcing: we’ve lived through this kind of difficult before, we are familiar with it. While we may not like it, we allow ourselves to consider that it won’t last forever.

This is also why cohorts can be so powerful in supporting the change we seek to make: our fellow travelers remind us of our purpose, they experience the ups and downs differently, they have seen us persist before, and, when our commitment flags, they believe in us more than we believe in ourselves.

None of this is easy, but meaningful change never is. We can get better at pushing through the hard bits by learning to reframe them. Our job is to see them as real but temporary, to remain curious about the panic we’re feeling, and to explore what other responses are available to us. Or, if we really must panic, we can give into that but choose to keep staying the course.

As for me, it’s about time to think about my next meal: which combination of eggs, nuts, roasted vegetables and protein will it contain?

Only 20 days to go. It feels like forever.

My (almost) 2,000 calorie dinner

A few nights ago, on a family vacation in semi-rural Pennsylvania, I agreed that the time was right for a straightforward, kid-friendly, while-the-sun-was-still-high-in-the-sky dinner at…Olive Garden.  I’m a born-and-bred New Yorker, so I grew up nearly oblivious to chain restaurants (“Original Ray’s Pizza” doesn’t count).

Of all the chains, Olive Garden seemed a safe bet: not completely off-the-charts junk food (McDonald’s / Burger King / White Castle), not aspiring to be something that likely will turn out badly (Red Lobster).  Pasta is pasta, right?

I thought the food tasted pretty terrible, but that’s not really important…people differ on these sorts of things.   What I found shocking was that, had I finished what I ordered (one dish), I would have consumed nearly 2,000 calories.  This is a day’s worth of calories in a single meal.

Here’s the analysis of what arrived (I ate about half)

This is without ordering an appetizer or a dessert, so I ordered moderately (though in fairness I didn’t look for low-cal options).

Search Google for “obesity epidemic” and you’ll get 713,000 hits.  Check out the CDC’s animation on increase in obesity – in 1986, all states in the US had less than 14% obesity rate; in 2007, nearly all states have more than a 25% obesity rate; and the diabetes rate has doubled in the last 10 years.   And the over-abundance of cheap food with huge portions at every meal is, in my opinion, a big part of the problem.

We’ve become a wealthy enough nation and an efficient enough food producer that calories are cheap and we end up paying for the experience and the branding and the story.  The food is mostly an incidental cost so why not jack up what’s delivered so people feel like they’re getting a “good value?”

I find this terrifying, and worry that preventable medical ailments are slowly killing us and will suck up an increasing portion of our GDP for healthcare costs.  Our prosperity is undermining our good health and well-being.  And it’s not just here: India, which suffers from some of the highest malnutrition rates in the world with 46% of children under the age of 3 malnourished, now has the most diabetics of any country in the world with more than 40 million diabetics – 11% of the urban population.   It’s sobering.

If we can’t right this ship and change our food consumption behavior, two decades from now I predict we will see food labeling guidelines and regulations as strict as what we see on cigarettes and tobacco today.