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.

Wild rice, onions and Brussel sprouts

Lots of reactions to yesterday’s post on The China Study. Some people sent along skeptical and detailed posts about the conclusions in the China Study – which I read along with some thoughtful rebuttals – and some asked if I really was going to give up cappuccinos.

The most helpful “some’s” sent along supportive stories.  Here’s an example:

Hi Sasha,

A good friend recommended The China Study about 6 months ago.  My girlfriend read it immediately and we set out to change our diet – not 100%, but just tilt the scales towards plants.  Our 30 day trial has morphed into several months.  We aim for a Vegan/Vegetarian work-week and then on the weekend we might enjoy fish or lamb on a dinner out.  We’ve both lost weight – 15 pounds for me, 10 for her, and we feel great.  I’m glad to hear you are giving it a try.

Of course it is so tempting to cling to the counter-arguments, the skeptics and the doubters that let me say to myself, “You’re doing everything right already, don’t change anything.”

Then again, radical change shouldn’t be taken lightly, and before making any leaps one has to get back to one’s own sense of what makes sense, informed by the data and analysis we can get our hands on.

The most sensible, pithy advice on diet I’ve ever found was in Michael Pollan’s Food Rules:

Eat food, mostly plants, not too much

Which translates as:

  • Eat food: processed junk is not food.  Food is food.
  • Mostly plants: the majority of your calories should come from plants
  • Not too much: eat in moderation

And when I’m honest with myself, I’m following “eat food” and “not too much,” and falling way short on the “mostly plants” bit.  And I’m 100% sure if I shift to “mostly plants” I will:

  • Increase the amount of fiber I eat (almost no one eats the required minimum of 30g / day, and we all should)
  • Decrease my cholesterol
  • Eat more nutrient-dense foods
  • And probably decrease my overall calorie intake

So lunch today was wild rice, onions and Brussel sprouts, and it was delicious.  And while I’m sure I’ve not consumed my last latte, my last yoghurt, or even my last piece of meat, I think that the time has come to “tilt the scales towards plants.”

And the thing is, you can always do this tomorrow, but tomorrow never comes.  Today is the only time to act, to make change.

Thanks for coming along for this slight dietary detour…we’ll now get back to our regularly scheduled blogging.

(and here’s Graham Hill’s 4-minute TED talk on becoming a weekday vegetarian.)

This food is killing us

I’ve found that it takes TWO (not one) friends breathlessly recommending a book to get me to read it.

So six months ago, when a friend spent the better part of a week extolling The China Study (and telling me that humans weren’t meant to consume milk produced by non-humans), I filed it away under “someday.”  And then in December when a colleague told me he was off of meat and dairy because of the book, I gave in.

The China Study is written by Dr. T. Colin Campbell and his son Thomas.  Dr. Campbell is  an emeritus professor of nutrition at Cornell, where he has taught since 1975 and where he holds an endowed chair.  The book’s title is a reference to the China Study, one of the largest and longest (20 years) studies ever on the impact of nutrition on health.  And this obscure book published by an obscure publisher has now sold more than 500,00 copies.

The book is plain-spoken, fact-based, and data-driven.  It cites hundreds of peer reviewed articles and details the effects of diet on nearly every major disease.   And it argues that consuming animal protein (from meat, fish, and diary) is killing us.  Not just by causing heart disease, obesity and Type I diabetes, but cancer too.  And by consuming a “whole foods, plant based diet,” one in which protein consumed from animal products (meat, poultry, fish and dairy) approaches 0% of calories consumed, we can dramatically decrease the risk of contracting all of these diseases.

A streetcart I saw today

The studies that bowled me over focus on cancer.  Dr. Cambpell found that the risk of developing cancer in the presence of powerful carcinogens (specifically aflotoxin) can drop dramatically when people consume….a whole foods, plant-based diet.  And after showing the effects of diet in stopping cancer he details eye-popping results in fighting diabetes, heart disease, obesity, even in people with high risks and existing conditions.  All from changes in diet.

I had always assumed that since I generally eat “healthfully” and in moderation that I’m good to go.  It never occurred to me that I could dramatically reduce my risk of disease by altering my diet.  Sure, on some level i know that that I should be eating more fiber, more dark leafy greens, more vegetables, and less red meat and fat.  But I figured that I’m generally doing OK since I don’t eat fast food or a lot of processed junk.

What really got my attention were Dr. Campbell’s studies that showed the risk of cancer and heart disease drop dramatically (really dramatically!) when people shift from getting 20% of their diet from animal protein to 0-5% (and 20% represents a moderate western diet – the US dietary guidelines say 30% is OK).   The way Dr. Campbell writes, it makes me think that 50 years from now, the way we think about nutrition today will feel like the way people talked about smoking in the 1950s.   His studies show that genetic predisposition and / or carcinogens are like seeds in a garden – they put you at risk, but if you don’t feed them with a high-protein diet (the equivalent of sun and water), cancers and heart disease don’t develop.

Now what?

I have to be honest and say that I don’t know, yet.  I’m not ready to proclaim myself a vegetarian or a vegan today, but I’m taking Dr. Cambpell’s advice and giving it a 30 day trial.  I know I won’t pull off strict rules (the tortilla I had yesterday at lunch apparently has some dairy), but I also know that skipping the turkey sandwich and the gyro for lunch on two consecutive days for a hummus sandwich and a falafel didn’t leave me any worse for the wear.  And I’ve consumed two sweet potatoes this week.

This is a book you want to read, and then you can decide for yourself.  If you like the book, I suspect that you might soon find yourself browsing great website like www.passionforpulses.com

Seriously, this is information you want to know.