The Whole 30

The Whole 30

It was my wife’s idea, which, out of the shoot, made it a better idea than whatever I was thinking. She wanted to do something to jump start her fitness for the season, to refine her eating, and she had settled on the Whole 30, a sort of extreme paleo diet with a one-month time horizon that made it palatable to her husband, me.

Now the disclaimer: I am not a nutritionist or an expert in performance eating. This is not an endorsement of Whole 30. No one paid me to do this. All I want to do here is report my experience. Your results may vary.

The basic guidelines are: no dairy, no sugar, no grains, no legumes. You can eat fruit in limited quantity, but nothing with added sugar, which means most anything that comes in a package. Legumes includes both beans AND peanuts. Tree nuts become one of your better friends.

The basic goal, as I understood it (and there are books and websites devoted to this program, none of which I read), was to force my body to stop defaulting to available sugars as fuel, to switch over to fat burning. I was not really trying to lose weight, but the idea of being able to switch over more seamlessly between sugar and fat during long rides held some appeal. More on this later.

Typical days looked like this:

Breakfast – Two egg omelette with no-sugar-added bacon or homemade breakfast sausage for breakfast, accompanied by black coffee and a fruit smoothie.

Mid-Morning Snack – Generous handful of cashews or almonds with dried currants.

Lunch – Salad with olive oil, might include sun-dried tomatoes and walnuts or olives and cucumbers. Some meat dish, mainly leftover from the night before.

Dinner – Large protein, copious grilled vegetables, many greens.

I went to bed hungry a few nights, but not ravenously hungry, and the larger breakfasts left me feeling good most of the time from a hunger point of view.

I kept my regular exercise schedule throughout the month, and did two ride events, both 30-40 mile off-road races. My big concern, going into Whole 30, was how I would manage energy on 2+ hour rides. In practice, it was really great. I packed bags of cashews with raisins, and used some date/coconut blocks in addition to 1/2 water, 1/2 fruit juice in my bottles, and I was fine. In fact, the great revelation of the experiment was that my energy during prolonged efforts seemed much more even, and perhaps more importantly, my frame of mind was more consistent. I felt more calm, and my exertion levels were more level without synthetic carb supplements than they generally are with the cocktail of blocks and goos and bars that I rifle down my pie hole.

This is but one of the positive results I experienced.

The others are/were:

  1. Successfully restricting your diet in this way requires planning, which forced me to plan my eating, which led to far better choices. I often default to chips or other easy-to-eat foods when I’m hungry and don’t have a plan. All the planning helped me see how many empty calories I was consuming.
  2. It’s a pretty restrictive diet, and I like food, so it forced me to learn to make new things. Adding new dishes to the repertoire is always a good thing. I also discovered a number of new, good foods, which are now part of my regular diet, e.g. New Barn Almond Milk and Farmhouse Culture Gut Shot.
  3. I lost 6-7 lbs. This was not, as I mentioned, one of my explicit goals, but I am much closer to my optimal weight (maybe 153 lbs) than I was before (163 lbs).
  4. I spent more time with my wife. We did this together, and so we talked a lot about what we would eat. We made food for each other. We cooked together more. We’ve been together 25 years. More time together is good.
  5. I was able to put some realistic thought into how I wanted my long-term diet to change. As a rule, I don’t believe in “diets,” and I think the conventional wisdom agrees that, if you’re not going to change your eating habits long-term, dieting is a waste of your time. Doing the Whole 30 gave me a solid month not only to experiment, but to draw some tangible conclusions about what I think is a reasonable way to eat, from now on. As an example, I know I want to eat far less processed sugar.

Most of those who try the Whole 30 report serious cravings, hard days, depression, etc., as their bodies and minds adjust to new inputs and more importantly, lack of old ones. I didn’t have this so much. I made sure I ate a lot of what I was allowed to eat. What I missed most was cream in my coffee, and, oddly, pizza crust. I don’t even love pizza the way some do, but that was the thing I wanted.

When the month was over, we didn’t go off the rails. Each day we allowed ourselves something previously sanctioned. It was fine. No panic. We have kept to protein-rich breakfasts. We have kept to limited sugar intake. It all feels good, and the weight that left has stayed gone.

I really couldn’t tell you whether or not my body has learned to switch back and forth more efficiently between burning sugars and burning fats. I don’t know. But, I can say that the experience of Whole 30 was good enough, for me, that I can see repeating once or twice a year as a way to reset my eating habits.

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  1. Lyford

    It takes longer for the body to process fructose than glucose. Glucose-based roadfood is great if you need a quick hit but not if you want a steadier burn.
    My normal diet is very low in added sugars — I can happily eat unsweetened chocolate — and I can’t comfortably digest gels or similar high-sugar snacks any more. What works for me on the bike are things like homemade rice bars(with no added sugar and some protein) or dried fruit & nut balls.
    The “Feed Zone”, “Feed Zone Portables” and “Rocket Fuel” cookbooks have lots of ideas for homemade riding food.

  2. TomInAlbany

    Oy, Padraig! I think you should invite Robot onto an episode of The Paceline. I wouldn’t mind to hear more about his experience.

    Robit, Why no legumes? Seems to me they’re among the healthier foods you can eat and good sources of protein.

    1. Author

      @TomInAlbany – I wondered about that, too. My understanding is that legumes contribute to inflammation in your body in a similar way to gluten. I would say that not all aspects of Whole 30 addressed actual issues I experience, but for 30 days, I was willing to be part of the experiment.

    2. Christopher Gustafson

      Because of the phytate they contain. Phytates block absorption of nutrients. Though they are verboten during the Whole30, it’s one of the foods you may add back in after. I tried to add them back, but didn’t like the results. I have added some oatmeal back into my diet on a fairly consistent basis (make my own bars for rides).

  3. Scott G.

    I can’t wait till Paleoism is replaced with next diet craze.
    Ghengiz Khans diet of world conquest, Kumis & Pony Burgers.

    To paraphrase Eddy, “Don’t go on a diet, change your diet”
    Also listen to Lyford, spiking your sugar level on a ride isn’t a great idea.

    1. Author

      @Scott G. – I agree with your basic thought here. As a rule, I’m not that interested in food fads. This experiment was, for me, a way to validate the ways in which I wanted to change my diet. I have an addictive personality, and I have been aware for some time that I don’t do well at moderating my sugar intake. The Whole 30 was a good way to ‘cold turkey’ sugar, and now I have adopted many of the “diet’s” basic strategies for maintaining energy without sugar spikes. Charmingly, the 30 days without sugar has made the actual appeal of sweet foods dissipate, so that’s cool.

  4. Gary

    Have done the Ketogenic diet for some years now. Very low carb which is essentially what the Whole 30 is. It took me a couple weeks to get over the hump of feeling “off”. Once you body switches away from the “easy” sugar burn, it’s great. It’s a great weight lose method and lets you do 3-4 hours with no food. Lots of info from Peter Attilla:

    I don’t notice that it helps performance really. I don’t have more power etc. As with just about everything diet related, YMMV…..perhaps a lot

  5. Steve

    I did whole 30 in January and at the same time became a gym rat. After the 30 days reintroduced legumes and occasionally rice (love my sushi) Won a 6 week weight challenge at my gym dropping 23 pounds. After 5 months still no wheat, dairy, added sugar or alcohol. Weight down 34 pounds now ( 283 to 249, I am tall) 29 away from my target of 220. Body fat % drastically reduced. The main thing for me however has been inflammation reduction. I have debilitating arthritis and have been able to reduce my medication by more than half. I added a tumeric supplement along with my usual glucosamine.

  6. Geoffrey

    I wholeheartedly agree with the idea that thinking about what you eat, and planning what you eat before you eat it, is the name of the game. I am eating a pork chop and salad for breakfast. My biggest issue is trying to dodge free food. The Whole 30 allows you to have a reason to not eat the bagels and donuts instead of raw willpower.

  7. Lyford

    It’s really not so different from what some of the pro teams are telling their guys: Make the foundation of your diet vegetables, proteins, and healthy fats, and adjust carb intake day-by-day to match your activity level. Very few people can work at high intensity without carbs for fuel, but you don’t need a lot of them to sit on the couch.

    As for drinking just fruit juice & water: I think electrolyte drinks have value in maintaining sodium & potassium levels. There are low-sugar options like Nuun Active. And again, you can make adjustments — if you’re going to be working hard, the relatively small amount of sugar in something like Skratch may work well for you.

    I found this interesting:

    Experiment & listen to your body. If it works for you, it works.

  8. Jeff Dieffenbach

    Great post, great comments. Regarding sugar, I’ve been trying more of a lukewarm turkey approach … consuming less, but not eradicating. No idea whether the whole “get your body out of consuming sugar” thing requires cold turkey for a certain period of time, but to the point about sustainability, I’m simply not willing to give up all my sugars, esp. alcohol and pizza. No desserts for me, though (I had my last one on Jul 15, 1995).

  9. Roman Cho


    You put in a disclaimer about how you are not endorsing the diet. Yet, writing about your experience helps spread knowledge about this diet along with the idea of dieting in general being something worthy.

    How about this? Eat healthy food, cooked in a healthy manner in moderation. And exercise. Lose weight the same way one gained it; consistently, over time. The fact that there are so many “diets” is a proof that they don’t work. History shows that sensible eating is the only consistent proven method of health.

  10. Pat O'Brien

    I always turn down calories with no nutrition except alcohol. Pie? No thanks. Another Black Butte Porter? Oh, yeah! Seriously, my wife’s long experiment with a low carb diet years ago resulted in us avoiding added sugar foods to this day. Honey or maple syrup in moderation on our oatmeal is as far as ti goes. Monique Ryan’s book on nutrition is my guide for fueling rides, especially longer ones.

  11. Nic

    People that are interested in the use of more fat burning for endurance performance should check out the recent book called ‘Primal Endurance’ by Mark Sisson and Brad Kearns. Definitely changed my views on nutrition and how to healthily fuel for bike racing, working on being more fat adapted, and agree that diets don’t work, you need to create a sustainable lifestyle for yourself.

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