Back when I was training for the Bremen half marathon over the summer, I was already thinking about the need for resetting my nutritional habits — so the Whole30 program that I’d been reading about on a lot of American fitness blogs intrigued me. What I liked most was the focus on improving health through nutrition, unlike many other fads out there which seem to be centered around weight loss. I thought it would do me some good to become aware of what I was eating and how that affects my body in general. But I wondered if I could successfully adapt it to my life and manage Whole30 in Germany.
I won’t go into too much detail about Whole30 itself because they have a very thorough website, but basically it entails removing sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes and dairy from your diet. In their book It Starts With Food (which I already reviewed briefly here), the creators of Whole30 go into a good amount of detail about how these food groups tend to create inflammation and different sorts of problems for the body. They don’t claim that all of these food groups have a negative effect on everyone, but rather argue that by removing them all from your diet for a month, you can “reset” your body and then slowly reintroduce each group systematically to see which one(s) may be problematic for you.
This kind of controlled self-experiment definitely appealed to the scientist in me, which is why I decided to give it a try. Well, what’s left to eat, you ask? Meat, fish, eggs, nuts, vegetables and fruits — i.e., it’s back to the basics. (There are vegetarian versions of the program too.)
Generally, when I started I felt like my overall nutrition was already rather good, although there was certainly plenty of room for improvement. Thanks to a very different food culture, my diet has mostly definitely improved since arriving in Germany 7+ years ago — I’ve mostly ditched sodas and junk food and replaced them with whole grain breads, muesli, and a whole array of fantastic dairy products! But I was definitely going heavy on carbs (and maybe on Franzbrötchen too, my favorite German pastry) and light on protein and veggies. So my aim was to really focus on increasing my protein and iron and general vitamin intake, while decreasing my sugar intake.. I wasn’t trying to lose weight, but was rather hoping the increased protein would help with my strength training.
Another aim was more behavioral than nutritional — I wanted to develop the habit of cooking more of my meals, and thereby increase my confidence in the kitchen and my ability to take a bunch of whole and raw ingredients and turn them into a satisfying meal.
I basically set aside the month of October for my Whole30 experiment. Half-marathon training was over, Thanksgiving was still a month away (and thus wouldn’t be affected by the program), and I didn’t have any major travel plans, so it seemed like the perfect time to throw myself into it.
In general, I found Whole30 to be all-consuming, which was effective for increasing my nutritional awareness! Suddenly I had to plan ahead for every single meal every single day. I couldn’t just pick something up on the way home from work. Also, since I usually eat my lunch everyday at the cafeteria at work — because lunch in Germany is traditionally a big warm meal, while dinner often consists of bread, cheese, and sausage or the like — it was a huge transition to suddenly be bringing my food with me every day. And sadly my favorite breakfast of quark (a German dairy product similar to yogurt, but different) and muesli had to be replaced with something heartier and not-so-breakfast-like.
Throughout this whole experiment, I spent an enormous amount of time at the grocery store and an enormous amount of money. For someone who doesn’t usually purchase a lot of meat, I was a bit shocked by the sticker price. I didn’t use to purchase a lot of meat/fish/poultry in the US, so I can’t really offer up an actual comparison, but it seemed to me to be mega-expensive here. And forget about organic — that was totally out of my price range in the quantities that I was purchasing it in (three meals a day for 30 days, all centered around a major protein source, is a lot of meat). And let’s not even talk about schlepping all those groceries home via tram or bicycle when you live in a typical German city without a car!
Of course preparing three meals a day from scratch is also totally time consuming — which I suppose is also part of the point of counteracting fast food. But when reading other resources online for how to manage the increased level of cooking and a full-time job plus all my other commitments, many of the American resources mentioned “Whole30 approved” brands of ready-made/packaged foods which decreased their prep and cooking times. Ach ja. Of course, no such thing exists here (no one I talked to in Germany about Whole30 had ever even heard of it), so I was more or less stuck making everything from scratch.
I have to admit I was a teensy bit jealous of my counterparts back in the USA, but I eventually got the hang of it. I poured through the Whole30 cookbook nearly every day, and was totally grateful for the handy measurement conversion table in the back of the book — though I would plead for them to include both US and metric measurements right in the recipe! Once a week I planned out my meals for the upcoming week and made my grocery list. Sunday afternoons I spent preparing several meals, and even with my tiny German refrigerator and freezer — which doesn’t lend itself to freezing things in large quantities — somehow I still managed on a week-to-week basis.
Overall, I didn’t notice any drastic changes in my health or energy levels, so I suspect that since my diet was already rather healthy, there was a bit of a ceiling effect happening. I could have extended for another 15 or 30 days to see if I just needed longer for a more noticeable effect, but I just couldn’t bear the thought, so I stopped right at 30.
During the reintroduction phase, the only food group that I had a negative reaction to was legumes, which includes my beloved peanut butter (major sad face emoji here) — I felt completely nauseous that day. So I’ve mostly eliminated beans from my diet altogether and have made the complete (unfortunately, expensive) switch over to almond butter.
I relaxed a bit over Thanksgiving (celebrating twice here with German and expat friends!) and over the holidays with my family in Seattle and enjoyed all my favorite treats. Now I’m back to eating my typical winter breakfast of oatmeal with nuts and berries, although these days I’m also throwing in an egg for extra protein and drinking my coffee black. I’m also back to eating lunches at the cafeteria at work — and now I focus on including at least one source of protein and plenty of vegetables. Some days it works better than others, depending on what’s on the menu.
I’m also cooking more real meals these days — mostly for the purposes of the weekend or a few leftovers for week nights — which I consider a major accomplishment and probably the most positive outcome of my experience with Whole30!
So was it worth taking on the Whole30 challenge over here in Germany? Most definitely! Did it take a bit more extra time and planning than if I had done it in the US? Yes, indeed — but now that I’ve gathered up a bunch of tips and tricks, I can actually see myself doing it again next year.
What are your experiences with Whole30 or similar nutritional “cleanses”? Would you ever consider taking on such a challenge?