What happens when an Italian tries to go paleo for a month

Our daily bread is full of carbs.
Our daily bread is full of carbs.
Image: AP Photo/Jens Meyer
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Any time I hear mention of “cutting out carbs” as a way to lose weight or become healthier, I lose it. As an Italian, I grew up on foods people now consider evil: pasta, bread, risotto. The notion that these foods are somehow unhealthy, and inessential to our diets, feels like an attack on my identity. And so, as the world around me sings the praise of protein-rich foods, I never even entertained the idea of reconsidering my loyalty to the Mediterranean diet.

But then, toward the end of September, I decided to follow the 30-day, paleo-inspired diet known as Whole30, to see for myself the effects of cutting out grains.

The diet was designed by two nutritionists, Dallas and Melissa Hartwig, who founded the online community Whole9 in 2009 and published the book It Starts With Food in 2012. The Whole30 is designed to reset your metabolism and eradicate eating habits deemed unhealthy according to the Whole9 framework, which is largely based on Loren Cordain’s The Paleo Diet.

“The idea of the Whole30 is that there are some groups of foods that are problematic across a large range of people to varying degrees,” Melissa Hartwig told Quartz, “and the way that you identify whether these foods are problematic for you is based on the foundation of an elimination diet: you pull these foods out, and you see what changes. At the end of the 30 days, you then reintroduce your foods and see what changes.”

That’s what I set out to do. I followed the guidelines religiously and approached the world of paleo the hard way: by going all in. Here’s what I’ve learned through my month of “cutting out carbs.”

My challenge

Before I started the Whole30, I hadn’t followed a diet in years. In my teens and most of my twenties, I  could only think of eating in terms of calories—and how many, or how few, I would allow myself. It took me years to stop automatically counting calories and trying to starve myself into a thinner, more lovable person. In a way, this was perhaps the diet’s biggest challenge: could I stick to it without trying to count, and cut, calories? Would I be able to complete a difficult diet without the promise of a lighter body?

I decided to try, attracted primarily by the promise of improved energy, and comforted by the fact the diet was, yes, very strict—but also rather short. I was set to start on Oct. 1 despite my lack of preparation: I did not eliminate all the “banned” foods from my pantry, as the Whole30 guidelines suggested, nor did I plan my first few meals in advance.

Since my birthday was going to be on Oct. 28, I decided I would make the challenge three days shorter. Though the program emphasizes the importance of sticking to 30 days, the main benefits of Whole30 were meant to be felt by day 25. And if I was going into it committing to give myself 27 days—27 would have to do.

The rules

The diet demands 100% compliance. In the words of the authors (pdf, p.4), “don’t even consider the possibility of a slip.” The Hartwigs are adamant about this: the smallest mistake resets the clock—half a spoonful of yogurt on day 24 sends you back to day one. No exceptions.

In the Hartwigs’ plan, the Whole30 challenge is just the beginning, a very restrictive regime believed to jumpstart a larger, more sustainable eating change. And so, for 30 days, the list of NOs is long:

  1. No added sugars, or sweeteners. This means no refined or brown sugar, no syrups, no honey, no agave, just no. Artificial sweeteners are also not allowed.
  2. No grains. No refined grains, whole grains, pseudo grains. What about rice? No rice. Brown rice? No. Quinoa? No quinoa. Kamut, triticale, rye? Leave them alone. Gluten free grains are still grains—so, not allowed.
  3. No legumes. Lentils, chickpeas, beans and all of their many relatives are off-limits. Peanuts are a legume, too—so they’re out. And no soy. Which means no soy milk, no tofu, no edamame.
  4. No seed oils. The only oils allowed are coconut and (preferably extra virgin) olive oil.
  5. No dairy. No milk, butter, cream, cheese. Ghee or clarified butter are fine, though.
  6. No alcohol.
  7. No baked goods, snacks or treats, even if recreated with “allowed” ingredients.
  8. No weighing yourself. Although, as Hartwig told Quartz, 96% of people who take the Whole30 challenge lose weight, this is not meant to be a weight loss regime, so the scale is off-limits.

In addition, the regimen recommends limiting dried fruit, nuts, and seeds.

The Whole30 (as per the the paleo framework) considers these foods to be “psychologically unhealthy, hormone unbalancing, gut-disrupting, inflammatory” and  demands you avoid them completely for 30 days.

You are allowed to eat as much as you want of the foods that are considered “healthy, nutrient-dense” and cause no negative side effects: fruit, vegetables, meat, seafood, eggs, animal fats. Potatoes are allowed. Oh, and coffee (black, no sugar).

Getting through

On the night of Sept. 30, I went to bed thinking of the four weeks ahead of me. I was terrified. I had trouble falling asleep, then I dreamt my home was infested with enormous cockroaches. (I dream about insects when I am anxious.)

On the morning of Oct. 1, I got up, ate an avocado for breakfast, and went to work.

“She’s doing that Whole30 diet,” a colleague of mine told another. “You’re going to last, like, three days!” the other said to me.

For lunch I bought a packaged edamame and chicken salad, picked out all of the edamame, and ate the chicken. Not the best way to start, though seven hours into my first Whole30 day I was still anxious, but compliant.

Eventually, I did stock up on fruit, vegetables, eggs, meat, nuts (and potatoes—so many potatoes!). But I did not plan tasty, compliant meals: From the very beginning, my goal was simply to make it through, a countdown to the moment when I would once again eat and drink what I pleased.

I kept a diary of what I ate and how I felt.
I kept a diary of what I ate and how I felt.

According to the Whole30 timeline, I was going to feel less than great for the first 10 days of the diet. The hangover effects from unhealthy eating habits included bad mood, tiredness, and even an initial weight gain. In actuality, the only one of these symptoms I experienced was tiredness, and slight nausea at the very beginning.

My anxiety faded after I managed not to break any rules even while I spent a weekend at a cabin in Connecticut, but it was replaced by a weird mix of guilt and fear of messing up. I’d eat grapes, then panic upon tasting their sweetness. Once I had a dream that I absentmindedly tasted a cannoli I was buying for Lena Dunham (to make sure it was fresh), and woke up thinking I’d jeopardized my efforts.

I followed the Whole30—or, well, Whole27—with no slips. It was tiring, really boring, and sad to feel so restricted in the kind of things I could eat. I didn’t like it much, but I managed to make it through.


The results

Or was it, a victory? Other than my sense of accomplishment, nothing much had changed.

I didn’t feel a great boost of energy or sleep better. (On the last weekend before the end of the regimen, I slept nearly 11 hours each night, out of pure exhaustion.) My concentration didn’t improve, and my anxiety was higher than usual, since I was constantly worrying about what I was going to eat.

Further, I did not experience the “food freedom” the diet advertises. For 27 days, all I could think about was food: finding (the right type of) food, food I could and could not eat, planning meals. Given the fundamental role food plays in our lives, spending time thinking about it is not a bad thing. But I resented the way the Whole30 shifted my approach from food serving as a source of joy to becoming a source of fear.

Suddenly I was changing aspects of my lifestyle, important facets of socializing and my routines, which my new diet demanded. Toward the end of the month, my roommate and a friend went out for dinner near my house. Saddened at the prospect of yet another exercise in self-control (no this, no that, no wine), I stayed home.

When they came back, two hours later, I was watching a telenovela (OK, Jane The Virgin, but still) while ironing clothes. “Are you OK?” my roommate asked me. I was going to be—in four more days.

The science

According to It Starts With Food and the Whole9 community, Whole30 has helped people get rid of diabetes, attention deficit disorder, high blood pressure, and helped with serious conditions including autism, lupus, and fibromyalgia. The book explains how the culprit foods effect our body, with great focus on our metabolic hormones and gut, though these claims are largely disputed by the vast majority of the scientific community studying nutrition.

“There haven’t been any long-term studies done on the Whole30,” Hartwig told Quartz, saying however that the anecdotal reports reveal people having derived great benefit from the program. This is also true of the paleo diet at large: most of the studies only investigate its benefits on a small subset of people, in short-term studies and with a sample size (at times 15, 20 people), which is too small to lead to any generalized conclusions.

“What [the paleo diet proponents] forgot about is that the gut bacteria can adapt quickly in significant changes in one’s diet,” Raphael Kellman, a doctor and specialist in intestinal health who wrote The Microbiome Diet, told Quartz. Kellman says the incorporation of microbiome health in the paleo diet—including the Whole30’s claim that the unhealthy food groups would cause increased intestinal permeability, commonly referred to as “leaky gut”—are without much foundation.

“It’s not only excessive refined carbohydrates,” Kellman told Quartz, that cause gastrointestinal flammability issues, “but so too does too much protein and fat.” He rejects the idea that a paleo diet would be better for the intestine and improve immune defense. If given the hypothetical choice of excluding whole grains or meat from a diet, Kellman says he would exclude meat.

Kellman says the paleo recommendations are ”based on outdated science.” “I think you’re much more likely to remain healthy on a diet that’s much more Mediterranean-like,” he says.

Culinary nutritionist Stefanie Sacks (who refers to the paleo as a “fad diet”), author of What the Fork are you Eating?, says when she was studying at Columbia University, one of her favorite classes was Analysis of Current Literature. The course found that most diets were built in the same way: they demonized certain food groups without proven science to back their claims, and rarely had any established nutritional professional behind them. Some of these traits seemed to be reflected in It Starts With Food, though as Sacks herself admitted, “the authors of these books likely want to help people, but they are harming them.”

The core problem, Sacks says, is that “we live in a society where bigger, faster, cheaper is better, and most people are looking for a quick fix.” The diets that promise life-changing results in a short amount of time, “could be extremely helpful for a subset of the population, creating a false perception of what’s healthy.”

Perhaps, that’s why some people found the Whole30 so effective and I didn’t, and why the studies for paleo benefits were on such small sample sizes.

My conclusions

Were the 27 days I spent devoid of grains, dairy, and joy a waste? I don’t see it that way.

While it didn’t change my life (as it did for so many), the Whole30 did teach me a few things.

First and foremost, my willpower (which I haven’t checked in on in a while) is doing well. I can go to parties and not drink. And still manage to have friends even when all I talk about are my self-imposed food limitations.

I learned to read labels, and discovered that it’s incredibly hard to find food with no added sugar. Bacon, ham, even smoked salmon can easily contain sugar, and mysterious ingredients such as corn syrup crop up where you least expect them.

I experienced firsthand the importance—for better or worse—that eating has in my life. A change of what I could eat essentially meant a change of what I could do. That’s a lot of power to hand to a piece of bread.

But perhaps most importantly, I am over—hopefully forever—the obsession of being thin: when I weighed myself after the diet was over, I was a little disappointed in not being much skinnier, but a lot more excited about heading out for my birthday lunch.

Melissa Hartwig is right, we (I, at least) do have a really emotional relationship with food—I am glad this regimen showed me mine could be much worse.

Correction: September has 30 days.