A Body-Positive Attempt at the Whole30

Whole30 blog

I haven’t eaten wine or cheese or bread in 30 days. If you know me at all, this may be surprising news. And possibly a little bit sad.

I completed the Whole 30.

{pause for collective groan}

I know. I was searching “faux-tmeal” recipes on pinterest the other day and it was like I didn’t even know myself.

If you don’t know what the Whole 30 is, the best way I can describe it is that it’s sort of like a paleo cleanse. If you don’t know what paleo is, have you been hiding under a rock for the last five years? Do you even internet? I’m pleased you even found my blog. Anyway, I digress. The real definition of the Whole 30 is it’s an elimination diet, where you only eat whole foods (mostly fresh produce and protein) and stay away from processed, genetically modified foods (dairy, grains, legumes, and sugar). This includes alcohol (I know, I must be crazy.)

You might be thinking:

“Ugh, another one bites the dust. *devours whole frozen pizza*”

“Wow, good for her! She’s trying to lose weight!”

“So glad she’s making her health a priority!”

“She’s fallen prey to the multi-million dollar diet industry that thrives off of making people punish their bodies to conform to impossible standards of beauty.”

And you know, at any given time, I too have thought these things. I want to eat everything in moderation. I want to eat a whole frozen pizza. I want to tell the diet industry to eff off. I want to be healthy. And yes, I have even wanted to lose weight. (My wedding rings stopped fitting on my fingers a few months ago, and that was a bummer.) And that’s why I’m blogging about this today, because yes, I did the Whole 30 for reasons that I feel are valid. But also, just like everyone else, I struggle with what it means to be healthy and to love my body. I don’t have all the answers, and as a relatively thin, able-bodied, middle-class, white woman, I recognize the privilege I have around health and nutritious food. What’s true for me isn’t true for others, and vice versa.

So could I do the Whole 30 and still be body-positive in the process? I had 30 days to figure that out.

~

So, a bit of backstory to my decision: For the last couple years since we moved to Nashville, my health has not been my first priority. My first priority has been making enough money to live, because my husband and I have been underemployed, and when you’re broke, you eat what you can afford (hello, spaghetti and frozen pizza.) I’m a really good cook and I enjoy making food, but my diet choices have been driven by a cycle of anxiety and exhaustion.

I worry about having enough money to eat AND pay my bills -> I buy the cheaper stuff like pasta and cheese -> I’m too exhausted from worry and anxiety and eating poorly to pay my bills to try and eat healthier.

Our financial situation improved remarkably over the last year (though we still have a long way to go), and I no longer had to choose between eating fresh produce and paying my electric bill. And yet, I wasn’t living any differently. Telling myself to eat healthier has almost been like telling a scared child to come out from underneath the covers, “Hi, the storm is over. It’s okay to come out now.” But I haven’t quite been able to convince myself that it really is okay to eat as healthy as I wish I could. It’s taken me awhile to catch my habits up with my desires.

My choice to do the Whole 30 is about breaking the cycle and making my physical health a priority.

About a week into it, I was doing pretty well and feeling confident about my decision when I read this article, No Food Is Healthy, Not Even Kale. It’s about the language we use to talk about food and health. “Healthy food” is a misnomer, writes Michael Ruhlman. If you ate nothing but kale, you’d have an imbalanced diet. Food is nutritious; it provides nutrients to support your physical health. That’s it. Likewise, we have to be careful of the language we use around “healthy” bodies. Weight is not a moral quantifier. Fat is not a moral judgment.

And that became my guiding principle for the rest of the Whole 30: Make nutritious food a priority to support my health, keeping in mind that moderation and mindfulness are the ultimate goal. And that’s also why I chose not to post about it online with a plethora of food instagrams and links and pats on the back. My body type, and what I choose to do with my body, does not make me a better/worse person than anyone else. My diet does not make me a more virtuous person, and it doesn’t add to or take away from my inherent worth.

~

So what positive benefits did I gain from the Whole 30?

1. Meal planning. Because the Whole 30 is a long list of eat this/not that, it requires a lot of planning. At the beginning of each week (usually Saturday or Sunday) I would take stock of what we had in our refrigerator and pantry, and then sit down, research some recipes, look at our calendar for the week, and make a seven-day meal plan (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks). And then I would go grocery shopping for everything we needed. (This chart was a helpful guide.) It was surprisingly empowering to be so organized. It helped me me balance my diet and my budget, and resist the temptation to eat out (which is usually instigated by my typical “oh crap there’s nothing in the fridge” moment around 5 pm on a Thursday night). They say it takes 30 days to form a new habit, and this more than anything else is the one I want to keep.

2. Understanding how different processed foods affect my well-being. About three years ago, I started having random bouts of insomnia. I’ve noticed that usually happens around the same time in my menstrual cycle, which made me think it was a PMS symptom. But a few days ago I ate out for dinner and accidentally ingested cane sugar for the first time in almost a month, and then I was awake ALL NIGHT LONG. The idea behind the Whole 30 is to cleanse your system of processed foods and reintroduce them slowly, to determine how they affect you. Thanks to the Whole 30, I now know that sugar triggers my insomnia. (It might still be affected by my hormones as well, but sugar intake is definitely a contributing factor.)

2b. Figuring out that not all sugar is created equal. First of all – processed sugar is the hardest ingredient to eliminate on the Whole 30 because it. is. in. every. thing. Meats, dried fruits, sauces and condiments, juice, nut butters (i.e. peanut butter, almond butter, cashew butter). The Whole 30 creators say that you have to eliminate it completely, including honey and maple syrup. In order to do that, you either have to be wealthy enough to buy the expensive shit that doesn’t have it in there (like a $15 package of uncured, organic, artisanal bacon), or you have to go without A LOT more things. So I’ll be honest: I didn’t eliminate sugar entirely. I gave myself a little grace, because I’m not made of money and because it doesn’t make sense to me that an organic plant byproduct like maple syrup (the real kind, not the Log Cabin corn-syrup-with-food-coloring kind) would be banned from the Whole 30 when you’re allowed to have other things like canned coconut milk. So there were a few times when I used pure, organic honey and maple syrup out of necessity and desperation, and they did NOT affect me the same way as cane sugar.

3. Creativity in my cooking. Turns out that lots of foods still taste delicious, even when they don’t have butter or cheese or sugar in them. The Whole 30 challenged me not to use these things as a flavor or calorie crutch, and I found some delicious recipes along the way: like this homemade barbecue sauce sweetened with dates (tastes delicious in pulled pork stuffed into a baked sweet potato, topped with homemade coleslaw, cilantro and lime.) Or zucchini noodles with sausage + tomatoes. Also, chocolate “pudding” made from whipped coconut milk + bananas + cocoa powder saved my life when I was craving a sweet snack after dinner.

4. Motivating myself to create other healthy habits. I live a pretty sedentary lifestyle since I work from home and sit at a computer 80% of the time. Changing my diet is part of staying healthy, but so is being physically active. Participating in the Whole 30 reminded me that I *do* have the willpower and fortitude to try new things and build healthy habits. I started doing yoga, too (this 30-day video series from Adrienne is awesome for beginners like me.)

5. It’s never a bad idea to go a few weeks without alcohol. I love my glass of wine with dinner after a long day. I know I have a healthy relationship to alcohol, but even so, it felt empowering to remind myself that I can go without it. For 30 Whole Days, I went without so much as a sip. I survived no less than four presidential debates stone-cold sober. That’s some serious self-control, I’d say.

~

Cons to the Whole 30: 

1. It’s expensive to eat this way. There’s just no way around it, because it’s how our food industry operates. The major downside of the Whole 30 is that it’s steeped in economic and class privilege. My grocery budget was nearly double the first week, and I didn’t even purchase all-organic/all-natural produce and meats. I cannot afford to eat this way 100% of the time. I couldn’t even afford to follow the Whole 30 100%, because I cannot justify the cost of a $16.99 jar of almond butter that doesn’t have sugar in it. My best work-around was preparing meals that provided lots of leftovers – soups and stews, meats that could be divided and frozen for multiple meals, etc. The meal-planning also helped me budget, so it eventually evened out a bit.

2. Life without wine, cheese, and bread is still kinda sad. Maybe other people really mean it when they say they don’t miss that stuff, but I do miss it, and I’m okay with letting “the soft animal of my body love what it loves,” as Mary Oliver would say. Sometimes the cravings were really intense, and resisting was a bummer. I’m just a happier person when I live by moderation. #sorrynotsorry

3. They mean “cleanse” literally. Eating only whole foods for 30 days was hard on my digestive track. That’s all I have to say about that.

4. Cooking for myself 24/7 is exhausting. I felt like I was in the kitchen for 30 days straight in an endless cycle of cook/eat/wash dishes/repeat. Cooking can be a creative outlet, but it’s still time-consuming and sometimes I just barely had the energy. It’s really not a very sustainable lifestyle, and I’m pretty sure I only survived because I work from home and have more margin for the energy and time it takes to make my own meals. I’m glad I did it, but I’m glad it’s over and I’m happy to include more “rest” meals into my week.

5. Searching for recipes is a minefield of body-negative bullshit, especially on Pinterest. You’re out here trynna survive without french fries, and Pinterest is like “STRONG IS THE NEW SKINNY” and “CAULIFLOWER CRUST PIZZA TASTES AMAZING”. Be careful what you search for, because it can trigger shame spirals and fits of rage. The self-loathing messages are everywhere, and the lies about tasty faux-pizza and pancakes are abundant. Brace yourself, because it can be really discouraging.

~

If you’ve read all the way to the end of this rambling diatribe, thank you. You’re either wonderfully supportive, curious, or bored, but I’m grateful for your time. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.*

I’ve shared all of this because I think there are a lot of people out there who want to make their health a priority, but get discouraged by all the body-negative content out there. Even the nutrition-based meal plans are often shaming of diverse body types, equating thinness with health, “pure” or “whole” foods with virtue, and assuming that people are lazy when they don’t conform to their standards of “healthy” eating. So what are we supposed to do when we know, personally, that we need to change our habits for the sake of our health, but we don’t want to buy into the body-negative bullshit? Don’t let the diet industry fool you into the false dichotomies. We can real-talk about our own experiences, acknowledging our privileges. We can accept that what’s true for us may not be true for others, and we can affirm all the diverse bodies God created. We can live and let live, knowing we don’t have all the answers.

Thirty days later, my wedding rings still don’t fit so I’m going to get them resized, but I’m happy with myself. I feel strong and capable and I’m proud of the work I’ve done to put my body first. And now I’m going to go have a glass of wine. And a burrito.

I love all you beautiful people. Be good to your bodies. xoxo.

*P.S. I make no claims to be an expert in body positivity, nutrition, health, or the Whole 30. Take the “attempt” in my blog title very literally. These opinions are my own, as are my experiences. I recognize that everyone has strong feelings and differing experiences about physical wellness, and I respect that. Please keep your comments kind, respectful, body-positive, and privilege-conscious. Health-splainers not welcome. 

A Return.

Dear Blog,

You’ve seen me through so many changes in the past six and a half years. I was barely a college graduate when I started writing here. I was working two part-time jobs, as a hostess at a brunch restaurant and as a copywriter at my alma mater. I was completely in the dark about How To Be A Real Writer. I had no idea what a career might look like. I was terrified, because I had graduated in the middle of a national recession and didn’t even have internship experience. I don’t know how, but I survived that first year as a post-grad newly wed, living with my in-laws, working multiple part time jobs but still completely broke. I think, maybe, writing here was that flashlight that kept me walking through the darkness. It was a thing I could hold onto, something to light my way for the next few steps, and then the next few steps, and then the next few, just to keep me moving forward as a writer.

And then the next few years, it became a point of connection, a small but growing community of encouragement. I kept writing because it helped me find my people – the word nerds and faith seekers and fledgling feminists and creative dreamers like me. I had found full time work as a staff writer in a communications office, but this blog was my outlet, my safe space, to spread my creative wings. I was learning to write about my life, and that turned out to be a good thing, because when the storms came this blog was a life-raft. I was drowning in the grief of my mother’s death, but my blog people beckoned me back with comfort and encouragement.

I kept blogging, and it paved the way for new opportunities to share my words with other online communities. And in the years that followed, as I learned to cope with my new normal and articulate new hope for my future, the blog remained my constant source of motivation. It had brought me so far.

And then, slowly, I stopped writing here. At first it was about giving myself a chance to plant roots and build a new life in a new city. And then it was about hustling as hard as I could to make ends’ meet; the blog took a backseat to paying bills and buying groceries. And then it was about the fact that my site crashed, and it took several months (and a lot of help from my dear Sarah Joslyn) to recover my 6+ years of content. But even after we brought this blog back to life, there was something else holding me back. My silence was about being lost in a deep spiritual wilderness, where formulating words for a blog post felt impossible.

After years of writing about my life and my faith online, I reached a point where blogging a couple times a week through a faith crisis felt dishonest. I’ve always been that person that kept going when life was hard. I blogged through much of my mother’s illness; I was back online writing about her death merely two weeks after the fact. I was articulating my grief right in the raw midst of it. But three years later, I decided to stop trying so hard. To let myself be wordless in it. To let myself feel the unknown – the ineffable, unpredictable, unarticulated mystery of faith after trauma.

Did I even believe in God? Yes. No. Maybe. Yes. But I’m not sure how, or why, or what, or who.

I have felt that. And I have just as quickly felt that yes, I am a Christian, albeit an imperfect, indefinitely unchurched, perpetually exhausted one. A sweary, mad, cynical one.

Honestly, in my time away from blogging I have been a version of myself that I didn’t want to share online. Angry. Sad. Desperate. Defiant. Broke broke broke. Fresh out of fucks to give. Lonely. Depressed. Anxious. All the things I thought I was safe from becoming, when I was writing about grief three weeks after my mother’s death. Ashamed. I was ashamed. And then, eventually, I was relieved. Maybe even proud, for finally letting go. And I decided I didn’t owe anyone anything, so I could slip quietly offline, without having to explain.

I’m glad I did that. It felt like I finally gave up the illusion of being The Strong One, the Philosophical One, the Always Has Words to Say One.

My Aunt Beverly, the family therapist, always says, “You can be angry, just don’t build your house there.”

And she’s right. Of course, she’s right. I want to let myself feel all the real things, all the unbloggable things. But that’s not my home. I don’t need to dwell there forever. This blog, this is my home. My safe space. My flashlight, my way forward.

So I’m picking it up again. And while a lot of things have changed, it’s also true what they say: wherever you go, there you are. Six-almost-seven years later, I’m working two part time jobs. I’m still not sure How To Be A Real Writer. I’m still pretty broke. I make no promises to write consistently, or to write without the swears and scars and biting cynicism that are pretty characteristic of who I am.

But I’m home.

Hi, I’ve missed you.

An Iris in Remembrance.

purple-iris-mothers-day-bethany-suckrow

There’s a bed of purple irises in our backyard. A single blossom has unfurled, and it evokes warm memories of my mother, all those late spring days when she would weed the flower beds at the front of the house, and the irises seemed to multiply by hundreds every year, their heavy heads bowing in the May sun.

In many ways, I feel like I’m not in a place right now to be grateful for what happened to us. Time presses on, and the weight of meaning-making feels impossibly hard to bear.

And yet, these memories sprout up anyway. They both anchor and undo me, all at once. They are the leaves I grow and shed, over and over again, that feed the soul-soil of who I am. It’s an ongoing existence of death and rebirth. That’s what grief is to me – death and rebirth, death and rebirth. Some seasons are uglier and harder than others, and I’m sure I can never recover these winters. And some seasons I turn toward the sun, arms outstretched, like all those irises my mother planted, growing by the years.

So today, yes, I bow my head. Thank you, thank you.

Your Own Brand of Magic

Processed with VSCOcam with x1 preset

“Perfection Wasted” by John Updike

And another regrettable thing about death
is the ceasing of your own brand of magic,
which took a whole life to develop and market —
the quips, the witticisms, the slant
adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest
the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched
in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears,
their tears confused with their diamond earrings,
their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat,
their response and your performance twinned.
The jokes over the phone. The memories packed
in the rapid-access file. The whole act.
Who will do it again? That’s it: no one;
imitators and descendants aren’t the same.

//

My husband’s grandfather passed away on Tuesday morning. He took with him his own brand of magic that no one else will ever possess. Dirty jokes and toy trains and fishing trips. Card games and cigarettes. Raucous laughter and deep affection for his grandkids.

I sat on my porch after we heard the news and could almost hear his own disbelief that he died. I suspect he thought he’d live forever, or at least a hundred years more, sitting on his porch no matter the weather with his smokes and sudoku puzzles, fishing at Lake Shelbyville with Matt and Dad every spring. He and Matt talked about going down for a trip in May, when we saw him a month ago, the weekend we came home because we knew it was our last chance to see him. We knew it was a charade of nostalgia and grief and love for all of us.

This, though painful, is what we do at the end, because we hope that death is just a prolonged absence. We plan the fishing trip, and hope that when we too cross over to the other shore one day, that Grandpa will be standing there with his pole in hand, saying, “What took ya so long?”

I loved you dearly, you beautiful old man. Enjoy the fresh air.

Lenten Reflection: Of Stardust & Sacred Questions.

Rob Gendler-nebula-dying star flower ring

There is this word that I’ve always been afraid of, but which now feels like a gift to my faith:

Evolve.

It’s taking its place in a landscape of new language I’m developing for this season of my faith: Wholehearted. Sacred. Wilderness. Scarcity. Abundance. Justice. Grief. Change.

This word came to me a few nights ago while I was watching Cosmos on Netflix. I can’t fully explain the episode* because I’m terrible at science, but it was about stardust and ghosts and the space-time continuum and the edges of the universe.

From dust you came and to dust you shall return,” never felt more true or made more sense, and the fact that this marked the beginning of the Lenten season for me made it all the more sacred.

In Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss, he writes,

“Faith is not some hard, unchanging thing you cling to through the vicissitudes of life … Just as any sense of divinity that we have comes from the natural order of things – is in some sense *within* the natural order of things – so too faith is folded into change, is the mutable and messy process of our lives rather than any fixed mental product.”

This is the mutable, messy process of my evolving faith: searching for God in that fold between natural order and unexpected change, tucked away in a space I’ve never looked before. It might be found in the pages of a faith memoir, or in a Netflix binge-watch, or in the pages of my own journal, or a walk in the woods.

The truth is that I think more than I feel my faith at this point in my life.

The deep affection I have felt for God and the Church, once demonstrated through singing hymns and reading scripture and sitting in pews, is demonstrated through solitude and sacred questions right now.

Maybe you have experienced this too: that our love and our questions aren’t separate, but deeply connected. There are seasons when our questions are the fruit of our deep affection for God and the Church. Because we love, our questions matter. Asking these questions is an act of tending the soil – the sacred ground – of our faith. Some things that once marked our growth have ripened and fallen to the soil, fertilizing it for other seeds to take root and grow in the seasons to come.

” … it seemed as if the tiniest seed of belief had finally flowered in me, or, more accurately, as if I had happened upon some rare flower deep in the desert and had known, though I was just then discovering it, that it had been blooming impossibly year after parched year in me, surviving all the seasons of my unbelief.” – Wiman, My Bright Abyss

Maybe we are made of stardust. Maybe we look at the sky and see the ghosts of centuries past, lighting the darkness for us. Maybe we see the stars and unknowingly see the spirit of our mothers, gathering the universe unto themselves like they have since our birth. Maybe Mother Earth is that ineffable God-love I feel when I tend another sacred question.

Whatever, I still believe:

She makes everything beautiful in its time.

*Cosmos Episode 4: “A Sky Full of Ghosts,” for my curious readers.

[Post image source.]