Since ancient times, people have gathered together to share their meals. We sometimes dine alone, but more often than not, dining is a social event. Never before have I been more aware of this than during September, when I chose to go on the Whole30 Diet. If you’re not familiar with it, Whole30 is similar to a Paleo Diet. To give you a short version, permitted foods are meat, fish, shellfish, poultry, nuts, eggs, and fresh or frozen vegetables and fruit. Dairy, grains, legumes, white potatoes, pasta, sugar, additives, and alcohol are forbidden.
In any town, this would be a tough diet to follow. But I live in New Orleans. We celebrate births, baptisms, weddings, deaths, and everything in between with food and drink. We discuss what we’ll have for dinner while eating lunch. Food and drink are sacrosanct. Part of this town was in an uproar when a venerable restaurant switched from hand-chipped ice to ice cubes for their cocktails. That’s how intense we are about the dining experience.
I picked the month of September to try this experiment because daytime temps are still in the 90s, relative humidity hovers around the same number, and it’s the peak of hurricane season. That makes September an “off-month” for events here.
I quickly discovered that the term “off-month” is relative. In the month of September, I attended: a book release party at Rock and Bowl; The Curtain Call Ball at Le Petit; the opening play at Le Petit; a welcome back dinner at the home of friends; a Saints football game; book club; a lecture presentation/cocktail party; my monthly manuscript critique group; brunch with visiting friends; lunch with more visiting friends; a birthday party; and a birthday dinner at a restaurant in the French Quarter. This does not count three committee/board meetings that I attended. In the New Orleans tradition, food and alcohol were a part of all these events.
Why did I choose to do go on the diet? I wanted to lose weight, have more energy, reduce inflammation from arthritis, and feel better during morning workouts.
Because I love fruits, vegetables, chicken and seafood, I originally didn’t think this diet would be so great a challenge. I thought the hardest part would be giving up wine. At social events, however, it was easy to order a glass of club soda and lime or a La Croix. Before dinner at home, I drank tea or La Croix while my husband enjoyed a whiskey sour. I wish the food restrictions had been solved that easily.
Eating at home was manageable, although I did miss my “go-to” breakfast of yogurt, fruit, and granola; I grew tired of eggs and meat in the morning. Dining out, whether at someone’s home, a party venue, or a restaurant, was the greatest challenge. In most restaurants, I was limited to salad, oil and vinegar on the side. Maybe I could top the salad with grilled shrimp or chicken. Often I had to request that cheese, beans, corn or candied nuts be left out. At a party venue with a buffet or passed hors d’oeuvres, I couldn’t ask for a special order. I usually ate nothing, unless there was a raw veggie or fruit platter.
When dining at someone’s home, I chose not to ask what was in the food or make special requests. That resulted in “diet failure.” At book club, for instance, I found out after I had eaten roasted butternut squash that it contained brown sugar and butter. At the welcome back dinner, I did toast with a glass of champagne and accept the peach tart placed in front of me. It seemed rude to do otherwise.
What were the results after thirty days? I lost ten pounds; gained energy; and felt better and burned more calories during my workouts. The pain has lessened in some of my joints; but some, especially my neck and jaw, showed no improvement. Those are the physical results. More impressive, however, were the mental and emotional results.
I have gained empathy for the person who must always be aware of what she eats because of health issues. The diet set me apart from others. It was isolating. People who have life threatening food allergies, Crohn’s disease, diabetes, lactose intolerance, high cholesterol, and other dietary limitations, don’t experiment for a month. They have a life-long commitment or suffer severe consequences.
I have become more aware of what I put in my mouth. If I fixed a peanut butter and cracker snack for my grandson, it was likely I’d fix some for myself and lick the spoon, whether hungry or not. If there was a bit of leftover food from dinner or from a party we had given, I’d eat it rather than throw it away. I like to snack. Going forward, I hope to channel my increased awareness and break the habit of mindless eating.
Will I do it again? Probably not, at least not as strictly as I did this time. Am I glad I stuck with it for thirty days? Absolutely! The physical benefits were good, better than I expected. But being mindful about what I eat, conscious about how diet affects my body, and sensitive to the special dietary needs of others are lessons I hope will stay with me for life.