The weekly spin: One cyclist’s experience with a month of unprocessed foods
“How’s it going tonight?” The smiling Whole Foods clerk asked me and my wife at checkout.
“We’re on the Whole30 diet. It sucks,” I replied, sort of kidding, sort of not.
It was 7pm on a Saturday in October. I didn’t bother telling her it was our sixth wedding anniversary, and that we were dining at the Whole Foods food court on our way to a movie because it was one of the few places where we could easily adhere to a Whole30 compliant meal. Or that just 13 days in, we were pretty sick of eating the same-ish foods for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
But you know what? Whole Foods has these coconut-date balls, which, when you haven’t had sugar in two weeks, taste like the sweetest candy known to man. I ate mine for dessert; my wife snuck hers into the movie theater. It wasn’t glamorous, but we were doing it together, and honestly, that made all the difference.
Last week — on Halloween, of all days — we concluded our Whole30 diet, or cleanse, or whatever you want to call it. If you haven’t heard of it, I’ll dive into the details in a minute, but basically it is, as the name implies, 30 days of eating whole, unprocessed foods. It’s designed to eliminate problem foods, to give the body a reset. A week later, I’ve yet to eat a piece of Halloween candy and I’m already thinking about watts per kilogram and new Strava PRs.
Let me back up a minute. This all started a few months earlier with our dog, Sadie.
Still a puppy, Sadie was gaining weight. Our fault, not hers — she was overfed. She got heavy. So we addressed that. We changed her diet from puppy to adult-dog kibble, gave her a little less for each meal, and started running her more. Guess what? She leaned out. No big secret formula, just less food and more exercise. And keeping her lean will not only improve the quality of her life, it will likely increase her lifespan.
And that got us to thinking: If we’re doing this for our dog, why aren’t we doing this for ourselves?
Intention without action
I’ve been a cyclist for 23 years — half my life. I came into cycling at the tail end of college, when years of studying, and partying had caught up to me. I was heavy, but still considered myself an athlete, and I was looking for a way to get lean and fit. Most of the methods I was familiar with — running, swimming, weightlifting — all seemed pretty boring. They weren’t really fun; they required discipline.
Then I discovered mountain biking. It was different. It was fun. It took you places. There was adrenaline. There was sunshine. It was hard, but there was a clear trajectory of improvement. I didn’t have to force myself to go for a bike ride; I wanted to go. And in the process, I burned off that college beer gut. I got lean — or at least, leaner.
I’ve never been one of those super-skinny cyclists you see on the group rides, let alone in the pro peloton. When it comes to BMI, genetics are not on my side. Even when my weight is relatively low — 165 pounds (75kg) — my body type is that one of skinny legs and arms and a layer of fat stubbornly adhering to my midsection. Skinny fat, I think they call it. Which is okay for day-to-day life, but not all that awesome when wearing Lycra.
Thing is, my weight held steady at 165 pounds for years — when I was riding 10 hours a week. When I was single. When I was in my twenties and thirties. When I wasn’t a parent. I’m not any of those people any longer.
These days, I ride less. My priorities have shifted. Spare time, once freely abundant, has become limited. Rather than rolling out to meet the boys for the weekly group ride, Saturday mornings have transitioned into watching a live stream of European bike races with my daughter, followed by a trip to the park or her gymnastics class.
At the same time, my diet has, over the years, become progressively worse. Foods that I used to consider an indulgence — some chocolate, a beer, a scoop of ice cream — had become commonplace; a piece of chocolate after every meal, a beer every evening. Nothing drastic, but it all adds up. And by September, it had all added up to 177 pounds, the most I’d ever weighed.
Truth be told, I had intended to drop the weight for a while — a few years, really. I knew it was possible. It just required a bit of discipline. But there was always a justification for putting it off. I’ll do it after the holidays. I’ll do it after that next work trip. Always some reasonable excuse. But what was really happening was that I was slowly gaining weight, not losing weight; my task was incrementally becoming more difficult, and easier to justify away. I started to think it may never happen.
Then, a few months ago, I came across this quote somewhere online. I don’t remember the context, and I’d never heard of the author, Andy Andrews, but I copied and pasted it into my notes.
“Despite popular belief to the contrary, there is absolutely no power in intention. The seagull may intend to fly away, may decide to do so, may talk with the other seagulls about how wonderful it is to fly, but until the seagull flaps his wings and takes to the air, he is still on the dock. There’s no difference between that gull and all the others. Likewise, there is no difference in the person who intends to do things differently and the one who never thinks about it in the first place. Have you ever considered how often we judge ourselves by our intentions while we judge others by their actions? Yet intention without action is an insult to those who expect the best from you.”
I thought about those who expected the best from me, myself included. It was time to do something, I just didn’t know exactly what, or when.
Principles of the Whole30
It was at the Colorado Classic, in August, that I first heard of the Whole30. I ran into one of the race organizers, who had clearly trimmed down. I asked him how he’d done it. He’d attributed it to the Whole30 diet — 30 days with no sugar, no alcohol, no dairy, no grains, no gluten, no soy, no legumes. It wasn’t easy, he said, but it wasn’t as hard as you might think.
The idea stuck with me, and my wife, and it came up in discussion several times in the weeks that followed. A bit of research commenced. We consulted with Dr. Google. We dug around. It turns out Whole30 has become pretty popular in recent years; on Instagram, the #Whole30 hashtag has 3.8 million posts. It’s a lot of pictures of meals, or people showing off their new-found abs. Whatever.
At its core, the Whole30 is basically a cleanse. It’s not intended to be a long-term diet; it’s not labeled as a diet at all. The idea is to completely remove food groups that may be having a negative impact on your health and fitness. It’s similar to the Paleo Diet, but more strict. Meat, seafood, and eggs are permitted, as are fruits and vegetables. The focus is on foods with very few ingredients, or no ingredients at all.
Then, after 30 days, you slowly reintroduce foods, paying close attention to those that might leave you feeling inflammation, or fatigue, or bloat, or whatever else.
“Push the reset button with your health, habits, and relationship with food, and the downstream physical and psychological effects of the food choices you’ve been making,” the Whole30 literature states. “Don’t you dare tell us this is hard. Fighting cancer is hard. Birthing a baby is hard. Losing a parent is hard. Drinking your coffee black is not hard.”
That literature comes from Melissa Hartwig, who came up with the concept of the Whole30 back in 2009 while in drug rehab kicking a heroin addiction. In an interview with thefix.com, she related her relationship with drugs to the relationship many have with food, and in particular, with sugar, which is food enemy number-one on the Whole30 program.
“I was using food much in the way that I used to use drugs,” she said. “My addiction and recovery experience plays a huge role in how I support people who are doing the Whole30. That saying about heroin and drinking your coffee black is really meant to empower people to recognize that they have done much harder things than this. Changing your habits is always a challenge, but when you look at all the other things you have done in your life, a 30-day food experiment is not hard in comparison.
“From a psychological standpoint, food and drugs are not that different,” she continued. “We are talking about the same cycle of craving and the promise of reward, and the intense stimulation to pursue this reward. So often what we put in our bodies is nowhere near natural, but our brains prefer it because it feels so rewarding.
“Then we go through the same cycle of guilt and shame when we are done because that experience promises rewards but doesn’t actually deliver happiness. When I talk about this cycle, am I talking about donuts or am I talking about heroin? It really is the same cycle for a lot of people.”
My experiences with Whole30
We started the Whole30 on October 1. We took all the foods that were not allowed and put them in a box in the basement. And then we started studying food labels, closely. Anything that had long, unfamiliar ingredients was out. Anything with sugar added was out. Turns out, just about everything has added sugar.
For protein, my staples were eggs, chicken, and prosciutto. For fat, I ate a lot of cashews and avocados. Really, a lot. For carbs, we baked potatoes, squash, and sweet potatoes. To satisfy a sweet craving, we ate bananas, apples, berries, or cantaloupe. Those coconut-date balls were a delicacy, as well as the Cashew Cookie flavor of Larabar, which consists solely of cashews and dates.
It wasn’t hard to identify what I missed most — dark chocolate. Yes, I missed red wine, and yes, I missed cheese, but I didn’t crave them. I craved dark chocolate, especially following meals. And that in itself was eye-opening. Hartwig’s words about the “cycle of craving and the promise of reward” rang true.
My caffeine intake increased. I found myself drinking more espresso.
I missed the ease of grabbing a bag of packaged, processed something and mindlessly snacking. I didn’t miss the subconscious guilt associated with that sort of unhealthy eating. I missed having wine at social occasions. But I also slept more soundly. So did my wife.
My joints seemed to ache less. I felt more awake in the morning. Gone was that bloated feeling that would often accompany meals. I had more energy. So did my wife.
I felt less stressed, and more relaxed. My clothes fit better. My mood seemed, well, all around improved. Same for my wife.
October was a fun, harmonious month in our home. We both commented on it, frequently.
On that note, it’s important to stress that I couldn’t have done it without a partner. My wife is our resident chef; our nightly routine dictates that I play with our daughter while she works her magic in the kitchen. Then we eat, then I do the dishes. She was the mastermind of our nightly meals, but moreover, we supported each other. We kept each other honest. I went into this somewhat begrudgingly, but she pushed through and kept us on track. I’m grateful for that.
One principle of the Whole30 states that you shouldn’t weigh yourself; only at the start of the 30 days and again at the end. I didn’t follow that rule. I weighed myself every two or three days, always in the morning. Looking back, I can clearly see the many overall benefits of the Whole30, but going into it, I was keenly focused on cutting bad foods and losing unwanted pounds.
In our bathroom we have a Wi-Fi enabled Garmin Index Smart Scale, which at $150, is a very expensive tool for weighing yourself, but also a pretty cool way of monitoring your weight and other metrics such as body mass index (BMI) and body fat percentage.
After initial setup, using the Garmin Connect app on your mobile device, it’s plug and pay. You step on, it takes its measurements and then automatically uploads the data to Garmin Connect, which then displays that data on one of several optional graphs. It’s pretty cool. Some of these metrics are imprecise, however; two electrodes, one on each foot, send a small current through your body, measuring bioelectrical impedance and estimating body fat. It may be consistent, but I wouldn’t say it’s accurate.
For cyclists like myself that primarily use Strava to track their rides, there’s one key feature missing here: Ride data from a Garmin head unit syncs with Strava via Garmin Connect, but weight data from a Garmin scale does not. It would be nice if your Strava weight was updated every time you stepped on the scale. That way, if you also used a power meter, your power-to-weight ratio would be accurate, to the day. I know I’m not the only one to wish for this functionality from Strava.
According to the Index Smart Scale, my weight on September 27 was 176.4 pounds (80kg), my BMI was 24.7, and my body fat was 11.2%. My weight on November 2 was 164.5 pounds (74kg), my BMI was 23.0, and my body fat was 7.7%. I’m fairly certain my body fat is higher than 7.7%, but hey. I’m also certain it dropped a few percentage points.
Overall, I’d lost 11.9 pounds (5.5kg), or about 7% of my total body weight. My wife, who was less focused on watching the scale than I was, had a similar experience, dropping seven pounds, or 5% of her total body weight.
I’m aware that losing 12 pounds is, in the grand scheme of things, pretty insignificant. Countless people have lost exponentially more weight, and had real life-altering transformations. More power to them. At my heaviest, I was 177 pounds, a bit bulky for my 5-foot-11 (180cm) frame, especially for someone who regularly wears Lycra, but not uncommon by societal standards. I get that.
But what I do think is significant is that I was able to lose that weight in 30 days, and without ever going hungry. I can’t say that I ate whatever I wanted, but I can say I ate whenever I wanted. The discipline required to adhere to the Whole30 involved intentional grocery shopping and a bit more meal prep, but it didn’t involve a growling stomach. I had cravings, but no hunger pangs.
Anyhow, these are just numbers. Here’s the qualitative feedback: I’m up a notch on my belt. Getting back down to 165 pounds was a New Year’s resolution, and achieving a goal always feels good. My clothes fit better. I can tell a difference on the bike, especially when climbing.
Whole30 and endurance sports
Part of endurance sports involves being as lean as your schedule, discipline, and physiology can accommodate. Part of endurance sports also involves fueling properly, lest you bonk spectacularly. And therein lies the rub with the Whole30; it’s great for getting lean, but it’s probably not adequate for high-intensity workouts or long endurance rides. Bonking sucks.
While it’s true that endurance riding burns a mix of stored body fat and glycogen, the body stores less than 2,000 calories of glucose as glycogen across both the liver and muscles. Muscle glycogen can become significantly depleted within 90 minutes, and you can exhaust all glycogen stores within three hours of endurance riding. We’ve all been there.
At that point, a banana and a handful of cashews isn’t going to cut it.
I can’t say that I’ve experienced this firsthand. Over the past month, I haven’t done a ride over two hours, and truthfully I don’t do many three- or four-hour rides these days. I can say that, during and after those two-hour rides, climbing feels good, low-intensity efforts feel good, and recovery feels good. The few times that I have dug deep, however, it’s been an effort into the unknown. No bonking, but I’ve always had that thought in the back of my mind that it was around the corner.
I don’t claim to have the answer here, but I do have a few suggestions. Many flavors of Larabars and RxBars (but not all) are Whole30 compliant. Cyclists can pack foil-wrapped sweet potatoes or dried apricots into their jersey pockets, along with a banana or two. Beef jerky offers protein and salt, but usually has some sugar added. A blog post about fueling for ultra-running on the Whole30, with some other ideas, can be found here.
The principles of the Whole30 are solid — eat only whole, unprocessed foods — but by design it’s a short-term program to help you develop a long-term solution. For endurance athletes, that solution will likely stray from the Whole30. For longer rides and high-intensity efforts, they’ll need to eat a big breakfast, rich in fats and protein, and consume some form of complex carbohydrates such as oatmeal, bread, brown rice, or pasta — none of which are Whole30 compliant.
At the very least, the Whole30 can be an off-season tool to keep your weight in check and reset your diet, with adaptations for racing or endurance training.
As for me, I have unfinished business with Flagstaff Mountain, a local climb here in Boulder. It’s 4.5 miles (7.24km) long, with 1,940 feet (591m) of elevation gain, averaging 8% with gradients maxing out at 18% near the top. Top pros like Tom Danielson, Lachlan Morton, and Sepp Kuss have posted times around 22-23 minutes.
For local amateur cyclists, the holy grail is to ride the segment in under 30 minutes. I’ve never done that; 33:29 is my best time. I’m guessing I weighed around 170 pounds at the time, and averaged around 3.5 watts per kilogram. To ride it under 30 minutes would require an effort of right around 4 watts per kilogram.
Given the results of the past month, I can get down to 160 pounds (72.5kg) pretty easily, and I have to think that 155pounds (70kg) is within reach. At that point, with some focused training, I can start believing in riding 30 minutes at 4.0 watts per kilogram. This might sound like a silly goal for a 45-year-old mostly retired amateur racer — I won’t argue that — but I’ve been riding this mountain for almost 20 years. It looms large on the horizon, and achieving a goal always feels good.
Okay, so now what?
If you’re curious about the Whole30, you should give it a try. Maybe it’s for you, maybe it’s not — but if you’re this far down the column, I think it’s fair to say you’re curious. It’s only 30 days of your life, and as the literature states, it’s for the benefit of the only physical body you will ever have in this lifetime. Surely that’s worth a month of focused effort.
Thing is, you can still eat bacon and eggs for breakfast — you just have to avoid bacon with added sugar. You can eat steak and potatoes for dinner — you just use clarified butter on your potatoes. You can still eat at Chipotle — carnitas, pico de gallo, and guacamole are all fair game, just lay off the tortillas and cheese.
It would be easy to label the Whole30 as a fad diet, but I don’t really see it that way, for one simple reason — it’s not a diet. It’s an exploration. It’s a reset. It’s a roadmap to a more mindful approach to eating, and it’s permanently altered my relationship with food.
For me, the 30 days is over, but this isn’t the end. It’s the beginning. I spent the first half of my life not paying much attention to what I was putting into my body. I intend to spend the second half of my life differently.
As Hartwig wrote in one of her books, the food you eat either makes you more healthy or less healthy. Those are your options.
Sure, I’ll eat cheese now and then. I’ll eat brown rice now and then. I’ll drink the occasional glass of red wine. But foods like beer, ice cream, chocolate, pizza, cookies, pastries — those are largely a thing of the past. I’ll miss them the way I’ll miss a place I once lived, but moved away from — I may have fond memories, but I left for a reason. I might revisit once in a while, but there’s no moving back.
Eating well and staying lean will not only improve the quality of my life, it will likely increase my lifespan — just like our dog. And it will surely help me go faster on those climbs.
The weekly spin is a column from our Editor at Large offering commentary and analysis on topics ranging from racing to tech to industry to travel to simple observations from the saddle.