What is it?
Whole30 is a month-long highly restrictive diet. It was developed under the theory that many of our ailments — from common aches and pains to hormonal imbalances — are caused by the foods we put in our bodies. This diet is meant to cleanse the body of harmful toxins, while filling it with natural, wholesome ingredients. Whole30 dieters are tasked with eliminating alcohol, grains, legumes, added sugars and sweeteners, soy, dairy, corn products, baked or fried potato chips, and more. It can become quite the rabbit hole — reading the list of prohibited foods — and all you are left to eat is basically, well, rabbit food.
Why did I do it?
There are many theories suggesting a link between autoimmune diseases and diet. Each time I’ve read some online piece about how cutting gluten or dairy miraculously cured someone of RA, I’ve gotten hopeful. A few years ago, I went vegan/gluten-free for a stretch of time and wrote about it in my book “Hard to Grip.” While my RA was by no means cured, I did feel brief improvement in symptoms. I’ve been wanting to give another go at cleansing my body, eating healthy, and noting the effects on my RA, and this diet seemed to check all the boxes in terms of its restrictiveness, and its alleged health benefits. So, I kissed all my favorite foods goodbye, and braced myself for a month of hunger and dreading all social events where I would have to explain why I was carrying a Ziploc bag of hardboiled eggs.
The hardest part
Social engagements were tough: Eating almonds and raisins at the Superbowl party, ordering club soda at the bar — you get the picture. At no point was it unendurable, however. My body forgot its cravings — in particular bread, cheese, chips, desserts (pretty much everything forbidden)— with relative ease and quickness. Also challenging was finding things in the store that complied with the diet’s restrictions. The practice of reading ingredient lists was very illuminating. I learned that practically everything has some form of added sugar or sweetener, even if the product isn’t sweet (i.e. hot sauce). Eventually, my wife and I learned the easiest thing to do was cook our own food so we knew exactly what ingredients we were putting in our bodies. It seems commonsensical, but it’s a lot harder than it sounds, and is the main purpose of the diet.
I will say that psychologically, it felt weird to always be telling people: “No thanks; I’m on a diet.” In a round-about way, I worried it was sending the message: “Sorry, I care about my body, which, clearly you do not.” So I just started telling everyone I was doing it for an article.
What we ate and how it tasted
Whole30 called for adventurousness and creativity in the kitchen. I grew to look forward to cooking. My wife and I subscribed to a service that dropped off a box of fresh, locally grown and organic produce once-a-week, and we enjoyed planning meals according to what we got. We faced the great challenge of figuring out how to use an entire bushel of parsley. We learned to make cauliflower rice and zucchini pasta. I’m not going to sit here and pretend either of those tasted nearly as good as the original, but they were serviceable substitutes, and a worthwhile sacrifice for health. We made spicy chicken wings, curries, and frozen fruit sorbets. By the end of the month, there wasn’t much that I missed from my old diet. In fact, it’s been nearly a month since my Whole30 technically ended and with the exception of a few things, I’ve continued to eat as though I were still on the diet. Here’s why:
I want to be clear: A month on this diet did not cure my RA. But I did notice some changes in my body. Fairly soon after starting the regimen, I started to feel lighter and more limber, both physically and mentally. While I felt this lightness throughout my body, I noticed it also in my joints affected by RA, which surprised me; I always assumed the disease was too strong to be altered by anything other than powerful immuno-suppressing drugs. Yet, my right wrist felt more flexible and was less tender in the mornings.
I certainly woke up some days with flares, just like always, but I did notice that there were fewer of them, and they were less biting. When I tried reintroducing certain food groups to see if they caused any reaction in my body, I didn’t notice anything. So I have no food allergy conclusions to make from my experience. I do plan to keep up with the general concept of this diet — avoiding grains and sugars, and having some general awareness of the ingredients I’m putting in my body. Since the diet has ended, my symptoms remain the same: mild, with occasional flares. I also want to add that my medication regimen was not changed for this diet, and has not been changed since.
Though dieting doesn’t have an effect on everyone with RA, I would suggest trying this diet. I can’t claim it will cure you, but I do stand by its health benefits for me. Of course, before altering your diet, speak to your rheumatologist and general practitioner to see if it’s something that’s right for you.
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Emil DeAndreis is a baseball coach, and an English professor at College of San Mateo. His memoir, Hard To Grip, chronicles his journey of losing a professional baseball career to rheumatoid arthritis. He lives in San Francisco with his wife. Follow along with Emil on Twitter.