I think I am one of the few people I know with absolutely no dietary restrictions. Dairy? All about it. Some of my favorite smoothies have cottage cheese in them. Gluten? Duh, are you kidding! How could I live without pizza, my favorite food??
Before you write me off as the worst fitness editor in the history of forever, let me just say it's all about balance. I absolutely love all vegetables and fruits, I cook boatloads of quinoa to have in my fridge at all times, and I could fill a bathtub with the chia seeds and flaxmeal I have in my pantry. Cold-pressed vanilla almond milk and acaí bowls are some of my favorite treats, and I've become a bit of a kombucha addict.
So when our team was presented with the opportunity to try a new kind of elimination diet, I was intrigued, but also completely terrified. I knew I'd be capable of tackling this challenge, but I've never had to cut anything out of my diet before — I've just balanced my indulgences (read: pizza) with my lighter options.
This particular "cleanse" would eliminate dairy, gluten, most soy, processed sugar, caffeine, alcohol, high-fructose corn syrup, table sugar, non-nutritive sweeteners, dessert, fruit juices, and snacks between meals. Though it was only five days, it involved a lot of planning ahead, because if you think about it, even healthy meals involve those eliminated groups in some way, right?
Here's what I learned about myself and noticed about the experience. Spoiler: it wasn't miserable!
- I CAN survive without pizza. I realized that although it's one of my favorite foods, I don't eat it as much as I think I do. Through this diet, I discovered I can live without it, though I wouldn't necessarily choose to. I don't feel BAD when I eat pizza, either.
- Big breakfasts are KEY. On day one of the cleanse, I feared that I would be overtaken by hunger, and suffer through the day with hunger pangs and a rumbly stomach. To avoid such hell, I stocked up on food as if I were preparing for a nuclear Winter. I made eggs, a big smoothie, and a hearty bowl of layered gluten-free oats. I was insanely full, like, more full than I've been in a while, but I felt good, and was completely satiated.
- Breakfast is my strong point (dinner is not). Once I had that breakfast dialed, I felt like I could conquer the world. I made a different smoothie variety every day, and mixed up my oats with little variations. The eggs (made with EVOO instead of butter) were also a mainstay. However, I didn't plan enough ahead to be as thoughtful about dinner, and ended up defaulting to gluten-free oats, or making a bizarre combination of a baked piece of mahi mahi with a side of bone broth (wtf?).
- I'm a creature of habit. I stick with what works, and if I find something I like, I'll make it and eat it over and over. Exhibit A: breakfast. I made that same thing (with slight twists) every day. It made me full and it was delicious, so I repeated as often as possible.
- Oats are everything. I honestly made so many oatmeal bowls. I used full-fat coconut milk in lieu of dairy, and typically added chia seeds and some sliced bananas, coconut flakes, and sliced almonds. If I was getting real crazy, I added a spoonful of cashew butter. It was so filling and so good, and is now one of my staple meals.
- Meal prep takes practice. I was not so good at this. I didn't go grocery shopping the weekend before, which was a major fail. I didn't come up with recipes I'd make for the week, and just totally winged it. This was a pitfall of my cleanse week. I definitely don't have my life together as much as I thought I did, but it's all good. I'll figure it out eventually. Also on that note of meal prep, the little bit of grocery shopping I did on Monday evening of the cleanse helped me save a good chunk of money on my typical lunch of Uber Eats or some expensive to-go lunch in the city (even in spite of the fact that I went to Whole Foods!), which was really nice on my wallet. Thanks, meal prep.
- I craved less. I surprisingly didn't crave dessert, and I totally thought I would — aside from that one time after Cardio Barre in which I mistakenly walked past a bakery and inhaled chocolate chip cookies. That was tough. My only true craving was for fruit juice, which was odd — I wanted fresh squeezed orange juice after Spin. Also, my appetite was a bit curbed by the end of the week.
- I slept better. I'm not sure if it was because I allocated more time for sleep, or treated myself better, or if the cleanse truly helped my system, but I use Sleep Cycle alarm clock, and my numbers were definitely up during the elimination week.
- I peed SO MUCH. There is so much water involved. You start your day with a big glass of lemon water, and then drink huge glasses of water with every meal. Your "snack" can be coconut water, or green tea. The fluids definitely flushed me out, and I was heading for bathroom trips 10-12 times a day.
- I was still able to work out. I went to Cardio Barre and Spin during cleanse week, and although I was tired, I still felt good. Cutting out these food groups didn't drain me of energy.
- I love snacks. And now I know why! There is no snacking allowed during this particular elimination diet. I noticed it made me more acutely aware of how much I do snack, and why. Sometimes it's just because I'm surrounded by snacks in the office, and other times it's because I'm bored. Sure, there were times when I was actually hungry (in which case, going forward, I WILL have a snack) but this time allowed me to reflect on my eating habits a lot more.
- I can get creative with recipes. And I was less limited than I thought. The elimination actually caused me to think outside the box a little bit. When I wasn't making oats, I was defaulting to my tried-and-true chia pudding recipe. When that got boring, I added in "chai spice" like cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric, and ginger for a really fun twist on a favorite. I also adapted my Italian great-grandfather's lentil recipe to be cleanse-approved, which made the week a little more fun.
- Gratitude journaling is important. Part of the program we were on incorporated gratitude journaling. I used my "Goal Getter" journal from fitlosophy, which has a section at the beginning asking about three things you're grateful for. You're also encouraged to list the food you ate, activity you did, and how you were feeling. This was a great way to incorporate mindfulness into the week.
- So is solidarity. In addition to gratitude, something that helped mentally was the group effort. I tried this elimination diet as part of a team, and doing so with a "we're all in this together" mindset was really helpful. It held me more accountable, and I had a group of people to talk to who understood what I was going through (even if it was only for five days). If you're planning on doing a cleanse or elimination diet, buddy up.
- I can apply these concepts to everyday life. Learning these "clean" recipes and dishes allowed me to take something with me beyond the five days of the cleanse. I'll definitely make dairy-free, gluten-free oats again, because they were delicious! I'll keep that lentil recipe in my back pocket for a wholesome weeknight dinner. And I'll absolutely be paying more attention to what I eat for breakfast, because that's what set the tone for my day. The diet was only five days, but I definitely learned useful eating practices for my everyday, healthy life — and I'm feeling more prepared than ever for something like a Whole 30.
Lastly, this is more of a confession: my first diet crashed and burned at a press trip at approximately 9:30 p.m. on the last day of the cleanse — I had been traveling, had no access to food, and was invited to In-N-Out with some fellow editors. As much as I wanted to "finish strong," I gave myself a pat on the back for the accomplishments of the week, and ate the damn cheeseburger, guilt-free.