A few months ago, I went on Whole30.
I know what you’re thinking. Why, oh why, would I put myself through such misery?
The surface level answer has to do with health concerns—I had thought I might have food sensitivity. (Turns out I’m slightly sensitive to raw tomatoes, but that’s beside the point.)
What I really wanted was a challenge: something I could use to force myself into choosing a lifestyle of discipline. Truth is, for the past several months I’d felt undisciplined in several areas of my life, and food was no exception. I saw my Christian friends memorizing Scripture, spending hours alone with Jesus, and seemingly praying without ceasing. I fell short. The snooze button ruled my mornings, and I was lucky to remember my Netflix password, let alone the last paragraph I’d read in the Bible. I concluded that if I could get a handle on one undisciplined area of life that I’d somehow achieve a deeper connection with God.Though the extremism of Whole30 isn’t necessarily a model for Christian self-discipline, but it does amplify the tension between the undisciplined culture and the narrow path of self-control.
Our world teems with a lack of self-discipline—we don’t have to look far to see it’s the case. We can watch an entire season of a TV show in a weekend or decide walking to the fridge is an adequate workout for the day. Food can be particularly touchy—after all, we need it to survive, so why not eat as much as we can? While other forms of discipline might not always relate to everyone (not everyone invests hours their time in Netflix, for example), food does.
We all know the bulging belly after a delicious meal. When it comes to food, it’s easy to lack restraint, especially with our favorite dishes. In a world that encourages us to consume whatever we want whenever we want, to be self-disciplined is to stand against the current of culture. Restricting yourself, whether with food, media, or anything else, can cause friction between you and the self-indulgent world we live in.
Whole30 is a 30-day cleanse of all things unnatural, processed, and typical food allergens. No sugar, dairy, gluten, grains, or legumes allowed. It’s almost easier to explain what you can eat: meat, vegetables, fruit, (some) nuts, and that about sums it up. While it may seem extreme, the goal of Whole30 is to clean out your body of anything unnatural, discover foods you might be sensitive to, and put an end to poor eating habits. In many ways, Whole30 stands against the current of the over-indulgent world we live in. It’s a way to practice restraint in an area many don’t.
Whole30 takes discipline, and lots of it. Not only do you have to read every single food label, but you must also plan out every meal for the week or else you’ll find yourself home late from work on a Tuesday with only a sweet potato for dinner. Whole30 forces you to think ahead and plan accordingly. If you’re going out for a work lunch, you read the secret nutrition facts buried deep in the restaurant’s website and settle on a salad with nothing added except the Tupperware full of homemade dressing you snuck in. If your friend has a birthday, you mentally prepare yourself all week to not eat the cake. If you crave Chipotle, you spend thirty minutes researching exactly what you can and can’t order and then decide it’s not even worth it.
While on Whole30, I had to navigate a work goodbye lunch hosted at a Mexican food joint. I called ahead and lied about having a food allergy to see if there was anything gluten, dairy, and joy free on the menu. Turns out, you can eat unseasoned fajita meat and grilled veggies and nothing else. During the actual meal my mouth watered as my coworkers chowed down on my number one food temptation: chips and queso. It took everything within me not to dive headfirst into the gooey cheese armed with a chip in each hand. At that point, I longed for homemade plantain chips and Whole30-approved salsa.
Whole30 forces you to say no to yourself, a word many of us never use in relation to food. I found after the first few weeks that making myself pull back my hand when a plate of cookies sat in front of me is actually a freeing experience. Food can control us more than we think. I realized how often I said yes to food I wasn’t even hungry for—a donut here, a few fries there. Saying no, though painful in the moment, taught me the strength that comes with self-discipline.
In the case of Whole30, saying no to chocolate chip cookies meant I could say yes to good food, which in the long run made me feel better, gave me more energy, and helped me sleep sounder at night. We often think of self-discipline as only saying no to something good. But if self-discipline only meant saying no, it would crumble against the current of culture. The true strength of self-discipline comes from the yeses we get to say because we say no. It empowers us to choose great things such as exercise, freed up time, or a deeper spiritual walk.
We can learn to treasure the gift of self-discipline, and the yeses and nos that come with it. Walking through something like Whole30 can equip us to not let food run the show. The exercise in discipline teaches that food cravings don’t last forever, and we don’t always need to eat dessert. Denying ourselves can actually be a good thing—it was for me. I ate healthier. I learned the difference between full and stuffed. And I realized I didn’t have to eat everything offered to me. Learning the lesson of no, among many other health-related benefits, is one reason I tell everyone to at least consider trying Whole30. It’s a wonderful exercise in self-discipline—a muscle that can be hard to flex.
But in my quest to say no, I also discovered the extent to which discipline rubs our culture the wrong way. The tension surfaced around day 20. Before that point, I had enjoyed everything about Whole30. I felt better. I got to cook more and try new foods. Whole30 experts say you’re supposed to hit the frustration wall around day 10, but I never met the wall. I skipped right by for the next 10 days.
It wasn’t the saying no to certain foods that dropped me off at frustration’s front door. It was losing time with friends. My friends would invite me out for Italian food, and I’d have to say no. My small group would hang out at a pizza place after church, and I went home. Most people where I live socialize around food and drink, so one of the only ways I could hang out with people outside of work and church was if I hosted them at my apartment. Only then could I truly control what I ate. True, I could try to eat out but as I described above, finding something Whole30-approved turned out to be more difficult than I expected. I realized late in the game that I was so caught up in not breaking the Whole30 rules that I opted out of hanging out with friends out of fear of messing up.
The goal of Whole30 is to keep unnatural and allergen-prone foods out of your body for the entire 30 days, which is why if you mess up just once the creators of Whole30 recommend starting over. Whole30 is an intense form of discipline—there’s no mercy, even for one slip up. Though the extremism of Whole30 isn’t necessarily a model for Christian self-discipline, but it does amplify the tension between the undisciplined culture and the narrow path of self-control. We feel the pull of self-indulgence and the need for self-discipline all the time, especially as Christians. We know there’s a cost to denying ourselves—possibly better than most.
What I learned from the tension I felt during Whole30 rings true even now that I’m eating cheese again. Personal self-discipline, whatever form it takes, has a cost. Any personal decision we make to deny ourselves will ripple outward, and confront the self-indulgent world. For me, the 30-day challenge created unwanted distance between me and my friends and family. My limited diet clashed against their freedom to eat whatever they wanted. Other acts of self-discipline come with their own set of losses: an earlier bedtime, shortened moments at home, or fewer places to hangout. Each sacrifice grinds against the norms of the world around us, causing us to wonder if discipline is even worth it.
After I finished Whole30, many people asked me about it. I always qualified my positive response with one caveat: Whole30 comes with a cost. It will affect the people in your life. Make sure they’re on your side. But be willing to be the one to sacrifice for the sake of your relationships, even if it means packing a meal for yourself or eating ahead of time. Even though it cost me a month without dinner dates and happy hour, the sacrifices I made with food paid off. When friends asked if Whole30 was worth it, I gave a resounding yes. I explained how saying no to sugar and gluten and dairy freed me to say yes to better food. I felt great afterwards and lost weight. I learned what it means to be satisfied rather than stuffed after a meal. The cost, though trying, paid off.
Self-discipline plays an important role in the life of the Christian. It has the potential to draw us closer to our Savior who asks us to deny ourselves and personifies what it means to put it into action. The gift of no can keep us from self-indulgence and give us the chance to choose something better. But our decision to be disciplined—in my case with food—is to go against the grain. There will be a cost—some more extreme than others. Even so, the price we pay is worth the sacrifice.