I ate “clean” for three weeks and it wasn’t as terrible as it sounds.
By Olivia DeLong
I know what you’re thinking: Why would anyone give up bread, sugar or alcohol for three weeks?
Look, I’m not the worst eater in the world, but after a few consecutive months of bad food choices, my husband Jeff and I wanted to make some diet changes. We decided to eat “clean” for three weeks leading up to a beach trip. There are a lot of different definitions of clean eating out there, but we aimed to eat whole foods minus the gluten and legumes (kind of like the Whole30 eating plan, but for 21 days since we were on a time crunch).
So, what exactly did we give up?
Of course there are healthy reasons to nix sugars, alcohol and processed foods from your diet. In the short-term, you might notice more energy and focus, and better sleep. But why give up healthy foods like grains and legumes? Well, while the great majority of nutrition experts consider them vital parts of a wholesome diet, proponents of this particular eating plan believe that they interfere with the adequate absorption of nutrients and may trigger problems with digestion.
Here’s what I learned after following this diet plan for 21 days: the good, the bad and the ugly (surprisingly it’s mostly good). How much of it is directly related to the “clean” diet changes? And how much of it is related to the fact that I just expected to feel healthier? It’s impossible to say. But this is my experience.
Perhaps one of the most rewarding and satisfying parts of the three-week clean eating plan was how slim I felt, almost immediately. After just three days, I had little to no bloating, and my stomach felt slimmer. Talk about a confidence boost—that was one change I was totally on board with.
Around day 12, I started to notice improvement in my mood. I’m typically a pretty impatient person, but I felt my patience growing and improving. My temper was also better and I felt more positive from morning to night.
For me, knowing that I was putting good, wholesome food in my body helped me feel stronger and leaner, and that made me feel more confident, too.
I love a good pre-dinner breadbasket and a creamy pasta dish for my main meal. But much to my surprise, I didn’t crave these foods until days 14 and 15.
Something about days 14 and 15 was bringing on the cravings—I salivated when anyone in the office was eating a sandwich, and I craved mac and cheese pretty much all the time. But that late in the game, I knew I didn’t want to quit.
Why was it easier to give up my favorite foods this time around? I think mentally and physically preparing this time was the key to success: I knew to avoid lunch spots and bakery shops that were filled with non-compliant foods, and when I was faced with temptation, I was so encouraged by the fact I’d lasted this long that I didn’t even want those foods anymore.
I will say, my first pasta meal post-cleanse, tasted, well, amazing.
Over the entire 21 days, I noticed headaches each morning for the first five days, and then every other day or so. The dull, but annoying headaches felt very similar to the headaches I get if I don’t have my afternoon caffeine fix. The headaches subsided after being awake for about an hour, so maybe my morning espresso helped.
I’ve read that one of the positive benefits of eating better food is increased energy levels.
I found it easier to wake up earlier and get my butt to the gym, which was shocking because it normally takes everything in me to get up at 6 a.m. for the gym. It’s likely that my bright-eyed mornings were a result of earlier bedtimes, too. I felt more tired each evening and went to bed about an hour earlier than usual—9 p.m. instead of 10 p.m.
I was surprised to find that throughout the three weeks, I had enough energy to power through long runs (up to nine miles each weekend) and strength training routines, too. Not to mention, I was constantly checking my step count.
Probably because I had more energy, I noticed I was more focused and productive at work. My 3 p.m. afternoon slumps were non-existent, and I felt energized from 6 a.m. to around 9 p.m every day, sans extra caffeine. Unexpectedly, I was able to stick with my usual caffeine schedule throughout: one morning espresso and one diet soda at lunchtime.
I know you’re not really supposed to weigh yourself that often when testing out a new eating plan, and I’m not a weight counter anyway, but when I knew I was going to document my experience, I thought a couple of weigh-ins were necessary.
Maybe it was the eating, or maybe it was the increase in running mileage, but I lost four pounds and I’m not going to complain.
Going out to eat was super challenging, especially when you have to say no to common toppings like cheese and sides, so most of our eating was done at home. I became quite the regular at the three grocery stores within a mile of our house. I spent about $150 a week on whole, organic foods and ingredients for two people. In the end, the money we spent on food evened out—we ate out less but the grocery bill made up for it.
Day 10 sent us to a friend’s birthday at a local pizza place. I indulged in two small slices of pizza and three glasses of wine. I definitely enjoyed both the pizza and wine at the time, but the mental and physical hangover the next day wasn’t worth it. Not only did I feel horrible for cheating, but I also felt sluggish and queasy all day. Word to the wise: running eight miles feeling like that is no joke.
I did turn down the birthday cupcake, though. That counts, right?
When you can’t eat any of your favorite foods, you have to get creative. I scoured the internet for tasty paleo brownies, paleo pizza and other delicious dishes. I found that it’s actually kind of fun to cook things like cauliflower pizza, zucchini fritters and spaghetti squash.
After dinner we satisfied our sweet tooth with banana-coconut smoothies rather than our usual chocolate-peanut butter ice cream. The smoothie wasn’t nearly as good as the ice cream, but it satisfied the craving.
But not every food venture was a success. My husband said that my paleo-friendly brownies tasted like chalk, and the fruit and jerky bison sticks we ordered on Amazon made us both gag.
Our Sundays were spent meal prepping the dishes that had the most ingredients or the longest cook times. Our after-work evenings involved reheating the meals we’d already prepped, or throwing together simple dinners like lean protein with roasted veggies, or lettuce wraps with protein.
So what did I eat exactly? A lot of the same foods! My breakfasts were almost always identical. I tried to get creative with lunch and dinner, but typically stuck to a lean protein, plus veggies. A typical day of eating looked like this:
Breakfast: 2 scrambled eggs, 1 to 2 turkey sausages, ½ cup of blueberries, 8 ounces of grapefruit juice, one shot of espresso with a splash of unsweetened coconut milk
Lunch: baked chicken or fish, plus veggies like cabbage, zucchini or squash sautéed in coconut or olive oil
Dinner: lettuce wraps with ground beef, turkey or chicken, fresh guacamole and salsa, plus roasted potatoes
Go-to snacks: dried mango, almonds, Larabars and baked coconut oil potato chips with salsa
Prior to our new eating plan, unless sweet potatoes were in fry form, I probably wasn’t going to eat them. But our new eating plan really pushed us to get creative when it came to satisfying our cravings, and sweet potatoes of all variations and spaghetti squash were two foods that fit the bill.
It turns out that roasted sweet potatoes with chili powder and sea salt are actually pretty good, and spaghetti squash with all-natural marinara and lean ground beef almost satisfies a spaghetti craving.
I found myself consistently reaching for fresh herbs and spices like cilantro and parsley to give our food some natural flavoring, too.
Now that I can eat like a normal person, everyone asks me if I’d do it again. The answer? Kind of. I’m now eating Paleo-style during the workweek and I’m not so hard on myself if I have a slip-up, which definitely happens. The weekends are still made for glasses of wine and French fries.
As I reflect back on this very restrictive eating style, I have a stronger appreciation for good, whole foods, and feel better when I fuel my body with them. Jeff and I are more aware of what we put into our bodies now, and we’re finding ourselves making better eating choices overall, too.
To eat healthy, pick foods that are the colors of the rainbow, and watch your portion sizes. Eating foods that are colorful-red apples, orange carrots, yellow squash, green salad, tomatoes, blueberries and purple eggplant-helps yo...u add fruits and vegetables to your diet. More