This January my wife and I embarked on the Whole30 – a month-long program that’s equal parts diet, cleanse and – for the first few weeks – hell.

The Whole30 is pretty simple. For 30 days, you’re not allowed to consume dairy, legumes, alcohol, added sugar or grains. That means no beans, no bread, no processed foods of any kind, no cheese/milk, no rice, no beer, no cereal, etc.

It’s probably easier to name what you can eat which is whole, natural foods like fruits, veggies, nuts, starches, meat, eggs and coffee (thank goodness). For example, here’s my typical Whole30 day:

The Whole30 bible
The Whole30 guide marked with recipes to try. Photo by the author.
  • Breakfast: Coffee and a banana
  • Lunch: Scrambled eggs with avocado and whatever veggies and leftovers I had in the fridge.
  • Dinner: Animal protein seasoned with salt, pepper and herbs with undressed salad or roasted veggies on the side.
  • Snacks: Nibbling a piece of fruit while sobbing on the floor.

Given its reliance on animal products for protein the Whole30 may not be the Earth-friendliness diet on the market. However, it did force me to re-evaluate my consumption habits and drastically reduce my food packaging waste. Here’s what I learned:

My body belonged to sugar

As the Whole30 book predicts, the first two weeks of the diet are painful. Days 2 and 3 are called “The Hangover” because your body experiences soreness, headaches and fogginess from sugar and carbohydrate withdrawals. And it doesn’t stop after the first few days. In fact, the symptoms just get weirder and more pervasive. For me, it included streaks of crabbiness, sleepiness, insomnia, weird fever-like dreams, physical exhaustion, stomach aches and some interesting trips to the bathroom (sorry if that’s too much info).

Sugar clearly had a iron-tight grip on my body, mentally and physically. Once I broke the spell, however, I had a pretty good sense of its addictive nature. Sugar doesn’t add any nutritional value to food, it’s just dumped in products to literally wire people’s brains into wanting more. With that said, two weeks of hell seemed like a pretty good trade-off for 28 years of unchecked sugar consumption.

Packaging is a waste in every sense

For the first part of Whole30 I scoured grocery store labels for products without added sugar and processing chemicals. It didn’t take long to realize that almost everything in colorful plastic packaging is a Whole30 no-no; they all contain added sugar or a some unpronounceable cocktail of synthetic ingredients. So my trips to the grocery store became very simple: eggs, deli counter, produce section, bulk section, maybe a bag of coffee, checkout. You know what the products in those departments don’t have? Loud, desperate, unrecyclable packaging.

Now why are Doritos packaged in vibrant bags promoting giveaways while bananas are simply plopped on a shelf with little more than a sticker? Maybe it’s because there’s almost nothing of value inside that Doritos bag, so they need to sell the bag itself. Bananas, on the other hand, are chock-full of nutritional value and therefore sell themselves.

By refusing to pay for sugar and packaging, both my grocery bill and packaging waste decreased considerably. In fact, I bought nearly all organic produce, cage-free eggs, and hormone-free meat and it was still cheaper than a cart-full processed and packaged junk. I’d even argue I got more actual food for my dollar.

After a while, I was able to hone down on products in recyclable or compostable packaging and nearly cut out food related trash altogether. This guide to recycling plastic bags and wrap was especially helpful. When collection day rolled around, my near-empty garbage bin revealed just how much of my trash had come from food packaging.

Oh, and I completely avoided restaurants to avoid spending 52 minutes telling the server what I can and can’t eat, which cut down on a ton of waste and food expense.

Check out our guide to shopping package-free in Seattle.

Fruits, nuts and veggies make great snacks

It took some getting used to, but I soon began to rely on fruits, nuts and veggies for snacks. Not only are they healthy and almost zero waste (damn you stickers!), they are much more filling and satisfying than my sugar-dominated brain allowed me to believe. Before Whole30, I had no issue chomping through a bag of chips or popcorn, and I would still feel hungry because my body didn’t receive any real nutrients. However, a handful of carrots or nuts go a long way.

Water is awesome

Before Whole30 I drank pretty much everything except water – milk, juice, beer, sparkling water, soda. After flipping the script – and exorcising my sugar demons – I consistently felt more energetic and focused, and less thirsty. It’s amazing how much less your body asks for when its getting exactly what it needs.

Cheese is overrated

I thought cheese was going to be the hardest thing to give up, but it wasn’t. I basically forgot all about coagulated cow fat somewhere in the Day 5/6 “Kill All The Things” phase of sugar withdrawals. Given the carbon-cost of producing cheese and other dairy products, it might be something I continue to leave out of my diet once Whole30 is over.

Change is possible

Now when I said “my wife and I embarked on Whole30” what I really meant was “my wife decided to do Whole30 and I wanted (felt obligated) to support her.” Honestly, I never thought I’d actually make it through, but we kept each other accountable and are now hours away from finishing strong. I thought I was too much a creature of habit; that I liked cheese and beer too much. It took a few weeks of pain, but I was able to kick 28-years of unhealthy and wasteful eating habits.

If I can go 30 days entirely without pizza, beer, chips and eating out, then I can easily kick beef, pork, or all meat out of my diet.

Feature photo from Emeraldology.