You've spent the last four weeks meal prepping, snacking less, upping your protein intake, and decoding food labels for hidden sugar. But now that your month on Whole30 is just about over, you're probably asking yourself one question: How will you re-enter the world without sabotaging your newfound healthier relationship with food?
For answers, we reached out to Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, Health's contributing nutrition editor. Here's what she says are the next crucial steps, plus the right way to navigate them.
Reintroduce food groups slowly
Whole30 is an elimination-style diet; the point is to find out which food groups affect your body in negative ways, so you could then abstain or cut down on these offenders and feel healthier. So before you dive back into your usual lunch of a slice of cheese pizza or order an extra-large margarita at happy hour, you need to work out a reintroduction plan.
"Approach the reintroduction phase as an opportunity to learn more about your body, and really complete the picture, so you can find a sane approach to eating that’s sustainable long-term," says Sass. The creators of Whole30 suggest adding legumes back into your diet first, followed by gluten-free grains, dairy, and gluten-containing grains. Each day, add a few servings of foods from each group, then go back to Whole30 for two days.
Sass, however, recommends to her elimination diet clients to wait a week after adding back a food group to really get a feel for how those products affects your weight, energy level, and overall health. There are different ways to handle the reintroduction weeks, and you want to make sure you do it at a pace that's right for you, she believes.
Prepare for possible side effects
As you reintroduce different foods, "monitor how your body responds," suggests Sass. "For example, has the reintroduction triggered any bloating or cramps, fatigue, brain fog, skin irritation, or sinus congestion?" If so, you'll want to dial way back on your consumption. If not, you can include them in your regular meal plan.
The side effects during the reintroduction phase are a huge topic on Whole30 forum pages. Some of the stories of what real people experienced are, well, kind of scary. Whole30ers have reported headaches, poor sleep, and even vomiting when reintroducing certain foods.
These reactions could be the result of overindulging, but nonetheless, be prepared to possibly deal with unpleasant symptoms as your body goes back to processing dairy and grains, as well as small amounts of alcohol and sugar.
Reflect on how much better you feel
The strictness of Whole30 helps you to know which foods are causing you to feel bloated, sluggish, foggy-headed, and generally unhealthy. "However, that strictness can turn into anxiety for some people, or guilt about eating something that isn’t Whole30 approved forever," says Sass.
An easy way to get around this anxiety and guilt is to reflect on what Whole 30 calls "non-scale victories" or NSVs. These are the physical and emotional results of your month on the plan—such as glowing skin, better cognition, and less bloating. Keeping in mind how much healthier you feel will help prevent a backslide into your old eating habits or going on a binge, and then feeling stressed or guilty because of it. (If that does happen, forget it and move on—no beating yourself up or throwing in the towel.)
Sass also suggests remembering what Whole30 is all about. It wasn't designed to be a lifelong eating plan, and it's not sustainable for long periods of time. Sass urges dieters to think of Whole30 as an experiment, not a mandate—something you can learn from and make those healthy lessons part of day-to-day life.
Continue planning your meals and snacks
Whole30 helps you reconsider which foods are right for your body. Keep what you've learned in mind—eating little to no processed foods, cutting down on alcohol, and keeping added sugar to a minimum—and use that knowledge to continue food shopping and doing meal prep ahead of time.
"In my opinion, the best lessons are to eat whole, fresh foods, and to be really thoughtful about your meals, which generally means planning to be sure you have what you need, bringing lunch to work, or only going out to spots where you can get healthier options," says Sass.
It can take time to get used to, but this thoughtfulness and planning is key to maintaining your Whole30 gains. Rather than eating meals on the fly, cook or menu-prep ahead of time, so you'll have plenty of unprocessed, whole foods at the ready. Make a list of healthy takeout spots or restaurants as well, so you know where to go to continue eating clean—and you'll be a lot less likely to fall back into unhealthy eating patterns.