If the average American is told they need to go one month without eating processed foods, grains, dairy, beans, legumes, sugar or alcohol, two things might occur.
First, they'd question why they're being punished. Second, they might wonder what's left to eat.
But thousands of Americans are willingly choosing to eat that way as part of the "Whole 30" program based on The New York Times best-selling book, "The Whole 30: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom."
Authors Dallas and Melissa Hartwig say "Whole 30" is not a diet, but a "short-term nutritional reset, designed to help you put an end to unhealthy cravings and habits, restore a healthy metabolism, heal your digestive tract and balance your immune system."
They argue that some foods, like milk, bread or sugary treats, can cause problems in your body making you feel tired or causing digestive issues.
By giving up all of the potentially-troubling food for a month then slowly reintroducing them, you can figure out what might be causing your problems.
It was an idea that intrigued third-grade teacher Kirsten Johnson of Moorhead who didn't need to lose weight, but says she just wanted to feel better.
"I'd come home from work feeling really tired, and I think I had a lot of blood sugar spikes," she says. "I was interested in learning more about the food we eat. I'm also kind of competitive and wanted to challenge myself. Could I really do this for 30 days?"
At first, her husband, Eric, who works at Concordia College and calls himself "not always a compliant joiner" thought about eating Whole 30-style just at dinner time. Instead, he decided to jump in wholeheartedly and even write a blog about the experience, called "The Whole Enchilada."
The couple got rid of the forbidden food (tortilla chips, peanuts and cereal among their favorites) and packed their kitchen full of fruits, vegetables, nuts (except peanuts since they are legumes), unprocessed meats and eggs. Beverages were restricted to water and black coffee.
Kirsten Johnson says the book warns you the first few days can be rough, and it was right. "I was cranky, headachey and tired. I think they even tell you by day 5 you might want to kill someone. It didn't get that bad," she says, laughing.
Kirsten Johnson — who is 5 feet 2-inches "on a good day" — says she felt like she was getting plenty to eat. But the same wasn't true for 6-foot-tall Eric Johnson who says he felt like he was in near-starvation mode sometimes. Yet, surprisingly neither of the Johnsons were overly tempted by cravings.
"I was never dreaming of sugar," she says. "I thought I'd be driving to Walgreens to sneak Milk Duds, but I was fine."
Her husband agreed. "It was never one thing that woke me up in the middle of the night, like 'I need pizza now!' "he says. "The bigger challenge was if someone brought cookies into the office or something."
That was also the challenge for Julie Manney of Fargo who took on the "Whole 30" diet in December.
"I remember I'd walk by someone's desk at work and see a candy jar and think, '28 more days!' " she says.
Manney, who knows the Johnsons through their children, actually provided advice to the couple as they went through the program a month apart.
"The program can be kind of a shock," Kirsten Johnson says. "So it can be nice to have someone to talk to and compare 'this is hard — this isn't.' "
The Johnsons say as the program went along their energy improved, and they learned a lot about dining out, meal planning and reading labels. (They were particularly surprised that most bacon sold at the grocery store comes with added sugar, for example.)
Manney learned something a little more specific: "I can't go 30 days without coffee creamer," she says, laughing.
She also says she learned that she doesn't really have sensitivities to any of the foods she cut out.
"Nothing really changed for me after the program," Manney says. "But I think everybody should try it. Everyone is different, and it might help you narrow down what could be causing you problems."
The Johnsons planned to open a bottle of wine at the stroke of midnight when their 30 days were up. Eric Johnson also joked he might find himself in a nacho hangover.
But instead, when the 30 days were up, they eased back into reintroducing their normal diet: Greek yogurt and fruit for breakfast instead of eggs and vegetables. They actually hope to do the Whole 30 periodically throughout the year.
"I couldn't sustain this level of intensity for a year," Eric Johnson says. "I like gluten. I like dairy and I like the social aspect of sharing good food. But this was a good experience that we'll try again sometime."
Kirsten Johnson agreed. "We learned so much," she says. "We learned how to use spices in our food, and we learned that food can be really good without all of those added things."