How The Whole30 Diet Can Remedy ‘Silent Inflammation’

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Today I’m delighted to introduce you to Melissa Urban, creator of the original Whole30. She’s passionate about an anti-inflammation, doctor-endorsed lifestyle and how it helps our bodies, skin, and brains function at their best—especially in midlife. If you’d like to join the upcoming January Whole30, you can sign up at Whole30.com. — Kristen Philipkoski

In 2008, I was in physical therapy yet again for chronic shoulder pain. I’d struggled with tendinitis off and on for a few years, exacerbated by workouts, typing on the computer, and just sleeping the wrong way.

Nothing I did seemed to help; I woke up with a serious ache every morning, had pain doing everyday activities, and was limited in the gym. I’d grown resigned to the idea that it was just something I’d learn to live with.

Six months later, my chronic pain was completely gone. I didn’t do anything different in physical therapy, my workouts were the same, and I still slept curled up on my side. The only thing I changed was the food on my plate, as part of a self-experiment now known as the Whole30.

How It Started

Back then, I considered myself a healthy eater–lots of whole grains, low-fat dairy, and whey protein shakes. But in 2009, I attended a nutrition seminar about the potentially “inflammatory” properties of certain foods–specifically sugar, alcohol, gluten, dairy, and even beans.

Researchers suggested that eliminating these foods from your diet could have health-promoting effects. It sounded wild, but when my friend (and physical therapist) suggested we try it for 30 days, I thought, “why not?” 

It turns out my tendinitis and my love of everything bagels with low-fat cottage cheese were, in fact, connected. 

Silent Inflammation

You’ve probably heard of the term “silent inflammation” or “systemic inflammation,” but what does it mean?

Inflammation is the immune system doing its job; your body’s protective attempt to halt injury and initiate recovery, whether you’re fighting bacterial invaders, an overuse injury, or physical trauma. But what starts out as a healthy process can do serious damage if it persists for too long or spreads too far. 

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Chronic systemic inflammation is ongoing, long-term inflammation throughout your whole body.

Systemic inflammation has been clearly implicated as a causative factor for many lifestyle-related diseases, from diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and stroke to IBD, psoriasis, arthritis, and neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. And it’s often referred to as silent inflammation, because unless you know what you’re looking for, you may not even realize your body is dealing with it.

Chronic systemic inflammation can come from a variety of sources: lifestyle factors like sleep or stress, smoking, health conditions, or environmental toxins. And, it turns out, diet

The Food Connection

I learned that the foods I’d believed were “universally healthy,” like whole wheat, low-fat dairy, soy, and sugar substitutes, can be problematic for some people, especially if your gut health is already compromised.

These foods, along with sugar and alcohol, can cause blood sugar dysregulation, digestive distress, or promote inflammation, which can manifest in a number of ways: skin issues like acne or eczema, migraines, asthma, allergies, joint pain and swelling, high cholesterol, autoimmune diseases, and mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.

During my first Whole30, I eliminated all forms of grains, replacing my bread, pasta, and cereal with fruits and veggies. I ditched the dairy; upped my intake of healthy fats from avocado, olives, nuts, and seeds; and eliminated all alcohol and added sugar. I already wasn’t eating beans or soy, but I did give up peanut butter. (That made me sad, but I told myself, “it’s just 30 days.”)

Melissa Urban preparing a dish using her Whole30 cookbook
(Ghazalle Badiozamani)

During those 30 days, I experienced some shocking changes.

I went into “Energizer bunny mode” around day 14, easily sailing through the usual mid-afternoon slump. I was falling asleep easier, sleeping more deeply, and waking up refreshed. My digestion was more regular, my mood was better, my performance in the gym improved, and I noticed that I hadn’t thought about the scale even once. I developed new coping mechanisms to handle stress, my taste buds changed dramatically, and I felt an unprecedented sense of self-confidence. 

At the end of the month, when I tried my beloved whey protein, cottage cheese, and low-fat yogurt again, I realized that was the cause of my regular digestive distress. (I never noticed before–it’s amazing what you’ll come to accept as “normal.”)

Bagels and toast taught me that gluten left me bloated, and was at the root of my breakouts. I discovered I did much better with peanut butter than almond butter, that corn was fine in small doses, and diet soda tasted disgusting–bye-bye, 10-year soda habit.

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I felt so good, I kept eating the Whole30 long after the 30 days were over. Then at some point a few weeks later, I realized my shoulder pain had disappeared. No more pain, no more soreness, no more limitations; it turns out pulling those foods out of my diet was what I’d been missing all along.

To this day, it’s never returned. 

As we age, inflammation plays an even bigger role in our health and risk for disease. Now that I’m in my late 40’s, my doctor believes that learning which foods work best for me (along with my commitment to healthy movement and sleep) are a big part of why I’m smoothly transitioning into peri-menopause.

As my body, hormones, and life continue to evolve, I am using the skills I built through the Whole30 to adjust my diet and lifestyle in a way that works best for me.

Start Your Own Experiment

Today, more than 13 years later, I still eat mostly Whole30, because it’s easy and I know it helps me feel my best. But I also eat rice, quinoa, oatmeal, and peanut butter, because those foods also work well for my body. I can also now eat cheese and sour cream with no issue, as long as I don’t eat too much, but gluten still makes me break out, so it has to be worth it. 

Every dietitian in the world says, “There is no one-size-fits-all approach to diet, you have to figure out what works for you.”

The Whole30 isn’t a prescriptive approach or an “eat this, not that” plan, it’s a program designed to help you discover what works for you, and whether the foods you’ve been eating are having a negative effect in ways you’d never associate with your diet. (For context, elimination diets have been around since the 1920’s and are still considered by many doctors to be the gold standard for identifying food sensitivities.)

The Whole30 doesn’t categorize any foods as good or bad, we don’t count or restrict calories, we don’t promote weight loss, and we don’t tell you how you should eat when your 30 days are over.

Instead, we give you the tools, community, recipes, and support you need to determine your own ideal diet, based on your goals and your definition of health.

Join the Whole30 and discover how the foods you’ve been eating are impacting your energy, sleep, digestion, mood, pain, fatigue, and other symptoms; then take what you’ve learned to build the perfect, sustainable diet for you.

The Whole30 cookbook
(Ghazalle Badiozamani)

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The January Whole30 starts January 2nd, and there’s never been a better time to start. Join millions of people across the globe for a guided, supported, community-based experience with new resources on YouTube, Instagram, and our newsletter. Learn more at Whole30.com.

If the idea of planning 30 days’ worth of Whole30 meals feels daunting, there’s a resource for that too.

Preview an exclusive one-pot Whole30 recipe below, then start planning your Whole30 meals—customized to your tastes, schedule, and kitchen tools, including automatic shopping lists, Instacart connections, and plans for leftovers—in just five minutes with Real Plans.

With more than 1,000 Whole30 recipes in its database, Real Plans has recipes that fit your time, schedule, budget, and lifestyle. Click here to join Real Plans and start your Whole30 journey.

Chicken Thighs And Baby Potatoes With Chile Sauce

From The Whole30 Slow Cooker Cookbook, available exclusively at Real Plans.

The sauce for this chicken dish is essentially salsa verde—savory and tart, with the lemon–green apple flavor of tomatillos and lime and just a touch of heat from green chiles. Serve it with a simple slaw of grated jicama dressed with lime. 

  • Serves: 4
  • Prep time: 25 minutes
  • Slow Cook: 6 hours (low) or 3 hours (high)
  • Total Time: 6 hours 25 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1-1⁄2 pounds baby red or gold potatoes
  • 8 bone-in chicken thighs (about 2 pounds total), skin removed (see Tip)
  • 1 can (4 ounces) Whole30-compatible diced green chiles
  • 1⁄2 cup Whole30-compatible chicken broth 
  • 2 medium tomatillos, husks removed and diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander 
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon black pepper 
  • Grated zest and juice of 1 lime 
  • 1⁄2 cup chopped fresh cilantro 

Instructions

  1. Place the potatoes in a 5- to 6-quart slow cooker.
  2. Arrange the chicken over the potatoes.
  3. In a medium bowl, combine the green chiles, broth, tomatillos, garlic, cumin, coriander, salt, and pepper. Pour over the chicken and potatoes in the cooker.
  4. Cover and cook on low for 6 hours or on high for 3 hours.
  5. Drizzle the chicken and potatoes with the lime juice and sprinkle with the lime zest and cilantro.

Instant Pot Variation

  1. Follow the directions in the first step using a 6-quart Instant Pot. Lock the lid in place.
  2. Select Manual and cook at high pressure for 35 minutes.
  3. Use natural release for 10 minutes, then quick release.
  4. Follow the remaining directions. 

Tip: To remove the skin from chicken pieces, use a paper towel to grip the skin and pull it away from the flesh. For drumsticks, start at the meaty end and pull toward the bony end. Then use kitchen shears to cut the skin at the joint.

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