21 Things I Learned On A 21-Day Clean Eating Challenge

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In our busy and temptation-filled world, maintaining a healthy diet is challenging for all of us. Our lives run at a fast pace, causing us to cut corners when it comes to making time for planning, prepping, preparing, or even thinking about our meals.

With each passing day that we delay getting serious and committed, we rationalize by telling ourselves that we'll get on track tomorrow. But unless we get super intentional and arm ourselves with some sort of plan, the cycle repeats.

Whether you want to make big changes or just some adjustments that will still give you lasting results, a great initial step in the right direction is going through a 21-day clean eating challenge.

A clean eating challenge is a great way to set yourself on a new path. It's not a diet but rather a mind and body reset and reprogram to break your ingrained habits or at least strengthen your resistance to your cravings and dependency on sugars, grains, dairy, alcohol, and processed foods. And the great thing is that It's a simple and straightforward plan.

While it's limited to only 21 days, the goal is to lock in the newfound awareness, habits, and changes going forward.

Back in November, I signed up for a team-based, 21-day challenge my gym was holding, and it proved to be a valuable and worthwhile experience. Fortunately, my husband agreed to go through it as well, which was a huge help and definitely attributed to the results we both had. The like-minded team approach at my gym was also helpful and fun.

While I knew I had room for improvement in my eating habits, I always considered my diet relatively healthy. But after going through the challenge, I realized I had A LOT more room for improvement in strengthening my habits and my resistance to unhealthy foods than I realized.

To take yourself through a 21-day challenge, click on the red button to access the Plan & Toolkit, which includes everything you need to set you up for success:

  • 21-Day Challenge Meal Guidelines

  • Suggested Shopping List

  • Tips To Set You Up For Success

  • Possible Modifications

  • Suggested Meal Ideas & Recipe for my Go-To Protein Shake

  • Weekly Food Log

The downloadable plan & toolkit has the details for the exact challenge that I went through at my gym, and the guidelines are simple by design to avoid confusion or overwhelm.

Is this hard? Initially, yes but if you stick with it, you'll get used to it. And when you start to feel better and see some results, that propels you to stay on track. If you add in regular workouts too, the results will be even better. 

Of course, if you have any medical concerns, please check with your doctor before taking yourself through this. I do not claim to be a dietician or nutritionist. What I'm proposing is just common sense and temporary to lock in better behavior and set you down a healthier path.

Without further ado, here are 21 eye-opening realizations I had, in the order in which they came to me during the 21 days. As each of these came to me, I immediately jotted them down on my computer for this blog post. If you decided to take the challenge, I hope they help set some expectations for you and enable you to have even more success than I did.

1 | Batch prepping food and ingredients is essential. Because challenge-friendly foods consist primarily of fresh, whole foods, there's always prepping to do, and it's better to batch prep for multiple meals instead of one meal at a time. Having some ingredients prepped will also set you up for success when hunger strikes. The foods that you are most likely used to grabbing to satisfy a spike in hunger (things like chips, pretzels or even a yogurt) are off limits for the challenge. So pre-chop your omelet veggies and celery/carrot sticks so you're prepared and not resenting the prepping.

2 | "Unconscious eating" is the enemy. "Unconscious eating" is a term that I came up with during the challenge, and it gave me a few laughs. Several times, especially during the first couple of days, I found myself about to eat something without even thinking about it. For example, while making my kids lunches, I caught myself as I rolled up a slice of cheese. I also caught myself red-handed with a handful of pretzels. I couldn't help but wonder how many calories I must've been consuming without even really thinking about it. Breaking this habit alone was worth going through the challenge.

3 | Have one source of pre-cooked protein (like ham) on hand, especially if you have kids and they're having something for dinner that isn't challenge-friendly, like pizza.

4 | At the beginning of each day, think ahead about what you'll be eating for each meal. We found that when we gave each meal some thought ahead of time, we set ourselves up for success. Flying by the seat of your pants will not work. If you do, you'll either cave or you'll get hangry. :((

5 | I missed crunchy, salty things like chips. I had this craving early on, but it lessened as I got further into the challenge ... seriously.

6 | When a craving strikes, be ready with healthy options. When I got a craving for a food that wasn't challenge friendly, it was usually because I was hungry. So have some challenge-friendly snacks prepped (if necessary) and ready to go, and you'll keep the hunger at bay without caving.

7 | Sugar is everywhere! The first couple of trips to the food store will be very eye-opening. You'll see more clearly than ever just how much you are bombarded by sugar at the food store. Everywhere I seemed to look, I saw sugar-- seasonal bakery items and candy, cookie aisle, sugar cereals, yogurt, juices and other sugary drinks. Don't worry, you'll soon learn to not notice them as much.

8 | Laziness blocks us from eating the best we can. Prepping the right foods takes a little extra thought, time and effort. As the challenge forced me to put in the extra time and effort, I realized that my past frequent laziness impacted how I looked and felt. 

 A typical "challenge-friendly" meal: lean protein (pecan-crusted pork), non-starchy veggies & healthy fat

A typical "challenge-friendly" meal: lean protein (pecan-crusted pork), non-starchy veggies & healthy fat

9 | Keep it simple. You don't need unlimited options. As you go, add variety. During the 21 days, I did eat quite a bit of the same thing in the morning, and I had a protein shake every day. But keeping it simple kept me on track without feeling overwhelmed. Dinner is when we got into some new, creative recipes or just ate modified versions of meals we were already cooking for our kids (like a fajita salad vs. fajitas in a tortilla). If you download the "21-Day Clean Eating Challenge Toolkit" below, I will give some ideas for simple meals.

 

10 | Your willpower is stronger than you think and you won't miss the guilt ... or the bloated feeling caused by carbs.  Everyone I spoke to who took the challenge said they were surprised about how (mentally) strong they could be when it came staying away from the wrong foods. This was probably the longest interval of time when I didn't feel twinges of guilt from eating sweets or snacks and that felt great!

11 | Satisfying your hunger is in your control. If you stick with it and stay prepared and ahead of the curve, you won't feel hungry.

12 | You don't have to eat the same thing as your kids. For many of the dinners during the three weeks, my husband and I had to modify what we were making for our kids so it was challenge-friendly. It took a little extra work, like chopping up a bed of greens and veggies in order to skip the buns or tortillas. (I even got used to skipping pizza night too.) Several times during the 21 days I asked myself, "Why haven't I done this sooner?"

13 | Enjoy the process of prepping colorful veggies. Initially, I was like "ugh" with all of the prepping, but when I slowed down and started enjoying the process of creating colorful platefuls of nutritious food, it actually became more enjoyable.

14 | You will stop looking in the cookie jar and snack cabinet. Places like cookie jars and snack cabinets that you now run to satisfy a sweet or salty craving (or even hunger) will become a thing of the past! Initially, you'll find yourself "unconsciously" going there, but the longer you resist the temptation, the sooner you'll stop looking there and the sooner those jars and cabinets will remain empty.

15 | Paying attention to what you're consuming. Given the clear guidelines of the challenge, you'll develop a hyper-awareness about what you put into your body by reading labels more closely and staying away from processed foods.

16 | Shopping takes less time, but food prep takes more. After the first few trips to the food store, you will soon learn to tune out sugar and carbs and make a beeline for the produce and protein areas. You'll have to still shop for the items your kids eat, but shopping does seem like a simpler process because you're there for nutrition and not filler. Yes, food prepping takes a little more time, but think of it as a wise reallocation of time.

17 | You'll feel better. Between sticking to the challenge and working out, I felt so great on many levels. I was proud of what I was doing and within time, the results made me feel better. It also felt great to feel my jeans get very loose around the waist, and almost two months later, they're still loose.

18 | You'll experience improved mental clarity. Everyone I spoke to during the challenge sighted mental clarity as one of the benefits. I especially noticed this when it came to making decisions and solving problems.

19 | There are so many easy challenge-friendly recipes out there. If you take the time to do just a little research, you will find endless recipes that are challenge friendly. We opted for ones that called for a lot of spices for added flavor to give us a departure from some of the blander foods we were regularly eating.

20 | The challenge creates an opportunity to set new household junk food guidelines. Since we went through the challenge, our kids have gotten used to not eating sweets as often. I set some new expectations in our house: 1) The only cookies we eat are those that we bake (which happens occasionally) and 2) We don't keep ice cream in the house, but rather go out for it on special occasions. Neither cookies nor ice cream have been greatly missed in our house since. And yesterday, my daughter opted for a protein shake over Goldfish crackers. 

21 | Our Results. At the end of the 21 days, I lost 5 pounds, and it was most noticeable in the belly area. Nearly two months later, my jeans are still very loose. The best part is that I've strengthened my resistance to avoid unhealthy foods, learned to plan and modify my meals, and I feel better! As for my husband, he lost 10 pounds and is currently back on the challenge and says it's even easier the second time around. He says he feels so much better when he's not eating carbs, sugar and too much dairy.

Post-Challenge Thoughts

Almost two months after the challenge ended, I've gained back only 1 of the 5 pounds I lost. Since we now keep far fewer sweets and snacks around, I don't experience as many temptations. I will still have carbs like pasta or rice, but in much smaller portions than before. Was it worth it? Absolutely! The most concise way to describe my results is that my behavior has been strongly redirected to the right foods.

If you think you'd like to try the challenge, just click on the button and you'll be sent my 6-page, printer-friendly plan & toolkit with the following items: 

  • 21-Day Challenge Meal Guidelines

  • Suggested Shopping List

  • Tips To Set You Up For Success

  • Possible Modifications

  • Suggested Meal Ideas & Recipe for my Go-To Protein Shake

  • Weekly Food Log

The only element of the challenge that I can't incorporate in my downloadable toolkit is accountability and support so feel free to email me at realnjshore@gmail.com or send me a DM on Instagram @realnjshore and let me know how it's going, let me know if you have questions or just need a little encouragement.

Good luck and I hope you have great results! ~ Ellie