Food, Eating and Health: Surviving Stressful Times

Have you ever tried salami on a cinnamon raisin English muffin? Add a slice of provolone and some mayo and amazingly, it is not half bad. That was the only thing I could put together from the fridge for my bag lunch for work one day last week (or was it the week before?). My dad was very ill and did not have long to live, so all of us spent as much time with him and my mom as we could. Grocery shopping was not the priority at the time and so salami and cinnamon was it.

Not only was eating affected, so was sleep and my normal physical activity. Because I would often go straight to my mom’s after work (when I usually go for a walk or garden or do anything physical, my mental sanity) this was not happening. Consequently, my sleep was affected. We all were out of sync, especially my mom who so bravely administered his feeding and morphine every 3 hours through a G-Tube. He was very weak but still would try to get up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, so my mom barely slept for fear of him falling. This amazing woman who cooked wonderful home made soups (minestrone and spinach soup her specialties) almost daily was pretty much living on coffee, ice cream, crackers or whatever we brought her. We started to frequent Big Steve’s, a tiny local joint famous for burgers (think super size) and 99 take-out. Anything fast to keep her going.

After my father passed and she was justifiably unmotivated to cook for herself, one Sunday while my husband was working on fixing her doorbell, I decided to make some food that could last a while. I wanted to make something that would assure she would get some protein and energy (instead of grabbing a quick sweet thing like she usually does, my mom is like me, sometimes we don’t want to take the time, too much to do!). She absolutely loves my bean and corn salad, which lasts a long time so I made a huge batch (simply frozen corn, defrosted, rinsed chick peas and black beans, red onion, garlic, grated carrots, and lots of fresh cilantro, salt and pepper). I also made my specialty turkey burgers, fried them, wrapped them individually and froze most of them so she could defrost as she needed (to ground turkey I add diced red onion, green and red pepper, more garlic, shredded carrots, grated Romano cheese or cheddar, steak or A-1 sauce, salt and pepper). After just one good meal of this, she said she felt better, and realized she needed to take care of herself.

Have you ever gone through something stressful, maybe a loss such as ours, or even planning for a holiday, wedding, or other major event, studying for exams, moving to a new home, even just traveling and found yourself out of sync? We are all in our own little worlds when it comes to our routines of simple daily life. We tend to do the same things every day, get up at a certain time, work the same hours, eat at certain times, etc. Some people are much more rigid than others. With eating, there is somewhat of a spectrum or range of “normal” eating verses “disordered” eating, and this applies to exercise, too. There are those who are really “resilient” and are able to deal well when their world is turned upside down. They may eat healthy or exercise regularly, sleep normal hours etc., but it does not phase them when life suddenly throws a curve ball and priorities have to change for a time. They “go with the flow”. Life does not fall apart just because they miss a work out or a run, or because they have not eaten a vegetable in 5 days. They are able to manage on 5 hours of sleep instead of their usual 8 because other things matter more.  In time, life returns to normal, and they know nothing was lost that really matters, they have the rest of their lives to eat healthy, sleep well and be active. Nothing changes. Of course, I am talking about people who don’t weight themselves or time their runs or have expectations for themselves other than feeling good and taking care of themselves.

On the other end of this spectrum of normal verses disordered I have known many who really struggle with change, and who totally crash when their world is shaken up. Some people just HAVE to run 5 miles, or HAVE to have their veggies at every meal or NEVER eat fast food. They truly get stressed out about absolutely any change in their routine, their food intake or their sleep. The dialogue in their head probably goes something like this: “I can’t eat that, I will gain weight! If I don’t get my run in, I will get out of shape. OMG I have not exercised in 3 days! I am disgusting.” Those who suffer from compulsive exercise or weight obsession, or even just obsession with being healthy truly struggle with change. Even “normal” eaters and those who have what appears to be a “normal” physical activity regime can be thrown by change and can find themselves worrying. I often hear people blabbing about “feeling guilty” just for eating something.

This past month I realized what a gift it is to be resilient. Some take for granted the gift it is to be able to eat whatever is available and have no problem with it. To not be addicted to an exercise regime is also something to be thankful for (and I know many people who call themselves “lazy” and wish they could be more committed to exercise and will think I am crazy). But the reality is that many people really do suffer from exercise addiction and it affects people’s lives daily. This is not what we want when we recommend being more active for health reasons. So be happy if you don’t have to exercise compulsively.

Unfortunately, events are going to happen in our lives that we just can’t avoid. Wherever you may lie on that spectrum or continuum of eating and exercise behavior, here are some pointers of dealing with upsidedownness if it happens to you:

  1. Remember the reality: your body does not really change much in a few days or even a few weeks. Even if you may gain or lose a few pounds or lose a bit of endurance or muscle mass, in time your body will return to normal (that is assuming you have a normal eating and exercise routine)
  2.  Pay attention to how you feel. My mom was so happy to feel better after she finally had a good meal. Sometimes, you don’t realize that your exhaustion is related to lack of energy (in the form of calories). Even if it has to be a take out order, eat at least one good meal.
  3. Stay hydrated. You can survive without the perfect diet, but not without water. Carrying a water bottle that you can refill to get at least 8 cups a day will help keep your digestion more regular (not getting enough fiber during crazy times can cause constipation, not fun, water helps. Carrying fruit with you also helps). If it is hot weather, you may need even more. If your urine is dark yellow, it means you aren’t getting enough.
  4. Welcome the support of others. Sometimes it is hard to accept generosity from neighbors and friends, but when people offer to help, they really mean it. It makes THEM happy. So be thankful for that hot chicken pot pie that is dropped off at dinner time. Be grateful for the cold cut platter and rolls from the neighbor. When someone offers to pick up some food, say ok. One day you will return the favor.
  5. If you struggle with a compulsive exercise routine, try to look at missing your workout in a different, more positive way. How about being thankful for an opportunity to give your body a rest? I have know many people (myself included) who are amazed at how good they feel when they get back to their normal routine after having a break from it. It feels so good to truly be rested.
  6. Look outside of yourself for the many sources of joy and beauty available to you even during times of stress and change. Take a few minutes to chat with your best friend. Notice the birds, the flowers, spend a few minutes in a beautiful garden. Enjoy a cup of coffee or tea in a quiet spot. Read a reflective book or spiritual quotes. Watch the sun set. Take a long hot shower or bath and truly relax, even if it can only be a short time at the end of the day.
  7. Practice NOW. Even before anything happens, I strongly recommend changing things up in your life. NOW is the time to assess the kind of person you are. Are you bent on eating the same thing for lunch every day? Do you freak out if you have to miss your run? Now is the time to try something different. Maybe just once a week or even once a month, take a hike instead of run. Go to the mall and skip it altogether. Maybe get a slice of pizza for dinner with ice cream for dessert, heck with veggies for a night. Does that sound hard? I am not saying to let go of eating healthy, I just think it is important to address rigidity in life. Being too rigid can really add to your stress level.

There are probably many other bits of advice that will come to mind in the weeks to come. But today I am sitting in a beautiful garden at a place called the Book Barn in Niantic, CT, finally taking a week off now that life has almost returned to normal. I have let go of my guilt due to my failure to write a weekly blog post last week. That may be one more bit of advice: it’s OK to not live up to your own expectations sometimes. Sometimes, they are just not realistic and it is smart to change them. I guarantee, nobody really cares. But I probably won’t be running out for salami and raisin English muffins any time soon, although maybe you should try it…..just for a change.

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