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.

Routines vs Spontaneity: Lessons Learned from a Mountain Road Trip

13012841_1399130246779755_6786660702991710477_nThe plans were all set. I would catch a very early 6 am flight from Hartford to Albuquerque so we could be on the road before noon. My good friend Debra and I had planned every last detail as far as what hotel we would stay at, how long we would stay at each place, and even which restaurants we would eat at (even made reservations ahead of time). She is my “road trip” sister. Ever since she and her family moved from Connecticut back to their home state of New Mexico, she has gotten me to do some crazy road trips which,before meeting her, I would never do. She is an adventurous spirit, horse rescuer, true cow girl and I am pretty much the opposite. Anyway, since my son moved out to Nederland, Colorado several years ago she has been urging me to fly out and take a road trip up there to visit him. She goes to Colorado all the time to ride her horses and it would be fun….so she says.

Well, I missed my son so much and needed to see where he lived and needed to understand what it was about the place that made him never move home back east. Between two mothers, we had the plans made in no time. She would pick me up in her giant white truck at the airport and we would be in Sante Fe, New Mexico before noon. I would be sitting in the sun, sipping a margarita on the rooftop deck at the Coyote Cafe by lunch time. I could almost feel the sun and taste that yummy lime. But almost as soon as I landed in sunny New Mexico, my son sends me a text “you might want to get here as soon as you can. We are supposed to get a lot of snow”. But that was not in the plan.

When Debra pulled up in that giant white truck, after being shocked at the size of this monster (aka Bertha), we hugged and laughed and started on our adventure. All I can say is thank goodness Bertha is a big strong girl.

I immediately told Debra about my text. Since Sante Fe is less than an hour away, we needed to make a decision quick as to what to do. Should we cancel our night there and head straight to beautiful Boulder (which was supposed to be where we went the day after our wonderful day of shopping in Sante Fe). We thought it would be easier to drive the almost 500 miles on a Saturday, missing rush hour in Denver and still getting enough time in Boulder. The problem was that sometimes the main road going up gets shut down due to snow, and we did not want that to happen. Debra was worried I would be too exhausted to go straight to Boulder since I had woken up that morning at 3:30 am to get to the airport by 4:00 am. But I was on a mission, and as much as I wanted to have my moment in the sun in Sante Fe, I even more so wanted to get to my son.

I said, “Let’s go for it!” And so we did. It took over 7 hours to reach what was to be our 2nd destination in Boulder due to some traffic when we hit Denver. But the ride was beautiful, and we could see storms brewing out to the west of us and also to the east (if you have never been to the southwest, you can often see for miles and miles). The hotel in Sante Fe did not charge us to cancel and the hotel in Boulder had a room for us a day early. After we checked in, it started to lightly rain, but we both were starving (Debra stocked her car with munchies but pistachios, chips and grapes only go so far). So we walked around the beautiful town of Boulder in the drizzle and found a great place to eat and sip a glass of well-earned wine. I was starting to feel a little funny, a bit dizzy and just contributed it to the altitude and lack of sleep. I had been out west before, and I remember the effect on breathing in the higher elevation, and it was no big deal. But I had not been to Nederland which was a bit higher (like a few thousand feet).

Morning came, and the original plan was to take the day and shop in sunny beautiful Boulder (I was really looking forward to this as I never saw Boulder, and my older daughter absolutely loved the town when she visited). It was now Saturday, and the plan was to go Sunday up to Nederland which was less than 20 miles away. We had rented a house up there instead of a hotel, because I really wanted to cook for my son and have a place to hang out. So Saturday morning we made our way to a wonderful little breakfast place to try to decide what to do. It was starting to snow. My son’s girlfriend texted me “we are supposed to get 3-4 feet of snow, you might want to get here as soon as you can. A foot has dropped already and is just starting to stick”. This was not the plan, it was supposed to be sunny and warm! We decided to check our options. Yes, there were hotels that had rooms up in Nederland, and even better, we would be able to check into the VRBO house we rented a day early. Again, we decided “let’s just do it! Let’s get there!”

The hotel again let us cancel without charge and we made our way up the mountain. It was only 9:30 am. The road was just wet in Boulder, but as we made our way up the mountain and got closer, the snow started sticking. When I checked out this road on google maps, it did not look this curvy, and I certainly did not even realize it went up and up and up……and up. Debra was clinging to the steering wheel, going nice and slow, staying away from the edges when it got a bit hairy. My body was reeling from a mix of excitement and anxiety, but also (now I have learned) from a case of “Mountain Sickness”. Like I said, I knew the altitude can affect your breathing, but I had never heard of the illness before. Apparently, it can be very serious for some people, and even result in death. I just felt nauseous, exhausted, like I could not take a deep breath and like I needed to curl up in a ball. Some people get bad headaches, I did not.

Anyway, we finally get to the tiny sweet town of Nederland which is 2 feet deep in snow by now (with more to come) and we head straight to the grocery store. I huddled under a huge winter coat as my sweet friend trudges through the snow to get the groceries. I was shivering, even with the heat on. This was not the plan!

Debra finally emerges with the groceries, I text the owner of the home to see if we can check in early. He needs a payment apparently, so, I see a coffee shop and we walk (well, not walk, but trudge though the 2 feet of snow, that is the only word that works, trudge) get to the tiny restaurant, log on to their internet and make the payment. Finally, we find the house, I drag myself in, immediately take off the wet cold clothes, take a long hot shower, put on PJ’s, grab a big fluffy throw and curl up in front of the fire. Again, not what I had in my mind as to how it would be when I got here. We were supposed to be sipping wine in front of this fire, celebrating, and getting ready to go out to see my son. Instead I could not move and was clinging on to my can of instant oxygen (don’t laugh, and be sure to get one if you ever visit Colorado), and sipping my herbal tea.

Once the snow stopped and I felt better, the rest of the trip was wonderful! The moment I first hugged my son, I was so happy Debra and I had the ability to be spontaneous. And brave. I was thankful for my health and that I had the stamina to get up at 3:30 am, fly a few thousand miles and still be able to drive 500 miles (and enjoy it). We were ok with things “not going as planned”and we both laughed at how much we loved the craziness of it all.

The rest of the week was spent with my son and his girlfriend, meeting his great friends, eating at the eclectic restaurants there and driving around the mountain roads to see even more lovely majestic mountains. It seemed to me the people there were different. Nobody dressed up, no high heels, not much make up, no fanciness at all. The children ran free and played with each other, with no tablet or video game to be seen. People worked hard and cherished their time with friends and family. Even with the 4 feet of snow, people were laughing and smiling, everyone was so kind. There were many artists and interesting characters in this tiny town. As it finally was time to drive down that mountain to head home, it all made sense to me. Why my son never left once he found this tiny community in the mountains. The experience also made me think of how most of us live out here in the faster-paced east coast. The trip made me think of what a gift it is to be able to change your plans and be spontaneous. Some people I know are definitely not ok with this. Some of us do the same things every single day, get up, make the coffee, get dressed, go to work, go home, do it all again the next day. Some people are very picky with food, and might have struggled with the unpredictability of what and when you could eat. There were no gyms to be found up there in the mountains, although lots of outdoor activity like snow boarding, mountain biking, hiking and skiing. The drive down the mountain was much different than the snowy drive up. The sun was shining, it was warm out, the views were crystal clear. We got our walk in around Boulder, window shopping and finally a goodbye toast. Debra dropped me off at the airport and drove off in Bertha (who went from covered in snow to covered in mud, and finally cleaned at the car wash and back to herself). I got in to Connecticut late (almost 1:00 am) and woke to sunshine and blooming tulips, it seems everything woke up when I was gone.

This road trip to the mountains of Colorado taught me a few things, and reminded me of a few things, too.

  • Don’t go visit a high altitude destination and assume you are going to be ok. Research “mountain sickness” and take precautions. Drink a lot of water, rest, and the best thing is to get there gradually if you can so your body can get adjusted
  • Try to stay in touch with your body even when you travel. If you are going from one time zone to another, it does have an affect on your appetite and hunger. It can be confusing. Most of us have environmental triggers to remind us to eat (“it’s lunchtime!”) but when you are traveling and there is no “lunchtime” and you start to feel tired and grouchy, you are most likely hungry. Bring food with you to keep you going. There is not always a restaurant on the way (especially out west where you can travel for miles and see absolutely nothing but the mountains and sky).
  • ALWAYS carry lots of water. I learned that most people die of dehydration in the spring and fall, and not the summer when they are in the mountains. It is because you don’t feel hot and don’t feel sweat, but the air is so dry, you lose more water from your body even if you are not sweating.
  • It is a gift to be spontaneous. Can you deal with a change of plans? Do you have “expectations” as to how things will be when you plan something, so that you end up being totally disappointed when they don’t turn out that way? Maybe change it up a bit, even in your simple daily life. Skip the gym and work in the garden. Heck with the meat, potato, vegetable, pick up some random ethnic food and try it. Mix it up, life it short.
  • People look at the world with different glasses. When Debra and I woke up to 4 feet of snow covering Bertha, we could not stop taking pictures. To us, it added to a wonderful adventure. It was beautiful. To some of my friends back east, it triggered nausea! My husband, who hates the snow, would not have been happy. What is wrong with us? Both Debra and I were ecstatic to be there with a fire blazing, reading, relaxing and enjoying this fluke spring snow storm. Maybe it is a matter of choice? Maybe you can look at many situations as good or bad, depending on what glasses you choose….
  • Life is kind of nice without TV
  • Having fancy clothes, perfect hair, an expensive car and manicured nails does not bring smiles to people’s faces. Human connections do. Seeing a small community where my son lives care about each other so much, helping each other, laughing together, simply playing and eating and connecting seems healthier to me than the things we seem to focus on.
  • It may not be easy for restrictive eaters or dieters or picky eaters to go with the flow when you travel, but part of the fun to me was trying different foods and dishes. I don’t eat steak much, mostly because I don’t know how to cook it well. This week I had steak a few times and it was yummy. One dish had “mixed vegetables” made of corn and peppers and onions and a few other things, and it was so good, I asked the cook (who my son knew well) how she made it. “Bacon fat” she said. I wondered why I felt so unbelievably full. It was worth it. There is one thing I won’t try and that is Colorado Rocky Mountain Oysters because they are not fish. Anyway, if you have the opportunity to experience something new, don’t let “food rules” ruin your life experiences. You may not get another chance.
  • We all deserve to nurture our family and friend relationships. Give yourself time with your children, parents, brothers, sisters and your friends. I know I often feel guilty when I don’t accomplish what I think I am supposed to (like not writing a post last week….it was one thing I just could not accomplish before I left). We can’t always “do it all”. Be thankful if you have children, parents, friends and relatives to visit and enjoy. These are the important things in life (if you ask me). This road trip confirmed that in so many ways. It was so good to see Debra and words can’t describe the joy of seeing my son.                                                                                                                                                                       But for now, it is just good to be home, seeing the flowers starting to bloom, and not a snow flake in sight. Back to reality.