Every year I make resolutions for the New Year. Inevitably, at the top of that list is the same goal I list every year: “Be More Healthy.” After a hectic holiday season full of good laughs, good cheer and lots of pie, I always feel totally ready to make sweeping changes to my life, which will catapult me into Super Healthy Stephanie. Usually these efforts last a week or two, until I’m swept up in the next round of activities. This year, however, I am trying to remind myself that it is just as important to engage in healthy lifestyle practices when busy—in fact, it may be even more important. High stress levels have been linked to increased blood pressure, increased risk of heart disease and strokes, etc. It’s when we are the busiest that we need to be taking the best care for ourselves.
So, short of inventing a machine that stops time, gaining super powers that let us do 10 things at once, or finally figuring out how to be in two (or sometimes three) places at once, what can we do to increase our health while keeping up with our busy lifestyles? We are passing along a few suggestions, broken into three key groups: food, exercise and relaxation. This month we’ll look at ways to get your healthy grub on, even when you’re in a hurry!
Having a very busy or stressful schedule can impact our eating habits in a wide variety of ways. Unfortunately, none of these effects are usually good for us.
For many of us, food can be a comforting source of stress relief. As Joshua Rosenthal explains in his book, Integrative Nutrition, “Many people eat more when they feel stress; the stuffed feeling makes them feel comfortable and helps them relax.” Indeed, recent science has linked the consumption (or over-consumption) of food to increased levels of serotonin in the brain. In other words, eating a lot can give us a happy buzz. Unfortunately, “modern marketing and distribution have ensured that when we feel hungry, many products are lining the shelves of the local stores or stacked in the office vending machine. Almost all of these foods are loaded with calories, fat, refined sugar, processed salt, dairy products and artificial chemicals.” As a result, once our junk food-induced buzz wears off, we tend to feel icky. Furthermore, since our body burns through these foods quite quickly, we go from buzz to zzzzz in no time flat. It’s a nasty cycle, and when you’re already busy trying to cross out the tasks on your to-do list, it’s easy to perpetuate. “When we don’t sleep well and wake up feeling lethargic, we often crave coffee to boost our energy and clear our minds. If we experience loneliness or mild depression, we often reach for chocolate or some other sweet food to boost our mood. After a stressful day, many of us want to eat something sweet or drink an alcoholic beverage to release tension. Afterward we often feel weak and empty, and want something nutritious and strengthening. We crave eggs, steak, chicken or fish, which can leave us feeling bloated and heavy. It’s a vicious cycle as we ping-pong from sweet, processed foods to excessive amounts of animal foods, from one extreme food group to another.”
I’d be willing to wager we’ve all found ourselves in the “I’m so busy but I’m also totally bored” situation before. Food is often used in situations like these to simply distract us, to the detriment of our waistlines and our healthy intentions. Although grazing is all well and good for some people, for a goodly many it results in excess (and often unhealthy) calories being consumed, as well as more of those lovely synthetic sweeteners, preservatives, etc.
All throughout my college years, the very first things to fall by the wayside when life got hectic were regular meals. I’d sneak chips into libraries, munch on protein bars in-between classes, and substitute coffee for breakfast. If I got one real, wholesome meal in my belly per day, I felt pretty astonished. Almost all of the food I consumed was prepared outside the home—in factories (protein bars and chips, for example), local restaurants (bagel, anyone?) or cafes (so much coffee). Inevitably, as soon as things calmed down even a little, I’d get sick. On a similar note, when my brother and I were in high school, with approximately 10 million extracurricular activities happening year round, it became harder and harder for my family to find a common mealtime. As a result, our meals splintered into individual feedings, and we lost out on the connectivity and sharing time we used to have every night as a family unit.
On a micro level, not having regular meals in my life was definitely detrimental to my overall health, and to my emotional well-being. There was no stopping point, no breaking of fast—just inputting calories into my body so it could keep on keeping on. On a national level, our sporadic eating patterns are having a similarly poor effect. As Michael Pollan says, “In theory, it should make little difference to your health whether you cook for yourself or let someone else do the work.... [But] the decline in home cooking closely parallels the rise in obesity, and research suggests that people who cook are more likely to eat a more healthful diet.”
It really can be hard to cultivate healthy eating habits when you are constantly on the go. Fortunately, there are many small things you can do that will have a big effect on your health and happiness!
Tip #1: Cook Food at Home Whenever Possible
“One of the main reasons people don’t cook is because they think they don’t have the time. It looks too complicated, and they don’t know where to start.” -Joshua Rosenthal
Cooking at home can, especially at the end of a long day, seem like a daunting task. Having the right ingredients, picking out a recipe, prepping the food, cooking the food, serving the food, and then clean-up... ah! The good news is that cooking at home doesn’t have to mean preparing a Thanksgiving feast every day of the week. This month all of the recipes in the Co-op Reader are for simple and highly nourishing foods that can be prepared simply and efficiently. Carving out just a little bit of time in your day to make a home-cooked meal not only will save you money, but will also benefit your health. The occasional indulgence won’t affect you as much, and your immune system will become stronger.
Tip #2: Cook Once, Eat Two or Three Times
This may be the ultimate time-(and money-) saver. Whenever you prepare a meal at home, try to make enough for leftovers. Try doubling a recipe, or even tripling it. The amount of prep time won’t be that much more, and you’ll end up with at least one additional meal that will take you almost no time at all to prepare. Not a fan of leftovers? Try making a dish that can be repurposed the next day into something else. For instance, if you make tofu one night, make extra and put it in a wrap for lunch the next day. Making rice as part of your meal? Make extra, throw in some veggies and have fried rice the next night. There are lots of quick and healthy meals that can double their value, without you having to eat the exact same meal twice.
Tip #3: Cook Whole Foods
Use whole grains and fruits and veggies in your cooking. Whole grains (like brown rice, quinoa, amaranth, oatmeal, etc) break down more slowly in the body than simple, processed foods. This allows for a more sustained feeling of “fullness,” as well as a more measured blood sugar distribution. No more food buzz/crash scenarios here! Plus, whole grains have been shown to help lower cholesterol and blood pressure, two problems that stress tends to exacerbate. Luckily, these nourishing grains are also very easy to prepare!
Tip #4: Create “Personal Policies”
“Policies are useful tools. Instead of prescribing highly specific behaviors, they supply us with broad guidelines that should make everyday decision making easier and swifter.” -Michael Pollan
This tip comes from Michael Pollan in his latest book, Food Rules. Take a moment to ask yourself what your personal food policies would be. “Eat lots of veggies” perhaps? Or, “Only Eat Cake At Celebrations?” Maybe “Avoid Artificial Sweeteners?” Decide what approaches work for you, and write them down. These “policies” can help guide your food choices when you’re preoccupied with other things, and are just generally helpful to have around.
Tip #5: Make Healthful Changes to Your Diet... Slowly
“Pick one thing to change, such as switching from white bread to whole grain bread or learning to eat the fast-cooking grain quinoa. Make small changes over weeks and months, and create the time and space needed to give your family deeply nourishing food a little at a time.” -Cynthia Lair, Feeding the Whole Family
Small changes to eating can really add up to full-scale lifestyle changes. Sometimes we know we need to make changes to our diet or lifestyle, but feel overwhelmed at having to do yet another thing. Take the stress out of it and just pick one small change to make each week (or in whatever timeframe works for you). You will still be contributing to long-term positive change in your life, without adding stress. If you eventually want to do a grand overhaul, or embark on a new exercise regimen, great! Just make sure to start at a time where you have the space to fully commit to yourself.
Tip #6: Become a “Flexitarian”
We live in a health-obsessed society, and it’s easy to become fixated on eating the “right” foods at all times. However, sometimes, especially when we’re super busy, going out to eat or buying something pre-made is the only thing that makes sense. Plan sensibly, but from time to time you will be in a genuine pinch. If that happens, don’t worry too much about eating the “perfect” food—the point is to be healthier, not a perfectionist!
Tip #7: Pack a Snack
If you have a tendency to snack out of boredom, be prepared! Pack some munchies that are healthy for you to nibble on throughout the day, like fresh fruits and veggies. Not only will your body thank you for the extra nutrients, but fresh fruits and veggies are awesomely easy to prepare. Slice, dice, or peel and viola! This is a fabulous way to snack your way into good health and good cheer.
Tip #8: Plan Your Meals Ahead of Time
It may seem counterintuitive to think that you will save time by taking time to plan your meals in advance, but this tip really does work. Not only will you have a clear idea how much time you will need to spend preparing your meals, but you will also know in advance what ingredients you need to shop for. Shopping with a grocery list helps to streamline the process, keeping you from being sidetracked by the whims of a hungry stomach or the ramblings of a busy mind. Planning meals ahead of time also makes utilizing Tip #2 much easier.
Bon appetit, busy bees!