No Magic Pill

Knowledge + effort + time = success

Bare necessities

Posted by Ben on Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Okay, here it is, the long-promised, long-awaited, long-overdue post on the one, single, solitary thing you need to keep in mind regarding your health and fitness when you don’t have time to keep anything in mind in the first place:

Clear as mud? Smooth as sandpaper? Good :) That was probably overkill, though, since you might be reading this on the fly and didn’t even watch the video. That’s okay; it’s just a little fluff from a good movie.

No, really, the answer is food. Seriously, that’s it. Food. Some of you are probably thinking that you don’t even have time to go to the bathroom as needed, let alone eat a half-dozen times a day at regular intervals with all your macronutrients in proper ratios and so on and so forth. Well, you don’t have that kind of time, and you don’t need that kind of time and intricate planning. All you need are options and a little convenience.

First, let me explain why I chose food and what exactly I mean by “food” (feel free to skip down to the capitalized headings). Recently, I had a couple spells where food seemed like it was way down the priority list, and as such, that meant sleep was pretty sparse as well, not to mention a nearly complete cessation of any formal workouts. At different times, I was busy (a) dealing with general insomnia, (b) rescuing, feeding, and trying to adopt out a litter of puppies, and (c) conducting a biological ballet of purging in various forms after one particular supper practically forced me to give intermittent fasting a try (the insomnia was obviously part of the other two issues as well as being its own problem), so I had some pretty good material to use. During these times, sleep was a far-too-seldom commodity, and anyone who’s [been] self-employed, a parent, a concert production manager, or a quasi-outbreak monkey knows this. Twenty-hour days aren’t all that uncommon, and any sleep that can be had is fitful at best because your body and/or your mind is racing. Needless to say, stress levels rise, both literally and figuratively.

Without getting into all the ins and outs of stress response (search through Lyle’s site/blog or go read Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers—my review here—in the event you get caught up enough on everything else to do so), lack of sleep and the subsequent flood of stress hormones are going to make you hungry, and not just hungry, but ravenous for sweets and/or hearty (read: heavy carb and fat) foods. Seriously, think about the last time you had a few too many drinks. After your head finally cleared and your stomach settled down, what did you want? I’d bet dimes to dollars you wanted some fast food, whether it was Taco Bell, In-n-Out, or (my personal favorite) Five Guys. Warm, calorie-dense, melt-in-your-mouth (read: high fat content) food. Your body experiences some of the same stressors from lack of sleep as it does from processing alcohol, dealing with whiney kids (babies and quasi-celebrities alike), or fighting off sickness in general.

Chances are that you’re pretty dehydrated at this point, too, especially if alcohol has been involved (you’ll recognize this when every story you tell about last night begins with, “Well, we were drinking, and…”). So, start drinking. Water, that is. If you’re like me and get tired of plain water, consider having a couple boxes of Crystal Light or Propel in the cabinet to mix in as needed. Don’t go for anything caffeinated, even though you swear you can’t function without your coffee or Monster. You can. In fact, you’ll do better because (a) you won’t fry your senses with over-stimulation, (b) you won’t crash out (harder due to the stress your body has been and still is under), and (c) you won’t sabotage your rehydration efforts. As for food, a cheat meal isn’t going to kill you—just the other day, I re-discovered Sonic (first time in five years). Their food is pretty cheap, and I still spent twenty bucks. Hey, that was mostly me still recovering from being sick, and while I won’t mention exactly what all I got, just know that the car hop had to carry the tray with both her hands weighted down pretty well. However, don’t let the recovery go beyond a meal or two. Now that you can handle food again, get back to the filling protein-heavy foods like cottage cheese (with sliced banana and dried fruits), grilled chicken (perhaps under a sweet BBQ sauce to satisfy the sugary cravings), and omelets (good, heavy, protein-rich meal limited only by how much stuff you can throw into it), if you can stand food at all—wait wut?

1. If you have time to prep ANYthing, stick with eggs and egg-based meals. Yeah, cholesterol, blah blah blah, but a day or a week isn’t going to kill you, especially if it’s a temporary thing (if your doctor says no eggs, either you’re very near death or need another doctor). You need the protein, you need the satiety (that’s where the fat comes in), and depending on what’s in the fridge, this could be a great way to get in some veggies (I usually thaw a bag of frozen spinach to keep in the fridge for a week to use in my omelets, and sliced tomatoes go a long way, too). If you have the stuff in place, prep time can be under five minutes.

2. If you have a little prep time but have to run, there are few things as filling and satisfying as a peanut butter and banana sandwich (I use a squirt of mayo, too, and don’t “EWWW!” me). Yeah, it’s not as protein-happy as eggs, but the fats are good, the carbs are (mostly) good, and it goes well with coffee (if you have to), water (if you’re thirsty enough), or milk (sippy cup, anyone?). If you just want to squirt, spread, and go (sound like any recent dates?), go with honey over jelly. Otherwise, you know by now which particular items to shoot for: natural peanut butter and whole-grain or (preferably) sprouted-grain breads. Trader Joe’s is your friend. If you don’t have one nearby, I feel for you, but do what you can. Seriously, I don’t know what I did before it came to Charlotte.

3. If you have zero time to prep but can at least sit for a couple minutes, go with cottage cheese (suck it up, Nancy boy). Yes, some people can’t stand it, but mix in as much stuff as needed to make it doable. I can go plain if I have to, but I love me some white raisins and/or dried cranberries—they’re like candy when they get cold in the cottage cheese.

4. If you have no prep time and are on the go, two things: shakes and bars. These are last-resort options, of course. Depending on your body type and goals, Muscle Milk or a similar product may be the way to go (I personally like the nutrient profile in MM). You may already have a powder or two in your cabinet—I have a protein-only powder and a full meal-replacement powder, so I can do one or the other or a protein-richer mixture as needed. As for bars, I’ve really come to like the Designer Whey Detour oatmeal bars. Each bar is over four hundred calories, so it can easily become two meals if you’re hauling the mail all day, but these are also dense enough to quell your hunger for awhile. If you’re looking for a more carb-sensitive option, get some VPX Zero Impact bars. These don’t taste or feel as good, but they’re better than most bars out there. (Note: if you’re in the Charlotte area, consider patronizing Joe and Jason at Healthnutz for these items; prices are comparable to anything you’ll find online, usually less, and if they don’t stock it, they can have it for you next-day; oh yeah, and mention that I sent you :D)

What do you do when you don’t want or simply can’t stomach anything? The answer is: the best you can. The first order of business is getting your stomach to stop doing gymnastics and then getting some calories. When I was sick, I could keep down cheese toast and ginger ale, and that was it for the first two days, so that’s what I had as often as I felt I could handle it. Also, since water wasn’t working too well, I alternated ginger ale and Gatorade. Yes, as over-hyped and over-used as Gatorade is, it’s actually a great way to try to hydrate your body during stress and sickness, especially if you have, um, projectile purging issues as well. You need the fluids, and the sugars and salts will help you retain the hydration (and don’t even think about caffeine if you want to settle your stomach and recover more quickly). Otherwise, since overfeeding really isn’t an issue here, simply eat what you can handle. Some of my go-tos: toast/crackers/chips with whatever topping you can handle (cheese, cream cheese, peanut butter, hummus, etc), ice cream (really, is there anything ice cream CAN’T cure?), pancakes (I have no idea why, but they work), potatoes (these may be tricky depending on just how sick you are, but baked sweet potatoes or peanut oil-fried potatoes of any kind seem to help me), non-spicy chicken wings, soups, and chili (if you don’t usually have issues with mildly spicy foods, the various chilis with beans from Trader Joe’s are hearty, filling, and relatively non-volatile—how ’bout some more beans, Mr. Taggart?).

What other stuff? You mean sleep? Exercise? Ain’t happening, and you can’t control that, which isn’t going to help your stress levels, of course, but that’s life. At this point, exercise is the last priority. You can’t expect to reap the benefits of exercise without adequate nutrition and adequate sleep, not to mention the extra stress that exercise puts on your body. Sleep, well, that depends on your schedule and ability to sleep quickly and deeply. My insomnia wasn’t a problem of getting to sleep; it was staying asleep, and when I was asleep, getting deep sleep. Maybe you can help that, maybe you can’t, but either way, if you’re cool with your nutrition, use whatever time and energy and resources you’d put toward exercise and instead use them to figure out your sleep issues.

So much for brevity. Just remember: this is (theoretically) temporary, so a few days or weeks of ad-libbing all this isn’t going to hurt you in the long run as long as you take care of business when you can resume life as a semi-normal human being again.


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