Staying Clean During Chaotic Times
Eating foods, using personal care and home care products and creating internal living spaces relatively free of unwanted toxins can be challenging enough during normal, everyday life. Throw in some chaos, stress and dramatic shifts in schedules, routines and normal behaviors and living life free of unwanted additives can cause many people to throw caution to the wind. In an effort to cope with the stress and changes, eating clean and healthy foods free of additives and toxins may take a backseat to the greater physical and psychological demands of adjusting to the new lifestyle.
Unfortunately, permitting your health and well-being to take second place during highly stressful times comes with a price tag, and if left unchecked, holds the potential for creating a crisis all of its own. While ignoring what you put inside your body and turning your primary focus to adapting to the changes may seem the reasonable thing to do during times of significant stress, what we eat and what we do is not being disregarded by our bodies and brains. In fact, some synthetic and industrialized additives common in processed foods have been linked with sleep disturbances like insomnia and sudden wakefulness, both of which can exacerbate emotional distress like anxiety and depression—all of which make the already chaotic and challenging conditions all the more stressful.
In the final analysis, it is during highly stressful life periods that our well-being depends more than ever on healthy, well-balanced foods that are packed with nutrients and free of additives like questionable emulsifiers, preservatives, synthetic flavor enhancers, food dyes and other chemicals of concern.
Why it happens
Though there are strong arguments to be made for returning to a cleaner diet and lifestyle at the first available opportunity, guilt for having slipped off during highly stressful times should not be a part of the equation. The fact that some, or even many, people’s commitment to eating clean, healthy foods gets derailed during highly stressful periods is not at all unusual and there are a number of rational explanations. Using the stressful scenario surrounding the 2020 lock down to reduce the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) as an example, we can see why this happens:
Limited Cognitive Resources: Scientific research has shown us that stress can run interference in our cognitive processes, negatively affecting our ability to focus, concentrate, and accurately store and retrieve memories. Making the extra effort to ensure that only clean, healthy balanced foods free of potentially harmful additives requires cognitive focus—energy that may not be readily available during highly stressful times when there are so many other factors demanding our attention. During times of chaos and stress taking the time to plan out meals, list out the needed ingredients, create a grocery list, go to the market and bring everything back and then prepare your own fresh, homemade meals and snacks can require psychic energy that may initially be unavailable. During these times of high stress it is frequently far easier to use your phone to order a pizza or other fast food delivery. Additionally, highly processed foods can provide a temporary sense of comfort and distraction from the chaos, uncertainty and stress. While it is not the optimal choice for keeping your body nourished with clean, balanced foods, it is certainly understandable why people may do it—at least in the early days of the crisis period.
Reasons for Returning to a Clean Diet and Lifestyle
Limited Tolerance for Chemicals of Concern: As laid out in the Food Additives to Avoid List [FATAL] included in my book, The Food Hacker’s Handbook: A Guide to Breaking the Processed Foods and Additives Addiction, there is an abundance of data from scientific evidence spanning several decades linking numerous chemicals of concern commonly used in highly processed foods to myriad of adverse health problems. The health concerns linked with certain additives common in processed foods are many and range from digestive problems, headaches, depression and weight gain, to heart, kidney, respiratory and liver disorders, diabetes, autoimmune problems and cancer, to name a few. Additionally, a number of scientific studies, including one conducted by the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) have demonstrated that people are so inundated these days by chemicals injected into their food and leaching from food packaging, in public drinking water, personal care products, home care and cleaning products, furniture and general environment that the majority of participants have tested positive for having a number of chemicals of concern in their bodies. What this means is that we all have a limitations on the amount of new chemicals of concern entering our bodies each day before we start to develop symptoms associated with health problems. And this is not limited to at-risk groups of people like infants, children, senior citizens and pregnant women or those individuals with existing health conditions. It applies to everyone—even young and healthy individuals have been shown in scientific studies to be adversely affected by certain commonly used additives in processed foods.
Limited Financial Resources: Another strong reason to stop eating highly processed foods during a stressful life event such as the COVID-19 lock down is the reality of limited financial resources. Whether you have temporarily or permanently lost your job or primary source of income (and health insurance coverage) or the pure uncertainty of economic stability is looming overhead, now is the time to ‘stop the bleeding’ on the outlay of cash. And eating foods and snacks you prepare yourself from fresh, whole ingredients is far less expensive than meals that have been prepared for you by someone else. Not to mention that reducing the likelihood for non-coronavirus related illnesses by eating a healthy, clean diet can relieve the added stress of worrying about health insurance lapses or co-pays during this stressful time.
Common Sense: In the case of the coronavirus lock down, if you are already going to great lengths to protect your body from contracting a virus, then why would it make sense to fill your body with highly processed foods low in nutrients and riddled with chemicals of concern in the process? It doesn’t. Now that you are adjusting to the new temporary reality surrounding the lock down, it is time to make good choices about returning to a clean, healthy diet and lifestyle.
Finding Your Way Back:
Seven Steps for Eating Clean during Chaos
1-Shift back to long-term thinking. Now that the initial shock of the stressful life event is over and you have begun to settle into your new routine (even if the current schedule is a temporary one), it is time to begin to normalize your life. That means it is time to get out of survival mode (stop thinking/reacting moment to moment) and move into thriving mode (return to thoughts and behaviors that go the distance and improve and support your overall physical and mental well-being both now and long-term). Plan ahead for lunch and supper—not just for today but for the week…pull out the recipes, check to see if you have the ingredients in stock, make a grocery list, plan a weekly trip to the market to get needed items.
2-Reprioritize what is most important in your life. It is time now to move from the chaos of in-the-moment shifting and juggling and adjusting to your new life arrangement, to fitting in key familiar priorities like health maintenance actions and behaviors such as preparing your own healthy meals and snacks, exercising, etc. from your normal, pre-chaos lifestyle. Returning to a normalized schedule and lifestyle (even if it is temporary) is imperative for mental and physical well-being. Make a list of the important actions and behaviors you engaged in prior to the unexpected stressful shift in schedule/lifestyle and next to each habit/action/behavior from your previously normal lifestyle write out how you will now fit these behaviors into your new lifestyle and schedule, even if that new lifestyle/schedule is a temporary one.
3-Take control. Sudden, stressful and chaotic changes in your life (such as the coronavirus lock down) can leave you feeling like you do not have a lot of personal control. But this is untrue! When it comes to your own personal thoughts and actions you actually have a lot of personal control—in most instances (including eating clean, healthy foods to nourish your body and support your physical and mental well-being) you have as much control as you ever had. This includes adverse changes to your financial circumstances as you can plan out meals and snacks that require lower cost ingredients until your finances improve. (Clean, low-cost, chemical-free recipes are included in my book, some of which will be posted in future blog posts. But there are many other options available, including free and low-cost recipes on the internet and recipe books, some pre-owned, created just for students and others living on tight budgets.)
4-Make a commitment to your overall physical and mental health and well-being. Getting back to eating healthy and nourishing your body and mind will only be successful if you are committed to making it happen. Adopting a positive, “whatever it takes” attitude and approach is all that is needed. Once you take ownership of a resolute commitment to eat/live clean and healthy, there is very little that can ever get in your way.
5-Make a plan—and a backup plan. Write a brief plan (and a backup plan) for how you will continue to have a healthy, clean diet and lifestyle despite the obstacles faced during the temporary stressful situation. Given the uncertainty surrounding the virus lock down for instance, create a backup plan that will support rather than threaten your commitment to eating/living a healthy, clean lifestyle should the duration of the lock down become more protracted than expected or your personal financial conditions worsen.
6- Find resources and support to make it happen (no matter what). As mentioned earlier, there are numerous resources available on the internet, including booksellers offering free and low-cost electronic recipe books (like Twenty fresh, quick and light dinners cookbook and Vegetarian Cook Book) and pre-owned print recipe books to help you create yummy, nutritious snacks and meals using fresh, whole food ingredients. But there is another important resource that will help ensure that you stay on track with healthy eating and lifestyle through these turbulent, uncertain and stressful life situations. Even during the recommended lock down to slow the spread of the coronavirus you can utilize the most important resources in your life: other people. Friends, coworkers, family members, neighbors are all important resources that you can, and should, use as social support during stressful life experiences. Consider virtual cooking parties in which you and members of your social support system cook and bake clean homemade meals and snacks together via a video conferencing session. Just set up a scheduled time that works for everyone, send everyone a copy of the recipes and ingredients lists, get out your kitchen utensils, ingredients and chemical-free recipes, bring your laptop or tablet into the kitchen, and when you are ready, sign on to the video conferencing session for your scheduled virtual clean cooking party. Cooking/baking “together” with the important people in your life is guaranteed to give you support and a fun time—and when it is over, you will have delicious, nutritious meals/snacks made from fresh, whole ingredients that are free of unwanted chemicals of concern.
7-Practice what you preach (every day!). Eating a clean, healthy diet, getting proper exercise and fresh air and sunshine every day (a brisk 20-minute walk outside can work wonders!) are of utmost importance anytime, but especially so under stressful life circumstances. But talking the talk means nothing if you are not going to walk the walk. So be sure that each day you turn your words and intentions into actions. Pick a regular time in your schedule, (and during the virus lock down, grab your personal health protection gear—a facial mask or scarf, sunglasses and old washcloth or paper towel for opening public doors in apartment/condo buildings) and go out for some fresh air and exercise. When possible, incorporate this activity into your weekly trips to the local market to pick up additive-free ingredients for your favorite homemade meals and snacks. Before you know it you will be back on track with your healthy, clean diet and lifestyle, and feeling oh so much better both physically and mentally!
*The author is trained as an interdisciplinary scientific researcher and is an experienced trainer and consultant/coach in chemical-free living and author of The Food Hacker’s Handbook: A Guide to Breaking the Processed Foods and Additives Addiction, as well as a seasoned scientific researcher on the social, personal, environmental and health factors linked with stress and stress management (including with the U.S. military) and stress management consulting with business professionals and laypersons.
Posted by: Dev