Setting an Example: Eating Well

At some point all physicians give advice to their patients about dietary changes to improve health.  Let’s be honest.  We don’t do so well ourselves.  The “classic” fare of residency (donuts or muffins for breakfast, pizza for lunch, and some fast food on the way home) doesn’t really give you much credibility when you are talking to patients.

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No medical student or resident is going to be able to eat perfectly, exercise regularly, and do all the other things that lead to a healthier lifestyle.  But every little change you make now will pay off.  You’ll feel better and have more energy.  You’ll be less likely to gain weight.  And – you’ll be able to talk to patients  – with specific examples – about what they can do to improve their own health.

In the crazy busy life of medical school and residency, it’s hard, if not impossible, to spend time and energy to shop, cook and eat really well.  It doesn’t get much better once you start your practice.  What is possible, no matter how busy you are,  is to realize that there are some simple things you can do to improve what you are doing now.

My top 10 tips for better eating in medical school and residency

1.  Eat fruits or vegetables with every meal or snack.  This may mean buying a bag of apples once a week and just eating apples twice a day (boring but effective).  Even better, follow the “USDA plate” recommendation – ½ fruit and vegetable, 1/4 protein 1/4 grain/complex carb on every plate of food you eat.

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2. Eat breakfast.  If you are up too early to really eat, make a smoothie the night before to put on the blender when you wake up and take it with you in the car.  My personal favorite:  ½ cup plain Greek yogurt, ½-1 cup of fruit, ¼ cup egg whites (pasteurized, in a carton), 1-2 Tblsp honey.

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3.  Eat more eggs (especially egg whites).  Eggs have gotten a bad rap, but they are very cheap and very easy to cook.  Cook hard boiled eggs on the weekend to eat for breakfast or snacks during the week.  Make omelets or huevos ranchero for dinner.  Go ahead and spend a little more to get cage-free eggs to do the right thing.

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4. Don’t skip meals.  Even on the worst call day you can keep a meal replacement bar or two in your pocket.

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5.  Pack the food you need for call days the night before so it’s ready to go in the morning.

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6.  Chop up a bunch of veggies on the weekend to throw in salads, soups or in wraps.

7.  Cook or buy one good meal on the weekend that will last for part of the week.   A good stew or soup?  Lasagna?  Look for good recipes on the web.  If you really don’t want to cook, find a healthy caterer or restaurant to buy it instead.

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8.  Take a good sandwich to work for one or more meals.  Peanut butter on whole wheat may be monotonous, but a) it doesn’t have to be refrigerated and b) it beats McDonald’s.

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9.  Free pizza isn’t really free.  It’s incredibly high calorie and the ingredients in the cheap kind aren’t good for you.  (Same for take out Chinese, donuts, muffins, etc)

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10.  Skip the liquid calories.  Cokes may give you an energy boost, but you are better off with real calories from a piece of fruit, a sandwich and some coffee or tea.  (but learn how to use caffeine effectively)

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January’s Healthy Habit: Fruits and Vegetables

I had already decided that I would propose a “resolution” every month this year for myself and anyone who follows this blog when I came across Cooking Light’s 12 healthy habits.  Cooking Light is one of my favorite magazines, so I’m going to take their idea and run with it!

It just makes sense to spend 30 days working on a single habit to change, rather than creating a long list of resolutions without an endpoint. If this idea works for you, take these habits (one at a time) and work on them for a month.

Here is January’s healthy habit:

Add at least 3 servings of vegetables and fruit to your daily diet

Here’s some suggestions for how to accomplish this goal.  These are some of my ideas and other ideas compiled from suggestions on thedietchannel.com, nutrition.about.com, cancer.org, and health.harvard.edu

  • Take fresh fruit or veggies with you to work to eat as a morning and afternoon snack.  The best fruit for your pocket are apples, clementines carrot and celery sticks, cherry tomatoes (in a Ziplock bag), and grapes (in a Ziplock bag).
  • Cut-up celery, carrots, bell pepper, cucumber, etc and keep them front and center in your refrigerator for snacking.   If you don’t like them plain, dip them in hummus or ranch dressing.  They’ll be fresher if you do this yourself, but if you need to, buy them already cut up in the grocery store.
  • Add fruit like berries, a banana or a cut up peach to your cereal in the morning.
  • When you shop, buy the ingredients to make a mirepoix, chop them up and store them in the refrigerator.  A classic mirepoix is carrots, celery and onion.  The Cajun “trinity” is a variation – celery, onion and bell pepper.  Pick anything that can be cooked (mushrooms, bell peppers,  are a good addition), and chop them up when you get home.  Grab a handful for stir-fries, salads, omelettes or soup.
  • Steaming vegetables is really easy and very fast.  If you don’t have fresh vegetables (or don’t want to take the time to steam them), make sure you keep steam and serve frozen vegetables in your freezer as an easy way to add vegetables to your meals at home.
  • Keep frozen fruit in your freezer to throw in a blender with yogurt or milk to make smoothies.
  • Dried fruit is a good occasional substitute for fresh fruit, but beware – it’s very caloric!
  • If you are making a sandwich to take to work, pile on veggies – spinach, shredded carrots, cucumbers etc.  Use avocado instead of mayonnaise.
  • Fruit or vegetable juice is not a great substitute, but will do in a pinch.  Most fruit juices are high in calories.  It’s always better to eat the fruit if you can so you get the fiber and other nutrients, but if there are no other options, juice is better than nothing!
  • Applesauce and canned fruit (in water) can be bought in single serving portions, or you can share larger portions!
  • If you are buying food for lunch in a cafeteria or fast food restaurant, look for vegetable soup or a salad bar than lets you pile on the veggies.
  • Sweet potatoes can be microwaved in 10-12 minutes and make a great meal when paired with a salad or some frozen veggies.
  • Choose desserts that are fruit based – and have as much fruit as possible.  Chocolate dipped strawberries or a berry cobbler are better than cheesecake!

How to Eat Well On Call

It’s Saturday and I’m on call – and it’s going to be a busy day!  We have about 75 patients on the service, we already have 4 cases done and another 4 posted, and it’s still early (~4pm)   I have a fantastic resident with me today.  We just were chatting about what we are going to do for meals today.  He didn’t have breakfast and has only had a Coke and a “borrowed” bowel of Kix cereal from the recovery room so far.  I had whole wheat toast with some goat cheese before I left my house this morning, and I here’s what I have to eat today:

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  • Strawberries
  • A handful of frozen cooked shrimp with cocktail sauce (they’ll thaw by the time I want to eat them)
  • Frozen peas (I put them in the microwave for a minute but, like the shrimp, frozen would be fine because they’ll thaw) + goat cheese, olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper
  • Leftover whole wheat orzo, artichoke hearts, tuna and lemon pasta from last night
  • An apple
  • Lemon wedges for water

My resident’s Coke is probably more than I used to have as an intern… which is STUPID.   Eating well is important to feel well, perform well and do the right thing for your patients. There is one word that explains the difference between my resident (and what I used to do) and what I do now… planning.   “I’ll just get something from the restaurant across the street later…”, “There will probably be food leftover from the GI conference…” .. “I can always eat a bagel from the lounge..” … NOT.   When you finally have a minute to grab something to eat, you won’t usually have time to go look for the food.  It’s a lot easier if its’ there and ready to eat.

Here’s how to do this right:

1. Buy a good “lunch box” .

I like the hard plastic ones that fit in an outside, insulated carrying case.  It’s a lot easier to clean up if something spills than the usual “lunch box”.

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You can use plastic (disposable) containers to carry your meals with you.  I’ve switched to glass containers because some of the data about heating the plastic containers in the microwave started sounding convincing.  It does mean you have to keep track of them and bring them home, but I suspect in the long run (if I don’t lose them) it will be cheaper than the plastic containers.   I particularly like the ones I bought because the seal is so tight that they don’t ever leak  (even for things like soup).

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2. PLAN.

The night before call, figure out what you are going to take. Make it good stuff, too!  Call nights are not the “what I know I should eat” nights.  You need to have real food (i.e. not processed) but don’t skimp.  When you get to the “I really deserve those french fries” time of your call (which we all do) you will have really delicious and balanced food  in the refrigerator.

3. Pack your meals for the next day the night before (no matter how late it is or how tired you are).

It’s the only way you’ll actually do this.   None of us when we work this hard have the energy to put together meals for the day at 5am.  This takes a little effort but the payoff is real.  You will absolutely eat better, have more energy, maintain your weight and do a better job.  Don’t forget to throw some fruit in – and to make sure it’s washed so you can just pull it out of the refrigerator for a snack.

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Food is fuel.  It’s also solice if you are stressed, and face it – it’s fun to eat. Other professions that deal with stress and physical labor have learned the lesson about not paying attention to nutrition.  The culture of medicine demands a “selflessness” that borders on the absurd.  It is often a badge of honor that you can go all day without eating.  But, when you consider the consequences of such behavior, it is really crazy.  There is no benefit to the patients, and clear harm to the doctor.

Eat often and eat well

When you are physically and intellectually busy (an average day on call in the hospital) you need to plan to eat every 3-4 hours.  In general, you will have one “meal” (i.e lunch) in the middle of the day and two snacks.  It’s not always going to possible to stop for lunch at lunchtime, but you should be able to find 10 minutes at some point in between 11 and 4 to eat a meal.  Different rotations have different demands, and you can certainly take this into account when planning your meals.  A peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat requires no preparation, and no refrigeration (it can even go in the pocket of your white coat).  Alternatively, buy a loaf of whole wheat bread every week, and put the bread, a jar of peanut butter and a jar of jelly in your locker. It takes 2 minutes to make a sandwich to put into your pocket on the way to a conference or a brief break.  Bring leftovers from the previous night’s dinner to reheat and have for lunch.  You need to plan to include fruits and vegetables as part of every meal and your snacks.  Buy a bag of apples once a week and put them in your locker.. and then make sure you eat the entire bag every week.  The snacks don’t need to be elaborate, but you do need to watch the clock and eat them – even if you are not hungry!

Examples of easy snacks for the hospital

  • “Meal replacement bars” (power bars, Luna bars, Kind bars etc)
  • “Meal replacement drinks” (Ensure, Boost, etc)
  • Skim milk with either graham crackers/peanut butter or a banana
  • Cheese stick and an apple
  • Melba toast or other crackers with sliced cheese plus some fruit
  • Yogurt