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Remote Life: Nutrition for the Dispersed Workforce

A five part series written for remote professionals who want to take their life and careers to a new level. This is Part Two in the series.

Having not visited the grocery store in a week, my cabinets seemed a little bare this morning. Knowing my lunch was going to be somewhat nonexistent, I ventured out into the warming morning sun and clipped into my bike. As I peddled away, I knew I’d have a decision to make later in the day: settle on a few select snacks to tide me over, or grab something fast and (you guessed it) unhealthy.

Before we get too far into the topic, let me provide a quick story that points us in the right direction for the role nutrition plays in my daily remote work life today.

My “Why”

Well into my late-20’s, nutrition was just a word. I’d routinely live on a variety of sugars, refined or otherwise, carb-loaded meals, and a lot of local beer (maybe not so “local” back in college; Natty was cheap!). Food was just food; not a specific fuel for anything in particular.

The interesting thing is that I didn’t really understand—or, I wasn’t aware—that I never felt that well. It’s a common condition, I’ve come to learn.

Around that same time, I badly injured my knee in a rec basketball game. My patellar tendon dislocated in an off/on moment of white hot pain, and for the better part of the next year I was out of commission in one way or another. I deflated into a pattern of eating poorly and certainly lacking much meaningful physical excursion. For the first time in my life I felt old.

I felt bad physically, and worn down mentally, but I wasn’t even 30. Almost an entire year of struggle passed when I decided I needed a change.

After a little initial research and a couple key friends, I hopped on a road bike for the first time. It felt great to be strengthening my knee in a way that was low impact. But still, something was missing. On a molecular level, my body felt weak. But, why?

I’d usually just eaten and the “tank” was full. After the year I had, I was fed up (not unrelated if you haven’t seen this film). Something needed to change. Isn’t it funny how feeling bad peaks our curiosity as to what’s going on within our own ecosystems?

Finding a Baseline

Allow me to first state the obvious: no one nutritional approach is right for everyone. At the end of the day, you need to find something that works for your own body, the type of exercise you’re involved with, and the demands your situation calls for.

That being said, hopefully the goal of everyone’s nutrition is relatively the same. By that I mean, sustaining energy throughout the day without reliance on caffeine, sugar, or other vices. If you don’t want that, well, this article isn’t for you! Carry on.

In my opinion, nutrition (like exercise) is a “why” pillar of life. Meaning, no one’s going to do it for you, and your own personal “why” for making a change is up to you. If you don’t feel strongly enough about it, and there isn’t a “why” that presents itself strongly enough, nothing will change.

Jump In

Three years ago I started eating “strict” Paleo. It was all the rage in the lean-eat worlds, but beyond the fad I felt there could be validity there: cut the junk, balance vegetables with meats, and stop relying on sugar to get through each day. I gave it a shot.

The first week was terrible: I felt lethargic, grumpy, and mostly meh. But things quickly changed when my body stopped relying on sugar and grains. I started feeling “brighter” and better overall. I paired this new nutritional approach with more bike riding and a few classes at the gym each week.

Rather than feeling gassed, I felt energized. Days didn’t drag on, and I was excited to try new recipes instead of doing whatever resulted in the fastest or easiest meal possible.

I began integrating food into my life unlike many Americans. In other words, food had nothing to do with what was fast and easy, but became something I enjoyed preparing and savoring in due time.

The better I felt, the more I was drawn to cooking. The more I made my own foods and understood what was going into them, the more I wanted to experiment because I had the energy (and interest) to do so. I was finding my baseline, and it felt great.

Labels Mean Nothing

Experimenting in and around the Paleo movement lead me to a few personal pillars of nutritional practice that I can still stand by today after years of practice.

While I don’t care for labels or fads surrounding a particular way of eating, eating in the Paleo space for a time did bring up certain personal truths. Truths that I only realized from taking action:

  • Cutting sugar, dairy, and excess grain from my diet immediately boosts my long term energy. A lot of bread, beer, or pasta comes with noticeable “weight” now.
  • Eating a breakfast of real foods every day directly correlates to a more productive day at the office. I feel an immediate down tick in energy in productivity otherwise.
  • Limiting alcohol consumption positively impacts the way I feel both in the immediate term and the following morning. This is challenging since I do enjoy beer.
  • When I eat “good fats” I tend to think more clearly. My brain feels more alert. Quite the opposite feeling from sugar and grain.

You may be thinking, “Big deal! Those are basics.” Well, yeah, they are. But with a country that has an obesity rate of 35, they’re basics that the majority of our colleagues ignore. Something’s off. Add to that a sedentary remote work lifestyle and it’s easy to fall into bad habits.

What I’ve found is that it’s never just one thing. It’s the sum of the parts.

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Daily Decisions

I make conscious decisions daily to make sure I’m staying on track nutritionally. I combine this with an active lifestyle that best suits me, but I’ll save that for another part in this series.

As far as specific eating patterns go, here are a few tips for what I’ve found balances and energizes me the most during a typical remote work day. I’ll mostly leave science out of this, because I’m not a doctor and you may want to dive into your own research regardless.

However, I will again note that I never knew how poorly I felt before I made these changes. When we eat a certain way for so long, we don’t know how much better we can actually feel. In a sense, we’re under a “spell” from the foods we’re eating, unbeknownst to us at the time.

Breakfast

Wake up early enough to ensure your daily routine incorporates enough time to prepare real food for the first meal of the day. Throw away the boxed stuff and consider fresh eggs, vegetables, a couple slices of bacon, and water. Toss the orange juice (sugar) and pour out your favorite cereal (grains and more sugar).

The big thing to keep in mind at breakfast is that it sets the tone for your day. Immediately sending a bunch of sugar into your body (cereal, bread, orange juice, sugary coffees) will spike your blood sugar level, leading to a crash early on in the day. It will also increase reliance on more sugar to feel like “yourself” each day. There’s a lot of misinformation out there about breakfast, but I strongly feel it’s the most important meal of the day.

Consider adding a real food based multivitamin with your breakfast, too, and branch out from there. Omegas, B vitamins, and other blends could potentially provide an uptick for your unique body and physical needs, too.

Coffee

Stay away from a routine of sugar and milk-filled coffee drinks, including fraps, capps, and lattes. We all love them (myself included, let’s be real) but your body will become addicted to both the sugar and caffeine remarkably quickly. You know that nagging feeling when you haven’t had your coffee fix yet? That’s it. Getting into routines of 2, 3, 4+ coffees a day is not a good thing. I once knew of a designer who would constantly reheat coffee in the microwave all day long to keep the drip coming!

If you do drink coffee, do so sparingly, and keep it as black as possible. Or, add a non-sugary creamer like unsweetened almond milk. You begin to defeat the purpose with sugar, milk, and other additives. Caffeine from excess coffee intake is known to have addictive properties, as well as trigger migraines, diarrhea, and body jitters.

You know how it feels to be on the losing end of a caffeine binge...

Snacks

This one is huge. Getting the crap away from your desk is important. Snacks should be limited to real food and sparingly between meals. “Real food” means a piece of fruit or a few pieces of jerky, not half a bag of chips, a donut, or a stack of wheat crackers.

If you have to eat on the go, resort to taking along products that are as real as possible, providing you a boost in between meals.

My go-to bars or snacks include Justin’s Nut Butters, Larabars, RxBars, and the occasional water container with some protein powder thrown in for consumption later. If you are a meat lover, you might also want to branch out into Epic Bars, or similar, but sometimes the “meat” consistency can be odd (worth a mention).

The tricky thing with snacks is providing a meaningful balance of nutrition without additives and extras. In other words, without the fake stuff and a half cup of sugar. I used to take down Pro Bars quite often, but the more I had them, the more I became weirded out with the ingredients list and amount of sugar (which may be labeled as sucrose, maltodextrin, dextrose, etc.). Sugar is sugar.

Bottom line for snacks: the more crap taken in, the worse off we’ll feel longer term. Getting tough on snacking rules can have remarkable impacts in daily energy.

Primary Meals

Some remote workers tend to eat at odd hours, or hours that are more suited to their daily routines. That’s fine, and the important thing to remember is that having (a) lunch and (a) dinner gives our bodies what it needs throughout the course of a day.

The routine of having little to no breakfast, a fast food lunch, and a late night dinner will wreak havoc on your body’s energy, physique, and mental stability. Been there, done that, and it’s not sustainable! If you’re 20 and shaking your head, give it a few years, kid.

If you want to change the way you and your mind feels over the long haul, stop microwaving meals or picking up a greasy togo order every day. So what should you be eating?

Again, this is unique to our own bodies. I aim for real food, a balance of vegetables and meat, as little grain filler as possible, and a lot of salad.

This doesn’t mean I don’t grab a burrito once a week, or indulge in carby Indian food here or there, but those aren’t habits that reflect everyday eating habits.

Water

Probably one of the most important aspects of nutrition—and often overlooked—is drinking water. A body that is constantly dehydrated is a body that is struggling to remain energized, no matter the food consumed.

As a remote worker, we’re typically sitting or standing at our desks for 6-10 hours a day. I try to keep a glass of water nearby, and aim to consume roughly 16 oz an hour. I start and end my day with water, and the difference is drastic as compared to days “on the go” when water consumption is limited.

If you’re someone who is bad about following through with water, there are lifehacks for you! Grab a water bottle with markers for the quantity, and hit that each day. Download a water tracking app for reminders. Add a repeating calendar alert 3x a day. Do something, anything, to get your mind floating towards progress.

Sleep

Of note, eating too late alters our sleep patterns and forces our bodies to do the work of digestion as we try to hit the pillow, providing ample opportunity for restless, dream-filled sleep. If you aren’t sleeping well, now or in the future, think about your nutrition the previous day (or your overall pattern).

For me, quite often a restless night of sleep will directly correlate to a day where my nutrition was off-balance or out of routine entirely. Those days are tough to get right, but they only reinforce how much better I feel when I do eat well and consume water throughout the day.

Getting Real

We’ve all been to the conferences. South by, An Event Apart, the other cool-right-now thing. They’re fun. But haven’t you noticed? A lot of those smart people walking around take terrible care of themselves. Those 5 coffee, burger filled days are apparent.

The dagger within a profession that is so computer-facing is that we’re all saddled with nutritional and physical battles. These daily challenges often lead to longer term issues both nutritionally and physically, and when unchecked, can get out of hand quickly.

An extra pound here or there isn’t a big deal, but consider an extra pound or two each year, slowly building as habits remain the same. Suddenly, ten years later, you realize you’re 20 pounds heavier, and less energized than ever, all because you dropped the ball on eating habits.

As human beings we’re fighting little things for a lifetime: gravity, food, laziness. They’re snowballs on a hill we’re constantly trekking without a doubt.

The easiest decision is to sit on our butts, sliding down that hill forever. It’s fun for a while, but the speed picks up and suddenly we’re out of control. The hardest decision—and most rewarding—is slowly walking up that hill, pushing up and away these barriers that pressure us all.

Nutrition and learning more about that topic in a more detailed sense all comes back to your why. Why am I doing this? For myself? For my partner? For my kids in the other room?

When you know why you’re doing something, the act of actually doing it suddenly becomes a little less harsh; a little less chaotic; and before you know it, you’re onto something positive.

Next in the Series

In part three of this series, I look at exercise and it’s importance within remote work cultures for long lasting physical and emotional well being.

The Complete Series

Remote Life 1: The Art and Struggle of the Daily Routine
Remote Life 2: Nutrition for the Remote Workforce
Remote Life 3: Making Exercise a Priority
Remote Life 4: Networking as Relationship Building
Remote Life 5: The Remote Worker’s Guide to Travel

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