By: Susan Pohl, MD, FAAFP
My opening confession is going to be easy to accept. I am not an expert in nutrition. I do not have a degree in nutrition, I did not study at a culinary academy, and I don’t have a nutrition business to promote. Personal nutrition, however, is a topic that reveals some of my professional passions. I am passionate about preventing illness, healthcare provider wellness, and process improvement. My goal is to share a few ideas about how to make a healthy diet sustainable despite a busy schedule.
As a physician, I know the importance of thoughtful nutrition. The Mediterranean diet is an example of thoughtful nutrition. It is a diet that is low in sugar and processed foods; it includes lots of vegetables, beans, and fish. There is good evidence that a Mediterranean diet is a powerful weapon in disease prevention (1). The research, however, simply confirms my professional and personal experience. I have witnessed patients, family, and friends overcome chronic physical and mental health challenges with thoughtful eating. When I see a patient decrease or eliminate the need for medications, increase their stamina, or sleep better because of thoughtful eating, it reinforces my commitment to this pillar of health.
As a physician, educator, administrator, spouse, parent, and friend, I also recognize that good nutrition is not easy. Professional and personal schedules can make it hard to plan or to prepare meals. I have seen healthcare professionals, in particular, sacrifice their personal nutrition when their schedules become overloaded. When a clinical or personal crisis emerges, it seems easier to grab a bag of chips or get a highly processed fast-food meal. The work required to create complex and fresh meals can seem daunting when our energy is also being spent on hundreds of clinical, educational, personal, and administrative decisions.
I am not an expert in nutrition, but I am convinced that it is important. I have worked hard to improve my personal nutrition over my career. The ways that I have improved my nutrition might even reflect some of my training in quality improvement. I have made many small changes and evaluated the effects. Most importantly, I have only kept those improvements that I have found to be sustainable. I have created some personal nutrition “hacks” to help overcome the complexity around my schedule and nutrition. Merriam Webster defines a Life Hack (noun) as a simple, clever tip, or technique for accomplishing familiar tasks more easily and efficiently. The following is a list of some of my personal nutrition life hacks. I am sharing them because they are efficient, effective, and sustainable.
Dr. Pohl’s Personal Nutrition Life Hacks
Frozen Citrus Water:
Baseline – During medical school and residency, I survived on sugary coffee drinks and diet soda. Although these provided some immediate energy from caffeine, the sugar and artificial sweeteners were not beneficial. I tried substituting bottled water, but that was not effective. I did not find the bottled water satisfying, I did not drink it, and I was dehydrated at the end of the day. I enjoyed drinking water with lemon or cucumber at parties, but it seemed time-consuming to create this for my workday. I also found that it was difficult to keep the right amount of lemons available without having them spoil.
Life hack instructions – Buy citrus and cucumbers in bulk. Slice them immediately and place them in the freezer. Each morning, place a few frozen citrus or frozen cucumber slices in a refillable, wide-mouth container with cold water. Drink and refill this container with more water as needed during the day.
Now – Frozen citrus water is refreshing and easy to make. I can drink and refill my bottles during the day. I carry this from clinic to the classroom, office, or meetings. I am never dehydrated.
Mason Jar Salads:
Baseline – Early in my career, I ate frozen meals or restaurant meals for lunch each day. This was quick and easy to transport, but thoughtful nutrition and flavor was lacking. Most prepared meals are high in sodium and don’t taste very good. I tried preparing a lunch each day, but it was too time consuming and unsustainable.
Life hack instructions – Prepare a few salads in advance each week. Place 2 tablespoons of a simple dressing (olive oil/vinegar or vinaigrette) in the bottom of a mason jar. Add several layers of sturdy vegetables like cherry tomatoes, sliced peppers or olives. Top the jar with two cups of dark greens (spinach, romaine or arugula). At work, simply invert the Mason jar onto a plate and enjoy. By making 3-5 salads at once, the preparation time is limited and the process is sustainable in my schedule. Adding one or two slices of whole grain bread or previously prepared protein like tuna, chicken, or salmon makes this the start of a complete meal.
Now – I eat a salad and protien lunch most days. They are fresh and satisfying.
Bonus Beans for Breakfast:
Baseline – Early in my career, I ate cold cereal for breakfast most mornings. Although this was easy to prepare, I found that I was hungry by mid-morning. The highly processed carbohydrates in cereal can promote hunger that is distracting. I tried substituting a packaged meal-replacement bar for breakfast each morning, but I found the packaged bars unsatisfying.
Life hack instructions – Prepare a big pot of beans during the evening or weekends (a crock pot can be used to cook these overnight). Add seasoning to your taste (but limit salt). Place half of the beans in the refrigerator and freeze half of the beans for future use. Heat about half a cup (or more) of beans in the morning for a satisfying breakfast that gives long lasting energy.
Now– I eat beans for breakfast a few days a week. I alternate this between other typical breakfast foods. By preparing the beans in bulk about one time a month, this life hack is sustainable in my schedule.
Baseline – Early in my career, I used lots of packaged meals for dinner. Packaged meals seemed to be the only way to dine efficiently with my family. I found that we did not have time to prepare meals from scratch every day. Our meat, in particular, would spoil in the refrigerator.
Life hack instructions –When preparing meat, consider increasing the portions. Retain cooked chicken, beef, or fish from one meal and eat it with lunch or dinner. As an example, extra cooked salmon that is prepared for dinner one night can be a great addition to a healthy lunch the following day.
Now– When each member of my family cooks, we plan to double the meat portion of the dinner recipe on most days. This means our family cooks this portion of the meal less frequently, meals are easier, and we spend more time together as a family.
Baseline – Early in my career, my family would buy lots of groceries, but each member of the family did not use their skills and passions efficiently. We had groceries frequently spoil in the refrigerator, and we had no plan for using them. We also had no way to efficiently communicate our weekly meal plans or ideas.
Life hack instructions– Prepare a simple list of meal ideas and posts it in or on the refrigerator. Each member of the household can contribute to the planning, shopping, meal preparation, and cleaning. Reserve time in your personal schedule to create and communicate the meal options. Meal planning and delivery services can also be used to help with this task.
Now– Each adult in my family chooses a few meals to prepare each week. The meal list serves as a reminder of the available groceries for that meal. Organizing the list and having it in a standard location has reduced the spoiled groceries and made everyone happier with the meals we eat together.
Life hacks and quality improvement stories are not static. They change and develop over time. I hope to continue to develop life hacks for personal nutrition and in other areas of wellness. I also want to learn from others. If you have a personal nutrition life hack, please share them with me. (twitter: @suz_pohl)
I want to thank Dana Gershenoff, RD (a real expert in personal nutrition and health coaching) for her help in reviewing this article.
- Mediterranean diet, stroke, cognitive impairment, and depression: A meta-analysis. Ann Neurol. 2013 Oct;74(4):580-91. Sept 16 2013.
Susan Pohl, MD, FAAFP, currently practices at the Madsen Clinic in Salt Lake City, UT, and is an Associate Professor (Clinical) in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at the University of Utah.