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Winning the long game with Dusty Stevenson

Every few years I have small revelations and learn new things. The first few years of my career were all about technical revelations, learning programming and procedural workflows. The few years after that were learning the business ropes and how to negotiate rates and deal with contracts. The last few years of my career have been more humbling. After years of working day and night, I reached record levels of fatigue and different kinds of burn out. All because I didn’t really think about taking care of myself. No one talks about it! How would I know? People talk about programming and technical things, a few people give you business tips. When’s the last time someone told you to drink lots of water when you wake up? When’s the last time you were on a job site and someone said “well, we could keep plowing through today, but we’ll be here for a week so we should get a full 8 hours of sleep tonight and just pick up tomorrow”? I doubt you’ve heard either!

That’s why for this week’s blog post I did a short AMA/interview with my good friend Dusty Stevenson. Dusty Stevenson is a registered dietitian/nutritionist based out of Toronto, Canada. She is the founder of Live Good Nutrition or posts a ton of pro tips on Instagram. She’s been a close friend for years and she’s given me tons of great advice over the years and given me new ways of thinking about food in a real way. I was surprised by her relaxed approach to thinking about food. No hard or fast rules, just trying to do a little bit better and make the best decisions you can in whatever circumstance you’re in. It’s been a ton of help for me.

With all that said, I present Dusty Stevenson:

Why do tech people come to you for consulting about food? What’s so important about what we’re eating?

Dusty: The clients in tech that I see are typically coming because they’re burned out, struggling with energy levels throughout the day or have decided that they want to make a change in their diet. They tend to have really irregular meal patterns, rely on convenience/fast foods and caffeine to get through the day. For most people, eating well isn’t a priority when they’re busy. Stress and lack of sleep will also play a big role in our appetite, food choices and eating patterns so when we get busy, stressed and sleep deprived that’s when we start to develop poor habits.  What we eat can help in a big way to improve performance, clarity of thinking and longevity in the business. There is a lot of information available out there but it’s hard to figure out what things may actually be useful and what’s bogus and a waste of time.

Can you give a few examples of more specific types of people that come to you for advice and how you’ve helped them?

Dusty: My interest in nutrition and food is mainly in preventative and digestive/gut health and I find this applies to most of the clients that I see. If your digestive tract isn’t functioning well then you can’t expect your body to digest and absorb the foods you’re putting. It won’t matter how ‘healthy’ you’re eating or what supplements you’re taking; if digestion is failing then you’re going to have a hard time feeling good. Digestive issues aren’t always obvious either. Little things like skin issues, poor energy levels, bloating and reflux can be small signs of something bigger going on inside but are often ignored and accepted as a normal part of life. Digestive health isn’t just affected by food either. We have to consider stress, poor sleep, environmental factors and illness in addition to diet.

We’re also learning more about how gut health translates into mental health and cognitive function so the potential of food is pretty cool. So my role is working with the client to figure out the foods and strategies that can help them get there.

For example, I had a client that traveled extensively for work and like a lot of people, the food choices were never great – a lot of eating out, fast food, and skipping meals. The combination of travel and food left him feeling tired, often sick and generally low. When we first met we chatted about what things were in their control while traveling and what wasn’t; being realistic about what you can actually change and making it easy is so key to implementation. Based on our chat we made a plan for travel, bringing some snacks, packing a few supplements to support him, drinking more water and trying to include more whole foods when possible. Over the year I’ve seen this client and he continues to stick to the plan we made – now he never gets sick while away and tells me about the dramatic change he feels in his energy, feeling more stable throughout the day and not completely drained when he gets back home. The changes that we made for him were small and it just shows that we don’t have to be perfect but we can’t neglect our body either. We need to find a balance in the middle so we’re not swinging between extremes or playing catch up with sleep/diet/exercise when things aren’t so busy.

What are the common problems you see in tech folks and your clients?

Elburz: I don’t have clients asking about it, but one common issue is lack of sleep and eating junk food on the job site. People get on site excited to work. They work 18 hours a day and take 15 minute food breaks or just eat in their work seat. Then by day 3 or 4 everyone is in a shitty mood and working slower and getting snippy. Then you realize you’ve got another 3-4 days at least! Yikes.

Dusty: From my experience a lot of my clients lives lack structure because of the demands of their jobs and so it’s trying to build in some kind of routine or at least awareness around their habits and choices.  A lot of the problems that I see (see question 1) come about because clients are looking for quick fixes to make it through the day/the next job and don’t think about the long game.

If there’s one thing you could tell tech folks (and get them to do it) what would it be?

Elburz: Eat salads…jeez. When’s the last time you ate a bunch of vegetables? There’s a lot of good stuff in there. Energy! Vitamins! All kinds of stuff (that I don’t know much about haha!).

Dusty: Only one thing? Try to develop some awareness around how the foods you eat make you feel – draw a connection between “I ate this, and I felt/performed this way”. The food that you eat is essentially sending a message to your body, telling it what to do. Eating foods that are quickly digested (like sugars/refined foods/processed snack foods/etc.) is like telling your body “Ok, I’m going to be active!” Then when you sit at your desk your body will digest it, make the energy available and if you’re not active then your body will put it into storage and so you’ll get hungry again shortly after. You can easily get into a cycle of eating high energy foods for a quick fix followed by energy slumps and brain fog in the day. It’s a challenging cycle to get out of and it does nothing for your long term productivity. Eating foods that digest more slowly (like fibre and protein) will support more sustained energy and send a more appropriate message to the body. So try different fuels and take notice of which ones work best for you.

Where do exercise/sleep play into the overall health of things? Does your work touch on that?

Elburz: Everyone’s different in how much sleep they need, but everyone is the same when it comes to what happens when they don’t get it: your brain slow downs, your attitude gets worse, you get agitated faster…nothing positive! Sleep however much you need to sleep.

Dusty: Can we add stress to this list? I routinely incorporate all of these into consults. Thinking that the food we eat is just this isolated element in the body is really old thinking. The body functions as a whole so without taking into consideration factors like stress, sleep and exercise – the things that impact our hunger/fullness/appetite/hormones/digestion/absorption/etc. then my recommendations would be pretty useless. Trying to make changes to an eating pattern without focusing on sleep and stress management is almost hopeless. Our body will naturally crave quick energy foods or more foods when we’re in this state and it’s hard to override these cravings without addressing the root cause of the issue (stress and/or sleep). I definitely give recommendations for getting a better sleep and strategies for stress management. I’m trying to incorporate more exercise suggestions for clients but I typically suggest to just be active in some way. Try to get a short walk in after meals or light stretching – these things can help with digestion too.

What advice do you give to people who are on the move a lot or might find themselves on a random job site/hotel for 2 weeks?

Elburz: I ask this one because I think the hardest part about our work is that it’s very destabilizing to your lifestyle. I’m basically on the road all the time, so I find it hard to make good food habits, and it’s a constant struggle for me, especially since you’re usually surrounded by people who want to go to McDonald’s or similar fast food spots. My advice is actually what Dusty told me about food (which I paraphrase): Make the best choice you can in the situation, it might not be perfect but it’s ok, just try to make better choices.

Dusty: This is definitely a struggle and changes are easier said than done. I think part of the problem though is that people think that eating is more of an annoyance or bother and don’t think of the potential that eating well can have on their work. Sometimes you have to really feel the difference of eating well before you can start to make different choices. I can’t tell you the number of times clients have said “Isn’t there just a pill that I can take that has all the vitamins in it that I need” just so they don’t have to eat. That’s not the way our bodies have evolved to function. So until that’s the case I think we need to start thinking that eating well is part of our job; it should be part of the preparation and packing. Just like you would make sure you pack all of the essential gear with you for a job we need to make sure we’ve prepared just in case the food available isn’t the greatest. Because food is fuel that keeps you going – both your brain and your body so picking the right foods for the job will help you in the long run. Most people I see in tech are young and their bodies are pretty resilient at that age but I see them pushing their luck by neglecting their body with unhealthy/unhelpful fuel. We’ve got to think long-term and how the food we eat affects the body. The thinking around foods purpose/role needs to change and people need to get on board.

Some tips that I give for people who are on the move or staying in hotels long-term are:

Drink water – pick a few points in the day to drink water. I find it’s easier than having a big goal and having to drink it all in the evening before bed because you neglected it all day

Sleep – adequate sleep and feeling rested helps us make better food choices and regulates our hunger and fullness much better than when we’re tired

Pack snacks – bars, nuts, seeds, dried fruit – reserve these things for when you don’t have a chance to stop for a meal or when the choices are less than ideal

Make a stop at a grocery store – pick up some pre-cut fruit or vegetables, hummus, whole grain crackers, oatmeal, plain yogurt, nuts, seeds, dried fruit – try to make yourself a breakfast (overnight oats/oatmeal). At the very least you have a good breakfast and some snacks for your hotel room.

Sometimes though, going out for fast food is just life and we can’t stress about it. Your diet isn’t going to be perfect so I wouldn’t strive for that, just make the best choice that you can and move on. Stressing about it can be just as bad.  

If someone was really interested in upping their food game and really feeling great all the time and winning the long game, are there resources your recommend?

Dusty: See a dietitian and get some individualized recommendations. Reading things online and educating yourself is great but working with someone can get you there a lot faster.

Since I think sleep and stress management play a big role in nutrition I would recommend reading up on the importance of sleep. The book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker provides some convincing arguments for focusing more on sleep. And for stress management I typically suggest meditation. I love the Headspace app. Meditation isn’t a big commitment and you can do it anywhere.

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Speed round:

1) Best snack to carry in your bag onto a long flight since airplane food sucks?

Elburz: Lots of RxBars. My water bottle full of water. Then I constantly just take my bottle up to the flight attendants when they aren’t busy and fill it up. Those little cups of water are definitely not enough.

Dusty: First check out what the airport has to offer. There are better snacks and meals available than there used to be, you just have to look. Look for things that include whole foods (vegetables, fruits whole grains, chicken/fish/beans/lentils, etc). If you’re stuck then try to pick up a bar, nuts, seeds. Maybe even pack a real snack from home.

2) Best snack to buy from a regular ol’ convenience store if you’re hungry in a pinch?

Elburz: Depends where you are. Not all convenience stores are created equally. In Asia you have a lot of options, full on decent meals, my favorite being the onigiri!

Dusty: Jerky or nuts and seeds. Check the label and try to pick one with lower sodium and sugars.

3) Best snack/drink to give you a boost of energy when you’re running low?

Elburz: Guilty confession – Krating Daeng!

Dusty: Green tea is great for an energy boost because it has caffeine but is lower than coffee or energy drinks (and often we just need hydration when we’re feeling low in energy). Green tea also contains L-theanine, an amino acid that helps promote concentration, calmness and helps reduce stress and anxiety. Black tea will also contain L-theanine but I just like green tea more 😉

4) Best protein bar to keep at the bottom of your bag in case of emergency?

Elburz: I used to have Clif bars, but Dusty told me there’s a lot of sugar and processed stuff in them, so I switched to RxBars.

Dusty: RxBar or Lara; try to get a bar made with more whole foods and avoid more processed bars.

Wrap up

I can’t thank Dusty enough for her time and thoughts. You can see more of her work and words on Live Good Nutrition or her Instagram. I can’t stress enough to people in our industry, both new and old, taking care of yourself is the only way you can actually have a career. Careers aren’t a thing you have after a few years, you’re still learning in those first few years. After 6 or 7 years, then you start to get into “this is my career” zone, and if you don’t take care of yourself, you’ll be haggard, slow, and beat up by the time you get there and you’ll want to throw in the towel. So eat well, sleep long, and keep your energy up for the long game! If you want to learn more about food, you can

Gallery

Normally I have some photos of the person I’m talking to buy Dusty recently launched her YouTube channel so you can check out what she’s up to in this cool video:

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