Updated: Sep 7, 2021
Can we help prevent burnout by eating a balanced diet?
It's the modern equestrian paradox: we analyse what's in our horse's feed to the n-th degree, but we don't even glance at the ingredients on the processed food we grab for ourselves. My feed room is immaculate, and well organised, but my kitchen is full of stuff I don't (and won't) ever use. Nothing in my feed room is out of date, but there are definitely some questionable looking things in the back of my fridge.
Why? Because I'm busy, I suppose. But I'm not too busy to find out the amount of starch/iron/calcium etc in my horse's feed... So why am I too busy to care about what goes into my body?
For me, the answer is this: Because it doesn't interest me enough to spend time thinking about it. I know it should, but it just doesn't.
Don't get me wrong, I like good food, made with fresh ingredients, but preferably by someone else! When I'm busy, I just don't have the inclination to cook. I know some people who spend their day at work thinking about what they're going to create for supper. They find the desired recipe, go to the shops especially to buy all the necessary ingredients on the way home, and then spend the next few hours creating in the kitchen. Those are probably the same people who go to the gym AND have a shower before work. They're organised and clean and healthy. I feel like they've got their life in order.
But... But... But... They don't have horses.
Me? I don't think about food until I'm hungry, by which time it's too late to cook anything, and chances are, I don't have the energy anyway. It's not that I'm eating ready meals or take away every night; I do 'cook' most of the time. I'm just pretty sure it's not as nutritionally balanced as my horse's feed is! And this was true when I worked in the corporate world too. I did exercise before work back then, but it consisted of mucking out seven stables, definitely not showering, then turning up to to my 8am meeting with hay in my hair and muck under my fingernails. Breakfast would be a muffin from the canteen. Then I'd rush back home, ride three or four, put the yard to bed, log back onto my work computer to check nothing had gone tits up as the USA side of the business ground into gear, whilst eating some white pasta and pesto and drinking a glass of wine. I also consumed a lot of caffeine.
And then I burnt out.
OK, so there were many factors that contributed to my burning out, but I've learned that diet is one of the biggest. The more tired I am, the less inclined I am to eat healthily. The less healthily I eat, the more tired I feel. Then comes the caffeine. When you're tired, it seems only natural to reach for the tea or coffee, but I've learned the hard way that numerous cups per day isn't great. You see, caffeine triggers a fight-or-flight response within your body. In other words, it causes a stress reaction. So lots of caffeine equals higher amounts of stress, which obviously isn't great if you're already on the burnout path.
The irony is that we're all (I'd like to think) relatively intelligent people, who know, deep down, that our diet isn't great and we should do something about it. But the problem is that our lifestyles lead us to companies that cash in on those of us who are 'time poor'. They KNOW we're too busy to scrutinise what goes into our bodies, so they use low quality ingredients, a few fillers and the small print is really, really small... Too small to bother reading, really. Just the opposite to the horse feed companies, which cash in on us all wanting to know exactly what goes into their products - they make a song and dance about only using high quality ingredients, zero fillers and list them proudly all over their packaging and websites. It's all in the marketing, but that's a whole other subject.
So because the fast food/ready meal/etc companies make it easy for us to grab something quickly, we keep buying them, even though they probably have huge amounts of sugar, salt and bad fats in, which we KNOW we shouldn't have too much. However, we're tired and simply don't have the energy to cook anything healthier of (we'll eat better next week... Yuhuuh?!). We're then deficient in too many nutrients to list, so we feel low. Then we drink coffee to perk ourselves up again... There goes the caffeine stress response. Aaaaaannnnd the burnout cycle continues.
What's the answer then? Full disclosure, I don't know. I haven't yet figured out how to be a fully functioning, healthy, balanced, well rested, 5-a-day eating equestrian.
But I'm damn well giving it a go. Some days I'm excellent at it, but some days I'm terrible. I think the good days outweigh the bad now, but it's only improving by trial and error. I think the main thing is that I'm conscious of how my diet contributes to my burnout symptoms, and if I'm finding myself craving sugary/salty/fatty foods, I'm probably nearing the edge of my burnout cliff.
Regardless of what's happening on a particular day, I will ALWAYS eat breakfast.
Busy day teaching? Start with some porridge. Up super early to go competing? Make some overnight oats to take with me and eat en route. Day in the office? Loads of fruit and a smoothie to keep my mind off the Hobnobs in the larder. Probably the one meal I absolutely nail every damn day.
I'm the worst at eating lunch though. I struggle to stop during the day when there are so many things that need doing, and if there's nothing easy to grab to eat quickly, I just can't be bothered to eat anything, OR I grab chocolate. However, I've recently started making large batches of dahl, with coconut milk and sweet potato, which I can quickly heat up a spoonful or two of and get back out to carry on teaching within 5 minutes. When I do eat a healthy lunch, I notice my energy levels are better, and when supper time comes around, I'm not crashing and craving carby rubbish.
Supper is usually a sweet potato, popped in the microwave for 15 minutes and eaten with some butter, salt and spinach/rocket/whatever green stuff we have in the fridge. Plus maybe some Baked Beans if I can be bothered. I'm challenging myself to recreate the recipes on our website at the moment though - I feel I should practice what I preach! I'm also addicted to tomato and mozzarella salad... Super easy and just delicious.
My diet is far from ideal, and I do often feel myself wanting to slip back into my old meal-skipping, coffee-guzzling, carb-loading days, but it's certainly improved over the last couple of years and I can tell you now, I definitely feel better when I'm on the culinary straight and narrow.
So, yes... I know my diet is directly related to my burnout. If I want to avoid burning out, I need to eat well. Simple, really!