The Unemployment Diet
Saturday, October 30, 2010
Being unemployed sucks. For the obvious reasons. And some not so obvious. Stress, anxiety, fear, frustration, confusion and despair are just the beginning of the negatives involved with unemployment. I long for the days when I was newly unemployed and "only" had to deal with stress, anxiety, fear, frustration, confusion and despair. Those were halcyon days compared to what I'm now experiencing.
Here's a scary thing I learned the hard way: It is possible to Eat less than 1,300 calories a day and GAIN weight. And not just a little weight, a LOT of weight. I knew it was possible, I mean, eat nothing but a 1,300 calorie piece of cake every day and you will gain weight (and lose muscle tone and do really bad things to the rest of your body). But I don't eat a piece of cake every day. Or any day.
I have tried very hard to eat healthy - okay not always as balanced as I'd like - but healthy. I a) stay under 1,500 calories (1,300 on most days) and b) try to get at least 40 grams of protein per day. (That's 20 grams under the healthy dose but protein is expensive, I have to make realistic compromises.) Those are my rules. Period.
Here's what sucks: Food, especially fresh produce, is expensive. Forget organic. Organic produce was eliminated the day I was laid-off. My challenge is finding room in the budget for fresh, or for that matter, ANY produce. There have been some very, very, very lean weeks. Weeks when I had to live on less than $12. Plan seven days of meals on $12. Now try to incorporate fresh produce into those meals keeping in mind the $12 for seven days of meals restriction. I triple dog dare you to figure out how to eat fresh for seven days on $12. In fact, I triple dog dare you to figure out how to eat remotely healthy on a $12/week budget. In fact, I super triple dog dare you eat for seven days on a budget of $12. Clip all the coupons you can, shop at the cheapest stores and buy in bulk - I do all of that, too. And still I say: Good luck.
Mac and cheese and baked potatoes and peanut butter it is. All carefully metered out to a) last seven days and b) stay under 1,300 calories per day.
I call it the Unemployment Diet. It's all the rage these days.
One of my former coworkers who was laid off with me has a child under the age of 18. So she was recently accepted into a food stamp type of program wherein she will receive $36/week to feed her child and herself. Since I don't have kids I'm not that "lucky." But divide $36 by two people (one of whom is a growing, ravenous 13-year-old) and that shakes out to $18/week per person. Not exactly a lot more than my $12/week food budget. My former coworker is skipping meals, sometimes not eating for a day, so that her child can eat. And yet she's put on weight, too. And not just a little. Enough so that her interview suit is too snug to wear. Stress. Depression. Carbs. Low or no protein.
People sometimes wonder why/how unemployed or low-wage employed people are often overweight. I've heard statements like, "Maybe if they didn't eat Twinkies and beer..." "Can't be THAT poor, they're overweight, they're obviously eating a lot..." "Maybe they should lay off the pizza and save the pizza money for something more useful..." "Get off the couch and get some exercise and eat healthy food!" "I see people using food stamps to buy nothing but processed, starchy foods, they shouldn't be allowed to use food stamps for unhealthy food."
Yes, the unemployment/low income diet is unhealthy. High starch = high carb = high fat. Low protein = low muscle retention. Low nutrient = fattening. But. $12 for seven days of meals. A box of mac and cheese can feed a few people a meal or one person for a few days. A $3.99 bag of potatoes can feed a family for a week, a single person for a couple weeks. A jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread (whole wheat, if you can afford that luxury) will feed two kids lunch for a week or a single person a couple meals a day for seven days.
I know this because these are the choices I often have to make. I made rookie mistakes along the way, blowing my entire food budget on a couple apples, asparagus, cherry tomatoes and fresh spinach. Three days later I had nothing to eat and no money to buy more food. I scraped up change from my dwindling laundry quarter jar and borrowed $5 from a friend to buy a box of cereal and rice milk so I could eat something for the remaining four days of the week. I couldn't do laundry, but I could eat cereal. Compromise and choices, often compromising choices. Survival of the fittest? More like survival of the one with the biggest cache of laundry quarters.
Sounds like a pretty restrictive diet, yes? Sounds like I should be rail thin by now, yes?
How, then, did I gain back all the weight I worked so hard to lose plus 12 more pounds?
Did I not move from the couch or get out of bed?
No - I've been doing a lot of walking (4 - 5 miles/day) and weight training/toning at home on a daily basis.
Huh? It doesn't compute - how can you gain weight on such a restricted diet, especially while getting daily exercise?
Carbs. Very low protein. Stress. Sleepless nights (LOTS of sleepless nights). Depression. Anxiety. And did I mention an unbalanced (albeit low calorie) diet consisting of mainly carbs?
So yeah, that sucks.
Summer was "good" in terms of healthy food, though. I volunteered at my neighborhood's once/week farmer's market which equated to some produce freebies. What I didn't eat I froze, so my freezer is now stocked with fresh frozen beans, peppers, onions, squash, blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries. I bartered some other goodies - a logo design for a huge bag of almonds, enough to last several months. A label design earned me a dozen jars of homemade tomato sauce. I unloaded and loaded a bunch of melons in trade for a huge jar of pickles.
Thanks to the re-introduction of some fresh produce I dropped a few pounds. 12, to be exact. And now I'm back where I first started on Spark. My weigh-in and measurement today put me exactly where I was when I started Spark in January '09.
Which sucks. Because I've honestly been eating far less and exercising a LOT more than when I was burning through 2 - 3 pounds/week. By casual calculations I should be at my goal weight.
Ahhhh, stress. Anxiety. Depression. Carbs. Low protein. Low income. I've heard it can pack on pounds faster than an all you can eat pastry buffet. But I thought (hoped) as long as I stayed active and kept the calories around 1,300 I'd be okay.
The emotional component of physical health is real. Very real. I didn't realize how real until I witnessed what stress and depression were doing to my body. MY body. The body I was doing everything I could to keep healthy.
So that's a lot of stuff that sucks.
I'm not just venting, here. I'm hoping to enlighten some people, even one person, about the very real physical aspects of unemployment or low-wage employment. Most of us who are unemployed are not eating pizza and beer and sitting on the couch watching Maury. (I cannot afford pizza or any kind of booze, so it's out of the question, even if I wanted to eat that diet I couldn't afford it. And I rarely watch television.) Most of us are trying to manage the healthiest meals we can on very, very limited budgets.
For most of us it's more than cutting out the Starbucks and expensive specialty grocery stores. (I never went to Starbucks, rarely went to specialty food stores.) When I was employed my big splurge was on organic produce at my local mid-range, one-size-fits-all grocery store. I miss it. A lot. My body misses it. I buy frozen store-brand vegetables when they're on sale and when I have a little extra money, but they're my new luxury. That's my reality and the reality that most other unemployed people are living. So cut us a little slack if we're chubbing up a little around the middle or back-side. Don't hastily judge us and dismiss us as lazy pizza eating, beer chugging couch potatoes.