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Eating well on the job: 9 nutrition tips
CRANAplus Senior Psychologist Nicole Jeffery-Dawes explains the connection between nutrition, gut health and wellbeing, and identifies nine ways to improve what you’re eating and drinking when working in remote communities with limited fresh food.
While researching this topic, I came across many articles that promoted the benefits of healthy eating, including the 5 + 2 mantra for fresh fruit and vegetables. This is fine in theory. However, it reminded me of a carrot I picked up in a remote desert community store that had more flexibility than a yoga teacher and about as much nutrition as an old shoe.
Looking after our nutrition is one of the three pillars of health, wellbeing and self care (along with sleep and exercise). Attending to this when living and working in rural and remote communities can be extremely challenging when access to fresh foods can be like finding a needle in a haystack.
Research has shown that good gut health can affect our moods, and in fact the gut is often called the ‘second brain’ as the GI tract influences the production of neurotransmitters that carry messages from our gut to our brain (e.g. Serotonin and Dopamine). Therefore, apart from the physical benefits of healthy eating, providing our body with healthy food sets us up for fewer mood fluctuations, improved focus and an overall better outlook on life.
Foods high in processed sugar, while easy to access and eat, can trick our brains into releasing chemicals that we may temporarily need. However, over time consumption can lead to anxiety, excessive tiredness, and worsening of mood disorder symptoms, all of which contribute to burnout.
Think about your body like a car. Put ‘premium petrol’ in and you will get good mileage and performance out of it. If you consistently put lower premium fuel in, it will be damaged over time by impurities. For those of you living in remote and isolated Indigenous communities, food security issues have been on the Government’s radar since 2009.
CRANAplus is aware of the challenges facing these areas and has made a submission to the Inquiry into Food Prices and Food Security in Remote Indigenous Communities, with recommendations, as just one way to advocate for Government and Community to address these.
The price of healthy and/or fresh food is often higher and supply can pose challenges, but there are still things we can do.
Eating the best we can in rural and remote areas requires us to think outside the box, put in preparation time and make compromises.
Here are nine hints on eating as best as we can in the circumstances we find ourselves in.
1. Have a big cook up
Some fresh fruit and vegetables may be harder to find, particularly at certain times of the year. When available, buy whatever you can afford. Cook up fruit and veg and freeze to use later. Stew apples or stone fruits; make veggie soups and tomato-based sauces for pasta, meat or veggie dishes. This is a fantastic option when you’re tired and can’t be bothered cooking, and you have wholesome foods prepared in the freezer. Alternatively, you can do a big cook up before you leave, freeze down into smaller containers, and take them with you (where possible and within weight limits).
2. Make healthier choices
If fresh fruit and veg aren’t available, buy frozen and canned ones as substitutes. Avoid those that contain added sugar and/or salt. Read food labels to check.
3. Yummy home-made snacks
Store bought or servo snacks can be high in processed sugar, so choose nuts or make some home-made bliss balls or energy bars. Most ingredients should be available and these will balance out your sugar levels over the day, so you shouldn’t experience ‘hanger attacks’.
4. Brush up on your bush tucker
Australian bush foods can be seasonal, plentiful, readily accessible and full of nutrients. Speak to Elders in your area to get permission, find out where they may be located and gather ideas about what is available, when and how to use them. Many top chefs use bush foods in their recipes now and publish them online. Local health services may even have recipe books or handouts using local bush foods. Incorporating local bush foods is an amazing opportunity to connect with the local Indigenous community. Going out to collect them as a group can help build relationships that can also assist you with your work, get you out into nature and help you feel less isolated.
5. Use reduced fat milks
While ‘fresh’ milk can be hard to come by, some of the UHT milks come in low-fat or skim and taste relatively okay (it’s an acquired taste that’s easy to get used to when there is no alternative). Plus, you can stock up on them and they’ll keep in the cupboard. Also, if you can make a trip to a bigger town, buy fresh milk and freeze if you have freezer space.
6. Choose grain breads
Multigrain bread can be harder to come by in community stores, but you will generally find wholemeal available. If possible, buy up grain breads in bigger towns, then freeze them. Often, those bigger towns will have them available in the freezer sections.
7. Speak to the local store manager
Sometimes they may be happy to order certain foods if you ask and they think they can sell any excess of them. Be aware that they can’t control the quality of fresh foods that arrive.
8. Put in a ‘station’ order
Often big retailers in larger towns of remote areas will do a significant order that is delivered by the mail plane. Get together with your colleagues and put in an order of fresh food and ingredients. Depending on where you live, this could arrive once a week or a couple of times a week. Give the supermarket a call and ask how they can help you.
9. Find a reliable source of drinking water
Even though you may get access to good food, often the water source lets you down and gives you the runs. Or, it can taste ‘less fresh’ than in bigger centres. If you’re unsure about the water supply, boil water to ensure it’s safe to cook with and drink, then keep it in the fridge.
While eating well is one of the three pillars of health and wellbeing, we don’t always treat it as a priority when we are working in a remote or isolated community. Yet we need to prioritise it, and in so doing, prioritise ourselves.
Put some time and effort into thinking about what food you can take remote (based on transport options to get to your destination), what you can make and store, and how long you are there. Make the time to take all of this into consideration, plan and, if possible, make and freeze meals.
Remember, it pays to be flexible with what we can use and access whilst trying not to use too many processed goods. This will assist with keeping our sugars stable and looking after our wellbeing by providing good nourishment.
Although it will take a bit of extra time and planning, you are worth every minute of it.
Dr Nicole Jeffery-Dawes
- Williams, H. Avoid burnout: self-care strategies for nurses. Health Times. Last Updated: 16-08-2021
- Selhub, E. Nutritional psychiatry: Your
brain on food. Harvard Healthy publishing, Harvard Medical School. March 26, 2020.
- Department of Health. Healthy weight guide for people living in rural and remote areas. Accessed 10 Sep 2021 at https://healthyweight. health.gov.au/wps/portal/Home/helping-hand/different-needs/for-people-living-in-rural-and-remote-areas
Did you enjoy this content? You may also like our Mindful Monday e‑newsletter, which provides tailored wellbeing advice to the remote health workforce every week.