Ask A Swole Woman is an advice column for people who are sick of clean eating, perfect gym outfits, and chiseled abs. Casey Johnston, who is not a doctor or personal trainer but isn’t afraid to tell gym bros to get the hell away from her squat rack, is here to answer all your fitness questions, and wants you to be healthy, enjoy carbs, and get jacked.
I have a chronic health condition that leaves me exhausted. With my medications, I can manage to make it to work, but sometimes I still have a flare up and have to call in. But all of my energy is spent when I am at work—once I get home, I can barely stay standing, let alone meal prep, cook for myself, or get a workout in. Are there any low-energy or quick ways that I can prep healthier meals for work lunches and dinners? My husband has no problem cooking, but he has a hard time thinking outside the “red meat and potato” box, and I honestly don’t think he knows how or wants to know how to cook veggies or lean proteins, and definitely isn’t down for experimenting with other protein sources like beans/chickpeas/soy. Please help! I know a healthier diet could make a huge difference in my daily symptoms, but it seems like an impossible hurdle of grocery shopping, meal prepping, and hours in the kitchen. — Staci
Firstly, before we even get to the practical tips and strategies for eating healthier during the week, it seems to me that you need to have a couple of serious conversations with your husband about your priorities. I would sincerely communicate the seriousness with which you take this aspect of your life and how concretely it matters to your health. Eating healthy is hard, but annoyingly, it’s worth it. If he knows and loves you, and is the primary food-preparer in the house, he (and any domestic partner who takes on that particular chore) should take seriously the idea that how he does this job meaningfully affects both of your daily lives, particularly your health condition.
The next communication topic would be figuring out a small set of foods and recipes you both agree he can prepare and you will eat. This doesn’t mean he has to go all-in on gourmet dishes for every meal, but you guys can surely figure out 10 or so dishes that you can rotate through to help you start to get in a rhythm. Do you guys like quesadillas? Burritos? Curry? Chicken soup? Maybe chili or a nice bolognese will tickle his red-meat preferences?
This issue comes up a lot when one member of a family decides to start taking care of themselves, and beyond asking them to help you take care of yourself and hoping that they hear you, there’s only so much you can do about other people’s lifestyle indulgences, and/or propensity to feel kinda shitty every day, and/or choice to die sooner rather than later. I wouldn’t spend too much time on this struggle, but it’s worth attempting; if some efforts don’t pay off, other tips listed below may end up proving more useful in dealing with this particular issue. If your husband is still resistant after your conversation, then just make that list of 10 meals for yourself.
I empathize with your situation and it’s a tough one to be in, but I’m skewing this advice to the practical side of things because I think you want more than empathy and because much of this can help anyone whose energy levels or motivation with regard to food represent a struggle. Some of the tips further down may help your husband execute his part, but will also help you get things done if he just can’t get it together (though honestly, it really sounds like he should shape up).
Figure out a maximum food budget.
This sounds dumb, but hear me out. There are an infinite number of videos and articles instructing us on how to feed a family of four for $50 a week. It’s possible, sort of—although those meal plans never have enough protein for anyone who works out. But when you adhere to plans like these, you are often trading convenience, flavor, and some much-needed novelty for money in the bank. Sometimes you need to save that money! But as you so correctly pointed out, food is a big cornerstone of our well-being, and eating well affects how we feel on a daily basis. People are out here in developed countries in our modern day going blind for lack of a balanced diet. Food is a thing that if you can afford to, is worth spending money on.
As far as budget, I come from a family that would never buy that $3 tin of smoked trout when the 50-cent can of tuna is right there. We were a family of six, so those costs could compound really fast. But now that it’s just me, if I’m six times more likely to reach for that smoked trout which takes one sixth the time of tuna to make taste good (in fact, it takes no time at all and it tastes good right out of the tin), it does make sense to spend that little bit of extra money on things that smooth that groove. It’s taken me a bit of time to grasp that but I’ve made peace with it, because sometimes that $3 trout means I don’t get stuck spending $15 on a sandwich at work, so if you think about it that way, I’m saving $12 by spending an extra $2.50. Often, it means I don’t end up having bags of chips and cereal for dinner. Am I doing some light false equivalencies here? Maybe. But if convenience and budget are a spectrum, and I’m entitled as an adult to spend my resources how I want, there is not as much shame as some people would have you think in spending more than the bare minimum on groceries.
This is all a way of saying, it may take some experimentation, but it can be worthwhile to figure out where you can throw a little money at the meal prep problem. There is bottomless money-saving content out there, and the Oregon Trail Chef or whomever will tell you how to repurpose corn silk or make your own tomato sauce, which only makes financial sense as long as you manage to source discount, in-season plum tomatoes from Aldis. But do you know how much time and energy it takes to monitor the tomato prices, specifically at Aldis, pounce when the time is right, blanch the tomatoes, seed them, cook them down, season them properly, and store them? Hours. Hours to save like $3 on just buying a jar of tomato sauce. Will homemade tomato sauce be better? Sure. But your time and energy have value that the trendy modern disdain for convenience foods, or the idea of spending money on them, doesn’t adequately reckon with. The slightly more convenient food you don’t have to cook is often worth more than the ultra budget-sparing food that you will or that will take an inordinate amount of time to prepare.
After you’ve figured out what foods you and your husband agree on (or what foods you like, if you’re going rogue), figure out how many shortcuts you can afford while still keeping the meals nutritionally balanced. Sauces, spices, shelf-stable products, slightly fancier and tastier versions of staple foods—these things can be worth it. A thing I’ve started doing to feed my need for protein is buying mostly-prepared foods, like pre-packed burritos or frozen meals, and adding extra meat I’ve cooked to them. This way I don’t have to cook and assemble my own burritos from scratch, but still get an edible meal with the nutrients I need. Trader Joes frozen turkey meatballs are great; so is the aforementioned smoked trout. These things cost a few dollars more than preparing from scratch, but it saves me hours of time. It’s okay to meet yourself where you are, but you have to be honest with yourself about where that is. “Where you are” might not be “meal prepping for a whole week on only 50 dollars,” and that’s okay.
Look for everyday recipes.
A problem I have with online food content is not unlike the problem I have with a lot of fitness content, which is that the easiest stuff to find seems targeted at the most extreme enthusiasts. In the case of food people, that means those who entertain a lot (a LOT), or I suppose possibly people who are just bored of subsisting on regular foods. In the same way I don’t need to know “17 New Moves To Smoke Your Biceps” and just need to know how to bench-press, I don’t need to know how to make [checks Bon Appetit homepage] Miso Pork Ribs with Chile Honey Glaze. I just need how to cook a pork chop or pork loin, and some sort of simple side that will go with it. I wanna know what temperature to roast some frozen broccoli at and for how long, without a hundred Takes on the Best Broccoli Recipe of All Time leaping out at me. I feel like our parents just had like, one cookbook that had this basic information and weren’t inundated with a flood of recipes trying to one-up each other whenever they tried to figure out how to do a basic cooking thing.
Now, I’m pretty confident there is a food enthusiast out there right now going, “but these fancy recipes are so much more flavorful and don’t take that much more time!” Well, they can take a lot more time for a newb, and sometimes they involve investing a lot of time and energy in presentation or textural elements that won’t hold up in leftovers (e.g., crispy skin chicken thighs are big right now; nice idea, but that skin is gross the second, third, or fourth time I’m pulling that container out of the fridge, and they make a HOLY mess of your stove. Not ideal! Calling them a quick and easy weeknight dinner is very nearly a lie).
There are more normal recipes out there, if you dig. I’ve visited this The Kitchn page on how to quickly and easily cook chicken breasts, conservatively, one hundred times, and they regularly do pretty simple meal-prep-type recipes that aren’t trying to blow anyone away. Basically and Healthyish are good sources. If you’re trying to put together more of a diet picture, I’ve mentioned EatThisMuch as a resource before, which will put together a day’s worth of meals based on the number of calories and macros (protein/carbs/fat) you want to eat; most of the recipes cited there skew on the simple side. There are a few subreddits themed on healthy, inexpensive, time-efficient eating where you can find recipes or food combos that are not too intensive (r/EatCheapAndHealthy, r/MealPrepSunday; this is a great guide pinned to the top of MealPrepSunday about the building blocks of meal-prepping and even gets into how to optimally organize your cooking workflow to take the least amount of time and effort). Sometimes just cooking a simple thing (chicken breasts, sweet potatoes, rice or spaghetti with some veggies) and putting a convenience sauce on it, per above, is a plenty healthy and edible meal. You mention that your husband isn’t down for protein sources other than red meat, but maybe if he tries imitating their flavor profiles it would help him—marinating some tofu or adding some barbecue sauce to chicken could make all the difference. I have these curry packets that I only have to add meat, oil, and coconut milk to, and they rule.
Use the “summers” to prepare for the “winters.”
This tip is mostly if your husband simply won’t get on board with helping you. A key element, or even advantage, of meal prepping is that theoretically, you’re not cooking every day. But in order to maintain consistently fewer daily cooking hours, you have to recognize your windows of opportunity. With mental or physical illness, this gets a little bit trickier. But when I’m on a downswing, it’s hard to express how grateful I am to myself to find a frozen hunk of Martha’s Perfect Mac and Cheese that I cooked some weeks before in the freezer.
When you’re having a good day and have some energy and time, that’s the moment to get a bunch of cooking done. Make several batches of a few different staples that you can heat and eat, and make liberal use of your freezer; I will even Google for recipes that freeze well, dumb though it sounds. Get leftover containers in single-serve sizes and portion out your big batches so you don’t have to, say, commit to eating the same soup five days in a row when you defrost a big block. You can freeze cooked chicken breasts, pork, rice, and beans. Ideally you’d be able to identify how long of a stretch you need to prepare for between these “summers,” but when you’re starting out, I recommend trying one or two big batches of a recipe that freezes well. Even if you don’t eat all the portions immediately, you’ll have a little stockpile started. On the next day you cook, you can stockpile some more. Eventually you’ll have a little selection of frozen dinners that will make your exhausted self so happy on a random weeknight.
A closing note on your husband: It sounds like independent cooking would be a lot for you to take on if he really digs in his heels about it. But there’s a small chance that when he sees you making the effort, and even possibly sees the change that attending to your nutritional needs brings about, he may get motivated by proxy. That motivation my come either out of pity for making you take this on yourself or out of a sense that he, too, may enjoy the day-to-day benefits of an improved diet. I see often, very sadly, that family members—both immediate and extended—can be threatened by lifestyle changes like this and receive them as a judgment on how they conduct their own lives. I’m begging you to take no shit from those people, including your husband, even if it means just doing the best you can on your own steam.
The Hidden Mental Health Costs of Climate Change
“People don’t really understand—until you actually see it coming at you in a wall of flame,” says a woman in the Rural Fire Service of New South Wales, in startling footage of fighting Australia’s raging bushfires last month. Extreme weather events like these are becoming more frequent and more severe: in the U.S. just this…
“People don’t really understand—until you actually see it coming at you in a wall of flame,” says a woman in the Rural Fire Service of New South Wales, in startling footage of fighting Australia’s raging bushfires last month. Extreme weather events like these are becoming more frequent and more severe: in the U.S. just this year, five states have set wildfire records. But it’s not just unlucky homeowners who are affected—fine particulate matter is an increasing concern for epidemiologists, who’ve found that public exposure can cause both acute and chronic disease.
Though these types of environmental catastrophes are often still talked about in terms of future consequences, climate change is already having a massive impact on public health. The World Health Organization (WHO) just released a report, which draws on data from 101 countries, highlighting these climate-related health risks—and the world’s lack of preparedness.
Impacts include increased risk of childhood diarrheal disease caused by a food supply that’s potentially more vulnerable to pathogens, heatwaves creating dangerous labor conditions, and increased disease risk from chronic exposures to things like air pollution later in life.
Mental health can be affected by climate change too, and depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues are identified in the report as climate-sensitive conditions. But only six countries emphasized that it was a priority for them. Katie Hayes, a climate change and mental health researcher, has recently published on the current and projected mental health consequences of the climate crisis in the International Journal of Mental Health Systems. She said that while attributing direct causes in the mental-health sphere can be challenging, it’s clear that the impacts of climate change are accelerating.
“Extreme weather events, like flooding, hurricanes, and wildfires have been linked to depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), suicidal ideation,” Hayes wrote in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Further, “Vector-borne diseases like West Nile Virus and Lyme disease may compound mental health issues for people with pre-existing mental health illness.” Which is why, she said, “It’s important to link [mental health issues] to climate change,” because “these events, they’re no longer one-off—it’s not a one-in-100-year flood anymore.” Though it was only raised as a significant concern by six countries, Tara Neville, a lead author on the WHO report, said it’s important that “we are now seeing countries specifically identifying mental health issues as a health risk of climate change.”
Hayes notes that existing social injustices are amplified by climate change, and that it’s the most marginalized who are especially vulnerable, including people who have had to flee their homes because of climate change, or groups like indigenous communities who already struggle with access to healthcare. “Our physical health, our mental health, and our community health are all connected,” said Hayes.
The conclusions of the WHO report are buoyed by a litany of other recent research. In November, the Lancet Countdown, a project dedicated to monitoring health and climate change, released its 2019 report. “We’re able to say that for a child born today, their life is going to be affected by climate change at every single point,” said Nick Watts, executive director at the Lancet Countdown .
Nearly half of the countries WHO surveyed had conducted “a vulnerability and adaptation assessment for health,” but only 20 of the 48 countries said their findings led directly to funding policies to address public health impacts of climate change. Although there’s increasing concern and awareness of climate-related risks associated with extreme weather—like food- and water-borne diseases, or diseases carried by insects like mosquitoes—few countries have implemented significant policy changes.
“The concern is that governments simply aren’t moving fast enough,” Watts said.
It’s difficult to overstate the broad-reaching impacts. When we talk about disease, as emerging viruses like Zika demonstrate, “It’s important to say that no country, no population is immune,” Watts said. “The world’s very, very connected.”
As healthcare professionals scramble to deal with the fallout from a warming planet, they will have to deal with a new level of uncertainty. Whether in Australia, the U.S., or the U.K., healthcare systems have been built on an “assumption that the climate was going to be stable,” Watts said. “That’s no longer a safe assumption—whether we’re talking about the floods in Venice or the wildfires in California.”
Sean McDermott is a freelance journalist and photographer.
I’m HIV-Positive. My Partner Is Negative. This Is How We Have Sex
For many, HIV is the ultimate boogeyman of the modern sex-scape. Years of horror stories have led some to fear contracting the virus so much that it becomes a constant phobia. It has also led to the stigmatization of HIV-positive individuals as toxic or wicked—and desexualized. Who, this line of thought goes, once struck with…
For many, HIV is the ultimate boogeyman of the modern sex-scape. Years of horror stories have led some to fear contracting the virus so much that it becomes a constant phobia. It has also led to the stigmatization of HIV-positive individuals as toxic or wicked—and desexualized. Who, this line of thought goes, once struck with HIV could think of themself as a viable sexual object ever again? And who would view them as viable partners for any form of physical intimacy?
It is absurd that this even needs to be said, but people living with HIV are humans living full, long lives with a chronic but manageable condition, like so many others. They desire, and are deserving of, love and intimacy like anyone. Being in a relationship can actually be a vital motivator for some people to seek and keep up with treatment.
One might assume that HIV-positive people choose to date those who share their status, so as not to worry about transmitting the virus. And sure, this happens. But many HIV-positive and -negative people still pursue sex and intimacy together, in what are known as “serodiscordant” or mixed-status relationships. In the U.S. alone, there are at least 140,000 mixed-status couples, possibly many more, as that estimate was extrapolated from 23-year-old data. In countries where HIV is especially prevalent, more than 3 percent of all relationships are serodiscordant, and up to two-thirds of HIV-positive individuals are in such relationships.
Not all these couples know from the start that they are serodiscordant, thanks to a positive partner not knowing their status or contracting the virus while already in an established relationship. But many partners know they are mixed status when they get together and make it work.
There is no single strategy for HIV-positive and -negative people to pursue sex and intimacy. Some agree to pursue only emotional intimacy, perhaps consenting to forms of non-monogamy as well. Some only engage in non-penetrative sex. Some use condoms at all times. Increasingly, though, there’s recognition that effective treatment can lower one’s viral load to untransmissible levels. This makes the risk of an HIV-negative partner contracting the virus functionally nonexistent during unprotected sex with a HIV-positive partner who has had such a low load for at least six months and is maintaining their treatment regimen. The spread of PrEP—a preventive drug regimen used by an HIV-negative partner that reduces the risk of transmission by up to 99 percent—in recent years has also opened up new possibilities for a sense of security and less restrained intimacy. Some couples mix and match strategies as needed.
Vasilios Papapitsios: I became positive when I was 19. I’m 28 now. I’d just come out of the closet. I was living in a very hateful state [North Carolina] that had just defunded the AIDS drug assistance program, and I was going to school at UNC-Chapel Hill. As much as it thinks it is a progressive community, I was already feeling outed by a lot of my community members.
At that time, it was definitely easier to conceive of a relationship—or just casual sex—with another HIV-positive person because of the stigma I’d internalized and the fear of passing it along.
Elijah McKinnon: I’m from the San Francisco Bay area. I grew up in a pretty liberal household. I talked about sex and various STIs, including HIV, with my parents, who were in an open relationship and very open sexually. I had various relatives die from AIDS.
I had a lot of friends who were young and positive, but not out. It was more hidden than I think a lot of people are now about their status. So the first thing I learned is that I need to take ownership of my own status. What are the ways I can best protect myself? I mean not only from STIs, but a more holistic approach—like my mental sanity, my emotional sanity.
I never thought about serodiscordant relationships from this taboo perspective. One of my first…let’s just call him a boyfriend, was HIV positive. That’s when I discovered PrEP. I had to be 19, 20. This is right when the FDA approved it. I was super skeptical like, you want me to take what? Then after being involved with the study that changed the entire landscape of PrEP a couple years ago by testing a lot of people [using it] and seeing the significant decrease in [transmission of HIV], it was sort of a no-brainer for me. Leading into this relationship, I don’t think I had any barriers.
Vasilios: [Just before I met Eli in late 2016,] I’d been in New York for about half a year. It was suddenly an environment where people just didn’t care about my status. It was: That’s okay, the same way it’s okay for you to be gay. I felt more liberated and free to just be myself.
[Then I moved to Chicago.] It was the first time I was very open about my status to the public. I witnessed communities of people who were all on PrEP, or they know about it. I had been undetectable for a year or two. That was a major factor in terms of my internal stigma and fear.
My world blossomed. I was allowing myself to have intimacy and love and sex in ways that I couldn’t before…I realized I just deserved that and wasn’t this scourge of society.
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Elijah: I met Vas during a performance where they were doing a blood ritual [that involved taking a bath in fake blood] that centers on queer people living with chronic illnesses. So I was very much aware of their status.
Vasilios: I knew she was the PrEP girl. [Eli helped develop PrEP4Love, a campaign raising awareness of PrEP among black gay men, straight black women, and black trans women, and was a model in campaign ads all over Chicago.] She knew I was the poz artist and advocate.
Elijah: I’m black and queer and non-binary. We live on opposite ends of the country. We have different interests and passions. We’re constantly approaching things from the perspectives of our past traumas. There are constantly tensions between our other identities that we are processing. Our status is, I don’t want to say low on the totem pole, but there are other things we are processing.
Vasilios: We have an open relationship. Usually it’s separate. Sometimes it’s not.
I have to be aware that there are other STIs when you do not use a prophylactic. Even if people I’m having sex with are on PrEP, that doesn’t mean other things are thrown out the window. For me, PrEP is like a mental prophylactic. It gives us the opportunity to get into it and not have to think, oh my goodness, this little act of intimacy or sex is so wonderful but there’s still a lingering fear. That doesn’t really exist for me anymore. And that is an amazing gift. But any sex interaction, I have to think about, huh, I don’t know this person or whatever, I’m taking a risk.
How do I put this… We use condoms [together] if we need to. But we don’t really want to.
Elijah: There are a lot of tools that people don’t know about when navigating sex. Like the number of partners, or knowing how to have communicative conversations with those partners as just number one. That allows you to navigate sexually through an experience however you want to.
There are obviously condoms and PrEP, but also positioning [in terms of who is the recipient of penetrative sex; the receiving partner is at more risk]. There are ways of being intimate that are non-penetrative. There’re so many different things we discuss. Everything on our relationship is on the table. When it’s not, things begin to spiral because we’re not being communicative.
One thing that really has been intimate about our respective statuses is that I feel, versus a lot of other relationships, we’re more actively involved with each other’s holistic health. Not just okay, what’s your CD4 count? But how’s your mind doing? Let’s check in. How are you eating?
Vasilios: I think we have learned from our past experiences. And we complement each other in our different healing journeys.
Elijah: Up until about a year ago, I got a lot of questions, like: Aren’t you scared? Don’t you just think it would be easier with a negative person? I don’t even know what any of those questions mean!
There are still a lot of people who are very unaware due to fear and stigma around how to not only be in a serodiscordant relationship but be in a gay, queer, alternative relationship in general. Because they don’t have any models and the models that we do have are very monolithic. If it weren’t status, it’d be something else, like: How is it being in a mixed-race relationship?
That is just one facet of our multi-faceted relationship. It’s a topic that’s up for discussion, not so much negotiation. And it isn’t a barrier to accessing our most intimate depths of pleasure and joy.
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More People Than Ever Are Trying to Lose Weight, to No Avail
Despite reportedly trying lots of different weight loss methods, adults in the United States have seen overall increases in weight and actual measured BMI, according to a new study published this week in JAMA Network Open. The research basically paints a picture of people spinning their diet and activity wheels, reportedly restricting their food intake,…
Despite reportedly trying lots of different weight loss methods, adults in the United States have seen overall increases in weight and actual measured BMI, according to a new study published this week in JAMA Network Open. The research basically paints a picture of people spinning their diet and activity wheels, reportedly restricting their food intake, increasing exercise, and drinking a ton of water, all to no avail.
The most interesting data within the study is the table of things people say they’ve done to try and lose weight, and how those tactics have changed over the 17 years of the research period. The number of people who say they “ate less food,” for instance, increased by 11 percent, and there was a more than 26 percent increase in “drinking more water” as a weight-management strategy (a questionable method); while only seven people say they drank water as a weight loss tactic in 1999–2000, 1,370 said the same in 2015–2016. Steady increases can be seen each year, which is a nice way to trace the celebrity diet cliché to just “drink a lot of water!!!” through time.
Researchers don’t offer much in the line of why this is happening (or maybe more fair to say, not happening). The study hypothesizes people are over-reporting the efforts they’re making to lose weight (the study data comes from a nationally representative survey). Or the gap in weight loss efforts and weight gained could come from a previously observed trend that people who perceive themselves to be overweight are more likely to increase their weight over time. This would also make sense, given that the number of people who think of themselves as overweight also increased in the study’s timeframe.
Researchers ultimately conclude that even though more people say they were trying to lose weight, across the board, weights and BMI increased. Of course, higher weights and higher BMI doesn’t necessarily speak to poor health: It’s extremely possible to gain mass in a healthy way; having more weight doesn’t necessarily mean being less healthy. But the overall picture of how healthy the country is isn’t what’s on display in this study. If anything, this study shows that people are certainly more stressed out about their weight, which can have a loose connection to health. But they’re not getting the tools they need to feel equipped to live healthily, or accept their healthy bodies.
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