If working from home is new to you because of the Coronavirus, you may be experiencing what many freelance writers already have--weight gain.
The freedom to set your own sleep schedule, take lunch whenever you want, and grab a snack at any time of day has its perks, and some pretty big cons if things get out of hand.
When Mary started experiencing headaches, fatigue, and a lack of energy in her daily life, she says that she went to the doctor for a check up. Her blood sugar had risen to a concerning level. In order to avoid diabetes, she needed to change her diet. Mary walks us through what happened and how she corrected the situation.
How did you get into writing, and how has your career grown?
I graduated from the University of Northern Iowa with a BA in Psychology. I began taking courses towards a Master’s in Family Services, abandoning that pursuit the day I completed finals in a hospital bed after giving birth to my fourth child in 1988.
Instinctively knowing I needed a creative outlet, and figuring I could bring in an income from home, I naively decided to try freelance writing. That naivety served me well: I spent an hour writing a short essay slated for the now defunct “Praying” magazine. Less than two weeks after I mailed it, I received an acceptance letter and check for $50.
I've been writing ever since, with my share of rejections in the last 30 years, but still managing to garner over 600 published pieces in newspapers, magazines, and anthologies, including essays in 10 Chicken Soup for the Soul books.
My husband David became my biggest supporter and encourager. It was his idea for me to write a book on the extreme couponing hobby I’d lived and breathed as we raised eight children on mostly one income.
I began writing that book at the height of the coupon craze in 2009 and started doing couponing workshops and writing a weekly coupon column as a way to build up a platform.
The book didn’t sell until seven months after my husband’s death in 2012. The day I stood in front of a Barnes & Noble window filled with a display of my books, I felt absolutely nothing, numb with grief.
In the ensuing seven years, I signed five more book contracts with the same company. Called to Be Creative: A Guide to Reigniting Your Creativity was released in August of 2020. Despite being launched in a pandemic, this particular book brought back the joy that has been missing in my life since my husband David’s death.
When did you first realize there may be a connection between your eating habits and your career?
Everything changed when David died. Without a husband to enjoy my meals, I stopped cooking.
The local deli where my daughter worked offered employee’s families half-price meals, so that became my go-to place for a quick lunch.
When they started having our meals ready at the drive-up window before I even got there, I was too embarrassed to continue.
I managed to make good homecooked meals every Sunday for my adult children who would visit, but beyond that, I depended on quick and easy.
Frozen pizzas, sandwiches and macaroni and cheese took their toll on my health. I spent the first months after David’s death writing voraciously, mostly about David, grief, and marriage.
I journaled, cranked out essays, finished up one book and started another. I did coupon workshops, carting my youngest with me to every library and community college that would have me. I started doing writing workshops and discovered a new passion in public speaking.
My first job after David’s death was as a director of a small-town library, where they allowed me to bring my two youngest homeschooled daughters. It wasn’t until 2016, working full-time for a newspaper, that my stress level and bad eating habits finally caught up with me.
Sitting at a desk writing all day, every day, should have been the ideal job for someone who had struggled to make an income from her writing, but I was miserable.
Covering city council and school board meetings, legislative coffees, farm and corn stories was killing me creatively. I had no time to write for enjoyment and I was physically and mentally exhausted.
A doctor’s appointment confirmed my worst fears; my blood sugar was rising, along with my weight. I joined Weight Watchers, removing all white food like rice, pasta, pizza, and bread and began eating copious amounts of fruit and vegetables. I dropped the stressful job and 30 pounds, lowering my blood sugar.
In 2018, I started my dream job as a program coordinator at a spirituality center and moved with my youngest daughter an hour away from my biggest support system, my adult children.
I returned to cooking healthy meals and spending my days off writing. Then COVID-19 arrived in Iowa.
Sent home to work. I started taking daily walks, mostly to see other humans, but also to destress as I learned Zoom and pivoted to planning virtual programs. With less time for writing, and the inherent stress of a pandemic, I turned to comfort food.
My daughter took over some of the cooking, and that meant pizza, pasta and potatoes came back into my life, along with homemade applesauce cake and cookies.
Six months in, I visited the doctor, concerned about my increasing fatigue, brain fog, and overall stress level. Blood tests confirmed that my blood sugar was now at pre-diabetic levels.
How does writing negatively affect your eating habits?
Writing is a sedentary activity, and I get lost in it. That means I can wake up at 7:00 a.m., make myself a cup of coffee, sit down to begin writing, to be interrupted by my teen daughter asking if I’m going to make anything for lunch. Only then do I look at the clock and realize it’s mid-afternoon and I’m still in my pajamas.
I may get up to go to the bathroom or refill my coffee cup, but for the most part, I lose track of time when I’m writing. While this is good for my productivity, eight hours in a chair is not so good for my health.
What steps did you take to turn around your health?
Knowing that a low-carb diet and losing weight could bring those numbers down, I started reading labels, horrified to discover how many carbs I’d been eating.
Though I am still learning what to eat, and when, I’ve been on a low-carb diet now for three months, concentrating on lean meats, eggs, beans, and nuts. I dropped seven pounds, have more energy, and struggle less with the brain fog.
When I returned to my office in September, I realized how much happier I was on those days I had an evening program and the morning free. I adjusted my schedule, so I have more morning time for writing and working on book promotion.
I still have to choose between writing or exercise most days but am addressing that by taking walks on my days off.
What advice do you have for writers in a similar situation who may be sedentary and/or snacking too much to curb stress?
Start looking at food as fuel for your body and pay attention to what you are putting into your mouth. Spend time reading the labels of your favorite foods and it will open your eyes. As a general rule, the fewer the ingredients, the healthier the food.
Frozen or fresh raspberries with a dollop of whipped cream can be just as satisfying as a cookie or piece of cake (I promise!).
Keep in mind that it’s difficult to produce quality writing if your brain is foggy from too much sugar. When you need a break from writing, take a quick walk or do some stretches.
Mary's Flaxseed Muffin-in-a-Mug
¼ c. ground (milled) flaxseed
1 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. coconut oil
½ packet Stevia or other sugar substitute
Beat the egg in the mug with a fork, then add other ingredients until well blended. Put the mug in the microwave and set it for 90 seconds. Eat straight out of the mug or remove and add your favorite topping.