A subscriber with the username “waibelr” commented on one of our blogs, saying, “A topic I haven’t heard discussed before…is how your body reacts during a sudden diet change. We think that there’s an assumption out there that calories are calories, and as long as you have them, you’re OK.” We wanted to highlight that observation in this video, where we will explore some of the dietary effects of sudden diet changes on our physical and mental health. It is our brain, after all, that makes the critical decisions for the body, and the body that carries the brain to safety. If our bodies falter or our cognitive abilities diminish because of a rapid diet shift like you might see after a disaster when you turn to your food stores or try to find food sources, your chances of survival decrease. You may think you’re making good choices or be so confused you can’t make that critical decision that will save your life at that moment. Obviously, in a dire situation, you will eat whatever you can get your hands on, but in your planning for a disaster or amidst the struggle to survive, understanding how proper nutrition and a regular diet increases your odds of survival can be critical. So, what are the effects of dietary stress on our survival? This blog will cover four main things studies tell us about a rapid change in diet.
1- The Body Reacts
“A feeling of weakness took the place of hunger. Conscious of the need of food, I felt no cravings. Occasionally, while scrambling over logs and through thickets, a sense of faintness and exhaustion would come over me, but I would suppress it with the audible expression, ‘This won’t do; I must find my company.’” So wrote Truman Everts in Thirty-Seven Days of Peril about being lost in Yellowstone in the 1870s. Evert survived, but he, in desperation, caught a small bird and ate it raw and hallucinated from malnutrition and exposure. Whether we have an abundance of food that we are just not used to eating or starving and desperate for food after a catastrophe, the effects on the body and brain can be the same. When the body suffers from either a lack of nutrition or experiences a sudden shift in diet, our cognitive function can suffer. The decisions we make in a survival situation are critical, and so we need to look at our food preps with nutrition in mind. Calories simply replacing calories will not guarantee our survival. Our brains and bodies need the proper balance of nutrition and fluids to minimize the shock of sudden dietary changes resulting from disasters.
If you have ever been on a Keto diet, which is an extremely low carbohydrate diet, you are probably aware of keto flu and the accompanying brain fog of carbohydrate deprivation. Extreme carbohydrate decreases can make us feel like we have the early onset of the flu, making us feel foggy and lightheaded. When your calories or carbohydrates are restricted, the first source of energy your body burns – long before fat – is glycogen. Glycogen is a form of carbohydrate stored in the liver and muscles. Attached to every gram of glycogen is water. So when you burn through all of your glycogen, the adjoining water exits the body. This is why people will lose weight suddenly on these diets. The water gets flushed from the body.
A different problem occurs when we suddenly shift to a heavy carbohydrate diet like those stored rice and beans in our prepping supplies. Like a heavy thanksgiving meal, we feel bloated and sleepy. Add to this that the higher fiber and carbohydrate content requires more fluid for our bodies to process, and water may be a limited resource in a survival situation. You may be flirting with the early effects of dehydration, as well.
The fact is that drastic and immediate diet shifts can lead to dehydration, massive fluctuations in blood sugar levels, muscle breakdown, a slowing of metabolism, and short-term and long-term brain impairments. In an incredibly stressful survival situation where you are also under constant duress or sleep deprivation, the stress hormone corticosterone can help you survive but will increase your ongoing stress responses and depression. Neither of those is suitable for clear decision making.
So, when thinking about your survival basics in your supplies or if you find yourself needing to acquire food and water to survive, even before your caloric considerations, consider these two groupings: SOLIDS, your carbs, proteins, and energy density, and LIQUIDS, which is obviously water but will be your best vehicle for transporting electrolytes, sodium, and sugar to your body. And consider both the liquids and solids as they relate to your diet right now, when you’re not under the stress of a catastrophe.
After all, is what you are eating now similar to what you would be eating from your prepping supplies?
We lump, pun intended, solids into one category, but the category composes your carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and caloric density, often referred to as the “energy” of the food. As we said, though, calories are just one consideration and not the only concern. Caloric density or energy is the number of calories your body can process out of the food. If you are forced to survive on leafy greens you forage for, you are at the lowest range of the density scale. Though your iron and trace minerals will be high, your calories and energy to burn will be low. On the high end of the scale, you would find peanuts, butter, and oils.
Truman Everts, who survived those 37 days in the wilderness, was given a pint of oil rendered from bear fat when he was found. That provided him a high caloric and fatty emergency restorative to his body. The next day his diet was restored, and he felt considerably better. A shot of olive oil might sound crazy, but it could provide you with the essential fats you need to maintain brain function. For instance, on the keto diet, MCT oil, or Medium Chain Triglycerides, coconut-derived oil is recommended for combating brain fog. Even homemade ghee, derived from butter, has a shelf life of up to a year or more and can provide you with the caloric density and essential fats your body and brain needs. Whatever you choose, make sure to have some type of complex oil in your prepping stores for when you need it. If you’re caught out in the cold, know that you will need to seek out, at some point early on, foods with high caloric content.
As we mentioned earlier, carbohydrates are critical to your survival, and too many or too few in your diet can dramatically affect mood, brain, and body function. Suppose you are turning to your emergency food supplies. In that case, you are likely dramatically increasing your carbohydrates, so you have to be aware of the increased fluid requirements, the metabolic slowing effects, and the possible digestive impact of the increased fiber. It would be hard to run from a disaster if you’re dehydrated, or you need to stop to go to the bathroom, or you are suffering from gastro distress. If you are foraging or fleeing disaster, realize that the lack of carbohydrates could affect your ability to think clearly and have enough energy. Forage for that bag of chips. Oats, grains, even a snack bag of corn chips can provide you with an essential amount of carbs to get you through.
The final component of this solids category is protein. If you have too little protein, your body will turn to glycogen and begin to cannibalize muscle to get at it. Before it gets to this point, though, it’s going to attack more aggressively your body’s stored fat. You can survive for an extended period without protein, specifically, but your body will begin to cannibalize itself for the proteins it needs after just a few days without it. If you watch any of the popular survivor shows on television, you will see the effects of low protein diets and starvation are very apparent around day twenty. At this point, you are behind the curve and continually trying to make up for lost protein intake, and your body requires more stable nutrients in regular supply to realign itself. The most significant effect of low protein will manifest itself in the form of repressed metabolism. Your body will slow down to preserve energy. When you need to be active and alert, you will be, instead, tired and lethargic.
When you think of proteins, likely meat, eggs, and milk come to mind. Those can be hard to come by in a grid down situation, and jerky will require greater fluid intake to process. However, protein can be found in a wide range of foods you might not immediately consider. These include: mushrooms, beans, sunflower seeds, nuts, lentils, peas, or pasta. All of these have more protein than meat or eggs. We recommend TVP, texturized vegetable protein, powdered peanut butter, dried mushrooms, beans, peas, and pasta in your prepping supplies. Though, if you hate mushrooms or can’t eat peanuts or soy, never eat pasta, or eat too few beans that you can’t handle the gastro effects, you will want to either start incorporating more in your diet now or you will want to stock proteins similar to the ones you eat in healthy, calmer times. Again, you want to avoid shocking your body further in your struggle to survive.
What’s your go-to carbohydrate, fat, or protein?
A human can go without food for about three weeks but would typically only last three to four days without water. While water is the king of all liquids, to survive, you need to think of fluids as the carrier of other substances like sugars and salts, the conduit for smooth neural network firing, and the necessary component to aid in the processing of all the solids you take into your body. If you only eat dry beans and dry jerky, you will be dehydrating yourself in the process. Potassium, sodium, and calcium are electrolytes or salts that help conduct electric currents in the body. Chemically, electrolytes are substances that become ions in solution and acquire the capacity to conduct electricity. To fire on all cylinders, you need to have an electrolyte balance in your body. You may not need to add salt to any of your pre-prepared survival foods, as they tend to be high in salt as a preservative so that you will get enough. However, for long term survival, you’ll want the components to make a super hydrating electrolyte formula. This is water, table salt, baking soda, and potassium chloride like Morton’s Lite Salt. One and a half teaspoons of it to four cups of water and your electrolytes will be in balance. Your hydration will be maintained better. Your brain and muscles will continue to function and fire off their electricity with minimal disruption. If you add some sugar in the mix and a powdered fruit flavor, you have made your own Gatorade. However much you consume of your electrolyte solution, whether you make it yourself or buy a pre-made mix for your bug out bag and supplies, drink the equivalent amount of just plain water to guarantee hydration.
When it comes to sugars, your body will suffer from a lack of sugar even before some of the other effects. You can die quite quickly from lack of sugar, and even before death, low blood sugar can result in impaired thinking, body weakness, and passing out. Know the sugars in nature from some plants and make sure you have hard candies on hand. You may remember that tray of hard candies your grandmother had for years and years. They were still good to eat and a source of critical sugars, though probably not your preferred go-to treat at grandma’s house. Having both sugar and hard candy in your prepping supplies will help you to stay alert, awake, and clear thinking. When it comes to sugars, too, remember that starches are complex sugars. Our bodies can break those complex starch chains down into simple sugars, which the body can then breakdown into glucose. We don’t want to have a whole science lesson here, but starchy foods like dried and powdered potatoes, rice, cereals, oats, and other grains, are going to help your body get the sugars it needs as well as the carbohydrates. Consider having dried and powdered potatoes in your prepping supplies, and eat that bag of chips when you’re on the road trying to survive a calamity.
When it comes to hydration and survival, think of all the forms of hidden water around you. Most canned vegetables are packed in a mix of sodium and water. Drinking green bean juice doesn’t sound enjoyable, but it could keep you alive. Canned fruit is usually packed in a simple syrup of sugar and water. You can survive on that. If you never drink sugary sodas, in a crisis, diets are secondary to hydration, so drink whatever you can. Even wine or beer or alcohol is partly water. If you are concerned about the dehydrating or intoxicating effects of alcohol, you can heat it to reduce or eliminate the alcohol. Alcohol begins to evaporate at 172 degrees Fahrenheit, but water doesn’t reach a boiling point until 212 Fahrenheit. Basically, after about an hour of a temperature around 190 degrees and a quick boil for five minutes or so, you will considerably reduce the alcohol content in a bottle of wine. It won’t be gone entirely, as that takes more time, but you will reduce the alcohol’s impairment effects and increase the ratio of water to alcohol. Give the same treatment to a beer, which is of even lower alcohol content, and you significantly reduce the alcohol to water ratio and gain a healthy dose of vitamin B. Also, diluting the heat-treated beer or wine with water will further weaken the alcohol’s effects and provide you with the critical hydrating liquids your body requires.
Finally, you should know and begin noting the odd places around you where water can be found. What plants grow in your area that you could chew to extract water from but maybe don’t want to eat in large quantities? Never drink water from water beds or radiators because of the chemicals added to condition the water, but that neighbor’s swimming pool has water that can be purified and consumed, as nasty as that may seem.
What’s your hidden source of water, sugar, or salt?
4- Know Your Body and Know Your Edges
How long can you go without food when you wake up tomorrow? How cranky will you be if you skip a meal? What are the effects of drinking a pint of water, first thing, every morning for a week? Do you feel different? How? Answer these questions for yourself during these quiet times to know how your body reacts with foods and water or without food and water. At what point do you feel foggy, and your thinking feels unclear? How many hours did that take, and what does that feel like? Recognize it because understanding your nutritional requirements could be the choice between life or death in a survival situation. The decisions you make in a crisis are that critical–that serious, but you have to have the right nutrition and fluids to make the best decision.
Also, know and begin noting the sources for these various components of nutrition and hydration around you. Know where to find and how to purify water. Most people take for granted the foods around them, only knowing the calories of foods at best. Surviving well means much more than calories in and calories out. It’s about creating a stable energy source for your body and minimizing the jarring effects of nutritional shock, diet change, or increased activities due to the need to survive.
You can’t just count your water, dry beans, ramen, hardtack, and rice when prepping your emergency supplies. Understand the solids and liquids we explored here and build out your home and bug out supplies from there. Put rock salt and rock candy sugar in your prepping supplies along with your pasta and water. Put dried mushrooms and dried potatoes in there with your powdered gravy and spices. The more you know and prepare now, the better your odds will be when the crisis or disaster is upon you.
How long have you ever gone without a meal, and how did it affect you?
There’s a lot more to consider than calories in and calories out, and our bodies are complex machines that require a delicate mix of fuels. Armed with this knowledge, take a good look at your food and liquid stores. Are you covering all your needs? Before you eat that next snack, ask yourself, what is in the food that your body is craving or needs? Know your fuels, how your body runs on them, and where to obtain them before you find yourself suffering the effects of dramatic metabolic changes, decreased cognitive abilities, even starvation.
As always, please stay safe out there.