What I Eat To Stay Sharp & Energized During 12+ Hour Days

Image by Joyelle West / Contributor

When I began this P.A. school journey, having already earned a master's degree in nutrition, I envisioned myself powering through with limitless energy—with a "what, like it's hard?" Elle Woods kind of retort to anyone who asked how it was going. 

There are highlights, for sure—including being among some of the best, brightest, most hilarious, and genuine classmates I have ever met, studying in a city that is renowned for its medical innovations, and starting a journey that (if you asked me five years ago) I never would have dreamed possible.

But along with the highs, there are nooks and crannies of low, sometimes hollowing and harrowing moments that have chipped away at my positivity and zest. Soon enough, my insecurities and self-doubts that set in adhered like super glue, making me question myself, my intelligence, and my path.

For the most part, I've never felt more actualized and grateful that I am pursuing a career that I am so passionate about. Now that I'm nearly finished with the program, I've reflected on the things that helped me maintain sanity, energy, joy, and a healthful lifestyle through the ups and downs: 

1. Carving out time for creativity.

When you're in a full-time grad school program, it can be easy for your identity to be solely "student." Seriously. I'm so accustomed to saying, "Hi, I'm Katie; I'm a P.A. student" to patients that I accidentally did it in the checkout lane of the grocery store. 

So, it's absolutely imperative to spend some time activating a different part of your brain: going on a gratitude walk in nature, buying a blank canvas and painting or drawing freely (even if it means stick figures!), signing up for a local dance class, writing a poem or letter to a friend. It's the simple, small things that can get you out of your own head—especially when what you're studying feels insurmountable and like you'll never be able to learn it all (which happens daily). 

Image by Joyelle West / Contributor

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2. Fueling mindfully.

One of the most challenging things about clinical rotations and P.A. school is constantly feeling a strange hybrid of sheer exhaustion coupled with excitement. When such fatigue sets in, it's natural to see a shiny object—i.e., the sugarcoated mini fried dough bites in the break room—and feel inclined to reach for it for a quick hit of energy. In return, however, I'll get a few hours of sluggishness and ultimately more fatigue.

My current snack and meal choices now have nothing to do with making me look a certain way but are geared entirely toward feeling energized in mind and body to power through a long and intellectually grueling day. 

So, to prepare for a long shift, it's essential to pack a snack bag of real, whole foods that are rich in nutrients and low in sugar. My go-to options are nuts, dried fruit, roasted or raw vegetables with a side of hummus, rice cakes with avocado, apples with nut butter, or a homemade snack bite like my carrot cake bites.

I also try to limit my caffeine intake (read: jittery, nervous wreck, especially on an empty stomach) and aim for protein-packed meals and snacks like EPIC Provisions Meat Bars. My favorites are the Bison Bacon Cranberry and the Chicken Sriracha flavors, but they all help prevent blood sugar spikes and irregularities, which often feel like anxiety and mood swings. 

Image by Joyelle West / Contributor

3. Sleeping!

If you're not sleeping, you're most certainly not cementing the material you want to be learning. A few tips: Avoid studying in your room (otherwise you start associating your sacred sleep space with study insanities), spend five minutes before you go to bed doing deep breathing exercises, and change your screens to night mode a few hours before bed. 

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4. Planning epic, local, and affordable weekend adventures.

During the first year of the program, I would break plans with nearly everyone in my social circle to study all day long. I stopped seeing friends and family and doing simple things I loved, like participating in a local dance company and even going to the farmers market on weekends.

I couldn't sacrifice a few short hours because I was paralyzed by the idea that I needed to be spending every free and waking moment studying. Not only was this isolating, but it also didn't result in very positive results. 

Long (and teary) story short, I ended up failing a few exams because I was so hyper-focused and anxious about passing that I wasn't able to mindfully retain the material I was studying. I started planning short and affordable activities on weekends to save my sanity and money. Traveling to a nearby state for a hike with protein-forward, flavorful snacks like EPIC Provisions Meat Bars for fuel truly got me through the most tedious weeks. (It's always BYOB—bring your own bars. I'm on a grad school budget, after all.) Carving out a few hours on the weekends to completely disconnect from coursework enabled more purposeful studying during weekdays and brought joy back to the material! 

Image by Joyelle West / Contributor

5. Finding joy in the little moments.

There are many days when I'm so exhausted that I entirely forget why I'm on this journey in the first place. It's really disheartening because I LOVE my journey and feel so incredibly fortunate to create a career that combines my passions by integrating nutrition into a medical practice.

When I'm feeling most unsure of this crazy journey and wondering if this is really the right path for me, I put my phone away and look up. I notice my surroundings and the changing of seasons, look at others around me on public transportation experiencing memory-making moments of pure joy or happiness, and tell myself to take a breath, to acknowledge that yes, it IS "like, hard," but it will be oh-so worth it in the end. 

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