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Dying To Work In Music | Part 3: Nutrition

Staying Healthy In The Studio By Jack Ruston
Published June 2023

Just because the band have ordered takeaway food doesn’t mean you have to.Just because the band have ordered takeaway food doesn’t mean you have to.

If music be the food of love, shouldn’t we eat better while we’re making it?

“Eating well and keeping fit are absolutely essential to sustaining a career long‑term. I put a lot of effort into both. None of us work better when our bodies are failing us”: Tim Bazell.

In this series of articles, we’re looking at the worrying decline in our baseline level of health, and how our lives in the studio can cause harm. In the first two parts, we discussed the related issues of sleep and stress. This month we’re moving on to nutrition.

Nutrition is a hugely significant piece in the jigsaw of metabolic health, and it’s been the focus of my attention for most of the past few years. Nevertheless, I raise it with regret and trepidation. If ever a subject deserved to join politics and religion in the list of those guaranteed to plunge even the most genial of friends into an argument that would make the Hundred Years War seem like a slight misunderstanding, it would be this one. The vast majority of the messaging we get around nutrition is sensationalised by the media and comes directly, or indirectly, from the food industry. We can be more confident about what isn’t true than what is, and many of the questions we would like to ask are ethically impossible to answer.

I’d like to offer this one fundamental piece of advice that saves us from an exhausting list of dos and don’ts: Eat nutrient‑dense, whole foods.

Rather than trotting out endless pages of biological explanations, I’d like to offer this one fundamental piece of advice that saves us from an exhausting list of dos and don’ts: Eat nutrient‑dense, whole foods.

Packing Them In

Let me briefly explain those two criteria, starting with nutrient density. Allowing a degree of simplification, we can think of our food as containing nutrients — protein, vitamins and minerals — and energy: fats and carbohydrates. The hormonal satiety signalling that prevents overeating and all its serious health consequences is skewed towards us getting enough nutrients, particularly protein. This makes sense, because not only is protein an essential building block of the body, but our traditional sources of protein are meat, fish, eggs and dairy, which offer the greatest density of micronutrients in their most bioavailable forms. If we ate enough protein, the chances are we would get everything else we needed in the process. Plant‑based messaging from the food industry might try to imply otherwise, but it’s not even close (although plants do provide some important micronutrients, and polyphenolic compounds). As the nutrient density of our meals drops, we begin to overeat energy in an attempt to meet our nutrient needs. This effect is termed ‘protein leverage’ and applies not only to humans, but widely across the animal kingdom.

What about ‘whole foods’? If a food doesn’t have an ingredients list, it hasn’t been deliberately formulated to make you eat more of it. Food companies engage in ‘food engineering’: the manipulation of certain flavours and textures to circumvent satiety. Products take advantage of the dopaminergic effect of sweet‑tasting, high‑energy foods, and our primal drive for sodium and the umami flavours that imply the presence of protein. The so‑called ‘Dorito effect’ describes the way in which a food product can be made more compulsive by tasting like it contains protein, but at the same time less satisfying by actually containing very little. Food engineering is now a relatively mature science, and it’s exceptionally effective.

If food has an ingredient list then, almost by definition, it’s processed food.If food has an ingredient list then, almost by definition, it’s processed food.

The Broad & Narrow Way

But confining our diet to only nutrient‑dense whole foods is going to be difficult, isn’t it? Yes, it is. Almost all ready‑made restaurant and takeaway foods are highly processed and nutrient‑poor. We will need to prepare most of our food ourselves if we want to have any confidence in its ingredients. For many of us, that’s a tall order, but we mustn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Let’s consider a continuum, with optimal at one end, and terrible at the other. What might those extremes look like?

‘Terrible’ consists entirely of food products and takeaways. It contains a lot of processed wheat flour, vegetable oil and sugar. It’s low in quality animal protein, and relies on heavily processed poultry and pork, rather than fresh cuts of ruminant meat. In the ‘terrible’ diet, many calories come in liquid form, from high‑fructose corn syrup in sodas, and sugar and fat added to beverages. The day starts with high‑glycaemic carbohydrates that begin a cycle of blood sugar highs and lows, driving the need to snack every couple of hours or so, in order to prevent feelings of extreme hunger, shakiness or irritability. The feeding never really stops, as calories are always coming in from snacks or drinks. Meals are rushed, eaten on the go or while working. Digestion is poor, and symptoms like heartburn, gas or bloating, IBS and constipation are considered a normal part of life. Snacking continues late into the evening, causing disruptions in sleep and high cortisol levels overnight.

‘Optimal’ consists entirely of single‑ingredient whole foods. Every meal contains a significant portion of high‑quality protein that will provide nutrients, drive satiety and displace ‘empty’ calories. Carbohydrates come from fresh, seasonal, organic fruits and vegetables and perhaps some raw honey. High‑glycaemic carbohydrate intake varies by season, and is significantly lower than in the ‘terrible’ diet. The optimal diet contains no processed seed oils, relying mainly on the fats that come naturally with animal protein, as well as cold‑pressed, predominantly monounsaturated fruit oils like extra‑virgin olive oil and avocado. Plant foods are prepared in such a way that maximises the bioavailability of nutrients, and minimises their natural toxins. Energy and focus remain stable regardless of meal timing. Most people feel quite satisfied by two meals a day, and there is rarely any need to snack. Meals are eaten slowly and mindfully in a calm state. Eating stops three or four hours before bedtime, and before the sun sets. Blood sugar is stable, cortisol is low overnight, rising again in the morning.

Shocking statistics: these official maps show how the prevalence of obesity and diabetes has grown in the USA over just 15 years, from 2004 (top) to 2019 (bottom).Shocking statistics: these official maps show how the prevalence of obesity and diabetes has grown in the USA over just 15 years, from 2004 (top) to 2019 (bottom).

Small Steps

Most of us would look at the ‘terrible’ diet and think “I’m not that bad!”, while the ‘optimal’ diet sounds difficult from a practical standpoint, and not all that much fun. The problem is that many of us are far closer to the ‘terrible’ end of the scale, and this is manifesting itself in rather frightening metabolic health statistics. We’re all familiar with the ways in which studio work can drive that sort of eating.

“An unhealthy lifestyle is absolutely intrinsic to the job,” says Emre Ramazanoglu. “People are sedentary, living on takeaways and junk food because it’s tasty and quick. I avoid processed foods as much as I possibly can. Not eating out is the biggest step — it has helped hugely.”

We don’t necessarily require an immediate seismic shift, but rather to see what small things we can do to move ourselves gradually along this continuum. Can we take home‑cooked food to work? Can we cut out the soda? Can we replace cereal or toast with eggs? Can we get sushi delivered instead of pizza? Can we cut out the snacks? Can we stop eating a few hours before we go to sleep? Can we do this one day a week? Can we make it two? These little things add up to significant change.

When making dietary changes we need to be wary of diets. Our changes need to be sustainable and long‑term. If we start thinking in terms of a period of ‘dieting’, we’re just going to end up right back where we started once that period ends. Consistency wins the day. And if we cave and demolish a bag of crisps, we must be mindful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater: rather than giving up and telling ourselves that we’ve blown it and there’s no point continuing, we can just accept that it’s happened and move on with the best intentions. Suppressing survival‑focused binge‑eating instincts that have been developed over three million years when food is all around us isn’t easy.

Do the best you can with what you’ve got. If you can afford it, and have ready access to grass‑fed, pastured animal foods and organic fresh fruit and vegetables, that’s perfect, but for many, these premium options are unrealistic. Just know that those single‑ingredient whole foods are always going to be better than the packaged products.

Make the time and effort to bring your own food to the studio, and you’ll eat better and spend less money.Make the time and effort to bring your own food to the studio, and you’ll eat better and spend less money.

The nutrition journey is a perilous one, and we must be wary of traps. These mostly come in the form of processed ‘health’ foods, and food products that fit a certain dietary approach ‘on paper’. Avoid granola bars, protein bars, shakes, plant‑based, dairy or gluten‑free alternatives, nut or oat milks, fruit juice, sugar that’s pretending to be something else — you get the picture. This is why the notion of whole, unprocessed foods is such a good one. It protects us not only from obvious junk, but also from junk marketed as ‘healthy’.

It’s important to note that on a vegan diet, it’s not possible to meet your nutrient needs without careful supplementation. There’s a reason that no human society has ever been vegan. The use of processed foods like combined plant proteins may also be necessary, especially given that the very low bioavailability of nutrients will require greater quantities overall. If you wish to be vegan, take professional advice on how to construct your diet. Simply eating plant‑based foods and hoping for the best is likely to lead to problems in the medium term, much as any move away from the typical diet of junk food is going to be of benefit in the short term.

Next month, we’ll finish this series with a look at movement.


  • Eat at least 30g of quality protein in every meal or snack.
  • Make your food at home and take it to work with you.
  • Provide as extensive a kitchen setup as is practical.
  • Don’t drink your calories.
  • Don’t be tempted to eat every time you see a band member doing so.
  • Be wary of packaged foods, and anything with ingredient lists.
  • Don’t let slip‑ups derail your progress.
  • Don’t go ‘on a diet’, but rather change the way you eat for good.  

Studio Facilities

Many small studios lack a proper kitchen, and this is a significant barrier to eating well. If a studio has only a kettle and a microwave, the tendency is to gravitate towards packaged foods, ready meals and noodles. Even a lack of tableware and cutlery drives us towards foods that can be eaten out of their packaging, which is rarely a good thing in this context. It may be that we have to prepare food at home, taking it in with us on a daily basis. But the more we can provide in terms of a kitchen setup, the more flexibility that allows us. When it comes to designing our workspaces, it’s worth bearing this in mind.

Avoid Smoothies

The trend of blending up vast piles of raw spinach, kale, nuts, juices and whatever other ‘superfoods’ are around can do more harm than good. We need to be a little bit respectful of the plants in our diet. They can be enormously beneficial, but they’re not invariably safe in any quantity. They’ve successfully defended themselves against being eaten to extinction by virtue of containing toxic compounds. Some of these can even be good for us, but only when eaten in appropriately small quantities. Our ancestors went to great lengths to make plants safe to eat by cooking, peeling, fermenting, soaking and sprouting, and it seems that much of their wisdom has been forgotten along the way. Smoothies let us rapidly consume raw plants in quantities far greater than we could ever have obtained or eaten in their whole‑food form. This can drive issues with digestion, intestinal permeability, kidney stones and thyroid issues, as well as dermatological problems. It’s also worth noting that drinking our food negatively affects our satiety signalling: we don’t feel as full.