I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking this is going to be another one of those predictable, vanilla articles about foods you should and shouldn’t eat before singing. Boooring!
The conventional advice that we singers often hear about diet goes something like this:
- Drink Water (room temperature)
- Eat Fruit
- Eat Vegetables
Do NOT Consume:
- Hot Beverages
- Cold beverages
- High Fat Foods
- Spicy Foods
You know what you really ought not to consume? The generic kool aid above! Instead, let’s look at some actionable strategies, which are rooted in a lifetime of dietary experimentation, that’s taken me from a Standard American Diet (SAD), to vegetarianism, to veganism, to fruitarianism, to the slow carb diet a la Tim Ferriss, to what I follow now (modified paleo). In addition to years of OCD self-tracking, blood testing and subjecting myself to various supplementation regimens, I’m also drawing on my experience as a competitive athlete (submission grappling), and since singing is a sport in its own right, I hope these parallels ring true for you.
Let’s start with first principles
A singer is, above all, a human being. Agreed? Human beings are a species of animal, which has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to consume a very specific type of diet. This isn’t even actually a “diet”, that’s a word invented to sell books and ab machines. This is simply our natural way of eating and it has profound implications for our health and quality of life.
Have you seen what happens when you feed a cat (or a dog for that matter) a vegetarian diet? It gets sick, weak, and lethargic. It loses its desire to mate(!) and dies prematurely. This is called a “failure to thrive”. If a human animal is fed the wrong things, what do you suppose happens to it?
About 10,000 years ago, humans began farming and went from a nomadic tribal lifestyle, to a relatively stationary, city-based lifestyle. Consequently, we transitioned from our ancestral diet of mostly animal foods to a high-carb diet of grains and other farmed foods. Because we were able to grow our food almost year-round, we could stay in one location and reduce the need to hunt wild game and gather nuts, berries, tubers and roughage.
Unfortunately, our bodies were not (and still aren’t) adapted to eating grains (they’re toxic), high levels of fruits (also toxic), and many raw vegetables. Like the example of the vegetarian cat, we’ve been consuming the wrong things for roughly ten millennia and have been getting sicker and sicker as a result. Pile on top of that the modern laundry list of synthetic chemicals we’re routinely exposed to, stressful work schedules, and sedentary, indoor-based living and you have a MAJOR failure to thrive.
You see, most diet and lifestyle advice you hear for singers is generic and incomplete at best, totally wrong at worst. A singer’s actual vocal instrument is certainly important but any professional singer can tell you that it’s only half the story. Being an effective singer and musician requires mental and physical endurance that has nothing to do with your voice per se. “Don’t smoke, don’t drink yourself stupid and don’t party your ass off 5 days a week” is fairly common sense advice that you’ll learn on your own. But the advice below is of a more counter-intuitive nature, and not only will you not hear it very often, but you’ll be told the exact opposite!
So here’s the deal: Singers need a steady supply of even-keeled energy, enthusiasm, mental acuity, memory, plasticity of thinking and nerves of steel when it comes time to go on stage.
So, then, how should you eat if you’re a singer? The answer is, the same way you would eat if you weren’t one! The idea of a profession-specific diet is actually quite ridiculous. Yes, certain tweaks and allowances have to be made based on activity levels and genetics, but fundamentally the healthiest diet is the one that most closely approximates your ancestral way of eating. This way of eating is popularly known as a “paleolithic” or “paleo” diet and here’s what it can do for you:
- Increased energy
- Longer life
- Higher sex drive
- Improved mental acuity
- Improved physical performance
- Weight normalization
- Improved appearance
Sounds too good to be true, right? Well, going back to the vegetarian cat example. If the gato is being fed a 50/50 mixture of vegetables and meat, it’s only going to be somewhat sick as a result. If you feed it nothing but meat, which is what its body is designed to operate most optimally with, kitty shall experience all of the same benefits that I listed above and return to good health (all other things being equal). Likewise, if YOU begin removing foods from your diet that work against your genetics and replace them with the high-quality foods that your body was meant to operate on, you too will experience a very noticeable shift in your overall health. This, you might imagine, has tremendous ramifications for your art.
Here’s an overview of the protocol:
- Grass fed, pastured, organic meats
- Pastured organic eggs
- Cold water, wild caught fish (Salmon, cod, sardines, mackerel)
- Grass fed butter, ghee, coconut oil
- Nuts (no peanuts – they’re legumes)
- Small quantities of low-sugar fruits (berries and citrus are good choices)
Do NOT Consume:
- Any grain based foods including bread, pastas, rice, quinoa, etc.
- High sugar fruit such as mangoes, pineapples and bananas
- Legumes (beans of any kind)
- Alcohol (I don’t take this rule too seriously – you’ve got to live a little!)
Basically, if you mostly stay away from sugars and starches (which are just sugars anyway), and eat plenty of high quality animal products, you’re going to notice a huge improvement in your well-being and outward appearance relatively quickly. If you’re a big bread and pasta eater, cutting carbs out is going to be difficult, so do it gradually. Once you’ve weened off the carbs, you’ll notice that your energy levels and mood will be quite steady throughout the day, because you’re no longer subjecting your body to the insulin rollercoaster that carbohydrates put in motion. If you try to become a paleo perfectionist, you’re probably setting yourself up for some serious binge eating. A great idea to that Tim Ferriss introduced in his awesome book “4 Hour Body”, which can help you circumvent binging, is the concept of a “cheat day” once a week, during which you eat whatever the hell you want! That way it’s already planned and not some big monkey on your back that comes to wreck your diet whimsically.
One singer-specific piece of advice you hear a lot is to avoid eating a lot of fat. Well, that’s a lot of bull. A high fat diet is incredibly healthful. Fats are the primary energy source the body is meant to use (NOT sugars!!!) So cook some eggs in butter and a few strips of bacon for breakfast. While your jam and toast eating colleague is passing out from the sugar crash, you’ll still be going like some sort of singing Energize bunny.
Unfortunately, because our soils are largely depleted of nutrients, our animals are fed nutrient-poor feeds, and for a number of other reasons, we simply can NOT get all of the nutrition we need solely from food, even if it’s the RIGHT food. Thus, it’s necessary to supplement and hack a little. Here are 4 important additions to the diet outlined above that will take your mind and body – and thus, your singing! – to the next level:
Fish oil is high in omega 3 fatty acids, which curb cellular inflammation and keeps you young and healthy. Much of the food we consume now is very high in omega 6 fats, and this has skewed the natural ratio of omega 3s to omega 6s with which our bodies are built to function optimally. Fish oil is relatively cheap, painless to take and has profound health benefits. Don’t be afraid to take several grams of fish oil a day. It won’t hurt you – just make sure you find a brand that tests for contaminants by third parties. Unlike, say, exercise, this one’s a gimme.
We are meant to spend copious amounts of time in the sun (naked). Instead, we spend an unhealthy amount of time indoors (clothed). Since our body produces vitamin D in response to sunlight exposure, this explains why the majority of our population is severely vitamin D deficient. Even in perennially sunny South Florida, the majority of the population is deficient! I can’t overemphasize how powerful this group of compounds is (vitamin D is the name of the family of compounds called secosteroids). They influence everything from hormone levels to alertness to immunity.
Getting tested for vitamin D deficiency is cheap and easy, or just get blood drawn if you’re insured). Definitely test your levels prior to supplementing. Shoot for about 55ng/mL (nanograms per milliliter) of blood. If you’ve determined that you need to supplement, make sure that you take D3 (cholecalciferol) and not D2 (ergocalciferol). You’ll be fine taking up to 5000 IU a day. Adjust commensurate with sun exposure and retest levels every few months until optimal.
We are a severely sleep-deprived species. Yet sleep is a fundamental component of great health and proper functioning. You already know this on an intuitive level, but the pressure from society to “fit everything in” is so strong, that we often eschew sleep as a waste of time. Nothing could be further from the truth. Your singing voice goes straight to hell when you haven’t had enough sleep, as does your concentration, memory and general “springiness”. More sleep, and better quality sleep means you get more mileage out of your waking hours. It’s a counter-intuitive concept (not really – we’ve just been culturally programmed to silence our powerful intuition). Forcing yourself awake is short-sighted; you’re going on borrowed time. Nature will have her way with you eventually, and you’ll find the reduced quality of your output doesn’t justify the extra hours you stuffed in.
You knew this one was coming! But don’t worry, you need not exercise nearly as much as you may think. You can trigger the powerful hormonal cascade responses that improve your health and well being with rather minimalistic exercise routines. I suggest a kettlebell workout twice a week, or a “Peak 8” regimen. It’s important that you do some kind of weight training, even if you’re a woman. Running on a treadmill for 2 hours is a joke; you could get better results in terms of both appearance and health from 1 kettlebell session per week. The benefits? EVERYTHING.
Remember: you’re a human first and a singer second, so eat the healthiest diet possible and you’ll be the best singer possible – simple! Stick with this idea of “first principles” and you’ll also have the tools to untangle even the most complicated of knots as you progress along your journey in music…