Once upon a time, I wanted to lose weight.
And I did.
The title of this blog is the short version of my weight loss story. It is also the weight loss story of my husband, and a few near and dear ones who happened to ask me how I lost weight.
However, for a lot of people, losing weight takes a lot of effort and time. A quarter of the Internet’s published pages or ads are dedicated to weight loss ideas, and new ones pop up everyday. I decided to share the long version of my story because I felt that weight loss should not be stressful, and treated more like a fun experiment where you are observing and tweaking behaviors of yourself and of those around you. That is my hope with this blog.
My story began last year when I stumbled upon a new doctor to get a second opinion on some unrelated health issue. After several minutes of discussion on my medical history, he said — “This is an easy diagnosis”, as he began to write the prescription, “You should take x medicine, and y vitamin, and lose 5 kilos of weight. Nothing else.” I was a little startled. I was not overweight by any metric. My weight was 51 kilos, BMI around 20. I questioned him, “Are you serious? Won’t that make me underweight? Plus no doctor has ever told me to lose weight, rather they’ve always remarked on my skinniness and suspected a higher metabolic rate.” He was unmoved, “I can’t comment on the competence of the doctors you’ve met in the past. If you want me to treat you, you have to trust me.” Given his age (55ish), his strong credentials, and his radically new approach, I signed up to follow his instructions. (How to discover such doctors is another blog by itself!)
I did not want a specific diet, or a food list, or even an exercise regimen. So I did not google for ideas, or find a nutritionist, nor read blogs on weight loss. I did not ask friends nor family. I took a classical problem solving approach. Over the last few years, the Kindle has been my companion for problem solving, especially on medical issues that I try to debug for my mom and dad. So I turned to the Kindle once again. I decided to learn more about the systems and processes involved — understand food groups, digestion of carbs, the role of fat, insulin action, blood sugar fluctuations, and role of exercise.
I read tons of samples and reviews of books by qualified doctors, self-practitioners, sport heroes, and where it made sense, I read the whole book. Books authored by sports heroes made me realize that if a sports champion with an 8-hour exercise routine cannot lose weight, then exercise is not the answer. I read about muscle action, slow weight training, as well as read about the Blue Zones, locations where people age gracefully and live to a 100 without any formal exercise during the day. For example, my reading list also included books such as “Why Zebras don’t get Ulcers” which explains the role of psychological stress on bodily functions.
I did not need to read so much to come up with the plan I eventually followed, but today I’m grateful that I did, because it helps me tweak my answers, and customize the advice for people who ask me what lifestyle/diet rules they should follow. Every person is unique in his/her approach to food and life, and individual behaviors must be appreciated.
I also experimented on myself. For a month, I removed chemically treated core ingredients such as refined flour (Maida) from my diet, and observed the results. This experiment reduced the amount of sugar I consumed, and made me search the grocery store for new snack options like roasted nuts, millet cookies, etc. However, it was not an answer in itself.
I gradually formulated a set of rules for myself on how to eat. For a slow 5kg weight loss, the basic eating rules are enough. For quick weight loss, a more intense set of rules are needed. I stuck to the basic rules, while my husband followed the intense approach. I lost 5 kilos in 10 weeks, while my husband lost 6 kilos in 6 weeks. (He started after seeing my results. His motivation was his annual medical test that showed a high LDL cholesterol level).
MY BASIC WEIGHT-LOSS RULE BOOK
A. EATING RULES
- When serving any meal or snack, pay attention to volume and broad category of food served (carbohydrate, protein, fat, veggies, fruits, dairy, etc). Make a note of the volume you eat today so you can use your current eating standards (and energy levels) to guide your new ones. How you classify is important — For weight loss reasons, I classify corn, bananas, mangoes and potatoes as carbs not veggies/fruits, paneer as dairy/carbs, egg as protein, curd as carbs with a hint of protein.
- Starting with your current volume in any meal, reduce the carbohydrate quantity by 35–40%. If you ate three rotis/breads, eat 2 now, and see if your energy levels keep up during the day without additional snacking. In the same proportion, increase the protein. For example, if you ate 1 small bowl of dal (lentils/pulses), try to eat almost double that quantity so you don’t feel hungry. Veggies (sabzi) and green salads (not sugary fruits) can be eaten in plenty, as per your liking and several times during the day. If you choose to eat more raw veggies, make sure you increase your water intake during the day otherwise they do not get digested well.
- Always start by eating 25% of the protein you served yourself at the beginning of the meal to satiate the tummy. Serve the plate once as per these rules. No refills. Visualize your tummy as a washing machine, and not a stretchable sack. Load it with some care, and leave a little space for churning and mixing.
- Combine some protein with the carbs not only in your 3 meals, but also in your evening and mid-morning snack (assuming you only snack twice). For example: eat a tiny handful of roasted nuts/gram/chana when snacking on a banana.
B. ELIMINATING RULES (A little more intense)
A major reason people don’t lose weight is because their body is sensitive to a basic food group. It is called mild intolerance, hence the digestion is all messed up inside, but since the side effects are not obvious like an allergic reaction, one may not know that the body is actually reacting negatively when that food group is eaten.
For faster weight loss, eliminating one food group or reducing it by 80–90% works well, along with the above Eating Rules (part A). You need two weeks to determine if elimination of the chosen group is working for you.
The first group one must try to eliminate is dairy. I’ve seen most people lose weight when they reduce their daily intake of dairy products by 80-90% — restrict it to only 2 teaspoons of milk in tea/coffee twice a day. Removing dairy automatically reduces sugar intake. If you want to eat one small bowl of home-made curd/yogurt purely for calcium and probiotic reasons, treat it as a carbohydrate in your meal, and apply above rules.
If dairy elimination did not work after two weeks, the next food group to try is removal of any food with added sugars (white, brown, honey, jaggery). Next, you can try wheat (gluten) i.e. removal of refined and wheat flours. Other food groups to try are red meats, or any fruit that you eat very often without realizing. Some people unknowingly consume several cups of coffee (with milk/sugar), or bananas, or biscuits during the day. Try to observe what food group(s) is unnecessarily dominating, and causing mild intolerance which shows up as weight gain.
If you need to lose weight quickly, 80% removal of both dairy and added sugars works well. My husband followed this rule in addition to the eating rules.
C. AUTOMATING THE REST
Don’t stress over eating fat — ghee, butter, healthy virgin oils. They are important for the body’s hormone production. I happily used a spoon of these daily on roti/bread, and with salad/rice. For refined/cooking oils, automate the process of ensuring their consumption is on the lower side in your preparation of veggies and lentils. Here are some tips that I follow -
I buy oil in 1 liter (small) packets only. For many years now, I have personally opened a new 1 liter packet and written down the date each time it was opened. Although I now live in India and employ a cook on weekdays, the cook knows she cannot open a new packet without my first writing the date on the refrigerator notepad. My small family of 3 consumes 1 liter oil in 6–7 weeks, and we typically cook Indian meals. It was at 4-5 weeks, 2 years ago when I had a fancy oil bottle which made me lazy, and I never measured when cooking. Just the act of measuring builds awareness in everyone who cooks, and over time the refined oil consumption reduces to reasonable levels. I stopped using those fancy oil pouring bottles with nozzles. I stick to something with a wide mouth that accommodates a teaspoon inside it so I can’t make excuses about not measuring when adding oil to the cooking vessel. If you can see the oil on something after cooking, you’ve added too much.
SOME OF MY OLDER HABITS THAT HELPED ME (OPTIONAL)
- Fix the size of serving bowls for meals. I bought new serving containers to match my family’s serving portions. That ensures that food gets cooked in the right quantity, and when we lay the table, we bring the appropriate amount of food+leftovers to the table, not more, so there is no pressure for “finishing” up by overeating. Also, I don’t push others in the family to finish any leftovers. One habit I learned from my dad was that treating the tummy like a garbage bin is not a service to anyone, and a huge disservice to our health.
- Never reuse a previously heated oil/ghee. If you fried something, use the remaining oil for oil lamps. Don’t subject your tummy to the grime.
- Spice preference (chilly, garam masala) is an individual preference and must be respected by any good cook. In other global cuisines (Chinese, Italian, etc) spice options (sauces, chilli flakes) are kept on the table to respect this preference. Indian cooks seems to assume everyone loves masala loaded or spicy food. I’ve heard comments such as “Teach your child to eat more spice. He will be better off when eating outside.” I don’t subscribe to these ideas. We have spicy pickles, powders and chutnies in Indian cuisine too, so anyone looking for spice should be given these add-ons with the meal. Subjecting everyone’s bowels and stomach lining to the same level of spice is unnecessary. If situations force you to eat spice beyond your preference, end the meal with some lemon and water.
- Food and water are like personal devices. Treat them like your smart phone. You won’t leave home or travel without your smart phone. Do the same with food and water. Make it a habit. My habit started because I suffered from acidity and mild insulin resistance which causes hunger every 2 hours. Now it’s become a habit for life even when I don’t have the need. Always have a water bottle on you (in a small haversack or bag), and a small airtight plastic box with dry fruits (raisins, walnuts, almonds). Some people like to carry an energy bar, but that expires if you don’t eat it. Carry something unprocessed, and carry enough to offer your companions so you don’t feel awkward munching alone. Never let the body get too hungry.
- If you suffer from acidity build a very good understanding of acidic and alkaline foods. 12pm is a sacred time for acidity-prone people — the human body peaks its acid level at this time so make sure you have your lunch close to this time. If you happen to eat late, start with something that alkalizes the tummy, or drink a glass of alkaline water (water with lemon) to reduce the acid level.
- Make a mental note of relatives/friends who typically arrive late for a meal, or homes where the food is prepared late. The same is true for restaurants that have slow service. Never arrive hungry at such places. Eat something before leaving the house. If nothing else, slice up a raw tomato, and eat it.
- Observe people with their food — how much food they are eating, how they buy groceries, how many times they reheat food, etc. Especially observe people who you consider healthy. Observe how they eat at restaurants, how they load their plates, or finish a meal. Making a note of good and bad food behaviors helps me develop respect for my body, and crave better health. In many couples, I notice the husband and wife eating the same amount of food, although one of them has a greater need for weight loss, or a lower need for calories based on gender, height and body structure.
MY TAKE ON EXERCISE
I am a little surprised when people, especially after age 35, turn to exercise as a weight loss method. Any structured or intense exercise (running, badminton, tennis, power yoga, etc) causes extra pressure on your bones, knees, ankles, and major muscles (all the stuff that’s aging and needs care). If you are overweight, you are subjecting your body to exercises with uneven excess weight on the body itself, that can most likely cause injury, pulls, and wear and tear. A body that exercises after weight loss benefits more because of flexibility and the lightness it experiences, without the risks of even minor injuries. The older you are, the longer will be your recovery time from any fall/injury, and the long term negative impact on your bones is not worth the short term benefit of guilt-removal or feeling “exercised”.
So be a little mindful of your own weight when exercising. Don’t use exercise for weight loss, but for toning and strength. Focus on exercises that either build strength. For example, 10 slow squats (10 counts each way) or slow surya-namaskars (yoga) with holding the key positions for few seconds until you feel an uncomfortable stretch. Slow strength building exercises allow muscles to expand beyond their current limit, and the new stretched limit helps the body continually burn fat all day. For long term benefits, you must rest that group of muscles for at least 3 days, so don’t do these everyday.
For toning and stamina, increase regular physical activity that you can easily build into your routine. Take the stairs as a habit, or walk to the grocery store. 10,000 footsteps a day is considered an active life, with zero need for other exercise. Achieving close to 5000 daily steps is a good start for most of us. Some companies such as Amazon India provide the option of a standing desk so explore that if you control your work environment.
Once you’ve shed some significant weight (in multiples of 5kg), you can pursue any sport or regimen with ease and flexibility.
As an aside, in my quest to debug human behavior, I often like to see old photos with aging folks. It helps me understand the different phases of a person’s life and body. I’ve observed that older people (85+) who continue to have strong bones and climb stairs, have never once in their lifetime subjected their body/bones to excess weight. A lifetime of less wear and tear, where every step taken is not a burden on your bones is priceless at 85. I recently helped my aunt order flowers for her uncle’s 100th birthday; he is active and healthy. She attributed his super-health to his inability to feel ‘stressed’ about anything, at any point in his life. That is so hard — for now I’ll try to protect my bones!
Any change in lifestyle is so much fun when you’re interested in the process, but not stressed about the outcome. Try to enjoy experimenting with yourself more out of the curiosity of how your body will react, rather than out of the need to ‘make an effort’. Once you’ve lost the weight, just tweak things all over again, and see how you feel. No change is permanent.
A cynic may remark — What’s the point of fussing over health and food, if I never have to face the long haul of aging? What if I die in a plane crash, or due to some genetic disease that I have no control over?
My only answer to that is — What if you don’t?
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed above may not work for everyone. There are many ideas/details that I had to leave out for the sake of brevity. Feel free to get in touch with me to have an open discussion on any of above. This blog is a collection of stuff I wrote in emails to different people who asked me questions on this topic. If we do end up talking, don’t be surprised if I ask you behavioral questions about your home, its habits, how the rest of your family behaves around food. I’ve not spoken to a chef, nor a gym trainer, nor a nutritionist. I’ve seen that doable ideas come out of the failures and successes we have with changing our behavior, our conditioning, and our environment. That’s where I try to get my learning. My only advice to you is to think long term when it comes to health.
Dedication: This blog is dedicated to my husband and my 3-year old son, two individuals who love all types of food, love cooking, and love experimenting. I used to be a person who had no interest in food nor cooking. Their combined effect at home is slowly changing me.