I wanted to write my experiences of the different diets I have tried in the past 2 decades – and my personal reaction to each of these diets.
Please note – I am not a nutritionist/health professional. This is my personal anecdote. What has worked for me, may or may not work for you. My motivation to write this post is to share my journey with its ups and downs and hope that you feel you are not alone in your weight struggles.
Low fat diet + Exercise like a maniac
This phase happened in my early 20’s. A year after starting my graduate program in the USA, I had put on about 10-15 lbs. No surprise – junk overload + poor cooking skills had its toll. Then, a crass batchmate of mine, commented crudely on how many pounds I had put on.
Rather than rise above the negativity, I decided to “show him” and “make him eat his words”. I turned my rage into my fuel. That summer I went on a super low-fat diet. This was early 2000’s, low fat was still in vogue. I ate a lot of fruits, fat free yogurt, soups, etc to fill my stomach. Since I was relatively young, I was not really aware/ cared about the excess sugar I was eating.
Given that I was on the University campus, I also had plenty of Gym resources at my disposal. So, I would spent an hour easily on Treadmill + EFX machines, then lift weights to tone, crunch abs 100 times or more and pushed myself really hard. In about 3 months I lost a ton of weight and was feeling super-proud of myself. Yay for me!!
That phase tapered out eventually. Life happens…. I had to work hard on my thesis, graduate, get a job. By then, spending long hours on the gym was no longer an option.
My consulting job required a lot of driving. Even though I joined the local YMCA to swim a few laps every other day, the weekdays often left me exhausted. So, eventually the weight started creeping up again. Although, it never went up to the first year US levels, I wasn’t as thin as I used to be either.
Raw Food diet
Salad for dinners
Fast forward a few years…I got married. After the birth of my first child, I decided that I had to try and lose the last 10 lbs of my post pregnancy weight. Raw food was all the vogue then. I decided to make salads for dinner every day.
That, did not work out. First of all, I hate salads. Secondly, they never made me feel full/satisfied – only bloated.
Here’s my personal opinion. Having raw food as a part of your daily diet (like a side salad), or once in a while as a cleansing diet is great. But to obsess about not heating something beyond a point – is not my style. To believe that you will kill all nutrition, if the temperature of the food rises above 118F, I believe, is scientifically inaccurate.
When I started reading about soaking, sprouting and dehydrating buckwheat groats – at that point – I had to give up. Or when I read about stories of a person eating only fruit – while I realize, these may only be extreme cases – started feeling very cult-like and it was a path I did not wish to travel.
Eat to Live: Dr. Furhman’s diet
Life went on…I gave birth to my second daughter. By this time, we moved to California. And for the first time, I visited a farmer’s market here and was just blown away by the availability of fresh produce. As a family, we started building healthy habits – more plants, tried farm fresh eggs (mind-blowing difference), more organic products etc.
Around this time, I started looking for more of a lifestyle based approach rather than a diet. I came across Dr. Furhman‘s talk at the PBS channel. I really loved his talk. I still believe majority of what he recommends. I still remember his G-Bombs list:
M – Mushroom
B – Berries
Dr. Furhman also established the ANDI score – based on nutrient density of foods. I loved that concept – it is basically like a trade-off you make in your mind. French fries – too much calories, no nutrition – bad choice. Kale – low calories, high nutrition, great choice. Seeds – high calorie, high nutrition, good choice and so on.
I also loved that he included beans/lentils – so important for Indian vegetarians to get that fullness feeling of protein.
I started making Kale smoothies religiously. I would buy 2lbs of cherries from the farmers market and spent time pitting them on Sunday afternoons. I would peel and chop cucumber and store them. I thrived in this diet. I remember 1 day specifically, where I felt so light and healthy, I just randomly strapped on some shoes and jogged a couple of miles and came back home.
But, there is always going to be a but :(…a few problems. I was still spending way too much time in the kitchen prepping food – because grains were really limited in portion and fat was not exactly welcome in his diet. To avoid feeling hungry, there always had to be some fruit or vegetable that needed to be prepped.
I also missed eating puris. Isn’t that the darnedest thing? All these years of low fat food, and I could never bring myself to order puri in a restaurant. My husband would be chomping away at it and I would be glaring at him angrily. Now, obviously, it is not Dr. Furhman’s fault for that. But, in my brain it was fixed (at that time) that puris = bad and if I eat it, I will suffer for it.
About a year later, my dad got really sick, we were taking him in and out of hospitals. My life got too chaotic to follow this diet for a while after that.
Low Carb Diet
A few years later, my A1C started creeping up. It was not at 6.0, but edging towards it. By then Gary Taubes was in every speaking circuit and low-carb was all the rage. I fell into its spell and started making tons of nut based recipes. I decided to avoid grains completely and just eat veggies/nuts. I went completely nuts (pun intended). I exercised regularly. I was eating very small portion sizes. Beans and legumes were looked down upon, but since I was starting to pull myself away from animal products too – so I found it difficult to eat eggs, paneer etc. This diet was a disaster for me.
Note – As I was growing older, reading about animal conditions – just on a philosophical / emotional level – I was ready to give up animal products. My family still eats them, but I eat them as less as possible.
Eating a low carb as vegetarian itself is hard, but as a vegan was even more difficult. My weight was also about 10lbs higher than my Dr. Furhman diet days, yet I was hungry, a lot. My A1C levels started dropping. This made me happy, but I knew I could not sustain the diet. I was getting sick of all the yo-yo’ing. I just wanted a normal productive life, with very little thought process towards food.
Note – I think the problem was the execution of the low carb diet. I am sure many of you are thriving with this diet. But, it was not for me.
After going full circle trying on different diets, I finally came close to what I follow now. I have read all kinds of nutrition books, I have looked at the science of food manufacturing, I have taken nutrition courses and finally came up with a few simple rules to maintain my weight.
- Meals are the best way to eat nourishing food with lesser caloric impact – (e.g sambar rice, roti dal, kichdi, pasta with veggies, grain based salads etc)
- Avoid processed foods as much as possible – since they are dehydrated, or salt-ed or sugar-ed, etc to preserve them long term, that just worsens the impact on your body.
- Try to move towards original sources of food. Eg Oatmeal > Oat Bar, Spaghetti > Maggi (fried noodles), Nuts > Biscuits
- Exercise for the sake of health, not for losing weight.
I know, I know, it feels like common sense. But trust me, it took me a long time to come to these basic facts. I also found that as I get older, I am not that tempted with high calorie foods as much as I used to. That may be just a blessing of getting older, and not really self-discipline. But, as a result, there is no feeling of being deprived.
But on the occasion that I do eat rich foods, I never feel guilty. So, yes I order puri now a days. I I eat chips – yes, cake – yes, ice cream – yes. There is nothing off limits. But, when I do eat them, I either eat less, stop when I am full or I put off my next meal a little longer, using a tool I am glad to have found – fasting.
I used to think Karva Chauth (a hindu ritual) was a very sexist ritual. Many years ago, I was offended that only the women were asked to starve and not the man. But, hey – who knew that through fasting, the women were actually improving their own health. While also claiming they were doing it for the men – hence getting praised for it as well. Wah!! What an idea!! – Ok, serious readers, please don’t be offended – I am just joking!!
Fasting is such a great tool to have in your back pocket. Early on, the idea of fasting was very difficult for me. I hated the feeling of hunger. But, I have realized that if you sustain the 20 minutes that you feel the intense hunger, it will then subside and you will feel quite alright once you cross that hurdle.
It is not easy. But, it is a tool – a tool to use when you over-indulge; a tool to use when festival season is in full swing; or a tool to use when you eat puris from your favorite restaurant.
After all, something’s gotta give. What is it you give up – carbs (low carb, paleo, keto), protein (starch diet), fat (low fat, vegan, etc), or 1 whole meal (via fasting) is up to you and your lifestyle/preferences.
I am back to the same weight as I did when I left India 19 years ago. I will not reach my lowest weight level, when I was working out for about 2 hours/day, nor do I want it. I have better things to do in my life than waste 2 hours in a gym.
I am currently happy with my health and weight. But, it has been quite a journey. A journey of wading through so many no’s and finally getting to my stable state.
Which bring me to my favorite Steve Job quote: “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.”
I don’t have an answer as to which diet is good or bad. That depends on you, your preference.
But, in writing this post, I hope it helps the 20/30/40 year olds going through similar issues. I want you to realize
1) that you are not alone…and
2) I hope that you get to wade through different diets – find and eliminate your No’s. And finally, get to your very own personalized stable state solution that maximizes your health + happiness, and minimizes your stress to achieve it.