At the root of most diet plans, is the fact that you just have to eat less. If you can figure out a systematic way to eat less without starving yourself or obsessing about food all the time, then I think you are all set. But, how do you do that?
A little background:
For the most part of the past 15+ years (college, career, 2 pregnancies), I spent a lot of unproductive time – trying out different diets, cooking in different ways (no oil, less oil, high oil), gaining weight, losing weight and yo-yo’ ing in dismay. I will write another post detailing all my past diets/ efforts.
However since my dad died (I talk a little bit about it here), I have spent a lot of time researching and thinking about health, food and nutrition. In the past 2-3 years, I have managed to converge all my experiences and come up with a few basic principles. I have, now, thread a model of eating habits in my head that enables me to a long-term consistent approach to weight maintenance and health.
I feel comfortable with my body weight (not too thin, not too fat). While, I enjoy eating food, I have learned to become disciplined to not eat when I choose to. My annual health reports have been good so far (knock on wood). And I have stopped wasting my mental energy on learning about ‘the next best diet’ or looking up pointless information like “Is the egg yolk better than egg white?” etc….
How did I get to this stage? I described my efforts and discovery below. If this knowledge of mine, obtained through iterative reductions, can help someone stuck in a similar cycle, it will make me immensely happy.
Disclaimer : Please note – I am not a medical professional or nutritionist. The following is just my personal journey. It may not be suitable for everyone. Choose your path based on what is best for your body and consult your physician before making any dramatic changes to your diet.
What is so hard about this?
People are so smart now-a-days. I am an engineer, for heavens sake. Not that engineers are smarter or anything like that, but I have been trained to solve technical problems easily. Why did it take me so long to arrive at a simple solution to maintaining my weight?
The main problem – too much bloody conflicting information. There are books, magazines, blogs, people devoted to selling the next best diet.
So, for the person who thinks Paleo is the best diet, he will argue with you for hours together on how horrible grains are and the insulin theory of obesity. For the keto person, it is all about the fat. They will learn all about ketogenesis and give you an earful. For the vegan, it is all about the plants and their willingness to lecture everyone around them, etc…
Everybody is selling some bloody thing – a book, supplements, counseling services, etc. Some genuinely great folks, some charlatans. Everyone thinks they have the perfect answer. Now, I am not saying, every nutritionist should be noble and run a non-profit. But, the cacaphony of voices just spouting bits and pieces of information is similar to the story of the blind men and the elephant.
SO, by the time, you process all this info; separate the fact from the BS; whoosh – a decade is gone. Michael Pollan, [who I mostly like, except for his douche-baggy attitude towards vegetarians (that I saw in the Netflix special – Cooked)] makes a very good point, which is- The current level of knowledge in the world on nutrition is quite low and about 100-200 years behind any sophisticated, mature understanding. It is too sparse and in-bits and pieces.
Ok, one more fine piece of wisdom before we move on further. Charlie Munger, of Berkshire Hathaway fame, has talked about mental models when investing. I, for one, could not help but notice the similarities in the field of nutrition.
“What is elementary, worldly wisdom? You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience—both vicarious and direct—on this latticework of models.
What are the models? Well, the first rule is that you’ve got to have multiple models—because if you just have one or two that you’re using, the nature of human psychology is such that you’ll torture reality so that it fits your models, or at least you’ll think it does. [..]It’s like the old saying, “To the man with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”https://old.ycombinator.com/munger.html
Why does all this matter?
Honestly, I am just a 40 year old Indian woman who just does not want to spend my time obsessing about food. Which is hilarious, considering the fact that I write a food blog. I realize the irony here very well!!
But, consider this – I am thrilled to be born in a time where women are successfully breaking down barriers, crashing glass ceilings and using their minds and intellect to solve amazing problems.
All I want is to spend the least possible amount of time in the kitchen, and yet feed my family well, stay healthy and avoid the genetic ‘blessings’ of diabetes/cholesterol as long as possible. Is that such a big ask?
How NOT to eat less:
We are in the age of abundance. Majority of us are eating more than necessary. But how does one eat less? Before we address that question, let me tell you how NOT to eat less. Here are some ways I have failed over and over again before walking away from these type of tools.
Here’s how NOT to do it:
- Portion control – I could never feel satisfied with portion control. I always felt hungry, always deprived – Terrible idea.
- Calorie Counting – Too tedious, too micro-managing
- Randomly deciding to go hungry without any planning – until you get super hungry, eat everything in sight, feel super guilty, continue cycle.
- Drinking sugary beverages to stave hunger as long as possible – leaves you with a constant state of feeling empty + deprived.
Here’s how I finally achieved stable state: How to eat less
#1 : Must eat meals:
I have 2 good meals every day – proper, solid meals – e.g., Rice with curry + sambar, chapthi sabzi, sandwiches, etc. I will explain down below what I do instead of a 3rd meal. However, I do not skimp out on my 2 meals. This is important!! Because you know (your body knows, your mind knows), that even if you are hungry in-between, you have a lovely, well-rounded dinner waiting for you. Your body may be hungry temporarily, but never deprived.
I cannot tell you what to eat, how much to eat etc. I have no gyaan to offer on carb, protein, fat ratios. But, a lot of women I know – never eat even a single meal properly, thinking they are helping their body, but all the uncertainty makes them struggle more.
Eating meals is very important for 2 specific reasons:
A. Eating proper meals automatically reduces cravings big time
I don’t have data to back it up. But, I can tell you clearly how I feel and how I have seen my kids react. A proper meal dramatically reduces your craving for chips, ice cream, chocolate, etc. It does not eliminate it (This is not a magic wand), but it reduces it a lot.
Think about this – Why do we even eat? Having grown into an adult, we no longer have to grow in height. Yet, we need all the macro and micro nutrients to properly function in our body. Instead if we shove starbucks drinks, Britannia biscuit, Kelloggs snacks or a Costco milk shake, what the heck are we nourishing ourselves with? 50c/lb of sugar is what we are providing…or 20c/lb of potatoes (lays chips, McDonalds fries). The food companies cannot churn a profit also while providing you a multi-nutrient meal. Your body is asking you for saag and daals, but your brain says – “That’s too much of a hassle, here’s a biscuit, muffin or chips instead.”
For eg., when you are hungry, a sugary Costco ice cream will feel like heaven in your mind. However, after you eat a filling meal, the thought of the same ice cream actually feels sugary in your mind. I can’t tell you how important it is to have that distinction.
B. Eating meals is much more calorie efficient than snacking
Almost all the snacks are designed to keep food fresh for months together. This is not an evil plot by the food companies (not that they are paragons of virtue, either…), but just the pure science of keeping food from deteriorating. The foods have to stay fresh in shelves for months, so inevitably they are dehydrated, or added more sugar, salt etc to keep them palatable and alluring. So, as you start eating them more and more – Incrementally, all these added calories, salt and sugar will affect your body over time.
So, no snacks – only meals. If you are rich enough, buy food from a good mom-pop restaurant if you don’t have time to cook. And if not (like 90% of the world), you gotto allocate atleast an hour a day for prepping your meals. But, that time, while I agree is a drag, it is time well spent on the health of you and your family.
For eg, Don’t eat biscuits for breakfast, have veggies and omelette instead. Don’t think of a ‘light lunch’ of crackers and hummus, have a stuffed pita for lunch. Don’t have frozen rice meals (lots of salt+ oil) for dinner, make a quick kichdi instead.
#2. Learn to get comfortable with hunger for a defined period of time/ Fasting
Just like the eating well/meal aspect is essential; so is the hunger aspect. It is like a binary concept – 1- eat good meals, 0- stay hungry for some time. Both must co-exist.
In this age of abundance, most of us end up overeating anyway via social pressures, eating leftovers, trying new food shops, samples etc….
Something’s gotto give. You must typically have some combination of the below if you want to maintain your weight:
- Typical mom/busy woman scenario – 2 healthy meals, light snacking in between
- A disciplined life – 3 home-cooked healthy meals, no snacking
- If you eat out often – 1 super heavy meal, 1 light meal, no snacking
- If you eat keto based high protein/high fat meals – fasting is essential
I first took up fasting at the Manthena health center visit last year. This happened at the exact time a close friend of mine went on keto diet + fasting. She and I both successfully lost a lot of weight on fasting. These are completely different health plans, but both used fasting and both got great results. I think fasting is such an easy and effective tool to have in your weight management kit. You just have to accept it mentally. Trust me, If I can do it (the person most afraid to fast), you totally can do it.
While I do not technically ‘fast’ in between my 2 meals (I still drink herbal teas – rose, bitter orange, mint, etc + eat nuts) I am much more comfortable with the feeling of hunger for a few hours. I do not stress out on my hunger, because I know that a solid, nourishing meal is waiting for me at the other end. When I am especially absorbed in my work, I don’t even notice the time go by and even forget about refilling that warm water for tea. Those days are the best!!
Staying on track
I can give all this lecture and still have days where I wish I was slightly more disciplined. But, in an overall sense, I am much more stress-free about my health/ weight than ever before.
I keep track of my weight regularly and there is a window of 4 lbs that I usually swing around. There are some days of overindulgence/festivals etc….when my weight starts creeping towards the upper end, I realize that I have to fast more strictly between meals. In a few days, it will settle automatically back to my current weight. I still do not stop eating my meals – very important!! I am just on a more alert/aware mode until the weight drops.
On the other hand, when my weight reduces, I barely have time to say ‘Wow’ and pat myself on my back – when automatically my body celebrates with more food. I don’t seem to need any help to bring my weight up from the lower end of the scale :). Meh!! So be it!! I have no desire / no ability to become a Deepika Padukone anyway. Glory to her – but I am happy to be who I am!!
So, I am well aware that this is not the perfect advice for everyone. In fact, if your goal is to become thin, then this may not be the right approach for you.
If your goal is to ‘not obsess about food, yet stay within the normal zone of health’, this post may be for you. – I know, so exciting to talk about normal-ness!! Well, normalcy is under-rated, let me tell you….
These are just common sense rules. Again, this is just one model. Like Charlie Munger advised, if you have a better model, use that. In the age of information, it is hard to parse the signal from the noise these days, and I hope this helps people in the right direction.
Michael Pollan has another wonderful advice from his book ‘In defense of food‘: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.” That is a great mantra and I strongly agree.