The healthy struggle

They say it takes 21 days to form a new habit. A first-person account of putting this theory to the test


A food diary helps you become aware of your eating habits. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
A food diary helps you become aware of your eating habits. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Confession: It took me three failed attempts before I could successfully complete this self-imposed 21-day challenge of eating home-made, healthy food.

It was during a procrastination-induced Google search that I came across the popular concept of “do anything for 21 days in a row and it will turn into a habit”. 

For a person who was always the fattest child in the classroom, finding ways to maintain a healthy weight is now second nature—from going for a run five days a week, to learning Kathak, following a no-carb, high-protein diet, even a detox diet now and then. No matter how much I try, however, the sedentary lifestyle eventually takes over.

But the need to stay fit always comes as a reminder in the form of a new study almost every day (for example, a recent study says sitting in front of the computer for 8 hours a day increases the risk of cancer).

Mumbai-based clinical psychologist Seema Hingorrany says the 21-day concept is really a benchmark. “After three weeks of following something strictly, you come to know whether you are capable of continuing to do the same for a longer period, which could be anything from two months to a year or even for the rest of your life. A lot, of course, has to do with an individual’s determination and willpower.” 

Without dwelling further on the whys and hows of the concept, I decided: “No more fad diets. I would just exercise, sleep right and eat a balanced diet for 21 days—and hope that it might change my eating habits for good.” I had nothing to lose, barring those Friday evening plans with friends. 

Before I could start, however, there was another big challenge to be tackled: Which food can be tagged healthy? Brown bread? Low-fat fruit smoothie? Granola bars? Sugar-free biscuits? Diet coke? I wasn’t keen on packaged foods with the “healthy tag”; the idea was to go back to the basics, what we ate before fast-food chains entered our lives. So I made a list of healthy foods to eat in the next 21 days. My plan was to stick to home-made food, avoid deep-fried stuff or anything with sugar and preservatives in it. The choices were simple but hard to follow.

Following a balanced diet is not a tall order, says Ritika Samaddar, head of clinical nutrition and dietetics at the Max Super Speciality Hospital in Delhi. “But considering the fast-paced lives we lead, sticking to a balanced diet of fruits, nuts, vegetables, wholegrain cereals and pulses, low-fat milk, lean meat and poultry can be hard. Waking up early morning, going for a run and packing a healthy lunch—how many people can continue to do so every single day? It requires a level of dedication,” she says.

This is how my 21 days panned out. Edited excerpts from the diary:

Week 1: The honeymoon period

You know how it is—whenever you start something new, you’re all pumped up for the first couple of days. My Monday and Tuesday mornings started with a glass of water and an apple, followed by a run, a breakfast of three boiled eggs (minus the yolk, only because I don’t like it), a toasted slice of atta bread (from the local baker, not the packaged one) and a glass of milk, and five meals spread across the rest of the day. And 5 litres of water, every single day (15 loo breaks in a day, I counted once). 

That enthusiasm lasted 48 hours. By the third day, I was looking sadly at my home-made chicken curry-brown rice bowl in the office canteen and wondering what I had got myself into. And I badly wanted to dig into the canteen’s greasy biryani. 

The next one-and-a-half days were a little better; I successfully said no to samosas on Thursday. But all hell broke loose on Friday evening, when my colleagues were making plans to eat out and asked me to join them. Thought bubble: A glass of red wine and a slice of pepperoni pizza. I looked at my diary, snapped out of the bubble and left for home.

The weekend was unbearable. That Saturday was someone’s birthday—and a chance to sneak in a slice of chocolate nougat cake. Let this be my cheat day, I thought. After all, I had been eating healthy for five days. And much to my surprise, I said no! But that day, the cravings increased and how: I wanted butter chicken, dal makhani, two butter naans and a hot chocolate fudge, along with a slice of cake. Of course, I settled for two rotis, dal and paneer bhurji

Week 2: The make-or-break period

It was a colleague’s last day in office and we had the customary farewell cake. I didn’t feel tempted to take a bite, nor did I feel a sugar craving. I felt lighter, prouder. At my workstation, I had two apples and kiwis, followed by grilled chicken and vegetables rolled in a roti.

Tuesday was rather dull and easy.

On Wednesday, I met some friends for dinner. I decided to put my determination to the test. I ordered a chicken manchow soup (they didn’t have a clear soup and I was in no mood to have another bowl of salad) while my friends downed beers. “Have one sip at least, yaar. It won’t make a difference.” How can one sip or a bite not make a difference? “If you don’t want to follow a healthy diet, then don’t, but let others follow it.” I didn’t snap at them, but that thought stayed with me the entire night. 

The next day, I forgot lunch at home. By 1pm, I was hungry: The oily food served in the canteen was not an option; the burger outlet in the building was also out of the question. I finally opted for a grilled chicken sandwich and a cold coffee without sugar. 

Friday went off without a hitch as did the next two days.

Week 3: In the groove, almost 

Over the last 14 days, I had learnt more about my body than I had in the past 14 years. For instance, that it doesn’t like too many spices and goes for a toss if paneer is eaten thrice a day. 

This last week was uneventful. No cravings, no hidden desires to cheat. I was content with simple dalrotisabzi, sandwich, chicken curry, bhetki macher paturi, sambar, avial, rice, poha, fruits and salads. 

Now the big question: Did healthy eating become a habit after 21 days? Kind of. I now know exactly when I’m full, I can say no to “guilt” foods without hesitation and regret, think of weekends beyond binge-eating and drinking, and, most importantly, I am conscious about eating the right foods.

Although Samaddar stresses the need for a healthy diet, she says a little digression here and there is perfectly fine. “What’s life without indulgence once in a while. You just have to earn it.”

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