In this age of information overload, going on a diet has never been easier. And the fact that we are being bombarded constantly by the sight of perfect bodies on the internet is prompting many to set impossibly high standards for themselves. “It’s a worldwide phenomenon and I don’t think we are at the brink, we are way into it," says Radhika Karle, a Mumbai-based nutritionist and Pilates master trainer, on the way appearance has become a fixation.
In the West, where weight obsession may be more deep-seated, there has been a strong backlash recently against the thin ideal. Last week, Project HEAL, an American non-profit that works with people suffering from eating disorders, launched the #DoneWithDieting campaign, asking anyone who had suffered owing to “destructive dieting" to stand up and speak out. Actor and Project HEAL partner Camila Mendes was among the first to do so, talking about how her obsession with thinness had “consumed" her. A visit to a naturopath inspired her to rebuild her relationship with food, she wrote in an Instagram post, asking her 6.4 million followers to do the same.
Globally, we’re seeing a big push towards mindful eating—a practice that reconnects more deeply with the experience of eating. In India, however, we’re moving away from this even though it’s deep-rooted in our tradition, says Anju Venkat, a nutritionist at the Health Awareness Centre in Mumbai. We’ve cast aside the natural law, where we evaluated food as being easily digestible, non-toxic, supplying nourishment and improving blood circulation. “There was a time when people understood their own body and knew what, when and how to eat. Now we are breaking food down into units like proteins, calories, fattening, glycaemic, etc.," she says. This is both wrong and harmful.
Right or wrong, there’s no denying that our obsession with weight loss has complicated our relationship with food. Which is why, if you’re considering a new diet regimen, it’s important to answer these three questions.
Do I need to ‘go on a diet’?
Every expert we spoke to agreed that the concept of going on a diet—where diet is defined as “a special course of food to which people restrict themselves"—is outdated. Rachna Chhachhi, nutritional therapist and holistic cancer coach, explains, “You agonize over the kind of food, and the number of calories, and then blame yourself the next morning when your weight hasn’t gone down." Apart from guilt and anxiety, restrictive eating can lead to other health problems.
While you can lose weight by restricting intake, it’s not always a win. “People equate losing weight with burning fat, but it’s not the same. It’s very important to understand the difference," says Nmami Agarwal, nutritionist and chief executive officer of the Nmami Lifestyle clinic, Delhi.
More importantly, as Venkat points out, there are consequences to what you eat—and they are not always short-term. “You may be on a high-protein diet today, and discover six months later that your thyroid-secreting hormone has gone out of whack," she says. Eating healthy doesn’t mean you have to go on a diet. “Enjoy everything you eat, but in moderation," says Agarwal.
What is my goal?
Ask yourself why you want to change how you eat. Is it to become healthier or skinnier? The mental part is important because your body will take its cues from the mind. The process can get complicated when it’s tied to body image. Karle, who says about half her clients want to lose weight because they are unhappy with how they look, and that many of them do have a poor relationship with food, helps them set short-term goals to adapt a healthier approach to weight loss. “A structured routine designed around what you want to achieve in 10 days or three months is motivating," she says.
How realistic am I being?
Agarwal can’t count the number of times clients have told her they need to lose 10kg in 10 days. “Everyone wants a quick fix," she says. A restrictive diet may give you that, but you’re likely to put on double of what you lost, in the long run. Eating healthier, on time, controlled portions, exercise and 8 hours of sleep is the only sustainable way forward.