Let go of reductionist diets and embrace food as nutrition, says the dietitian in her week-by-week guide to better health
A dive into the first 8 weeks from her new book, ‘The 12-Week Fitness Project’
Week 1 - Start your day with a banana or any fresh fruit or soaked almonds or soaked raisins and not with tea or coffee
Drink a glass of plain water before having banana/almonds/raisins.
Eat this within 20 minutes of waking up or after taking the thyroid pill, if you are on one.
You can work out, do yoga, etc., 15-20 minutes after having the banana/almonds/raisins.
If not working out, you can have your breakfast within an hour of this meal.
It’s okay to sip on chai or coffee 10–15 minutes after having banana/almonds/raisins.
You can also add 1-2 strands of kesar when soaking the raisins.
Banana: For all those who have digestion issues or get sugar cravings after a meal. Buy the fresh, local variety. Buy at least 2-3 times a week and do not bring them home in plastic bags—use a cloth bag instead.
Soak 7-8 raisins with 1-2 strands of kesar overnight and have this in the morning if you have terrible PMS or low energy through the day. This combination was probably the most successful guideline based on responses to Diwekar’s online survey. Women who had painful periods for years reported a drop in anxiety, cramps and acidity within weeks and many of them even experienced totally pain-free periods for the first time in their lives.
4-6 soaked and peeled almonds—if you have insulin resistance, diabetes, PCOD or low fertility or poor sleep quality. Pick the mamra or the local variety of almonds, for it’s richer in nutrients. For PCOD, switch to 7-8 raisins and 1-2 strands of kesar 10 days before periods. We soak the almonds to unlock the nutrients and allow the phytic acid levels (which can otherwise bind to minerals like zinc and make them unavailable for our body) to go down.
Remember that fitness is built one step at a time by small but daily actions. The body rewards consistency over anything else. Being consistent with this practice within 15 minutes of waking up is a big step forward.
Week 2 - Eat ghee. Add 1 tsp of ghee to breakfast, lunch and dinner
Add an extra tsp of ghee to lunch if you have sweet cravings or experience an afternoon slump.
Add an extra tsp of ghee to dinner if you wake up feeling constipated, have IBS or digestion issues in general or suffer from poor sleep quality.
Here are some other ways in which you can consume it, especially in winter, to keep your joints supple and skin glowing:
Have ghee-roasted makhanas as a mid-meal around 4pm
Have gond laddoos made in ghee, especially during harsh winters, as a mid-morning meal, 2-3 hours after breakfast
Have ghee and jaggery after lunch or dinner if you suffer from PMS, fatigue or low haemoglobin (Hb) levels.
Ghee by nature is lipolytic: It’s a fat which breaks down other fats. It mobilizes fats from stubborn fat areas of the body.
It helps you de-stress, sleep better and wake up fresher as it allows for better digestion, assimilation of nutrients and eases bowel movement.
Rich in antioxidants, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and fat-soluble vitamins like A, E, D, it’s good for your heart. Especially useful for PCOD, diabetes and heart diseases, BP, acidity, weak joints, constipation, IBS.
Ghee with meals reduces their glycaemic index and helps regulate blood sugars.
Include ghee despite having cholesterol/high triglycerides/fatty liver/BP issues. It regulates cholesterol by increasing the contribution of lipids towards metabolism. Reduce packaged products like biscuits and avoid alcohol.
Ghee improves satiety signals to ensure the right amount of food is eaten.
Q: How do we know how much ghee is to be added in each meal?
A: It depends on what you are eating. Foods like dal-rice, khichdi, roti-sabzi will require less ghee compared to puran poli, dal baati, bajra (pearl millet) roti, etc. Ask your grandmother if you are still confused.
Week 3 - Rethink, reform and regulate the use of gadgets in your life
When eating meals, no gadgets. Start with one meal a day and over the next 10 weeks, build it to all three main meals. Decide which meal you will start this from—breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Before going to bed, no gadgets for 30 minutes. So don’t delay bedtime, just keep the phone away, switch off your TV and read a book (not on Kindle or iPad).
When you do use the phone during the day, check your posture. The correct way is to lift the phone to eye level and not tilt the neck down.
If you need to be accessible at all times, take it as an occupational hazard but be aware of the risks it brings you. And then work harder to cut down on mindless scrolling and surfing on the phone. Do you really need to open the good morning GIF, autoplay videos or send that eye roll emoticon to everyone you talk to?
We are more attuned to our hunger signals when we are paying full attention to what we are eating. Eating in a distracted manner is a sure-shot way to overeat.
The human head is heavy and we have spent months as babies learning to stabilize it. In a neutral position, ears above the shoulders, the head weighs 5-6 kg. But with just a 15-degree tilt downwards, it weighs more than double, about 15 kg; at 30 degrees it’s 20kg; and at 60 degrees it’s as much as 30 kg. What do you think this is doing to your back, shoulders, even the brain? Most of us want to let go of fat from our stomachs, sport flatter abs and have narrower waists, but it’s impossible with all that slouching and so-called technology posture. It’s more harmful for people dealing with diabetes, heart problems and other hormonal issues like PCOD and thyroid. It even interferes with the proper functioning of our adrenal glands and hampers cardiorespiratory processes.
Q: But I use my phone as an alarm.
A: Just get yourself a real alarm clock, it will even look nice on your bedside table and it will be charming to wake up to a ghanti that you can’t put on snooze
Week 4 - Eat a wholesome meal between 4 and 6 p.m.
The key to losing weight lies in what you eat between 4 and 6pm, a time when most of us are hungry and quite careless with our food choices. For me, this is the single most important meal of the day.
You must have heard about having a light dinner to lose weight. But how to make dinner light? Eat something wholesome in the evening. This is the make-or-break meal which decides whether you will have long-lasting fitness or whether it will fizzle out in the next couple of weeks. Depending on when you eat dinner, the 4 to 6pm meal can be relatively light or heavy:
A handful of groundnuts and chana. This regulates appetite, prevents bloating and overeating at dinner-time. Do this if you eat early dinners, before 8 p.m. Very good for diabetics, those with PCOD and those with low energy levels in the day.
Jaggery, ghee and chapati : If you stay active, work away from home, eat dinner after 9pm and struggle to sleep well, suffer from constipation or have low Hb levels.
Poha/upma/dosa/egg-toast/homemade khakra or mathri/homemade gond or besan laddoo. If your workload increases after 6pm or you have a party to attend or if you have frequent headaches, leg cramps, low immunity, this is a good meal. And if none of the above is possible, even a grilled vegetable and cheese sandwich will do the trick.
Chaat/samosa/street food. Yes, and this is a good time to have it, but only once a week. The worst time to have chaat or street food is dinner.
Expect dinner quantity to naturally drop over the next four to five days. This outcome is expected.
The hormone cortisol follows a natural cycle. It rises in the morning, allowing you to start fresh, clear bowels, etc., and drops in the evening, to allow for restful sleep at night. That is why waking up fresh and quality of sleep are health parameters we tracked in this project. Because these are indicators of metabolic health, immune response, hormonal balance and response to stress.
When we don’t eat anything in the evening or kill our appetite with chai or coffee, our body works at producing more cortisol instead of reducing it. This will lead to:
Overeating at dinner
Insulin insensitivity (leading to diabetes and many other lifestyle diseases)
Q: What not to have at this time?
A: This meal has to be wholesome. So, no oil-free, sugar-free, exotic fruits, juices or any ‘diet’ options. Have a traditional meal the way it is supposed to be. The benefits of this meal will be nullified if you mess up the basics. As much as possible, stick to the easy and made-at-home options listed.
Week 5 - Move more, sit less
Here are some easy ways to move more, sit less:
For every 30 minutes of sitting, stand for at least 3 minutes.
When you stand, stand with your weight well distributed on your feet.
Take the stairs at work or home, every day. At least climb four floors every day.
Park your car as far as possible, keep at least 500 steps between your car and your destination. Paris, by the way, is banning cars from the city by 2030.
Once every week, do at least one task that is currently being done by your house help or a gadget—wash your own clothes, do the dishes for the entire household, sweep and swab your house. Take 100 steps or shatapavli after dinner. It’s a rough measure, where you walk, or take a stroll for 5-10 minutes. Even if you just clear the table and clean the kitchen post a meal, it would meet the requirements of shatapavli.
My work involves sitting and here’s what I have done to help myself. I bought myself a bench instead of a chair and I sit cross-legged on it, instead of leaving my feet dangling. Also, consider buying a footrest, so that you can rest your feet and allow for the back of the knee to open out and receive better blood circulation.
Good to know
You may not realize the importance of movement and activity but it retains brain plasticity, especially in older adults, helps prevent back pain, diabetes, heart disease and even depression. And remember, activity is different from exercise, and is not a substitute.
Week 6 - Start with at least one session of strength training every week
Most people want to knock off the kilos, but to lose weight you have to gain weight i.e. lean body weight—the weight of your bones and muscles. Most of us lose 2-4 kilos of muscles every 10 years. In women, especially after 30, we lose muscle from our thighs and gain intramuscular fat at a fast pace. This continuous and progressive loss of muscle and bone density can be reversed with exercise, and more importantly a structured workout regimen that includes strength (weight) training and follows some basic principles of exercise science.
If you have never weight- trained before:
Start now. Schedule a meeting with an expert trainer at a local gym and begin with a once a week routine. You must start, especially if you already have insulin resistance, are very obese, have a heart condition, bone loss or diabetes.
If you are training three or more days a week:
Drop your reps to 5-8 and focus on the intensity or the actual weight you subject your muscles to. The biggest gains of strength training come from the load bearing that you train your muscles to do.
Plan for at least 150 minutes of total workout time in the week.
As we get older, fat begins to infiltrate even our muscles, and our anabolic response, or how well we respond to exercise, begins to drop. Strength training is a good intervention to turn that around. It uses up extra fat stores, enlarges muscle size and strength and ensures density of bones and lubrication of joints. Strength training is extremely effective but an undervalued intervention for maintaining hormonal health. It keeps your insulin sensitivity high and stimulates growth hormones.
All of us talk about how we gain weight post 30, but we are losing muscle, so what weight are we gaining? That of fat. The tissue that doesn’t add to your mobility, strength, agility or sex appeal.
Q: I already do cardio/swimming/ zumba/dancing, etc., should I strength-train?
A: Yes. And the reason is afterburn or excessive post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). Afterburn is a process that follows every session of strength training, where the body burns fat at a higher rate for up to 36-48 hours. This is not the case with aerobic exercises, where fat burn, if at all, happens only during the duration of exercise.
Week 7 - Eat dal-rice for dinner
Q: How to cook rice?
A: Cook rice in a way that unlocks its flavours, which is invariably how your grandmother used to. There is no such thing as “removing starch" from rice. It’s an essential nutrient. “Removing water" from rice depletes these anti-ageing nutrients too. And if at all it is removed, traditionally, it would be cooked along with some grains and offered as kanji or pej to the oldest and youngest members of the family as it’s easy on the GI tract. Also, it’s liquid and doesn’t require chewing, therefore it’s perfect for the elderly or young toddlers who don’t have fully developed teeth. It has vitamin B that helps with metabolic processes. So the removal of water was a result of using it intelligently; it didn’t emerge from the fear of getting fat. Eating rice at night is a brilliant strategy for those who plan to but don’t work out in the morning, as it can really help with restorative sleep.
Q: What if we have late dinner? Can we still have rice?
A: Yes, it’s the easiest meal to digest. You can have it as khichdi or dal-rice.
Q: Can diabetics have rice?
A: Rice is traditionally eaten with dal/sabzi/meat/dahi, etc., along with ghee, and this lowers the glycaemic index of meals and is therefore totally safe for diabetics.
Easy to digest
Improves sleep quality
It is a prebiotic (food for probiotic) and keeps the gut strong. Bye-bye constipation.
The BCAA (branch chain amino acids) in rice have a muscle-sparing effect (that is, you will see the results of a workout faster).
Suitable for people of all kinds of constitutions (vata, pitta and kapha doshas).
There is so much to rice, but here are some of the hidden nutrients:
Methionine—it’s a sulphur-containing amino acid that helps prevent damage to the skin tone by free radicals, helps detox the liver and slows down the ageing process. Better skin and hair, fewer lines and less greying.
Vitamin B1—good for the nerves and heart and helps reduce inflammation and bloating. Also a good source of B3. You can increase values if you soak rice for a while before cooking it.
RS—resistant starch, a molecule that gets fermented in our large intestines. It helps prevent cancer, improves lipid profile and inhibits growth of bad bacteria.
Rice is good for all 12 months but don’t forget millets like jowar, bajra, ragi or even the kuttu, rajgeera, samo, etc., which are eaten during fasts or special occasions. You can have one of the millets or even wheat chapati for one meal and rice for the other. You can even have rice for all three meals but ensure that you eat millets too.
Q: Brown or white rice?
A: Hand-pounded or single-polished white rice. Too much fibre in brown rice comes in the way of absorption of minerals like zinc, crucial for insulin function.
Week 8 - Use the mental meal map as a tool to help you eat the right quantity
A good life is where you are able to tell the difference between your need and greed. A life where you learn to enjoy food, fitness and health without feelings of guilt, remorse and frustration. But today we feel we are fat because we eat too much or consume too many calories. The truth is that we live in “obesogenic environments"—we have created situations and formed habits where it’s almost impossible for us to nurture our appetite and eat just the right amount. And so, we have the mental meal map, a simple tool to understand your appetite and learn how much to eat.
Among the best things of my work are travel and a peek into cultures far and beyond. And the reassurance and reinforcement of the exact same common sense, nani/dadi wisdom across all ancient cultures. On a visit to Jordan for a talk, I learnt that there is actually a rule to how many dates and cups of Arabic coffee you can drink at a time. So, of course, you must drink that one cup that your host offers when you arrive, along with one date. But you should allow yourself the second only if you can have the third (date and coffee). Stopping at two or four or even numbers is not allowed. This, I felt, was such a beautiful way of knowing when to stop eating and such a practical way of stopping before getting full.
What if I like something, can I overeat?
A: Yes, by all means. Some chais or some samosas or some jalebis are so special that they deserve an extra bite. Eat it in a manner that allows you to celebrate the meal long after it’s over, like a happy memory. Here’s what I always say to my clients, my secret rule to overeating, really— did it lead to good conversation, sex or laughter or allow you to close an important business deal? If yes, then it was worth it. Celebrate it. And from the next meal, go back to living and eating normally. The key is to be aware of your appetite and to know when you have crossed the Lakshman Rekha.
Step 1 - Visualize how much would you like to eat.
Step 2 - Serve yourself half of that portion.
Step 3 - Take double time to eat this meal (or the same time as your full portion).
Step 4 - If still hungry, start again from step 1.
Q: Why not just portion control?
A: Because appetite is a moving entity. Season, your state of mind, where you are eating, who you are eating with, everything affects it. Even your workout intensity and quality of sleep will influence your hunger. So stay engaged with your meal and eat exactly as much as you need to, not more, not less. And over a period of time, even awareness becomes natural and effortless. Work towards it.
Edited excerpts from ‘The 12-Week Fitness Project’ (Juggernaut). The book releases on 5 January.