Tweaking Traditional Diets – The Template

Let me start off by saying no real traditional diet needs any tweaking. Traditional diets are already a result of thousands of years of tweaking and they are perfectly healthy (and more importantly non-unhealthy) for you if done right. If that is the case, then why is a random fitness-crazy-not-old-enough-to-tell-you-what-to-do dude attempting to tweak an already perfect diet? Because…

– What you eat today is NOT the traditional diet the way it was meant to be. What you are fed today, in the name of traditional food, is some weird mutant form of the real traditional diet and unfortunately, this mutant version, is not helping on bit!

– Most traditional diets were developed during a time of food scarcity (hence the grain domination and elaborate methods of anti-nutrient reduction). The main goal then was to avoid ingesting anything dangerous. Only after this was achieved did people even look to add in nutrients.

– Though most traditional diets were healthy, they were healthy in combination with high activity levels, long sleep hours, low stress levels and clean air. People ingested way more calories and carbohydrates than we do today and still maintained low levels of body fat and high levels of energy throughout the day. Just the excess food (and hence excess calories and nutrients) provides protection against many deficiencies and it is something we cannot afford to eat today considering our sedentary lives.

The Concept of Tweaking:

Since I have readers from around the world, of different origins and with drastically different traditional diets, I’m going to first explain the concept of tweaking and then provide you with ‘template for tweaking’. Once you understand the concept properly, you can thenuse the template to tweak your own traditional diet and make it work for you by customizing it to suit your very own individual goals. This is precisely how I determined my optimal diet and will post an article tomorrow that shows some results.

I like to approach this in three broad steps.

Step 1: Create a base – with anti-nutrient free foods that were prevalent in your traditional diet.

Step 2: Add nutrients – by eating varied nutrient-rich real foods that have proven health benefits.

Step 3: Customize – by adjusting calories, macro and micro-nutrients based on current goals, activity levels and physical conditions.

Step 1 – Creating a Base:

As mentioned earlier, the first step is to not ingest anything that is potentially harmful. So the goal, in this step, is to find foods that both belong to your traditional diet and have no anti-nutrients in them. In my case, since I come from a vegetarian south Indian family, this would be cooked white rice, grass-fed organic dairy (milk, yogurt and ghee only), organic vegetables (specifically onions, tomatoes, carrots, gourds, plantains, potatoes and various greens), organic tropical fruits and coconut.

As you can see, though they are a part of my traditional diet, I have not included the different kinds of lentils and sesame oil since they, in my opinion, do contain some anti-nutrients that cause discomfort.

Step 2 – Adding Nutrients:

Now let’s look at the base I created from a nutritional standpoint. It contains rice, selected dairy, vegetables, fruits and coconuts and it has the potential to provide me with…

  • more than enough calories,
  • more than enough carbs/starch (from rice, tubers and fruits),
  • more than enough fiber (from vegetables and fruits),
  • enough minerals and water soluble vitamins (from vegetables and fruits),
  • enough healthy fats (from dairy and coconut), and
  • possibly enough fat soluble vitamins (from dairy).

Honestly, this is pretty darn good base to start off with! If you are unaware of the specifics of your traditional diet or don’t have the time or capability or patience to research and find out more, I’d most certainly suggest that you start with this as a base. The only exception might be dairy. I have experimented with and without dairy and it seems to do me more good than bad. You might want to start off without dairy and then see how you feel when you add it in.

Back to tweaking.

If you look into the nutritional profile of all these foods you’ll see that the only nutrients I’m possibly not getting enough of are…

  • protein
  • omega 3 fatty acids
  • choline
  • vitamin B12
  • selenium

In order to fill in these nutritional gaps, I either need to take supplements or add other nutrient rich real food. If you know anything about me, you’ll know that I don’t recommend supplements unless absolutely required and hence would obviously prefer eating more real food to fix the issue. That being the case this is how I would approach the situation.

– What foods are rich in protein? Meat, poultry, eggs, seafood, cheese

– What foods are rich in omega 3 fatty acids? Seafood

– What food is rich in choline? Eggs, spinach and cod

– What foods are rich in vitamin B 12? Seafood, meat, poultry, eggs

– What foods are rich in selenium? Nuts (especially Brazil nuts), mushroom and seafood (especially tuna, crab and lobster)

Clearly, I’ll be best served if I add seafood, minimal poultry, eggs, mushrooms and nuts to my base diet and together these are MY optimal foods. And why MY optimal foods? Because these are the foods that

  • don’t bother ME,
  • MY ancestors have eaten for generations,
  • nourish me with the nutrients MY body needs in order to reach MY goals.

You see my point? Pretty simple isn’t it? Now to make this suit my goals.

Step 3 – Customizing:

The one main difference between our ancestors and us is that they didn’t really have the goals that we have today. Nutrition wasn’t something they monitored and they only cared about getting enough to eat. They lived in an era when food and nutrient scarcity was common while we live in an era of food abundance (at least to people who can afford it). And since food is available in plenty, we have the luxury of having goals. That said, let’s look at my goals and how I customize this diet to fit them.

What are my current goals?

  • Maintain body weight – which means eat just enough to not gain or lose any.
  • Improve fitness – which means get stronger, faster, more resilient and more mobile and that mean more muscle, less fat and well-lubricated joints.
  • Good health – which means no nutrient should be high enough to cause toxicity or low enough to cause deficiency.

In order to reach these goals, I would need to

  • Eat enough to fuel activity. Eat slightly more on training days and slightly less on rest days.
  • Eat only vegetables, tropical fruits, coconut, rice, dairy, seafood, eggs and nuts.
  • Eat isolated starch (rice and tubers) mostly post workout.
  • Eat a complete protein in every meal.
  • Eat fat in all meals except the post workout meal.

Done! This is it! The above 5 points form MY optimal diet! And why MY OPTIMAL diet? Because there exists no such thing as a perfect diet and there has never ever been one diet that suits everybody.

Now keep in mind that this optimal diet will dictate how I eat “most of the time“. On weekends or when I feel like I need something different, I will eat whatever the hell I want ‘cos, well, it isn’t 1900 AD anymore. Being 28 in 2011 and not eating pizza? I can never be that guy! This is a template you can use to come up a solid set of dietary rules to live by for the most part. Deviations are obviously acceptable and how frequently you deviate will depend on your goals and will dictate the quality and timing of results.

So there you go – an easily understandable concept that YOU can use to determine what foods suit YOU and a customizable template YOU can use to create YOUR optimal diet to help YOU reach YOUR goals and suit YOUR lifestyle. What do you think? What is your traditional diet? How can you tweak it to make it your optimal diet? What are your goals? How do you plan on mapping one to the other?

I really like the way this sounds! Maybe I should name this thing before some white guy (pissed off because Indians took his techie job in the bay area and taxi driver job in New York) names it after himself! 😉 What do you guys think? Any suggestions?

But honestly, this is just the start guys. I’ve been doing a lot of brain squeezing recently trying to fully formulate a concept and an easily workable template and I really think I might have something solid at the end of it all! I’ll be sure to share it with you guys as I get closer to the end product, but for now, please share this post with friends and family and help get the word out  .

In the next few days I will discuss my results from following my optimal diet and share some recipes that you can use to make traditional south Indian dishes much more nutrient dense and goal specific.


23 responses to “Tweaking Traditional Diets – The Template

  1. swarna mani July 20, 2011 at 8:52 pm

    Fantastic post!!!
    Question though …current day if you just say rice veggies protein…people may gorge on rice. How to determine the optimal amount of the grain, since it is one thing that may wreck the health if not eaten correctly even if traditional diet is followed?

    • RG July 21, 2011 at 11:40 am

      This is when your goals come into play. Look at my post macronutrient madness – sample diets and other sample diets ive posted to get an idea of how much rice, protein, fat etc is optimal for different goals.

  2. Radha July 20, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    Nice post Raj. Waiting for the recipes. I regularly read your post’s. I was inspired and came up a turkey chille recipe..which i make with 4-5 different veggies, 2 kinds of beans and turkey with indian spices and top it off with fresh avacado or cheese. I have it for dinner. This helps me get my protein and veggies. This has helped me loose some weight. I also eat deli for dinner. How good is deli?

  3. Mamatha July 20, 2011 at 9:35 pm

    Hmm, how about “Raj’s New Diet (R)Evolution”? :p

    Can’t wait to see the template.

  4. Deepti Natarajan July 20, 2011 at 10:48 pm

    Hi Raj,

    what are sources of protein for south indian vegetarians? i am allergic to eggs as well. I have protein shake with an apple, milk and almonds for breakfast. but i really do not know what to do for lunch and dinner more than taking in some curd.

    • RG July 21, 2011 at 11:56 am

      Deepti – Check out this post for protein options

      But see, a cup of milk + yogurt + 1 scoop of whey + 1-2 cups of soaked lentils = ~ 700 calories and 80 g of protein. Add in vegetables and you’re up to maybe 1000 calories and 90 g of protein. Thats good enough for most people. Fill in the remaining calories with more of the same stuff if u want more protein or with other real food and ure good to go!

  5. Sindhu July 21, 2011 at 7:28 am

    Great post as usual! But just a quick question, why is it that you don’t eat fat in your post workout meal? Is there a specific reason. Also on that note, I have a question for you, I started doing P90X from last week since then I have also been tracking my diet on It has this calorie pie chart and this has been the breakdown ~30% protein, ~20% carbs and ~50% fat. On the days I don’t include chicken my breakdown looks like this: 72% fat, 9% carbs and 19% protein. Your macro nutrient post gives us similar number ~30% protein and the balance 70% from carbs and fat! So my question is, is my fat intake on the higher side {not that I have any qualms about gorging on paneer, ghee and butter:) } or it is about right do you think esp on the days when I don’t eat meat. Your input is appreciated.

    • RG July 21, 2011 at 11:59 am

      The carbs cause an insulin spike which is a good thing in the post workout window Sindhu. Fat blunts the insulin spike and hence hinders glycogen repletion and protein and other nutrients being shuttled to muscle cells.

  6. na July 21, 2011 at 9:57 am

    My husband recently got a complete checkup done and discovered that he is low on vitamin d. The doctor prescribed loads of supplements but I’m trying to correct the deficiency at home with lots of seafood(sole, salmon), milk and shitake mushrooms….so far the only ingredients I’ve tried. My husband has not taken the supplements as yet. Do you think this is enough to get over the deficiency or do I need to add other foods as well? Your input will be greatly appreciated 🙂

    • RG July 21, 2011 at 12:01 pm

      Its not possible to get sufficient vitamin D from diet really. Your options are sunlight or vit D supplements which are very safe. As a general rule, if you dont get enough sunlight in a day take in 2000-3000 IUs of vit D. But this is only regarding the vit D deficiency he has. I dont know what other supplements your doctor recommended and for what.

  7. Madhuram July 21, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    Raj, you should definitely do this before that white guy does it. Believe me or not, when I read the words “my optimal diet” the first time in this post, I thought that it’s such a good name for a book you can write. Maybe for the time being, you should just apply for a trademark for that name if somebody hasn’t already done it. This post alone very clearly shows that you are a “writer”. You can’t write it more precisely, strongly and it does make the reader want to start following it immediately. Great job!

    I have a couple of questions/clarifications about sesame oil. I think I will send you a mail and you can later decide if you think that it’s worth mentioning in the following posts. I don’t want to write it here because I don’t want to confuse the readers.

  8. Pingback: Training & Nutrition Update – My Optimal Diet « Harder. Better. Faster. Stronger.

  9. Sheetal July 22, 2011 at 10:53 pm

    Thanks for the prompt post Raj!Now waiting for the recipes…Its surprising how I’m hooked on to your blog always waiting for the next post 🙂

    • RG July 23, 2011 at 1:14 pm

      You wont be disappointed. And thank you… for being hooked I guess 😉 Do share the good word!

  10. lavisrini July 26, 2011 at 8:56 pm

    I’ve read somewhere that sesame oil is not that bad compared to other vegetable oils that we use in india nowadays…. and presumably so becoz, earlier there were not so much variety of oils used in indian cooking esp. south indian… My query is regarding the usage of sesame oil in everyday cooking as u have hinted in this post that it is not favoured for some reason… can u pl elaborate…

  11. Pingback: Making the south Indian diet super healthy! « Harder. Better. Faster. Stronger.

  12. Pingback: Self Experimentation – Vegetarian Diet (Part 1) « Harder. Better. Faster. Stronger.

  13. Pingback: The future of health & fitness « Harder. Better. Faster. Stronger.

%d bloggers like this: