Tag Archives: nutrition

Does calorie counting really count?

During my initial fat-loss days, I cooked plenty but I knew exactly what went into every meal of mine. I would mentally split each dish I cooked and come up with caloric calculations so I worked towards eating a particular number of calories, protein, fat and carbs. The numbers were important. Very important. If my spreadsheet had numbers higher than required, I’d feel like I screwed up.

Anytime and every time my wife (then girlfriend) cooked for me, we’d get into an argument ‘cos my first reaction was “Tastes great but can you tell me exactly what all you put in it… and in what quantities?” or “Wow! This is awesome! But it looks like you’ve added a little too much cream” or “I’ll just take a bite”. God bless her for marrying me.

Whenever we went out to eat, I’d either order the blandest most uninteresting dish on the menu or I’d eat beforehand and come up with an excuse for not eating or, even worse, cancel plans after knowing that the chosen restaurant had no healthful options. If I did go out to eat, I was always confused. How many calories does 3 tablespoons of daal makhani contain? How about that roti? Or that burrito?

Basically, I was a slave to numbers, a stalker to tasty food, a pain to friends, a fool to myself and a stranger to real nutrition.

Calories

If you think counting calories is way to go then you might as well believe this too

Hello there. We haven’t met, but, if you’re reading this, I’m pretty darn sure you are or were like I was. And today I hope to help you learn from my mistakes. I hope to teach you nutrition. I hope to break your shackles and let you live free as you continue to lose fat and gain health.

Why calorie counting doesn’t really count

1. Body smart. You dumb.

Realize that the human body is a product of 4 million years of evolution. It is a machine that has been continually improved. This machine is equipped with some stunning organs and millions of cells, all working to keep you alive and well. So, in spite of whatever you do to your body, it will do everything it can to make the best out of the situation and keep you alive and kicking for as long as possible.

As shocking as this might be for many of you, this machine regulates hunger, appetite, excess energy (fat) storage, fat oxidation and energy production magnificently well. That being the case,  it should be obvious that the super computer that is your body is much more capable of “counting”, monitoring and regulating calories and other nutrients than you ever can.

2. All calories are not the same

A calorie is not a calorie. In other words, calories you get from carbs are not the same as the ones you get from protein. They serve different purposes and they serve different individuals differently. Based on your genetic make-up, athletic history, current level of physical activity, hormonal (dys)regulation etc., the effect of a calorie from different foods is different on you than it is on someone else. So, setting a caloric budget and living under that, might make you skinny and weak but it ain’t making you healthy. 

3. Consumption isn’t absorption 

When counting calories, you count the calories you eat. But what is consumed is not what you absorb! Say you eat, 3000 calories/day. Depending on your gut health, chances are you won’t be absorbing all these calories. The calories in vs calories out equation holds true, but only at the gut and not at the mouth. You will need to take into account how many of your ‘consumed calories’ are converted into ‘absorbed calories’ in order to use the equation. Your simple equation just got uber-complicated. And considering there is no easy way to find out the conversion percentage, well, your equation just became worthless.

4. Health is more than calories 

Fat loss is a side effect of good health. Nothing more and definitely nothing less. While total calories matter, providing your body with enough nutrients (protein, fat, carb, vitamins and minerals) matters more. Focussing only on calories while dropping the ball with nutrients is being penny-wise, pound-foolish.

5. It is simple math. But you will get it wrong almost every time.

A banana has 80 calories. Say you eat 20 bananas in the next 10 days. So that is 1600 calories? But what if the banana was bigger or riper than the one used to make the calorie calculation? What if the banana actually had 98 calories instead of 80? That works out to be another 22.5% calories you didn’t account for. If this is the case with something as basic and unprocessed as a banana, what about cooked foods and dishes? How many calories are you really off by when you eat that avial or Korean charbroiled chicken? Is your calorie counting software telling you the truth or just spitting out a random number?

6. Life is too beautiful to be spent counting.

The only way you’re going to stay in shape is to continue counting calories for every morsel you eat for the rest of your life? Really? Definitely not what I call healthy living.

How to lose fat and gain health without ever worrying about calories

Step 1: Eat real food

Real food is any food that we humans can eat without any allergic reactions. Now this changes from person to person and most people today don’t really know what they are allergic to. But enough studies have been conducted to prove that for most people the safest non-allergenic foods that contain an abundance of nutrients are organic vegetables and fruits, farm fresh dairy, high quality meat/seafood/eggs, pre-soaked lentils/beans and cooked white rice. As a first step, build MOST of your meals around these foods and eat others sparingly.

Step 2: Prioritize the right foods 

In addition to eating real food, it is absolutely critical that you prioritize the foods that help you walk towards your goals. If fat loss is your primary goal, then prioritizing produce, dairy, meat, seafood and eggs is your fastest, healthiest and most sustainable approach. In other words, fill your plate with plenty of these and have starches (rice, other grains, beans etc.) as a side.

Step 3: Eat only when hungry 

I know you’ve been told breakfast is the most important meal of the day and that 6 small meals a day keep your blood sugar under control yada yada. But unfortunately none of that is true. You see, we humans are adapted to the ‘feast & fast’ method of eating. Back when we were hunter-gatherers, we hunted and when there was food we ate like there was no tomorrow. Following that, we fasted till we found more food. The people may have changed but our genetic make up has hardly changed in the last 4 million years. So stop listening to corporations and experts trying to make a buck out of you and listen to your body. Eat when you’re hungry. Don’t eat when you’re not hungry.

And if it isn’t clear already, it is absolutely healthful to skip a meal every now and then, not because you’re trying to eat lesser calories, but because you’re just not hungry.

Step 4: Eat to satiety 

What makes sense – eating until you reach a certain number that, as explained above, has no physiological significance for a multitude of reasons, or eating to satiety? Numbers are new. So is the science of determining how many calories are present in different foods and the pseudo-science of restricting a certain number of calories to lose fat. What is old and flawless (for a generally healthy person) is the body’s ability to regulate hunger and appetite and signal satiety. So, as far as quantities are concerned, the only thing you need to do is to eat till your satiated but never till you’re full.

Spelling it out

Here is how I like to deal with nutrition. No plans. No time-tables. No nonsense. Just a simple sensible list of everything one can eat in a day. It is then up to the consumer to figure out what he/she would eat when or how based on his/her lifestyle, likes/dislikes, cuisine/recipes, food choices, availability etc.

Here is what a moderately active 70kg adult needs to eat per day in order to lose fat at an optimal rate. Eat more/less based on bodyweight and activity.

  • Organic vegetables – 300-500g
  • Organic fruits – 1-2 medium
  • Meat/seafood – 100-200g lean meat/white fish
  • Whole eggs – 2-3
  • Starch – 1-1.5 cups cooked rice or equivalent
  • Lentils/beans – 1-2 cups cooked
  • Oil – 1-2 tablespoons ghee/butter/olive oil/coconut oil
  • Farm fresh dairy – 1-3 cups whole milk/yogurt
  • Natural cheese (in place of meat) – 40-50g of paneer or other cheese

So leave the counting to blackjack and just eat real food.

Peace out.

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PS: I originally wrote this article for The Week’s SmartLife and it was published in their November ’12 edition. 

Image credit: http://www.juxtapost.com/

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Festivals – To feast or not to feast?

I wrote this article for a magazine called Chateratti sometime in November ’12 just before the festival season in India started but since this is super relavent today (Pongal), I’m posting it here. Enjoy.

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This year, feast your way to fitness!

It is that time of the year again. The time crowded with festivals. The time when everything from kozhakattai to eggnog appear from nowhere and end up as flab. The time when sugar and fat fight for dominance in the war towards obesity, diabetes and heart diseases. This is also the time when we see a gazillion articles about what to eat, what not to eat, how to control your fingers from reaching for those sinful pieces of awesomeness and what weird concoctions you can drink to minimize the ill effects of all the feasting.

Sure, this is another such article, but I, on the other hand, am going to recommend that you feast! I’m going to ask you to stop worrying about your waistline and think about enjoying the moment. I’m going to tell you that you’re better off eating them treats than staying away and eventually crying yourself to sleep.

Firstly, let’s take a quick minute to understand festivals. ‘A festival is a special occasion of feasting or celebration that is marked by special observances, that is usually religious’. Festivals have been around for as long as religion has been around but the term ‘festival’ was first recorded as a noun in 1589 and not surprisingly, the etymology of ‘feast’ is very similar to that of ‘festival’.

Talking about the word ‘feast’, humans are very well acquainted to feasting. We have been feasting (and by that I mean consuming food to a point of physical discomfort) for tens of thousands of years, and, thanks to evolution, our bodies are perfectly well equipped to deal with the effects of such behavior.

Back in the paleolithic era, before Ruffles, refrigerators and religion came into existence, feasting was a regular part of a human’s life. Food storage not being an option, food (which was perishable) either had to be consumed or wasted and, of course, wasting was not an option. We, as hunter-gatherers, spent the day hunting-gathering food for the family/group/clan and spent the night feasting on the days “work”. There were days we ate modest quantities of food and then there were days when gluttony was the theme of the night.

This practice of feasting and fasting, lasts till today. Every religion and culture in the world, be it the Muslims during Ramadan or the Massas during Guru Walla, have festivals and religious observances which circle around fasting and feasting.

Feasting being such an integral part of festivals and human evolution in general, it is absolutely unacceptable that we don’t partake in it. Wouldn’t you agree?

The point is to remember that festivals are awesome. Festivals are about food and family and feasting and laughter and memories and everything else that is good about life! They are special… very special and that’s why they appear only once on your calendar. And the best advice I can give you about staying in shape during the festive season is… keep special occasions special.

Realize that a special occasion is only special if it happens occasionally. Be it spending time with your giant family or munching on goodies, if it happens a little too frequently you’re in for trouble.

Think about it.

If you went around bursting crackers everyday, how enjoyable is that really and why would you look forward to Diwali? If we threw Ganpath idols into the well every morning, why would every kid anxiously wait for that yearly moment to hear the “plop” when the idol hits the water? If you could throw colors at people every morning, how many happy faces are you going to see and why would the early morning scare on Holi be anything to look forward to?

Similarly, if sweets and other festive foods are things you eat everyday, how much do you think that is helping you with respect to health and why would any festival be special?

Listen, I know eating junk during festivals sounds sinful and dangerous and I’ll probably be given the ‘worst coach of the year’ award for asking you to forget about your waistline and go at it this year. But, trust me, it isn’t during festivals that people become fat or unhealthy. It is during the rest of the year and due to their actions during the rest of the year. Get your mind right…

  • Eating a whole sugarcane once a year isn’t killing you. Your daily dose of sugar laden processed junk and pseudo health foods are.
  • Enjoying fresh homemade sweets three to four times a year isn’t making you fat. Your habit of eating sugary snacks between meals and dessert after every meal is.
  • Devouring that festive meal with vadai and paayasam isn’t pushing you up a dress/waist size. Considering vadai as an acceptable everyday breakfast item is.

And finally, feasting on awesomeness and overdosing on happiness a few times a year isn’t dangerous by any stretch of imagination. Turning everything special into something mundane by making it a part of your daily life is.

So if you truly want good health, stop looking for temporary fixes and crash diets. Think long term. Understand that health, well being, fitness and (true unphotoshopped) good looks are a result of consistently and cumulatively making good life and food choices. Nothing more and definitely nothing less.

Adios.

Don’t forget your roots

What’s with all the fat loss and health related nutritional advice and diet plans being centered around western foods? When was the last time you saw a diet plan that didn’t have tuna and broccoli and was abundant in traditional foods like rajma or injira or hummus?

Does that mean the only way to become fit and healthy is by eating foods your ancestors never ate? Does that mean one can’t get fit or healthy without whole grain bread and steamed brussel sprouts and grilled chicken breast and blocks of tofu?

I call BS!

We Indians ate our lentils and curries and ghee and khadis and curd for a reason just like the Ethiopians ate theirs and the folks from the middle east ate theirs. It is absolutely possible to eat foods that you grew up eating and get healthier and fitter every progressing day. It is, in fact, preferable.

How?

  1. Eat real food and stay away from allergens for the most part like your ancestors did. Details here.
  2. Tweak your traditional Indian diet and make it match your current activity level. My step by step guide is here.

De-cluttering training and nutrition

It’s been a long time since I blogged and today seemed like a perfect day to do so. One thing I’ve been thinking about is how I started writing this blog as a way to record my experiences with health and fitness and how it slowly moved away from that and became an information dump of sorts (while helping thousands of people, of course). Considering how busy lazy I’ve been to keep this blog alive and thriving, I think, like everything else in life, it is time to get back to the basics. Make a plan and stick with it. And here is my plan.

Start writing.

Just so we’re clear, this post won’t have any amazing insights about nutrition or links to studies that prove that a certain food is a superfood/poison or how training exactly 17.32 minutes after waking up will help you lose more fat. Posts like this might very well be boring for many, but they are what I need to write and read.

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My battle with fitness related progress has always been because of the ‘switch’ mentality. I’m an all or nothing kind of guy. When it comes to training, I’m in it or out of it. Moderation never works for me. In other words, I walk into a training session either to dominate the session or I explicitly half-ass it or don’t train at all. And honestly, most of you are like me.

I approach, not just training sessions, but even training programs with this mentality. When I start a training program, I’m super excited looking forward to everything about the program and start off with a bang. With time though, my excitement drops and I see myself crawling to the finish line. What is interesting here is that I do stick with the program entirely and I get the results I’m looking for, at least most of it. What I lack is the motivation to keep going beyond the finish line. The problem is not the lack of commitment or lack of variety in the program. The problem is the finish line. The problem is that there is a finish line.

It took me years to understand that fitness never ends. There is no such thing as ‘completion’ when it comes to fitness. Programs, be it a self-conducted one like Starting Strength or a professionally conducted one like The Quad, are short spurts of intense effort providing you visible results. But the point of such programs is to lay a foundation on which you can build on and continue your never ending journey towards fitness.

This all or nothing mentality worked well for a good chunk of time but, like everything else, it got old. It became harder and harder to psych myself up before each training session, to stay committed and focussed to my oh-so-ambitious goals and, most importantly, to make continuous progress.

I decided to fix this once and for all. So here is what I did – I came up with rules to de-clutter my training and nutrition and hence, life. Simple small rules that will help declutter my fitness-life. Here are the rules.

  1. Push, pull, squat, hinge and run. Waste no time on fluff.
  2. Forget equipment. Forget muscles. Focus on movements.
  3. Train hard. Keep total volume low.
  4. Do some form of rehab work everyday.
  5. Stop being a brat and sleep.
  6. Eat protein with every meal.
  7. Keep starch to a minimum on rest days.
  8. Eat more organic produce.
  9. As an immediate response, say no to junk. You can reconsider later.
  10. Supplement wisely.

Details about each one of these rules and how they have helped me stay strong and in great shape without dedicating too much time or sanity to follow in the upcoming posts.

More soon.

Adios!

Is it all in the head?

You fail to see beauty in something, anything, once you understand it. So it the case with paranoia. You stop being afraid of something, anything, once you understand it. This applies to food as much as it applies to God and the devil.

Pretty cool line huh? Who came up with it? I did! And yea I know. I’m pretty awesome like that. Ok now, let’s talk about something you don’t know.

Back when I used to chronically diet…

… I was always on one diet or the other. In other words, there was always some food group I’d not eat. During the good old whole wheat days, I’d eat everything in whole wheat from bread to cereal to roti to naan to lavash bread to pita bread to pasta and hardly eat any fat whatsoever. I’d stay away from ghee like it was demon’s piss, shun cheese like it was illegal and fatty cuts of meat didn’t even exist in my food dictionary!

Then when I learnt more about nutrition and that fats were good and (thought) carbs were the devil, my idea of foodtopia (see what I did? Again, pretty awesome like that!) went from wheat-ville to lowcarb-asylum. I’d eat about 1-1.5lb of fatty meat and 2-3 lb of green veggies everyday in addition to cream and cheese and butter and macadamia nuts. I stayed away from wheat like it would clog up my respiratory tract and bananas were off limits ‘cos they were nothing more than yellow colored candy bars and chose cream over milk ‘cos milk was a carb source!

It’s amazing how things have changed in the last few years after I started doing more self-experimentation and began reading more unbiased literature (as opposed to reading strictly within the whole wheat or paleo or low carb circle, depending on which phase I was on), but here is something interesting.

Let me first say that I used to be the epitome of clean eating. Will power and motivation flowed so seamlessly like swear words out of a hookers mouth. Nothing could break me. I had no temptations and no one could ever convince or lure me into eating something I hadn’t planned on eating unless, of course, I’d already factored it into my ‘eating plan’. But I observed something.

When I did eat strictly low fat (and whole wheat), I’d eat sandwiches everyday and twice a day on many days. Even today, I’m a sandwich maniac and can eat one for every meal for the rest of my life, but living in a region where the best sandwiches are available at Subway, I don’t quite have that urge. Anyways, I remember I’d stand in line to order a sandwich and I’d know exactly what I wanted (whole wheat bread, lean meat, green veggies, mustard, fat free mayo yada yada)… except one thing – should I get the cheese or not? I loved and craved cheese (of course ‘cos I wasn’t “allowed” to eat it) but this question would confuse the shit outa me! I’d stand there in line letting people behind me go ahead ‘cos I’d never be able to make the call. Sometimes I’d get the cheese and sometimes I wouldn’t. When I did get the cheese, I’d love the sandwich but immediately after eating the sandwich, I’d “feel fat”. I’d literally feel like I had gained weight on my lower abdomen/belly area. And you know what guilt does… makes you want to compensate by doing some extra work or eating less for the next few meals. All this for a slice of cheese!

Funnily, when I was deep into low-carb dieting, the exact same scenario would happen when I a cup of rice or eat a banana or eat a meal which is even mildly high in carbs. The “feel fat” thing would pop up in my head which will lead to similar type of compensating.

And the gluten-free days weren’t an exception. Once slice of bread and boom! The next morning I’d feel like I had a “cannonball in my tummy” or like “I’m having trouble breathing well” or like “I’m feeling bloated” or like “I feel fatigued”.

But let’s look at the other side of the coin.

During my low-fat-all-whole-wheat days, I’d eat about 300g of carbs a day most of which was from wheat and didn’t get bombarded by cannonballs or continuously bloat to the point of explosion or feel so fatigued all day I couldn’t work. Heck, I have photos of myself with a prominent 6-pack and remember feeling so awesome I used to workout twice a day 6 days a week – that is 12 fairly intense sessions of physical activity per week with about 6hrs of sleep per day.

During my low carb days, cream, cheese and fatty meat were my main dish, side dish and dessert! My belly didn’t get bigger. Neither did I see the digits on my scale go up or any part of my oh-so-precious 6-pack fade even a little.

I’m more than sure you’ve been through or are going through the same or similar phases. So, you tell me, is it all in the mind? Is fat making you fat or are you just made to think that way? Are carbs fattening or is it that you don’t know any better? Are you truly allergic to gluten or are you just trying hard and finding the symptoms you are told you would experience?

Today, I am in a much better place…

… nutritionally.

Back then, I always was off something. Something was evil. At any point of time, I’d be “off” carbs or fat or gluten or something. Today, I eat everything. While I don’t stuff myself silly with junk food all day everyday, there is literally nothing I am “off” from.

Back then,  I always craved something or the other (probably ‘cos I was off something or the other). Today, I have no cravings whatsoever (definitely ‘cos I know nothing is off limits).

Back then, I was paranoid and, with a lot of focus and diligence, healthy and fit always looking for the next nutritional breakthrough. Today I am free and, with absolutely no conscious effort, healthy, fit and in peace not looking for the next big thing.

The truth is that science isn’t something you believe in. It is a fact. You either know it or you don’t. There is no anxiety in science. There is no guesswork. There is no maybe. There are only equations. You do the experiment (unbiased) and you get (real) results. Nothing more and definitely nothing less.

So are you making the effort to truly understand nutrition via unbiased research and self-experimentation or are you just jumping on and off the fad bus? Do share this post (buttons below) and let’s get this discussion started.

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