March 2014: Some thoughts on diet and exercise, food and drink, and health.
I’ve been on one diet or the other since I was in my teens. Most have been the very definition of crash (cigarettes and Diet Coke for a week, anyone?) and, later, I’ve tried more wholesome, longer-term lifestyle ones (that I would soon abandon and revert to my yo-yo crash-trash diet cycle). First, it was only for aesthetic reasons, to lose weight; the lifestyle diets, Eat More Weigh Less and the like, started when I started to encompass health and fitness as a goal for my body (duh)!
Diet vs Exercise: A Gendered Choice?
While all of us recognise that the key to a healthy body is a combination of good-for-you food and exercise (and not smoking, limited drinking, etc, and the absence of genetic and birth defects) most people fall in to one or the other category—some preferring exercise, unable to control their need to eat, drink and be merry; others preferring to diet or at least practice diet control, unable or unwilling to exercise. There are the some that do both, as we all should, and those, of course, that do neither.
I’ve realised that the choice, whether to diet or exercise, both or neither, is quite personality driven. Dieting is passive, to not eat; exercise is active, to get off your butt… And, in light of this fact, I hate to admit that my observation, that more women choose to diet, more men choose to exercise, falls in to gender stereotypes. Though there are exceptions all around; and my casual survey, of friends and boyfriends, and numbers from my local gym, has a small sample size, one could analyse my observation to bits. Is it because women are more driven by aesthetics, we are judged on them from an early age; and power, muscle, sports are traditionally male? Then there are the questions of time, priorities and lifestyle factors, and socioeconomic and cultural positioning. Also, men or women, individuals negotiate a complex social, familial, ethical, religious, consumerist, emotional, psychological and gendered relationship with food and drink.
Our Relationship with Food
I notice these complexities in my own food choices: the memories my mother’s chocolate cake triggers, the struggle to be vegetarian for ethical reasons, the battle to not eat fattening and unhealthy fast food the MNCs tell us we should desire, the sugar addiction of the body and the mind, the lying, the cheating, the denial, the bartering. When I cave, which I often do, I berate myself for letting my tongue win in a battle with my brain, how stupid! An unhealthy and overweight friend, who tells me she doesn’t eat much, not too much junk or sugar at all, and that her weight is only because she doesn’t exercise, does, in fact, take very small portions at meals. But she sneaks soda and cakes, biscuits and the things she gathers on her 2 AM raids of the fridge past her own rules.
Take how social and private-time drinking is more accepted, expected even, in men more than women, of a certain age, stage, religion and cultural environment. My father was in the Indian Navy, to whose officers the government provides subsided alcohol. Aside from rampant alcoholism, this flush affects the levels of ‘normal’ consumption in our households. While my father’s daily drinking and fumblings have left me with an instinctive dislike of alcohol, a friend, a fellow child of a Naval officer, drinks every evening, alone or in company, convinced it is just normal, no more than his father drank. Go figure! As I said before, everyone has an ongoing saga with food and drink.
The Weight & Health Correlation
I'm in the neither category, more often than not, oftentimes in the dieters-only, and, for bursts since 2010, in the ideal category, doing both. This was when I really got thinking about my body, spurred by my close friends, Jordyn, an anthropologist-turned-fitness-trainer; and Sowmya, whose healthy body image rubbed off on me. Though I’ve gone beyond a mere aesthetic view of my body, I continue to measure my health goals on the weighing scale, hoping to achieve my ideal aesthetic and height-weight chart weight. This is too simplistic, and a flawed equation for many reasons—skinny is not always equal to healthy, happy or even pretty; healthy is not always equal to skinny; health is related to diet and exercise, plus a lot more; weight doesn’t tell the muscle-fat ratio; etc. But it’s the simplest parameter to keep track of (not including smoking) in the absence of any glaring medical issues, and not so off the mark in some ways—if you achieve a healthy weight in a healthy manner, not through stress or illness or crash dieting, it indicates you’ve corrected your diet, reducing or removing the sugar, junk, colas, fast foods, alcohol and red meats, and started exercising.
A Well Oiled Machine
I’ve also had this sneaking realisation, for a while, that certain things you do to your body in your youth are irredeemable, never to be recovered again. Scars, of course, they tell stories and bear memories, but more than that. The weight that gets harder to lose every year will leave behind, if and when it goes, cellulite and sags. There are side effects of having once smoked or drunk excessively that stay behind in your body. Now, whenever the now is, is a good time to start taking care of it. What’s done is done, what age will do it will do, but you’ve got to do what you can.
And age will come, to us more than to the generations before us. Things that would have surely killed people before this explosion in medical science—cholesterol or heart diseases, typhoid or snake bites, well—the don't always anymore, or as quickly. We will live longer in our bodies now, and that’s scary if you don’t anticipate the yawning years ahead, beyond the wonders of youth, in bodies propped alive by medicine. Like a car you drive recklessly and don’t maintain early on…
Through December and January, months I can only describe as a long string of raucous parties, family time and travel, I was firmly in the neither category, and the scales told me so loud and clear (as did the groaning elastic in my stretch jeans, my belt and Facebook photographs, as though I needed more to underscore a point I was feeling already). I find myself plus-minus two kilograms of a certain weight (let’s just call it X, okay?), and when I finally wrestled myself onto the weighing scale in early February, I was two kg over the plus limit. Though I’m tall and carry it off, even X, to be fair, is seven kg above my ideal on the height-weight chart, ten kg above what I’d like to be, and twelve kg above what I was in college. And I can’t hide under the muscle-is-heavier-than-fat excuse, because, well, it’s fat.
My NOW to lose weight and get healthy was a month ago. I'm 30, 31 in a few weeks. It’s time to go analyse my relationship with food, break habits and patterns a la Pavlov’s dog. It’s time to go beyond crash dieting, dieting in fact, and adopt a lifestyle of wholesome eating and diet control. It’s time to be a better cook, with the ability to satisfy many of my cravings in-house. It’s time to remove, yes, remove, sugar from my diet—a food diary really helps me be honest to myself, and, with a little help from a homeopath and the trick of eating a lot more protein, I find my portions coming down every day. Having a glass of water before reaching for a sugary drink works like magic, poof, the desire’s gone.
And exercise. I’m just making more time, for badminton and swimming, spinning poi, dancing and walking and improvising; things I enjoy and make up for my gym-aversion. Not related to the scales, smoking’s on the way out, finally, and I should be weaned by my birthday.
The Raging Sugar War
My sugar addiction is the most problematic thing about my diet. Problematic, for several reasons. Consuming refined sugar is one of the worst things you can do to your body, empty calories is the least of them. It makes you fat, brings on other weight-related diseases, diabetes and cancer.
I consume a lot more than I should, aware and unawares. Most people do, even those that don’t have a sweet tooth. Sweet things have added sugar, of course, but so do a surprising and surprisingly long list of many savouries—bread, tomato ketchup, tins of tuna. Its percolation in to cuisines worldwide has been a dramatic one, a ‘success’ of the industrial age. My grandfather, born on the border of Pakistan and Russia, remembers there being only one dessert in his childhood, a staple at all weddings, a simple rice-milk preparation sweetened with jaggery. He came from a landed family, with access to the best food; refined sugar didn’t exist for them then. Now, it's everywhere, embedded deep in all cuisines, and fast and processed foods.
To beat my body’s craving, I must abandon the long list of savoury things that have sugar. To beat the addiction of my taste buds, I must of course abandon things that taste sweet, because, apart from the unwanted sugar, their other ingredients are invariably also highly processed and unhealthy, like flour, butter, and artificial flavours and colours. Even if they promise a zero-calorie or zero-sugar fix through aspartame or other artificial sweeteners that are so bad for you. Unlike fruits, where the nutritive value compensates for the high natural sugar, there’s little worth consuming in most desserts.
What makes giving up sugar hardest, that Jordyn’s succeeded to do for years, is the fact that we live in a culture of sugar, from sugary breakfast cereals to biscuits at tea time. It’s more addictive than cocaine, apparently, yet those battling it live in the thick of it. It hit me hardest at a recent party. As a non-drinker asking for something ‘soft’, what are my options that don’t have sugar, no ‘diet’ varieties either. Yup, Virgin Mary and salted lemonade, I got those two too. And?
Folie à Deux
On this new diet and exercise routine on my way to health as a long-term lifestyle choice, I’ve dragged my husband along. I’ve wanted him to lose weight with me before, because it’s nice to have a partner and it’s good for him too. It’s good for us, especially because we don’t intend to have children to burden with our bodies as we grow older. Over the years, I’ve been quite successful in taking him to the badminton court, pulling the card of companionship for the walking and the dancing. I have never been able to get him to diet.
The last time I got him to join me on a diet, it was six months ago. It was day one—the only-one-fruit day—of the GM Diet. The next day was the only-one-vegetable day.
We had survived on strawberries all day, until late in the night when neither of us could think of anything but food. But, unlike me, Sahil couldn't keep his distracting cravings to himself, for the ‘greater good’. Apart from tossing and turning like a fish out of water, he kept groaning loudly: “Sushi! Sushi!” he called out repeatedly, hoping it would drop like manna from the heavens. It didn’t. “Ummm, a burger with bacon.” (We’re pescetatian.) “French fries and cheesecake.”
“Shut up, Sahil!” I said, the images now in my head, making a saliva factory in my mouth. Eventually, we had to *ahem* do other things to take our minds off food.
“I’m not made for diets,” he declared during post-coital bliss.
“Well, you’re not made for exercise, apparently, and now you’re saying no diet. How exactly are you going to get slimmer and healthier?”
After a silent moment, he piped up: “I’m changing the diet. Let’s go on an only-sushi diet for a week.” Exasperated and sleepy, I reminded him how expensive it was, breaking a diet with sushi.
“Yeah, but I’m going to go, buy all the ingredients, and make it at home in the morning.”
He did, and at least I now have someone who can make me beautiful rolls of restaurant-quality sushi at home. This time though, convinced by the more wholesome, food-conscious diet I’ve proposed (not starvation, not crash, just controlled), convinced by the arguments beyond the aesthetic, he’s been more excited, inspired (and obedient). Fingers crossed!
This column appeared on 3QD in March 2014.