Thursday, August 9, 2012

Copying the Western fitness trends blindly - Diet (Part 1)

      As cliched and jingoistic as it sounds, I think this in fact applies to so many things happening in India today (blindly thinking everything western is better), but I'll stick to the realm of 'fitness" or what the average person really cares about the most   when they say the word fitness: fat-loss and/or muscle-gain.

      Big names in commercial gyms, trainers and dieticians in Indian cities are blindly copying from the western fitness industry, abandoning "common sense", wearing what I call "reality-blinkers", mental blinkers not unlike the actual ones that they make horses wear so that they can only look in one direction, ignoring everything else.

         Firstly, they base their diet advice on obsessive calorie-counting - specifying exactly how many grams, exactly how many teaspoons, etc. Since it is very difficult to do so (I'll elaborate shortly why) this in day-to-day Indian cuisine of average folks, they go to the extent of "replacing" traditional dishes with "western" dishes, sometimes with some "Indian" flavour left, sometimes not. Does it work? Of course it works - in the short-term. Or for the very "westernised" and rich Indians, often those who have "international" cooks. For most others, it simply doesn't work, at least for long. I am not very comfortable with calorie-counting in general, but in the context of Indian culture, it doesn't look good at all. Not just because they are working against people's natural tastes, but also working against Indian culture, so to speak.

            Secondly, in a mostly vegetarian society like India's where it is inevitable that carbs form the staple of the diet, increasingly more and more folks in this industry manage to believe and preach "carb-phobia"; and on an unrelated note the myth of frequent meals throughout the day to "stoke" metabolism.

Now I'm not acting holier-than-thou. For a short period of time I too believed that but with a  quite a bit of "cognitive dissonance" because I was aware of the "real-life" glaringly contradicting this. Also I was pragmatic enough to actually in practice never prescribe truly low-carb diets and never let the frequent meal philosophy become a hassle for my clients, Client compliance has always been one of the  most, if not THE most, consideration for me. The most I prescribed in a few cases was 3 meals with 2 snacks between meals. I never went the extent of one of the "best" gyms in Ahmedabad which prescribes 7, yes SEVEN, meals a day. Again I'm not even going into how this is a bad idea from the point of view of appetite and psychology of hunger.

1.5 of these every 2 hours - making your stomach feel like a bottom-less pit

       I guess I don't need to elaborate why low-carb diet philosophy - which by the way most people cannot tolerate psychologically and have real negative effects on health in the long-term for most - is pretty stupid practically in India. The staple of Indian diet, like some other Asian diets, is carbs and that too starchy carbs (rice, grains, potatoes, etc) - being a mostly vegetarian diet. And think about the psychological ramifications of demonising a food group which is the mainstay of a whole culture!

Let's cut out starchy carbs from this. Brilliant idea, no?

Or from this? Lets see... only the"kachumbar" will be left

Another "real-life" glaring contradiction to the low-carb-holy-grail-to-fatloss theory - vast number of people in our country who manage to barely fill their stomach, working in jobs that requires far more physical work than your two hours of gym (yes your "kaamwali" is much fitter than you, yes without Crossfit).  Lets look at their diet, which is based on what's the cheapest foods available - OH MY GOD - ALMOST ALL CARBS! That too "bad" carbs like rotis, rice, potatoes, etc! Their must be an obesity epidemic among them right? - the road workers, the construction workers, the mechanics, the "kaamwalas" and "kaamwalis", the farmers, the manual rickshaw pullers, miners, coolies.... They simply burn more than they eat.

Now coming to the concept of frequent meals theory - first, its a myth that it is in anyway better that regular 2 or 3 meals a day. Why? That's another blog-post. I wish to discuss the practical considerations in our country.

            Indian foods in general, even snacks, are thoroughly cooked items, with oil, strong flavours and aromas and are  not convenient to carry around in "dabbas" all day - in fact they can create a mess if the "dabbas" leak. And factor into the (perfectly fine by the way) habit of eating with hands. Do you think all these factors lend well to frequent eating during your work-day or school/college? India's climate is hot in general, hence the snacks are the way they are to prevent spoilage. Fresh foods quickly go bad in India's climate, unless refrigerated. The snacks that do not spoil fast AND are convenient to carry around in dabbas are super-tasty high calorie fried snacks, low in fiber hence may lead to overeating (especially when eating your own tiffin by yoursel is an alien concept to Indians, even in a professional setting usually lunch/snack time is a highly social affair) - for example my fellow gujjus dhoklas, theplas, bhajiyas, ghanthiyas etc. Yes, I know I know - self-control, will-power, etc etc but I wouldn't bet on it.

Best of luck eating just 1 or 2 of that as your "snack" 

Now coming to the snack what seems to be the favourite of dieticians and trainers in Gujarat - " diet khakhras". Yes, not that high calorie but a complete failure in terms of both physical satiation and psychological satiation because of their bland taste- I'd rather just eat a chapati with salt and chilli peppered on it than those bland, empty khakhras. Hence since it doesn't satisfy Indian taste-buds at all, it leaves people unhappy in that aspect - a key component in diet-failure. And since it is low in fiber, they also leave people actually hungry.

You look at this and say 'YUMMMMYY!" right? ;)

Again, coming back to the manual labour population - lets take one subset of them - construction workers. Not only do they have a carb-rich diet but they also eat usually JUST 2 MEALS A DAY! 

And they are lean, actually "shredded" and damn strong - even the women have visible abs. No frequent, small, protein-rich meals required - they simply eat less than they burn for energy.

Poor guy. Has such a "wrong" diet. So weak and flabby, no?

My cousin and "chuddy-buddy" Vikas is in the construction business. In one of our innumerable discussions about all things phitnezz, he mentioned to me in awe that the worker on the construction sites have just a small lunch during the work-day and rest of the time just need.... a tiny glass of chai, and they cheerfully work  for hours! How tiny you might ask -

And you worry about muscle-loss because you missed one of your six protein-shakes.

Lastly, how "blind" do you have to be to believe the frequent meals theory in a country like ours where religious/ritualistic fasting is the norm! From every sect of Hindus having their own fasts, to Muslims' Ramzan to Christians' Lent... people actually often LOSE weight during the fasts! Fasting (let aside the 3-meals a day norm) goes completely against the frequent meals theory and yet why do you see people lose weight during their religious fasts?! Their metabolism must be "destroyed" and they should be gaining weight right??!

Gandhi. Fasted regularly. Obviously had trouble with excess weight.

In the next post, I'll share my thoughts on why calorie-counting is not practically very feasible in the India.


  1. Deep......Deep...Superb.....Keep this coming....Great write up...Loved it. :)

  2. Beautifully written....

    Mouth watering snacks

    Proud to be a fit Indian....

    1. Haha, yeah the pictures are very unconventional for a fitness article no? ;)

      Thanks buddy.

  3. Very true. I have always believed that diet needs to be customized and also its healthy vs thin.

    1. And yes ma'am, thin doesn't mean healthy nor fit. In fact, there's a fascinating phenomenon called "Obesity Paradox".