What is a diet?

Sooner or later, we all go on a diet. Most of us do this to lose weight, and there's a few out there who go on a diet to gain weight. What does a diet even mean - let's use a dictionary.

a particular selection of food, especially as designed or prescribed to improve a person's physical condition or to prevent or treat a disease

We diet for health, for fat loss, for putting on weight, to improve our health, and to prevent/treat diseases where appropriate.

While some of these reasons are not as serious as others, they are all valid. And the conundrum is a real one - what should one eat, and what is the best diet out there?

Why are we even here in the first place though?

It is not your fault. The world does conspire against you. Fact.

The food industry is all powerful. They want to make more money and they make more money by making you fatter and eating the foods that keep you reaching out for them more and more. By short-circuiting the brain and making it an addiction, the fast-food industry is truly out to get us. And they have been winning for a long time. It is important to acknowledge it. We are in a fight for our lives, and we have to dig deep.

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Added on to this are more modern-world problems - working too much, sitting too much, pollution, plastics, inactivity, lack of exercise, and a zillion other things. Enough to make one's head spin and just give up.

Most of us get a jolt at some point of time that snaps us out of our funk, and tells us we need to eat better. It could be

  • your doctor or your latest blood work reports that do not make for fun reading
  • your waistline
  • you finding your old college photos (or pants), and not recognising the past self or your present self
  • you walking up 5 flights of stairs and feeling awful

Regardless, you have seen the light, and you want to do something about it. Let's do this thing!

Except there's a complication

Which diet do we follow? There's only a few hundred out there. And with fads and silly media reporting everything to be magical, and then reading up what our favourite celebrities are doing, along with what our 3rd cousin's neighbour did - we are just left utterly confused.

Should we do keto or paleo? Or what's the latest one that's trending because that obviously has to be the best?

Photo by Kim Daniels on Unsplash

The truth is that it boils down to a few axioms.

  • Quantity matters i.e. you have to eat less calories than you expend.
  • Quality matters i.e. you have to eat high quality foods with a lot of nutrients.
  • Consistency matters i.e. you have to do this a lot more often than not.

Starting is not the trouble

Most of us figure things out and jump into a new diet. The first week is tough but 2-3 weeks in, you've found the solution. The weight is just dripping off and it is all wonderful and dandy.

By the 6th week though, things are not rosy. It is getting annoying to eat the same way and you have a hankering for pizza but apparently there was no pizza in the palaeolithic period and so you cannot eat pizza today. Two days later you wake up after eating a deep dish pizza and guzzling 3 cans of coke (or better, beer). And you feel bloated and awful. And you never want to do that diet again.

Starting is not the problem. Continuing is.

The reason most diets fail is because they are unsustainable. They are not structured around what we eat in our city, in our culture and community. Most of us today have a hard time reconnecting with our local foods because the food industry has taken over our heads and we don't clearly know what food is. Let's start with a simple rule of thumb.

If it comes in a box or in plastic, it is not food

Should I go grain free?

Let's take the typical diet of someone living in India. The predominant part of our meal is a grain - roti, paratha, rice, dosai etc. Nothing wrong with it.

If we try to replace a diet that is traditionally built around the roti and tell that person to go gluten-free and grain-free, that's not going to work. It just is not. Social situations, life, sanity - all of them will get in the way of it. Instead, we need to improve on our diet by looking at what useless and harmful things have crept in, and not look at changing how our ancestors have eaten for years and years.

While we do eat a lot of grains, the problem is not carbs or grains. The problem is eating too much grains, and not enough real food. And way too much crap.

All okay. Should I go low-carb or low-fat?

Unfortunately, eat real food does not seem like a satisfactory answer. We like villains and the options are two - carbs or fat.

Well, here you go. In a Stanford university study, they found no difference.

In this 12-month weight loss diet study, there was no significant difference in weight change between a healthy low-fat diet vs a healthy low-carbohydrate diet

There are more research studies like this too. Over 12-18 months, low-fat and low-carb diets average out to the same thing. There are no villains, except junk foods.

Umm, what next?

You have to eat high quality foods, fact. You cannot solve this with just counting calories, even though fat loss is ultimately about achieving a calorie deficit. How you achieve that is what matters. An approach built on high quality foods will get you there, without the need to do the calorie math. And within these foods, there are no villains and you don't need to completely avoid any foods, except if you already have health issues (in which case please follow your doctor's advice).

In fact, avoiding junk foods is also not practical. While definitely not healthy, the problem today is it rules us. The amount of junk in our diets is too high, and as long as we eat more real food than not, we are good.

Mix of vegetables at the Flower Show in Chantilly

Photo by Chantal Garnier / Unsplash

The best diet is the one that slowly and steadily improves your health and takes you towards your goals.

The best diet is the one you can do without going insane, without being anti-social, and without feeling like you are missing out.

A reasonable goal

This is from Coach Dan John. A reasonable goal for fat loss is to weigh 1 kilo lesser on Dec 31st of this year, than you did on Jan 1st of this year. It works for folks who want to put on weight as well - can you be 1 kilo heavier?

Sure, it sounds modest. But look at the last 5 years of your life. Would you rather have shown consistent progress and owned it and not lost it year on year? Or would you rather do the ups and downs?

The obvious beauty of this solution is that once you fix your system, you will see better results. But when you chase bigger and faster results, you won't!

This post was originally published on arvindashok.com.

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