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Health and Fitness Personal Essays

My Diet Story: How I Regained Control of My Health

My Diet Story: How I Regained Control of My Health

By Suraj Sharma

January 08, 2021

Though wellness entrepreneur Agatha Achindu once said “good health starts in our kitchens,” I blissfully chose to ignore it. I have been a fitness enthusiast for many years now. My focus has always been on training—a combination of weight training and cardio. As I started exercising from an early age, I was visibly healthy. Hence, I believed that I have earned the right to eat a bit of unhealthy food. My friends were bingeing on junk and were not even exercising. I lived in Kolkata from 2013 to 2016 and had an incredible time with my friends. Independent financially and otherwise, I enjoyed the freedom to hop bars and pubs every week. I would also work out diligently at one of Kolkata’s best gyms. Everything was running smoothly—I had a good job, I was engaged in self-improvement activities, I used to work out, hence, I could party and eat junk without compromising my health or wealth. I was in decent health. My body fat percentage was around 17 percent and I appeared to be strong and well built.

In 2016, I joined one of the finest business schools in the country. I was overwhelmed with all the knowledge, new friend circles, and career opportunities that the place provided. Business school curriculum is demanding; it may become emotionally and physically stressful because of the rigor and the competition among the bright minds to churn out the best. I tried my best to get the most out of the place, and decided to give all my time and effort to get involved with the school and its people. Hence, I stopped working out because of lack of time. In order to cope with the intensity and pressure, I would often treat myself with a good meal. There was a monumental pressure to perform well; and I ended up ordering delicious meals, such as biryani, ice creams, thick shakes, etc., often. Food was one of the escape routes from the competition. By the time I graduated, I was loaded with wisdom and weight. I had gained around 12 kilograms in a matter of few months. Even my parents were surprised at my physical transformation (or deterioration?). I didn’t bother as the tradeoff of not exercising was quite rewarding.

I was about to join a new organization and my employer asked me to get a basic health checkup as a mandatory requirement. The results of the health checkup were shocking. I had cholesterol level of 500, enough to give me a heart attack. My blood sugar levels were also on the higher side. I was terrified after gaining knowledge of my worrying state of health. Diabetes, blood pressure, and cholesterol are prevalent in my family, and I am highly susceptible to them. I was horrified at the thought that I may have diabetes and I wanted to do anything to get back to a normal, healthy life.

I relocated to a new city to join the organization and immediately joined a gym. My doctor had prescribed medicines for cholesterol and advised me to lose weight as a more sustainable way of balancing health and lifestyle. I had to lose the extra 12 kilograms to get back to a normal, disease-free lifestyle. I was determined to lose weight and, hence, started talking to fitness trainers, did online research, etc. Everything directed me toward optimizing calorie intake and training. I decided to do something that I had previously chose to ignore—focus on my diet. I started focusing 60 percent on diet and 40 percent on exercise; that was my mindset at that time. Diet may be ignored at a younger age when metabolism rates are high but as one approaches the age of 30 or is beyond that, then an eye on the diet should be strictly maintained.

I started keeping a calorie count of all the food that I ate every day. The idea was to stay a bit lower than the maintenance calorie required with a good balance of carbohydrates, protein, and good fats. My height is 182 centimeters and, at that time, I weighed 103 kilograms. The calories required to maintain the bodyweight was around 2800 and if I had to drop weight, I had to cut calories. I made a diet chart that would meet a calorie requirement of 2000 calories (high deficit) and macro nutrients of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats in the proportion of 40/40/20—that is, 800 calories from carbohydrate, 800 calories from protein, and 400 calories from fats.

Basic calculation: 1 gram of carbohydrates ~ 4 calorie, 1 gram of protein ~ 4 calorie, and 1 gram of fats ~ 9 calories. 100 grams of chicken ~ 20 grams of protein, 100 grams of cooked rice ~ 20 grams of carbohydrates, and fats from almonds, walnuts, etc.

For eight months, my meal comprised of the following:

  • Six meals per day: Pre-Breakfast, breakfast, lunch, mid-lunch snack, pre-workout meal, and dinner

  • Pre-breakfast: Protein shake immediately after waking up (24 grams of protein, 5 grams of carbohydrate)

  • Breakfast: 2 pieces of bread (35 grams of carbohydrate) or roti and 3 whole eggs (18 grams of protein)

  • Lunch: 200 grams rice (45 grams of carbohydrate) and 150 grams of chicken (30 grams of protein)

  • Mid-lunch snack: 4 egg-white omelets (12 grams of protein) and almonds

  • Pre-workout snack: 60 grams oats (40 grams of carbohydrate and 8 grams of protein) with protein shake (24 grams of protein)

  • Dinner: 200 grams rice (45 grams of carbohydrate), 200 grams chicken (40 grams of protein), and vegetables

Carbohydrate and protein were present in every food I ate; I have only mentioned the primary macro contributors. I was getting extra ~ 40–50 grams of carbohydrates and proteins. I measured my food on a small weighing scale and tracked my calories on a mobile application. Weighing continuously for two to three weeks would help give an estimate of the weight and portion size of the meal; daily weighing may not be required after that. Tracking calories can also be done similarly. Eating junk once a week is, however, fine.

The benefits of following a disciplined diet and regular exercise exceeded my expectations way beyond my imagination. I hoped to lose 6 to 7 kilograms in a year but I was dropping ~1.5 kilograms every month and by the yearend, I shed 11 kilograms. An extraordinary feat never achieved before.

The diet that I followed is called a calorie-deficit diet. Listed below are few of my learnings from my experiences.

Things that went well:

  • Excess weight reduction: It is a guaranteed way of shredding excess fats.

  • Increase in energy: This leads to an increase in energy which is observed after a few months and not immediately. This may be due to reduced body fat percentage and cholesterol level.

  • Increase in muscle mass: Since protein intake gets high, muscle mass doesn’t not deplete much. Further to maintain muscle mass, weight training with cardio at the end is suggested. Only cardio depletes muscle mass.

Things that could have been done in a better way:

Rather than going on a high calorie deficit diet, I could have started with lesser deficit diet, such as 2600 calories per day and then could have reduced 150 calories every two weeks. This would have reduced the downsides significantly. The downsides were:

a) The starting phase of the program is filled with hunger and cravings.

b) Mood swings during the initial phase.

c) Reduced testosterone level by the second/third month due to continuous starvation.

d) Reduced energy and fatigue: My energy level was down in the early phases and it reflected in my appearance, too.

After rigorously maintaining my diet for nearly ten months, I went easy on my diet and started enjoying the food that I loved, of course, being mindful at the same time. My daily consumption of calories has been close to my maintenance calorie of ~2300 calories since then. My weight didn’t drop or increase any further.

Here are a few diet tips that I follow now, so as not to lose control over the health:

  • I am aware of how much calories I consume and don’t exceed my maintenance calorie frequently. Maintenance calorie is the number of calories required to maintain the body weight. It is a factor of height, weight, age, and level of physical activity. The entire diet plan revolves around maintenance calorie.

  • Calorie consumption should be as per the individual’s goal. Muscle gain and weight gain require calorie surplus over maintenance calorie and fat loss requires calorie deficit from the maintenance calorie. Excessive eating beyond the maintenance calorie may be done less frequently, if lifestyle is sedentary.

  • Maintain a balanced combination of macros in the diet: protein/carbohydrates/fats in 30:40:30 ratio.

  • Focus more on macros from natural sources rather that supplements.

  • Enjoy a good meal once or twice a week whenever on a deficit diet, especially in the starting phase. This helps maintain the focus.

As I acknowledge the importance of diet in one’s lifestyle, I have also very recently started experimenting with various forms of dieting. One such was suggested by my exercise trainer who specialized in body weight training and weight management. He suggested me to try “Intermittent fasting.” For someone who is unaware of it, intermittent fasting is fasting for major part of the day (16/18 hours) and eating in a limited window of 6 to 8 hours. Curious to know what it was, I did my own research on Google and YouTube. Turns out that the Internet has all praises for intermittent fasting. It is told by many experts that intermittent fasting improves metabolism, regulates blood sugar level, and enhances fat reduction ensuring muscle mass, improving focus, and many more.

I was very skeptical of it initially as I was not used to skipping breakfast but, nevertheless, I went ahead. I decided to do the 16-hour fasting as was suggested by experts on the Internet. I had my last meal of the day at around 10:30 p.m. and the first meal of next day at around 2:30 p.m., fasting for 16 hours and eating in the 8-hour window.

Guiding principles of intermittent fasting are as follows:

  • Fasting can be for 16/18/20 hours. This is the time between the last meal of the previous day and the first meal of the next day.

  • No calories to be consumed in this fasting period, not even milk tea or milk coffee. Only water, black coffee, and similar calorie-free items may be consumed. Meals to be consumed within the eating window only.

What I did:

  • First meal at 1:30 p.m. (rice, chicken, and dal)

  • A cup of milk tea at around 3 p.m.

  • Pre-workout snack (oats, protein, and berries) at around 5 p.m.

  • Dinner at around 9:30 p.m. (rice, chicken, and vegetables)

  • Little things here and there within the permitted eating window.

I felt hungry at around 11 a.m. in the first few days but later I got adjusted to the routine. I prefer it over six meals per day with, perhaps, larger portion size. Since I was only eating during the eating window, excessive eating didn’t seem possible and I was always eating around my maintenance calories.

Few things to consider during intermittent fasting:

  • Don’t overeat the first meal.

  • First meal should have some proteins.

  • Intermittent fasting can be done for 3 to 5 days a week depending on the person’s comfort.

  • For optimum loss of fat, exercise when fasting. I didn’t do that, however.

My experience:

  • It is a good way of maintaining body weight as overeating is generally not feasible.

  • My sugar and blood pressure levels were also in the normal range.

  • I allowed myself good meals once or twice a week without worrying about gaining fat.

Armed with the knowledge of different diet programs, I have been maintaining a moderately disciplined diet for the last three and half months, and often would resort to a combination of calorie deficit and intermittent fasting whenever I felt out of track.

Fitness programs and diet plans should not be stressful in the long run. I would advise everyone to pick programs, workouts, and diets that are enjoyable and can be sustained for a longer period. Listen to your body before starting a diet program or any training program. Body gives signals, such as headache, nausea, and similar others, whenever in excessive stress. Discard the program for a few days if discomfort is observed. To efficiently execute a program, incremental progress is preferred, such as incremental deficit/excess of 50 to 100 calories every fortnight is preferred over calorie deficit/excess of 500 on the first day. Similarly, fasting may be done incrementally from 13/14/16 hours rather than starting with an 18-hour fast.

 

Suraj lives with his wife Alankrita in New Delhi. He is a Chief Manager at Sterlite Power. Apart from fitness, Suraj is passionate about rock music. He listens to classic rock bands, such as Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, AC DC, etc. He has also started learning guitar more seriously now, after failing in the first three attempts because of lack of practice. He is fond of travelling, too. Suraj studied Electrical Engineering at the National Institute of Technology, Silchar and pursued MBA at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad.

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Health and Fitness Personal Essays

My Fitness Journey

My Fitness Journey

By Suraj Sharma

July 24, 2020

“Pick up a fitness routine, if you haven’t done so already, and persevere without any expectation.”

Early Life

I was born in 1987 in a quaint city of India—Guwahati, popularly known as “The Gateway to Northeast India.” From a very early age, I was fascinated with cricket, and would rarely miss any match of the Indian Cricket Team. I intended and dreamed of becoming a professional cricketer by the age of eighteen.

Chasing that dream became an obsession. I played cricket whenever I got time—after school on weekdays and the entire day on Sundays. At the age of ten, I joined a cricket club to train under the guidance of a coach. I would go to the club every day after school to practice. However, reality was quite the opposite. I didn’t fare well in any sports, including cricket. With a frail constitution, I couldn’t run fast and my bowling lacked in pace and precision. I used to be scared of facing a fast bowler in nets while batting. Any batsman with average skill could easily hit my deliveries. Even at school, where we played with tennis balls, I got demoted to Team B, whereas initially I used to play for Team A of my section. When I turned twelve, realization dawned upon me that I could never become a cricketer. Most of the boys in my school, who played good cricket, used to represent their clubs in Under-13 tournaments. I never played for my club in any tournament—not even as a substitute. Later, my family relocated and that put an end to my going to the cricket club. But I continued to enjoy cricket and kept playing with my neighbors, although my competence remained the same. Because of my fragile built, I was always overpowered by everyone. Such was my fate that my weakness even reflected during friendly physical altercations with my classmates.

I was an average student and didn’t possess any other skillset. My school used to emphasize a lot on learning music and dance. I started learning dance and participated in group dance during various school programs. But lo, I was terrible at that as well! I used to be at the back and often played the part of a filler.

My life became more entertaining when my family got the cable connection. It was around the year of 1999. I used to watch WWE, known as WWF at that time, twice a week. It became a part of my being. I used to breathe, eat, and sleep WWF. Even in school, I used to always talk about WWF. From 1999 to 2005, I remember watching almost every episode of WWE, RAW, and Smackdown. I started to fantasize myself as Stone Cold Steve Austin. Hollywood movies filled with action sequences were also my favorites—mostly because of my inability to understand what the actors were saying. I remember watching Rocky, Rambo, Blood Sports, and Double Team multiple times. Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme became my idols. I decided to build a physique like them. I thought, this would compensate for my lack of skill in any field and boost my confidence. I planned—like I always used to do—to start exercising after my 10th board exam, and made up my mind to make my lack of confidence and my frailty a thing of the past.

I wanted to work out but didn’t know how to go about it. My cousin, who was only a year older to me, had been working out at the gym for some time and the changes were clearly visible. He appeared to be gigantic thanks to his broad shoulders and well-developed muscles. I looked like a pencil-thin, malnourished fellow in his presence. I sought his guidance to begin a workout program. My parents did not allow me to go to a gym. Instead, like most Indian parents, they wanted me to focus on my studies. All I could do was freehand exercises. Following my cousin’s suggestion, I started doing jumping jacks, high knees, push-ups, pull-ups, dips, and crunches; and frankly, given my parents’ priorities, that’s all I could manage to do. For two years straight, I did these exercises regularly for four days a week. Surprisingly, for the first time, those came naturally to me. I didn’t struggle the way I did in cricket. I started with five push-ups, which gradually increased to sets of five, sets of ten, sets of twenty, and by the end of a year, I was doing around 250 push-ups regularly in sets of thirty to forty. To gain strength, I started eating more. However, my pull-ups were disastrous. I couldn’t do a single pull-up. All I could do was to hang from a high raise slab for more than a minute with my chin above the slab. I used to enjoy the ritual of those twenty to thirty-five minutes. Somedays, I would go for a run early in the morning with two of my friends and often, we would run around six to eight kilometers. The only competition I had was with myself. I became stronger and developed some muscles, although I was the only one who could see that. I grew taller as well—precisely six-feet tall—and left behind most of my friends who had been taller than me a few years back. My shoulders became faintly broader and my body became slightly athletic.

Engineering Education

In the meantime, I got through a reputed engineering college. I had little over a month for the college to start. As there was nothing else to do, I decided to join a gym. My parents also agreed; my prize for clearing the engineering entrance exam was a month’s gym membership. I joined “Red Indian Gym,” which was close to my home and required minimum membership fee. It had some basic equipment, mostly old, rusty, and worn out. The roof leaked during rain. There wasn’t any trainer or coach, just a few members who did whatever they wished or could. I would wake up early, pick up my friend, who would still be asleep, and rush to the gym on my father’s scooter. We didn’t follow any routine; we just did whatever we willed.

Post that, I started attending college, which was in a different city. I used to stay in a hostel with 100 odd boys and was allotted a newly constructed hostel with no seniors. I didn’t exercise for the first five months. During the second term, my friend and I started going to the college gym, which was cleaner and better equipped. Many seniors, with whom I gradually started interacting, exercised there too. Within a couple of months, I metamorphosed from freehand to gym workout. My exercise regime, which I followed during my entire tenure at college, included barbell chest press, lat pull-down, biceps curl, skull crushers, leg presses, pullover, chest fly, shoulder press, and rowing. At that time, I didn’t do squats or deadlifts as I was unaware of those exercises. Also, parties and unhealthy food went hand in hand.

When my hostel mates started forming a sports team, my name appeared on the list of probable sportsmen—not because of my skills but because of lack of options, as we had few students in the hostel. I became part of the cricket team, thereby playing more than 30 matches as a bowler and the Number 8 batsman. My bowling skills improved. I played a crucial role in winning a few matches. My batting skills, however, remained the same with hardly a double-digit score in any match. I remember hitting only one boundary in an entire year. The reason for this was not lack of strength but lack of skills.

Another instance of gratification came when I was chosen to be a part of the fashion show to represent my college in the annual fest. I didn’t do anything to get the opportunity; it just came my way. This time round, I wasn’t a filler and it was indeed a proud moment.

Professional life

I joined an organization after completing engineering and I was back to my hometown. I immediately enrolled in a gym. It was a basic gym like the one in college. I kept doing the same things that I did. Basically, I followed the same routine for about five years. There wasn’t any improvement in my structure or strength and they remained the same for most part of those five years—neither increased nor decreased. Two years later, I joined a premier gym chain—the Talwalkars—and it was a significant up-gradation in my gym journey. The equipment was of top quality, the gym was air-conditioned, and had a good number of trainers. It felt like a luxury lounge. Few months later, I decided to hire a personal trainer, and exercising under the guidance of a personal trainer was an enriching experience. My trainer focused more on compound exercises, something that I had been ignoring this whole time. I did a lot of deadlifts, weighted squats, and bench presses. Compound exercises are great for building full-body strength as they target and engage multiple muscle groups. Beginners should focus on mastering the compound movements, but with caution as these exercises can cause serious injury. Hence, having a trainer is crucial. I had been doing a few exercises incorrectly. I learned breathing technique: exhale while pressing the bar and inhale in the other motion. The sets per exercise and reps per set also increased. I used to sweat profusely during the workout sessions, but it felt amazing. I used to wait the entire day for the evening. Workout became fun and challenging. I trained under the supervision of the trainer for six months. During this time, I gained a lot of knowledge about workout and my fitness level enhanced. I kept following the routine as prescribed by my trainer on my own for a few months.

I changed city after three years into my job to a metro city. There I enrolled in Gold’s Gym; it was grander. A lot of members had already achieved advanced levels of fitness and the trainers looked like professional bodybuilders. After initially continuing with my old routine set, I thought of getting a trainer in the hope of gaining more insights. After consulting a few members and observing them train, I shortlisted a trainer. He was huge and used to compete professionally as a bodybuilder and demanded a hefty monthly fee. I started training under his guidance. It felt like shifting from the third to the fourth gear. Under his direction, I followed a periodization workout plan. Periodization is important to avoid plateau in a workout regime. For the first three months, I focused on gaining muscles. This required me to be on a calorie-surplus diet and eat adequate amount of proteins. Till then, I believed I could outwork a bad diet; I was wrong. Diet is the key. So, I started eating clean, and reduced junk and alcohol. I started making a mental map of the food I was consuming. Gaining weight was easy for me. I was around 90 kilograms and had to consume around 3,000 calories. As I ate more, I could lift more. There wasn’t any shortage of energy. I became bulkier and gained around four kilograms. The exercise focused on maximizing weights with reps ranging from six to eight and sets ranging from three to four. The key was to reach failure at the eighth rep; failure entailed not being able to perform even one more rep. This enhanced maximum muscle growth. Resting time between sets was not a constraint in this phase. I focused primarily on bigger muscle groups, such as back, legs, chest, and shoulders. Smaller groups, such as biceps, triceps, and calf, were not completely ignored. Then came the difficult phase—cutting fats and conserving muscles. In this phase, calorie intake, primarily carb, should be reduced gradually, and I was supposed to be on a calorie-deficit diet. It was challenging. Workout also changed as rep range and sets increased, and the focus was to keep the heart rate up while feeling the full contraction of the specific muscle group. Cardio, too, was introduced that had to be done after weight training. I was able to perform the exercises but couldn’t stay hungry. Nevertheless, I did what I could, and the outcome was satisfactory.

I worked out in Gold’s gym for two years and that phase was the golden period of my fitness expedition. I met a lot of amazing people who were equally passionate about fitness, and learned a lot about diet, timing of food, different workout plans, etc. These takeaways have helped me become efficient.

The tricks that I gained are:

    • Keep changing the workout every few months; human body is very smart and adaptive.

    • To derive the best results, one must continuously shock the body. Hence, progressive overloading is advised. Keep increasing weights whenever comfort kicks in, even if it is for two reps. Keep changing workout programs. German Volume Training is a good one to break plateau.

    • Diet is the key element of fitness. One can never outwork a bad diet.

    • Rest is important for recovery; else the strained muscles would not grow. That’s why it is not advisable to exercise the same body part twice in consecutive days.

All the points mentioned are applicable to any fitness-related activity.

I also enrolled myself in other forms of fitness routine, such as Yoga, Fitness Boxing, and CrossFit, in multiple fitness centers. All these activities have helped me break my own limitations.

Things that went well for me are:

  • I started early. I was only fifteen, and even though I did twenty-five to thirty minutes of few basic exercises, the benefits were remarkable and helped me build a good foundation.

  • I stuck to it and enjoyed it like any other sports. I followed the same routine, which is not advisable, for a very long time. It is better than doing nothing.

Things that I could have done better are:

    • Focus on diet. For the first eight years, I did not focus on diet. I ate whatever I found tempting and used to consume alcohol regularly. This impaired the result that I was expecting.

    • I stuck to the same routine for a long time. My fitness level reached a plateau and didn’t change.

But in hindsight, I am glad that I did what I did—the benefits have been extensive.

Previously, I was also susceptible to falling sick multiple times a year. Every season change would lead to fever, running nose, cold, etc. I also suffered from acid refluxes. My parents are diabetic and have high blood pressure levels. I was also showing similar signs when I was 25. I am much healthier now and don’t fall sick with change in season as often as I did. Also, I recover faster. I am also able to gradually control the temptation of food and alcohol; from drinking heavily thrice a week, these days I drink moderately once in two months. I am mindful of what I eat, and this has resulted in managing my weight. I once had cholesterol level close to 500 and my body fat percentage was more than thirty-five.

Lastly, fitness has enabled me to control my emotions. There was a time when my professional career was going downhill and I had to brave moments of humiliation.

I was filled with rage and frustration, and didn’t want to share my problems even with close ones. All I could do was lift some iron in the gym. Those days, I would spend half an hour more in the gym and sweat till I dropped dead. It made me calm. Further, I got to interact with people who never bothered to enquire about my professional or personal life.

As a closing remark, I would suggest anyone reading this to pick up a fitness routine, if you haven’t done so already, and persevere without any expectation. Soon, it might be one of the most fun things you do.

 

Suraj lives with his wife Alankrita in New Delhi. He is a Chief Manager at Sterlite Power. Apart from fitness, Suraj is passionate about rock music. He listens to classic rock bands, such as Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, AC DC, etc. He has also started learning guitar more seriously now, after failing in the first three attempts because of lack of practice. He is fond of travelling, too. Suraj studied Electrical Engineering at the National Institute of Technology, Silchar and pursued MBA at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad.

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