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.
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.