What I learnt about myself and my body after years of attempting different diets
"An 'all or nothing' mindset is the biggest enemy of weight loss"
I have two nutritionists and a personal trainer on my speed dial. I work out 60 minutes a day, at least five times a week. I obsessively track my physical activity on my Apple watch (successfully closing all rings is a personal high; and mind you my targets are set higher than presets). For people who have never met me, I may sound like the fittest person around. Yes? *beep* Wrong answer.
I am 10kg overweight, borderline diabetic, have had episodes of bulimia as a teenager, an emotional eater and have always, ALWAYS struggled with body image issues. I have constantly yo-yoed between weight loss and weight gain, and I have mostly been overweight my entire life. There have only been two periods in my lifetime when I felt genuinely happy in my body: one was when a bad break up led to revenge body that lasted a couple of years and another was during my pregnancy, thanks to prenatal yoga that kept me sane. Barring these two blissful times, the extra weight always managed to creep back up.
I have tried every diet humanly possible (16 hours of fasting? Done! Only low carb meals at night? Done! Salads and soup for dinner? Done and done!). But nothing ever helped me keep the weight off; instead, it fuelled bingeing and stress eating. If my meal plan read salad for dinner, I would follow it up with a doughnut.
And before I knew it I was back where I started, undoing hours spent in the gym. Now, in my 30s, I feel like I have been on this hamster wheel for far too long, but at the same time I am too scared to get off it.
In yet another effort to stay on course, four months ago I signed up for a superfood-based weight loss programme, where a box full of healthy ingredients is delivered to your doorstep every month, a meal plan is made based on your needs, every meal is logged on the app, and progress is dissected to its minutest of details through weekly check-ins by diet coaches. This was an expensive plan and I was determined to make every penny I spent count.
I was diligent; I changed what I ate and the way I ate. In the first month, I lost 3kg and it seemed that the programme was working. Majority of the focus remained on building consistent healthy habits and finding a balance between exercise and eating mindfully. But as it started nearing its end, and my results were not as expected (goal was to reduce 8kg), I could sense a distinct shift in my coach’s tone and approach towards my fitness: from motivating and encouraging it dived to outright exhorting. During one of our conversations she served me an ultimatum: “Meenakshi, I need you to lose 4kg in the next two weeks or my manager will question me.” As shocked as I was to hear her say that it also made me realise that she’s as much a victim of the toxic diet culture as I am.
As I looked back on my journey I could see some unhealthy patterns in the programme, but I chose to ignore it to focus on positive takeaways. For instance, I was forced to weigh myself every three days and log it in the app without fail. If years of reading up on weight loss has taught me anything it is that compulsive tracking can lead to a lot of anxiety and be counterproductive.
Unfortunately, for my coach my progress meant a mere number on the scale. But progress can mean so many things. It can be about growing stronger (the fact that I can effortlessly perform deadlifts with 60kg on the bar); it can be about having a better relationship with food or something as simple as your clothes fitting better.
During those three months, I also started questioning the cost to eating healthy—things such as healthy cookies, granola bars; quinoa puffs seemed far more expensive than simple home cooked meals. Once I was off the programme, I wouldn’t have access to these unless I was ready to give up my rent money. It seemed like I was being set up for yet another diet trap.
So, after years of chasing that magical number (58kg in my case), I am finally learning to break out of the unhealthy pattern of equating fitness with the weighing scale. “It’s important to focus on building long- term habits and not succumbing to quick fixes. Exercise, cook healthy meals, eat mindfully, listen to your body’s natural hunger and fullness cues, sleep regularly and manage stress,” advises San Francisco-based personal trainer and nutritionist Diksha Gautham, whose online coaching programme relies solely on building consistent habits and no gimmicks.
“Most women attempt weight loss by using an overly restrictive approach—they say ‘I’m never eating carbs again,’ or ‘I’m never eating desserts again.’ This rigid, ‘all-or-nothing’ mindset is not sustainable in real life. Moderation is the secret muscle you need to build to see lasting weight loss,” she adds.
In my case, the biggest change has been cutting down portion sizes as I have finally figured out my body’s energy needs. I now eat to nourish, not to fill a void. And the other learning has been to stay away from restrictive diets. “Such diets set you up for failure. When it doesn’t work, remember that it’s not you that has failed, but the diet has failed you,” says fitness expert and health coach Deanne Panday.
A staunch supporter of the anti-diet movement, Panday believes that weight loss is a result of eating according to your body’s needs. “Never count calories but eat when hungry. Your body is a bio computer that gives out signals and all you have to do is follow its cues,” she adds.
And that’s exactly what I’ve set out to do. I am no longer in pursuit of thinness, as I have FINALLY realised that it’s just the luck of the draw—people come in all sizes. So many things—genetics, culture, medical conditions, stress levels—can affect weight loss and there’s no way one can truly understand this complex science.
THINGS I’VE LEARNT:
1. Stop eating when you’re 75 percent full, and start eating again when you’re 25 per cent full.
2. Build your meals around protein, but also add some complex carbs and good fats.
3. Analyse triggers for emotional eating, counter them with a healthy habit; my favourite is green tea when sugar craving strikes.
4. Don’t set targets, but evaluate progress based on how your body feels.