In her latest book Eating in the Age of Dieting, author and nutritionist Rujuta Diwekar says, “Look at food as a blessing. Eat with gratitude, not guilt… Move beyond carbs/protein/fat/calories. Food is culture, cuisine, and crop-cycle. Eat local, seasonal and traditional.”
Her words carry a lot of weight and significance, especially at a time when there are a plethora of diet fads swirling all around us, luring those looking to lose weight quickly. Vegan, paleo, keto, Mediterranean, low-fat are just some of the popular diets in existence today. Medical experts, however, say that these are just passing trends. For good health, losing weight is not important. It’s metabolic health which is key. Dieting, in fact, can lead to increased risk of cancer, diabetes, etc.
“Sustainable weight loss is a scientific gradual process that involves increased metabolism with a customised diet and regular physical activity. The basics of healthy weight loss are based on eating fewer calories and burning out at the same time. A scientific diet plan for weight loss not only contains fewer calories, but also ensures enough intake of fibre, adequate protein, good fats and micronutrients to prevent any deficiency,” says Mumbai-based Subhasree Ray, clinical and public health nutritionist, certified diabetes educator, International Diabetes Federation.
In October last year, 27-year-old Bengali actor Mishti Mukherjee died due to kidney failure caused reportedly by keto diet. The tragic incident raises serious questions about the efficacy of these diets. The keto diet, for one, is a high-fat, moderate-protein and low-carb one. It drastically reduces carbohydrate intake, replacing it with fat, resulting in a metabolic state called ketosis, where the liver burns body fat and provides fuel for the body, as there is limited access to glucose.
“Currently, it is one of the common modalities to lose weight among many fitness enthusiasts and often lacks expert supervision. If preached by untrained professionals, it may lead to severe consequences. Keto diet is a therapeutic diet that can’t be practised as a normal diet. A diet is only worth it if it’s safe,” says Ray, adding, “Another common food fad is the mono diet, which is depending on a particular food (for example, aloe vera or triphala juice, powdered fenugreek seeds, cinnamon and honey tea, detox tea, green coffee, etc) or regimen to lose weight… but can result in hormonal changes, nutritional deficiencies and muscle loss.”
There are many more such health trends doing the rounds currently. Ghee shots, haldi in pills, fasts for cleansing are a few examples. “Fasts for cleansing, haldi in pills, or ghee shots have scientifically proved zero on the basis of facts,” asserts Diwekar. “Regular meals throughout the day lead to better metabolic health and sustainable weight loss in long term,” she has tweeted in the past.
Arun Prasad, senior consultant, surgical gastroenterology and bariatric surgery at Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, New Delhi, agrees: “There is no evidence that proves the contribution of such commodities to weight loss. Far from health benefits, if food items like haldi pills, ghee shots and other similar components are consumed in excess, their own toxic potential can be harmful,” he cautions, adding, “Before attempting to blindly follow any trend, it is important to first understand your body type, have thorough knowledge of any prevailing medical condition and family history of health conditions. There are no shortcuts to staying physically fit and healthy… a balanced diet coupled with physical activity is essential.”
Experts also say there is no scientific evidence to support fasting. “Fasting can deplete essential vitamins, minerals and electrolytes, and can be harmful if you suffer from medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease or blood pressure. It can increase acid output, causing heartburn and resulting in dehydration and hypoglycemia,” says Aastha Sharma, senior dietician at Nayati Medicity, Mathura. “One should instead have small frequent meals, eat a variety of healthy and fresh foods like fruits, vegetables and nuts, eliminate potentially toxic habits, including alcohol, caffeine, excessive salt and processed sugar, etc, to stay healthy,” she adds.
Mumbai-based Ray agrees: “Fasting for a prolonged period is harmful and might cause nutritional deficiencies. Turmeric, amla, fenugreek seeds, triphala, aloe vera, etc, contain distinct active ingredients that help in losing weight and provide collective health benefits. However, none of these foods can help if total calories and physical activity are not considered as part of the procedure. A healthy lifestyle-comprising eating ‘whole’, regular physical activity, sound mental health, enough sleep and an adequate amount of water-is sustainable and evidence-based,” she says.
Similarly, coconut oil has been advertised as a health food of sorts for long, but experts say there is little evidence to back that claim. American Heart Association (AHA) data, in fact, shows that more than 80% of the fat in coconut oil is saturated—far beyond butter (63%), beef (50%) and pork lard (39%). The AHA, which advises against the use of coconut oil, recommends eating no more than 6% of saturated fat as part of total daily calories for those who need lower cholesterol. The oil has “no known offsetting favourable effects”, the AHA said in an advisory, adding that it could actually increase LDL cholesterol, a cause of cardiovascular disease.
“There’s a disconnect between people’s general beliefs and what the data actually shows,” Donald Hensrud, medical director, Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program, told American daily USA Today. He recommends using oils high in monounsaturated fats (including olive oil and avocado oil) and those high in polyunsaturated fats (such as canola oil).
While exercise may be the most important element of a weight-maintenance programme, dietary restriction, too, plays a critical role. Perhaps that’s why consumers turn to products like nutraceuticals, supplements, metabolism-boosters, etc, and diet snacks like energy bars, trail mixes, etc. “A recent report by the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) reported that 31% urban Indians and 16% rural Indians are overweight, with 53% urban Indians having abdominal obesity. Indians are largely sedentary in nature and exercise does not come naturally to us. So the attention naturally goes to other ‘seemingly’ easier options like detox diets, fat-burning pills, etc. However, most of these easier options leave people and their health status impacted,” says nutrition science expert Rashida Vapiwala, the founder of LabelBlind, a NutriTech digital solution startup that simplifies complex information declared on food labels for consumers.
Another thing to note is that a long-term weight-loss regimen could lead to frustration and despair. “The focus should be on awareness about good nutrition, healthy eating and lifestyle correction. Obesity slipped into our lives because of sedentary lifestyles and inappropriate food choices. But now, there is a growing consciousness of returning to our roots in the pursuit of better food choices,” says Vapiwala.
When it comes to good health, superfoods are key. Packed with nutrients that deliver large doses of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, these are also likely to reduce the risk of chronic diseases. In her book Indian Superfoods, Diwekar has outlined 10 such local and traditional foods. These are rice, ghee, banana, coconut, cashew nut, aliv, kokum, jackfruit, sugarcane and ambadi. “Eating right is step one to getting more active. Ancient foods are wholesome in the nourishment they offer, and are invariably pleasant to the taste buds and low on the glycemic index. This ensures that your body receives sustained energy through the day unlike the high and immediate slump that comes with stimulants like cigarettes, coffee, etc,” she had said in an interview with Financial Express on Sunday.