Ques: What is the best way to check if what we eat is working nutritionally?

Ans: Our health and blood markers and if we are improving our health as we age, then you have a ready case study on nutrition in front of you.

If you agree with the above then read carefully as this article can give you good insights into what may be wrong in your diet.

I will try to explain nutrition in the simplest language that you hopefully can understand. Scientific lingo sounds very attractive but it doesn’t make sense to many. Hope you appreciate the effort to simplify this complicated subject that have made the world’s best sound weird at times.

With Covid at its peak, I thought this would be the best time to submit my findings with regard to nutrition. If you are gaining health via the food you eat, then be rest assured, your immunity is also worked upon directly. One of the reasons why I could do this study for this long, shuttling between different food substrates, is because I not only understand and relate with blood markers, but I can measure my nutritional capacity as a fuel/energy. It is a study with examples showcasing health from different angles – endurance, strength, speed, sleep, and recovery.

(I will be using random pictures from last one year shutting between different diets)

Sitting on top is my yesterday’s picture whilst am hogging on a home based mixed diet since last 4 weeks. Just any average household diet in my region (since diets in India are region specific) with an addition of little extra protein (powder) & exercising (45 minutes a day).

Above picture:

Situation – lock down time. No gym – only a couple of dumbbells.

Training – mix of high intensity, weights, speed etc.

Food – Wheat, dal’s(lentils), vegetables, rice, ghee, sugar tea, little junk (as known) and not to forget a beer 🙂

Below pictures are clicked at different times through out this period of 15 months.

It’s been a year and a half when I started my experiments on nutrition. From high fat to high carbs to high protein; I lived through various combinations getting stronger and fitter. Just so you know…I am 47 years old.

Here are a few claims that I found to be wrong in my study:

a) Sugar/Carbs is bad for you – no, it is not

b) Sucrose is bad for you – no, it is not

c) Dairy is bad for you – no, it is not

d) Mixed diets are bad for you – no, it is not

e) Junk is bad for you – no, it is not

f) Fat is bad for you – no, it is not

g) Fruits are must – no, they are not

Diversity in food is ‘best’ for our ‘metabolic machinery’ and ‘gut’ health. It seems very little of it is genetically influenced and we can build a strong microbiome network in our gut. Sounds logical because our gut likes diversity in producing enzymes, bacteria’s, etc. to not only protect us from any outside threat but it has a huge role in keeping us healthy overall.

Ques: What is bad then?

Ans: It depends on our metabolic machinery (organ health + gut microbes) that gets compromised as we age (or even in kids with bad eating habits) and its dependence of healthy life style increases. The reason for an inflexible or damaged metabolic machinery could be anything from hormones to inactive lifestyle to repetition of similar food over the years compromising metabolism to improper nutrition to genetics to over eating – all compromises the ‘gut’ health and thereby over rides its several mechanisms that keeps us healthy. There could be several factors that drive our metabolism however, am mentioning below the ones that I find are majorly responsible for damaging our metabolic machinery in the society I live as per my study:

  1. How Mixed diet become bad for us? You can not be hogging on a mix Indian diet (3 times a day) sitting on chair all day. Sorry….it doesn’t work. The way our diet is designed, foods we grow and eat most, are not suitable to our present day lifestyle. Firstly, it is not just 3 meals, it will be a few cups of tea or coffee (with sugar and milk mostly) + fruits + biscuits or any snack + possibly some sweet and/or occasional party.

No…CICO (calorie in calorie out) calculations do not work in the Indian context. In my learning and experience…it is impossible to predict the number of calories when we fry our vegetables, lentils or literally anything with onion, spices, & herbs. Our preparation of food makes the food more calorie dense and ‘how much’ it does that, changes from household to household. You understand the problem? It need NOT necessarily have a severe effect on the total number of calories. However, calorie density becomes the key when we are talking 3 meals a day with regular munching of snacks/tea in between. Because calorie dense food takes time to digest and clear through our system. Imagine we loading our metabolic machinery from one meal to next with calorie rich food and adding mostly sugar or refined carbs in between.

Example: If I do not keep a check….my father’s calorie intake is almost similar to mine or even more on some days.. He is 78 and look at me.

Satiety: This is where I slightly differ from scientist community.

Analogy: My father used to eat 2 chapati’s in breakfast with some vegetable with a glass of warm milk. I shifted him to taking just eggs last summer. Milk stayed as is. He always felt contended and full. Did a few more adjustments in the number of chapati’s and he lost 4 kilos in a month and half or two I think.

I then left for Delhi (post lock down). And where he discontinued with chapati’s in the morning, he added 2 bread slices with egg or however else. He gained 2.5 kilos in a year. So did he gain just because of the two slices? No..not entirely because he also slowly shifted back to his number of chapati’s. A composite effect.

So is it satiety that brought him back to his regular diet? Or is it psychological? I think it is the latter.

Role of MIND is underrated in science.

Another example is when we are time bound. He eats lunch at 1 pm and this is regardless of what he has eaten (how heavy or light) in the morning. He feels hungry exactly at one in the afternoon. Is it satiety? No…its the MIND (brain – hormones pathway) perhaps because I can’t do that. If I have had a heavy breakfast then I can’t feel hungry the same time regardless of the GI or satiety level of the food I ingested in the morning. It is MIND.

Philosophically when we are conscious we hear our hormones and when we are not, we listen to our mind and get swayed away.

I preferred to give my father’s example instead of mine is because this is how majority of people live around me. For me, I literally breathe calories & train, and therefore have much more control than an ordinary being. Here is the latest example – since I have moved with parents during this lock down, I decided to almost skip breakfast or have something very light. I did that to keep a check on my total food intake/calories – thanks to overnight sweet dish that I relish. And even though I have been having highly mixed – carbs & fat (home food) in dinner + some sweets (just imagine!), I do not crave for food first thing in the morning. Satiety? Yes but also intention as I want to miss breakfast.

Myth – Because carbs have low satiety that we feel hungry again. NO…we feel hungry in the mind just like how I crave for something sweet every night these days regardless of how filling my dinner is 🙂 I easily get more full on boiled food (less calorie dense) if I were to ever have it.

I do not think we can link ‘satiety’ with a substrate like carb or fat! It must have to do with how it is processed.

Another example: regardless of whether I have had 2 chapati’s or 3 in dinner….my craving for sweet doesn’t go. My mornings are mostly same. Intent?

It’s not satiety at play here. It is mind in combination with hormones of course. Am not denying science….but in my opinion, if we are sold to eating a diet – regardless of macro nutrients, we would only feel hungry when we are due for our next meal.

Satiety is controlled more in the mind than by hormones is my bet. Or our mind seems to over rule hormones such as ‘ghrelin’ & ‘leptin’ responsible for feeling full or hungry. Unless meals are checked for by equating calorie density (not deviating from taste), its impossible to say which cooked food has better satiety.

Example: Regardless of almost similar food – qty, taste, time, and ingredients we eat everyday in our family; we can easily add a mango on top (sometimes in lunch or in both lunch and dinner) without feeling extra full. Satiety? No…we don’t force a mango on us. We relish it and sometimes we already feel hungry for it before the lunch. So the lunch quantity doesn’t matter.

2) Why sucrose (sweet sugar) become bad for us? Like I mentioned – 3 meals + tea + fruit + anything sweet, this is a lot of sucrose for any normal person. Therefore, most of us could only store sucrose as fat and before we could utilize it as fuel, we feed ourselves with more. Sweet sugar becomes evil if we are not processing fat (at least the one we are adding on a daily basis as a process) because the fat that gets stored from it, is in addition to fat from fat, and sugar in food.

Analogy – Let us say our body requirement is 3 units from our diet. Out of this 3, ONE gets processed as we eat, one gets stored as fat, and say one is required for different actions & brain.

Now instead of 3 units, we consume 4. The additional 1 comes from sweet sugar (from white sugar or fructose or any extra bread or food). The result of this extra consumption is that instead of 1 unit, now 2 units are getting stored as fat.

So far so good?

If my requirement is 3…and am taking 4 units, then one obvious repercussion of this is extra fat storage. Because instead of 1 unit, we are adding 2 units persistently as fat but we can only burn 1 unit. Correct?

How we all wish if it stayed at that!!

This extra one unit over a period of time has the potential to cause lot of issues by disregulating the metabolic machinery/gut once our fat storage capacity reach its threshold. And when that happens, then what happens? It changes the equation by disturbing hormonal interactions compromising organ health. Non-alcoholic fatty liver (NAFL) or high blood glucose is one of the outcomes to begin with.

How I handle it?

Even though I believe to have a healthy metabolic machinery, it doesn’t mean that I can have as much as possible. If I eat more with no burn, I also gain weight if I persist with over eating (basal metabolic rate can only handle it until a few days). Therefore, either I have to compromise on the amount of ‘chapati’s’ (reduce carbs to adjust for extra sugar), or I have to adjust for this extra in the next meal. This is why I could handle not just some sweet, but also a beer/wine (also get processed in the liver) as an example, without gaining weight and without compromising on my physical health parameters.

Learning – Consider everything – yes, everything little that we ingest as a calorie, and learn to swap. Even though I have never counted calories in my life (I don’t) and I eat ad libitum (to fullness); I don’t overeat. I feel it. Mind or satiety?

3) What is a junk food? – a pack of crisps? A donut? Cold drink? Ice cream? Sweet dish? Beer?

Example: An ice cream – how could it be junk when it is frozen milk (same milk that you drink) with sugar (same sugar that we take in tea) and possibly some artificial flavors (no calorie value)? Same goes for everything else.

If I put all the ingredients on a plate in front of a nutritional scientist; I bet, nobody will call it a junk. But mix it everything, freeze it…and ICE CREAM, its a different story 🙂

Right? Instead what processing does to these foods is make it calorie dense and possibly increase the number of calories in some.

Ques: If I keep space for say 150 calories (or 0.02 Units as per above example) from my diet and have an ice cream instead; then what? Does it still make it junk?

Yes for people with bad metabolic health as they may find metabolising caloric dense food challenging. NO junk for everybody else because you have adjusted for the extra calories. Remember, it is our individual metabolism!!!

Example: My body somehow can’t handle too much ice cream well. So I eat less of it and only sometimes. But I can eat a small pack of crisps and it doesn’t bloat my system. I feel lighter. Individual? It could be different for different individuals and there can not be any rule defining what is junk for you and what is not.

Ques: Secondly, can I continue to eat the same junk food over and over again?

I think NO….I don’t, but you may find people who would easily handle a soda/sweet drink with their food regularly over the years. I would drop anything, which is not main food, after a few days. So either I completely get off snack or pick up a green tea mug with some nuts (instead of a beer) as a replacement.

Learning – a junk is only a junk if it is made to be a junk in your body. Other times it is just like any other food with less nutrition value. Make sense?

4) Fat Vs Carbs or both Vs Protein: what is better?

Myth – Fat causes CVD (cardio vascular disease/heart attacks). Carbs have less satiety and is the cause of diabetes. Protein is only important to body builders.

My opinion – all the above and any other side effect is highly individualistic. Regardless of the researches and case studies which are almost negligible if you compare it against the world’s total population; none of the above stands true and can be applied universally.

Fat – my family or for that matter, our entire community has strived on dairy fat. Back in my father’s teens, they would just not survive, but stayed super healthy on Ghee (with all dairy), wheat, local vegetable (may be a couple of options), dal’s, etc. A super mixed diet with no CVD records. I have known wrestlers (from energy and nutrition perspective) and many sportsmen (like my father) who would be given extra ‘ghee’ for energy. The caveat though is that they never ate processed food.

So it can’t be wrong or bad for health. I and several others are living examples if someone likes to argue.

Old pic but relevant

Carbs – same as above. I am 47 and being in sports, I must have seen thousands of athletes over the years striving on carbs or in Indian context – a mixed diet with wheat as main source of energy.

So it can’t be wrong either.

Sugar/sucrose – same as above. Not to forget marathon runners/cyclists/endurance sports who would consume humongous amounts of carbs with high quantity of sucrose to use it as fuel. How can it be bad?

Protein – since Indian diet is mostly vegetarian and most people have no access or budget for protein powder; I would like to think that ‘protein’ is slightly overrated. There will be millions in India with no deficiency and decently active life styles who survive on protein that they get from our regular diet. The quantity of protein from food will have to be lowest from what is been recommended by guidelines in the west. I have studied this more in context of muscles as it definitely aids in lean muscle mass. Having said that it is very important and good food not just because of what it does but also because of its thermic effect (TEF) – the energy that we burn while ingesting any food. Protein can burn up to 30% and therefore, a good food if you like to lose weight.

So it becomes a very good food substrate if you like it, have easy access to it, and would like to lose weight. But the caveat is if you know how to swap it with other foods.

In Indian context…high protein is not a viable option in my opinion. So lets leave it there.

5) What is better – carbs or fat?

Let us put it as – it could be fat for you and carbs for me.

Fat is brilliant if you want to repair your metabolic machinery and it is also an excellent food if one likes to change their food. I do not find anything wrong with fat. It makes the food tastier for sure.

Having said that it needs to be handled with caution. Firstly, in terms of whether it suits you – it does suit in most cases but one has to be watchful; and secondly, if you can sustain it. Studies have shown that it takes 4 to 6 weeks minimum to become fat adapted and this is when you start seeing/feeling/realising the positive effect of fat.

In the Indian context, it is not a viable option. We have nothing but for dairy or cooking oils that we can call fat. However if it is so good…then how can we use it?

The way I recommend fat and how I have achieved results with all my clients (including my 78 year old father) in the Indian context is this – try to keep carbs to minimilistic in dinner and skip carbs in breakfast. I allow for a full carbs heavy lunch and possibly a snack if you workout in the evening.

Analogy – I am currently working with a vegetarian client who doesn’t even eat eggs where even this model becomes challenging. Any how, he is down to 96 kg’s from 108 kg’s following this in 10 weeks or so. Slow rate as per me but I can’t push him to exercise extra because of his weight.

Bad – fat becomes bad in the presence of excess sugar/carbs.

Carbs sit at the top in most preferred, most easily available, maximum options, Indian food habits, culturally, etc. Therefore, this can’t be bad. And we must find solutions to handle it. Anything that our ancestors ate, that we grew up eating, that we grow in abundance culturally can’t be wrong. Period. As for science, it doesn’t speak against it either.

Bad – It becomes bad in the presence of excess fat/sucrose/refined carbs

Learning – eat what you like – fat or carbs. Or eat both like we do here. But keep a check on your weight (if you are young) and health (if you are old) and learn to swap. Changing your food substrate once in a while can only improve your health.

6) Fruit – it is one of the most misunderstood food substrate in India in my opinion.

Firstly, it is not must.

Analogy – back in old times, people would only and only have locally grown fruit. This could just be mangoes or guava only. The average life of a fruit season is 2 months. How did people survive without fruits through out the year then?

Secondly, it is an excellent food if you like it. Don’t have it because it has extra nutrition value. Its nutrition value can be achieved via different foods that we ingest. Therefore, having a fruit in abundance, all through the year is not a must. If you are a fruit freak then my recommendation to you would be to swap it with fat. Decrease the amount of fat in your diet and add fruit. It has fiber as well along with vitamins, satiety, and taste. Even then I would recommend only seasonal fruit. NO….apple through out the year is not seasonal.

Caution – if you are over weight then one should be very careful with fruits. It is because of huge amounts of fructose in most fruits. You can still eat but then – an apple a day can invite a doctor. Eat less….small portion if you can’t live without it. Banana is another fruit which is wrongly highly rated. It is a good and reasonable price food. It is also very healthy if you are hungry. But not when you are having 3 meals a day!

Old pic but this how my triceps are mostly

Multivitamins could be a good solution to cut out fruit but I can’t say for sure since I have not experimented with it. Will study it at some point in future.

I don’t eat much fruits anymore since I have a sweet tooth and like other stuff over fruits. A swap!!

Stay healthy and wish you well.

PS: People who only trust RCT for such information – please be informed that not only my claims back various RCT;s results but it also looks into the energy model. Because I have not just tested nutrition performance against weight or blood markers; but instead, it is also tested for physical energy (athletic performance) which doesn’t happen in RCT’s. So this is full proof and not an observational study with 100’s of examples confirming for different markers in different environments and age groups.

Umesh Chhikara

Sports Scientist