Nothing warms my heart more than the heavenly taste of a cheesy slice of pizza, a side of soft-shell Mexican-style tacos, a freshly baked vanilla sponge cake, and a tall glass of iced-tea on a Sunday afternoon. Food is love, am I right? And if you’ve been following my Instagram stories, you know how much of an influence it has on my daily decision-making process. Food isn’t just something I put on a plate and eat, it is so much more. It has an effect on my productivity, mood-swings, and energy levels in addition to being such an inherent part of my social life. Even my exercise routine revolves around what I ate for dinner the previous night.
I am not going to lie, I’ve had my fair share of binge-days and junk-food-only months, but now that I am not 18 anymore and have become more aware of what my body needs, I’ve been constantly striving to make better choices. But being the foodie that I am, eating clean doesn’t come naturally to me. So I’ve had to make changes in my habits and also the way I think about food to create a lifestyle that keeps both my body and taste buds happy. If you struggle from a similar dilemma, read on.
Changing my relationship with food
This is perhaps the most important and most difficult step. Growing up, I was always told that all outside food and junk food was bad for health and I should stick to “ghar ka khaana”. That was it! No other explanation. As a result I became a sort of food-rebel and started sneaking in “tasty” food wherever and whenever I could.
As I grew up and started reading more and becoming more aware, I realised how food shapes and affects our body. And I also found out that ghar ka khaana and eating clean didn’t have to mean lauki and tori; that I could prepare delicious meals at home, which would give me the right nutrition and also not compromise on the taste. This is when I started looking at food as fuel for my body and not just something to rebel against my mental conditioning.
Saying no to dieting
I was always a chubby kid. And there was of-course the body shaming that came with it. By the time I reached college, I started seeing food as a culprit and then one year, during my summer break, I went into extreme workout and dieting mode. Back then, dieting was believed to be the only way to lose weight and look good (please note that the focus here is not on staying healthy.) So, I locked myself in, refused to go out and put all my energy in losing weight. I lost about 10 kilos in a short span of 2 months by exercising for 4 hours a day and restricting my calorie intake to less than 1000 calories. It felt great…for about 10 minutes…and then I had a slew of problems – my hair started falling out, bursts acne, fatigue, lacklustre skin and what not.
Diets are restrictive and often don’t fulfil the body’s nutritional needs. Plus the effect they have on mental health is unwarranted. The focus should always be on giving the body what it needs and not what you think will make you thin! It took me almost a year to realise that all of these were side effects of dieting. Of course I vowed to never diet again. It’s been 5 years now, I’ve been eating clean, and I haven’t ever brought up that term (except for this blog).
Understanding what my body needs
Eating clean or eating healthy is very subjective. What might be healthy for me might not be healthy for you and vice-a-versa. Of course there are certain foods that are healthier than others, but unless your body takes well to them, they have no meaning for you. Once I was over the whole dieting phase, I started experimenting with food items and food groups to see which ones my body tolerated well and which ones it did not.
For example, I love peanuts but they always give me a stomach ache. Earlier, I used to binge on them and then later suffer in pain, not realising what was happening. Once I started noticing this change, I switched to other nuts like cashews and almonds and haven’t had that pain ever since. It’s a similar thing with fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy. See what suits you and consume accordingly. Don’t just go gluten or dairy-free because it’s the latest fad on the internet. If you eat what your body needs and tolerates, you will feel good, stay in shape, and will overall have a happier existence.
Understanding that it’s a lifestyle and not an immediate process
I still go out for pizza and beer on the weekends. I understand that I can’t live my life completely by restricting myself all the time. When you start to eat clean or make better choices, it’s a gradual step. If you just give up your old lifestyle all at once, it causes severe withdrawal and increase chances of going back. My mom still struggles with this, but she too is working on understanding this.
And besides, eating clean is something I do to keep my body and mind in balance. It shouldn’t mean that I have to give up on the things I love doing. I just have to maintain a balance between the salads and the fried cheese fingers. And once I really understood this, it wasn’t that difficult. Of course a lot of leg work, research, experimenting, and trial and error went behind this. But now, I am where I want to be.
Never staying hungry
This is perhaps the one cardinal sin of eating clean. When you go for long periods without food, your body enters a state of shock and starts storing fat deposits to keep you alive. When done over a period of time, this can lead to multiple problems like cholesterol, heart disease, liver and kidney issues and what not.
Again, your food intervals depend on your individual body type and metabolism. So you shouldn’t go ahead and start eating 6 meals a day when your body functions better on the 3-meal policy or on intermittent fasting intervals. Don’t just start doing everything you read on the internet.
Eating local and seasonal as much as possible
The food that has been grown in and around the terrain and climate you live in is best suited for your body, which has adapted to that area over the years. When you eat local and seasonal produce, it keeps your body in balance and helps it function more efficiently. Eating clean isn’t just restricted to cutting out unhealthy food, it also means incorporating wholesome foods into your diet.
This is not to say you shouldn’t try new stuff. Go ahead and do, but if a major part of your lifestyle consists of local and seasonal produce, you’re automatically eating clean.
Focusing on chemical-free food as much as possible
Now this is no easy feat, especially in a country like India where there is no measure of checks and balances to see if what you’re being sold is genuine or not. A lot of manufacturers claim to be organic but several have been found to be indulging in shady practices to maximise profit. That said, you should try and incorporate as much food in your diet as possible that is free from harmful pesticides, insecticides, and fertilisers in addition to being GMO. Same goes for animal products. Do your research, visit farms if you have to, but this one step can make a massive difference in your clean eating initiative.
Reading the labels
I’ve fought with my friends on this and I cannot advocate this enough. Read the labels of everything you’re putting in your body! Food manufacturers are after all businesses and they will do anything to maximise profits, even if it means giving you spurious or downright harmful stuff. Read up on what is the nasty stuff that shouldn’t be in your food and be on the lookout. Just because it says “diet namkeen” doesn’t mean it’s good for you. You have one body, might as well take care of it.
Exercising without fail
You should exercise because you love your body not because you hate it. The sole purpose of working out shouldn’t be to lose weight. You should do it because it makes your body healthier and makes you feel happier. Initially, working out can be intimidating, but we all have to start somewhere. Even just taking a walk everyday to get your heart rate up is a good start – it releases the happy hormones and helps you connect with nature.
Wow! That was a lot of writing. Hopefully you got something useful from it. What kind of a role does food play in your life? Let me know in the comments. Meanwhile, you can read my last wellness post, here.
Until next time.