Sandhya Krishnan is a certified wellness and mindfulness coach and founder of Mumbai-based wellness company, Dynamic Living. She has over 20 combined years of study of philosophy and mindfulness and uses these learnings to help professionals, entrepreneurs, homemakers and young adults find deep purpose, drive, high productivity, contentment and balance in their lives and careers. She has studied and worked in wellness for over 5 years and helps stressed out individuals and anyone looking to better their fitness holistically, sustainably and without fads and pseudoscience. Sandhya also conducts talks and workshops on resilience building, mindfulness and gimmick-free wellness.
In this first part of our four-part series on holistic healing with her, Sandhya takes us back to the basics of healthy eating, and reveals what the influencers and attention grabbing headlines don’t tell you about your food and wellness.
If there’s one big lifestyle change that many of us have made during lockdown, or rather, a realisation that we've had, it is this: that we had been eating way too much junk/outside food/rich food, and that we’re definitely better off without it! Even those amongst us that had the most access have felt the pinch, whether it was in terms of reduced or no help at home, greatly limited access to restaurants and takeaway joints, or a hesitation to increase contact with outsiders and outside food and packaging during lockdown. While on the one hand this has spurred cooking and baking trends on social media, it has also brought even the most reluctant amongst us back into our kitchens and in touch with the food making process again.
The baked goods and gourmet cooking trends aside, these months have been a wonderful way for us to get closer to the sources of food, which is really the start of mindful eating. Combine that with our rudimentary kitchen skills, issues of time management, work from home, and dealing with our fears and anxieties – this has resulted in us eating simpler, less processed food, with basic ingredients.
So, while all of these realisations are wonderful, the question we need to be asking ourselves now is, what steps are we going to take for our wellness going forward? And to follow, how will we make sense of the deluge of information, misinformation, fads, and pseudoscience that bombard us every time we look for information?
I’ve often found that whenever there’s a bewildering amount of data to get through, it’s helpful to go ‘back to school’ and back to the basics. This cannot hold truer for nutrition and food science – the basics have not changed very much. There is much that we do not understand in terms of the impact of our genes versus the environment on our overall health.
However, there have been several fads that have been disproven by science. These include the blood type diet, that sugar is as addictive as heroin, or that it causes hyperactivity in children, that multivitamins make you healthy, that organic food is pesticide-free and therefore better for your health, that gluten is the devil’s food, that yogurt will give you a healthy gut, that milk is essential for growing children for strong bones and teeth…the list goes on.
There is a lot of cherry picking in the media for eye-catching headlines and for novelty. And nothing sells like fear! Fear of missing out, of being less than the other, of mysterious processes going on in our bodies, of ‘toxicity’ building up! The non-hashtag-worthy fact is that much of what we think of as scientific or evidence-based, is based on studies that are not understood in their entirety, fail to have proper controls, have experimenter bias, or are just not conclusive. What we do know with reasonable surety are the following:
1) The 80-20 rule This rule is largely true for two of the biggest questions relating to health: a. That exercise counts for 20% (plus or minus some) of your health. The bulk of it – close to 80%, lies in your diet, and the rest - around sleep, stress management and wholesome living conditions; at least for the average person of normal health. b. That you can usually get away with 20% of less-than-optimal choices on all of the above counts, provided you’re ticking the right boxes on all other counts, at least 80% of the time. Take a moment to reflect on that and see how you’re doing on these counts.
2) Genetics vs lifestyle
Genetics and underlying health conditions can affect our health from 3-70% but science still doesn’t truly understand how much of a role epigenetics (non-genetic/lifestyle factors) plays in offsetting or mitigating the effects of this. We do know that it does. Measuring it scientifically has been hard so far. So it’s definitely worth striving for better health with a better lifestyle.
3) Calorie balance
The single most important factor in maintaining optimal weight is a calorie balance. That means that if you eat more than you burn, you’ll be calorie positive = weight gain, and conversely if you eat fewer calories than you use up though your biological functions, brain work, activities and exercise, you’ll be calorie negative = weight loss. This is the Golden Rule, so any diet/fad/exercise that you choose should first be held up against this measure.
4) Look beyond the weighing scales
Weight is not the best indicator of your wellness. Yes, it can be broadly useful to categorize you into a ‘healthy range’ or into overweight, obese or morbidly obese medically, but, for us as lay people, it’s not helpful to be tyrannized by the weighing scales. It’s more important for us to be concerned with our fat percentages (keeping them in a healthy range – not too high or low) and measuring our wellness by how we feel, how much energy we have to go about our day and myriad activities, how often we fall ill, how quickly we recover, our sense of mind-body equilibrium and contentment.
5) The macronutrients
The three most important categories of foods you need to consume are the three macronutrients: proteins, carbs, fats (the last in small amounts, and to this list I’ll add water). To clarify, our body can survive without carbs but the long-term effects of carb deprivation are devastating – both physically and mentally, so carbs are not the enemy.
Science has also now proven that protein and fat can well come from vegetarian and vegan sources, so you don’t need dairy, meat or any animal products for good health. But my caution here would be that it should not come at the cost of getting your healthy calories in and with proper macro and micronutrient balance. To put it simply, if you’re not eating a wide variety of healthy, plant-based whole foods, then you’re probably better off eating that odd egg once a week, or a piece of fish or chicken on occasion. The idea that you need animal protein all three meals in a day is simply no longer sustainable or true.
6) Food Timing A distant third after calorie balance and macronutrient intake, comes food timing. So can you see why nutritionists and scientists despair when the next fad diet that tells us ‘we must eat this food before this time’ or ‘don’t dare eat this food after this time’. Let’s address the latest fad of intermittent fasting – you’ll typically see ‘celebrity nutritionists’ or indeed, celebrities, endorsing it and proclaiming it the miracle cure for everything from cancer to colon disease. The evidence is yet to back to this up. What science has found is that intermittent fasting is almost as good as calories restrictive diet for weight loss (see point 3). But my worry with eating a single or a couple of meals in a very short window is that it’s hard to get in a wide variety of fruits, cereals, pulses and vegetables. Remember the rule, getting your nutrients in is way more important than the timing of your meals.
7) Rainbow foods, in the right quantities
Which brings us to the next important aspect – of how much of each macronutrient and what micronutrients do we need. The short answer: your plate should consist of roughly 40% fruit and vegetables, 20% protein, 20% carbs, and small amounts of healthy fats. However, food isn’t neatly broken up into these nutrients, several factors affect their uptake in the body, and no two bodies are alike, or stay the same year after year. But you cannot go wrong if you do eat unprocessed or minimally processed foods, a wide variety of it, whole plant-based foods (without all the fibre and skin sloughed off), small quantities of dairy, meat, eggs and fish and focus on other aspects of your wellness too. We do not yet fully understand the long-term effects of loss of micronutrients, or if factory-made substitutes are metabolized by the body as effectively. So ‘eat the rainbow’ – as wide a variety of colour and texture! That’s your smorgasbord of good health!
8) Focus on the subtle flavours
Taste is largely psychologically and sociologically driven. As you de-addict yourself of artificial and hyper-flavours of processed foods, you’ll retrain your tongue and brain to enjoy the subtler flavours of fresh, real food. So it’s a myth that healthy food has to be boring.
9) Jazz it up Excitement in your food can come from colour, flavour palettes – think spices, natural flavours of foods, lemon, chili, mustard, umami. Texture, temperature and presentation can also add to the drama we seek – although eventually we need to understand that food is fuel and not a replacement for emotions or excitement in our lives. All processed and junk food can be garnish, side dishes and stay within 20% of your quota of overall deviations from wellness.
10) Be conscious
Finally, I’ll add that healthy eating, like any good habit, does require some thought, preparation and effort. Simple hacks like doing a large weekend chop and stir fry, boxing up the food and freezing it right away, will set you up for the week. Make the healthiest choices you have with what’s available – whole wheat roti over maida based naan, a simple bhaji in a tomato or tamarind base over a heavy fried-onion or cashew based gravy, home made potato wedges over store bought curly fries. Involve the family. Get your own hands dirty – being involved in your food will make you more conscious of what goes into your mouth. Eat without distraction, with completion enjoyment; nourish your body, mind and soul!
Stay tuned for part two of this series on holistic healing, coming soon!