Four Nutrition Lessons I Learned This Year


belly-2473_640My last blog post was made almost over a year ago. Last September, I stopped dining out, writing restaurant reviews and eating sumptuously rich food in a bid to invest in my health. My goal was to become stronger and more fit; that involved shedding  some a lot of weight and getting more active. To celebrate my return to blogging, and since this is a food blog, I’d like to share with you the four most important nutrition and weight loss lessons I’ve learnt over the last 12 months.

Having done the yo-yo diet thing before, I decided to do things differently, and sought professional help. I paid big (really big!) and worked hard (really hard!) to achieve my goals. I began a strenuous exercise program and made many lifestyle changes, as a result of which I’ve lost 15kg 18kg since September 2013 (WOOT!) My cholesterol level has reduced, my blood sugar has stabilized, and I no longer suffer from acidity. I’m more active, sleep better, feel stronger, and have more stamina. Added bonus: Because I was forced to retrain my palate, I have an increased ability to taste and enjoy every morsel I consume.

I made some big mistakes along the way, but I have learnt from them. And that’s what’s important, right? So without further ado:

Weight Scale
1. Losing weight is not the same thing as losing fat. 
I discovered that fat is the body’s least preferred source of fuel. Bear with me for an oversimplified Metabolism 101:

  • Our bodies need fuel in order for us to breathe, move, even sleep.
  • That fuel is glucose, released into the blood stream when the sugars and starchy or fibrous carbohydrates we consume are broken down by enzymes.
  • Glucose that has not been used is stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver
  • Since the body can only store up to 270 gm of glycogen at a time, any more than that is converted to triglycerides and stored as fat.
  • Excess triglycerides remain in the bloodstream, clogging up the arteries.
Here’s the thing… when it needs fuel, the body first turns to the glucose from recently consumed food; after that, it turns to glycogen from the muscles; and only when that is significantly depleted will it break down the stored fat into usable energy. So, while expending more calories than you are eating will definitely result in weight loss, not all of it will be fat. In my case, while I did lose weight, unfortunately  a lot most of that loss turned out to be muscle instead of fat. This has led to its own set of problems, including putting me at increased risk for osteoporosis.

 

My mistake: Relying on a fitness trainer (however expensive, well-qualified in fitness, or well-regarded by others) for advice about food and nutrition.
What I learnt: A fitness professional’s sphere of knowledge is restricted to the calorie expenditure part of the nutrition equation. Calorie intake, however, is an equally (if not more) important factor. No matter what they claim, fitness trainers who lack formal nutrition-focused training are not qualified to give nutritional advice. Period. The better fitness trainers and lifestyle coaches do make the effort to acquire nutrition-based qualifications, so make sure you ask about it.  (FYI: the only way to ensure that you are losing more fat than muscle is to perform a body composition analysis every two months, either by way of handheld device, a body composition scale, or caliper measurements taken by a trained professional. The results are never 100% accurate, but they do provide a rough idea of whether you are losing fat or muscle. You should aim to ensure that any weight loss consists of at least 50-60% fat.)


22426513-woman-with-a-yellow-measuring-tape-around-her-mouth-isolated-in-white2.
 Deprivation can never be a fitness strategyEver. No matter how short-term, and no matter what anyone tells you. Aside from food and exercise, hormones are the single biggest factor in weight loss. Hormones dictate everything from hunger pangs to how and where you store fat. I knew about insulin (released in response to glucose in the bloodstream), and also about the stress hormone cortisol. However, I had no idea that the two were related. Again, a quick biology lesson:

  • Cortisol is released in response to stress, but it is also in response to low levels of blood glucose.
  • Its role is to trigger fat storage and release ghrelin (the hormone that tells your brain that you are hungry.)
  • Strong cravings for sugar or starchy carbohydrates = cortisol in your bloodstream.
And then there’s:
  • Leptin, a hormone which signals to the brain that you are no longer hungry.
  • Leptin does not affect your hunger levels from meal to meal; instead, it regulates satiety over the long term.
  • Because it is released from fat cells, the more fat you have, the more leptin is released.
  • Overall leptin levels therefore *fall* when you lose fat, resulting in increased hunger levels.
My mistake: Completely ignoring the role of hormones, and not making more effort to inform myself fully.
What I learnt: To maintain hormonal balance, you need to eat steadily. Eating “only oats”, “only leaves”, or “only” any one food group for an entire day is a big mistake – even if you only do it occasionally. Ditto for eliminating a food or an entire food group. Eating only one kind of nutrient (“only protein” or “only carbohydrate”) all day really messes up your insulin levels and insulin response, which in turn cause cortisol and ghrelin levels to fluctuate wildly in the short- and long-term. Depending on what you are eating (or not), it can also contribute to severe depletion of muscle mass, especially on days when you are exercising (that’s what happened to me.) With the sole exception of sugar, I learnt that reduction of any one food type is a more nutritionally mature choice than its complete elimination – even if only for a day. (FYI: A “no salt” day can cause the scale to drop, but it’s water weight only. And on the flip side, going completely salt-free on days you are exercising puts you at risk of developing hyponatremia).

 

Time3. When you eat is almost as important as what you eat. Again, it’s all about hormonal balance. Failure to eat for more than a couple of hours at a time adversely impacts your insulin response, making  you ravenously hungry, leaving you tired and more prone to bingeing.

 

My mistake: Trying to compensate for a poor food choice or for overeating by skipping the next meal; conversely, eating too little at one meal and then eating fairly soon after that to satiate my hunger pangs.
What I learnt: Eating at regular, not-too-widely-spaced intervals is the best way to regulate hunger. Today, if I overeat or make a poor food choice at a particular meal – I simply forgive myself and move on. I no longer try to “compensate” for it by skipping a meal later. I simply make a better choice when it’s time for me to eat again. Consistency trumps compensation, every time.

 
4. Don’t underestimate the need for medical input. This is not really a “nutrition” tip, but it’s important nevertheless. Breathing, sleeping, and eating are life’s most basic building blocks, without which it is impossible to survive. Whenever we see changes in these basic functions, our entire bodies also undergo systemic changes in response – changes that, in my opinion, can only be properly assessed by a medical professional. Fitness trainers and nutritionists are not medical professionals. They have specific domain knowledge, and often fail to see (or lack the expertise to see) the bigger bodily picture. What’s going on inside your body is far more important than the external changes that are taking place.

My mistake: Equating weight loss with being healthier overall – and not consulting a doctor to make sure that my conclusion was valid.
What I learnt: Consult your doctor not just before, but also during the nutrition transformation process. Checking in medically every now and then will enable you to course-correct if necessary and avoid damage to internal physiological systems.  Maintain a food and mood diary, record your weight- and inch-loss figures, and share them with your doctor at least once in two months to ensure that the process of achieving specific goals (weight-loss, for instance) does not adversely impact the health of your internal organs or systems.

 
And finally…

That’s it folks – my four most important nutritional lessons from the last 12 months. I have one last nugget to share, though, that has nothing at all to do with nutrition:

Ask the right questions, and make sure you’re getting answers. Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learnt is that improving nutritional habits and achieving better health is all about being well-informed – about everything you do to achieve your goals.

Cap & DiplomaTo that end, I’d advise you to carefully research the credentials and actual work experience of any professionals you may hire to guide you: nutritionists, fitness trainers, aerobics instructors, lifestyle coaches… anyone at all whose advice you intend to follow. Don’t be swayed by fancy-sounding acronyms; conduct your own research into the various qualifications available in a particular field and understand what it takes to obtain each. For example, I discovered that ACE – one of the most common fitness trainer credentials – is a distance learning program that involves no practical training whatsoever. It merely requires that you be able to pay a fee, memorize the study material, and pass a theoretical examination. Similarly, all nutrition qualifications are not created equal. (FYI: This is apparently one of the best non-medical nutrition qualifications available worldwide, specifically designed for fitness trainers).

Once you have bitten the bullet and hired a nutritionist or a fitness trainer, make it a priority to inform yourself about everything he or she is advising you to do. Ask as many questions as you can, even if they seem silly or irrelevant. A competent professional should not only be patient – he or she should also be well-informed enough to give you credible answers. Double check those answers every now and then via your own reading. Oh, and please… “trust me” is never an acceptable answer – on the contrary, it’s a giant red flag that usually drapes itself over a lack of knowledge.

I’m glad to be back, and I hope you’re glad to see me too! Cheers, and here’s to eating healthily and well.  

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6 thoughts on “Four Nutrition Lessons I Learned This Year

  1. Very inspiring and very well-researched topic, Suman. Very very proud of you too for doing the right thing at the right time. Well done on the weight loss as well as the nutritional knowledge you have gained in the process. Many kudos 🙂

  2. Very informative and inspiring Suman. I’m struggling with losing weight as well and what you say makes so much sense. Would it be possible for you to share the details of the nutritionist (I’m assuming he/she is Bangalore based). Thanks. Jyothi

  3. Nice read Suman. Totally agree re Cortisol, that’s why it’s important to find that ideal fat burning zone- unique for each person- where you can keep yourself a little hungry so that your body can burn fat but not come under stress. I for one have started a kind of IF (Intermittent Fasting): I keep a 12 to 14 hour gap between my last food intake at night to the first food intake the next morning..trying to lose belly flab..feel’s like it may work. In the beginning would get a slight headachy..but now I enjoy it…feel more energetic.
    Look forward to your next post.

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