Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Saved by the (Bar) Bell- Musings on Food and Exercise

From time to time, I feel the urge to write long, rambling posts about my eating habits and exercise habits, chronicling my attempts to stay fit and get fitter on this journey called life. It isn't always easy to write about these rather personal issues but it clarifies my thinking on the matter and also seems to resonate with many readers, so here we go.

When I say "journey", it really is one, with many twists and turns as life circumstances seem to change on a regular basis. Almost four years ago, at the tail end of 2014, I wrote an honest and heartfelt post about my experience with gestational diabetes and how it spurred me to make some changes in the way I eat. It was a lighting bolt sort of experience and my biggest takeaway (apart from a bouncing baby girl) was an increased awareness of my personal risk and a determination to be proactive and prevent the old diabeetus to the extent possible. Sometime after that I was stumbling into an exercise habit after literally a lifetime of inertia. Then I had my second baby and most established habits of the years before were thrown to the wind for a good year or two; I felt like I was back at square one. Earlier this year, I wrote again about my struggles to put a regular exercise habit in place.

The story since February: Over Spring, I participated in a nutrition research study. The incentive for participants was that we got 3 DEXA scans done over the course of several months. DEXA scans are non-invasive scans that are the gold standard for determining a person's body composition in terms of muscle, bone and fat. When I got my scan results back, I was pretty stunned. It showed that I was at a normal BMI (albeit at the high end of normal) but with a level of body fat that is high enough to be categorized as "risky". A "skinny fat" sort of situation which has the makings of metabolic syndrome and many chronic diseases including diabetes. This was another wake-up call right there and it called for some lifestyle changes.

Things I have learned or thought about since then...

Exercise is for fitness, eating habits are for weight control. "Eat less, move more" is a slightly misleading mantra. Diet and exercise don't have equal influences on a person's weight. Exercise accounts for only a small fraction of our daily energy expenditure and increasing exercise alone is unlikely to result in weight loss. Over Spring of this year, I was exercising regularly and quite intensely but was startled to see my weight creep up by a few pounds during that time. The reason was pretty simple- I was simply eating more than I needed to, and it wasn't being offset by the exercise. If a person is looking to lose fat (weight) and can change only one thing about their life, then diet would be overwhelmingly the right choice. You cannot out-exercise a poor diet.

Keep exercising anyway. Regular exercise has incredible benefits and is one of the best things you can do for your quality of life. It may not have proven results for weight loss but it helps in countless other ways, like building muscle, and improving sleep and mental health.

My current schedule: This August when the school routine started again, I pulled up our family's calendar and penciled in my exercise schedule. In my experience it is the only way to "make time" for something, otherwise it remains wishful thinking. In Spring, I took a strength training class called BodyPump and although the high-repetition nature of that class was not right for me, it turned me on to the idea of continuing strength training in a different format. Now I'm doing a small group women's weightlifting class twice a week and absolutely loving it. It is a serious, challenging workout but there is lots of support and camaraderie to go around. This class is my best shot at building some much-needed muscle.

Other than that, I swim twice a week and do a short run on the weekend. If you include my beloved weekly ballet class, I'm exercising 6 days a week most weeks. To my amazement, I enjoy and look forward to all of these workout sessions, even though I lack stamina and all forms of exercise are very hard for me.

Small humans don't need a lot of food. I barely scrape 5 feet in height, with a small frame. When they say that "the average person needs 2000 kilo-calories a day", well, I'm way smaller than the average person. It is easy to forget this fact. The small person problem is that you don't have to binge on whole pizzas and pints of ice cream to gain excess weight. A few unneeded second helpings and some extra snacks here and there are all that are needed to make the pounds creep on.

The extra pounds have absolutely nowhere to go when you are petite. For the first time in my life, I experienced joint pain and a couple of episodes of lower back pain. That itself was enough to convince me that I need to (a) lose fat and gain muscle and (b) stay at a healthy weight.

Don'd do anything to lose weight that you wouldn't be happy to do for the rest of your life. "Eat everything in moderation" is a terrific concept but when you find yourself gaining unwanted pounds, that is a clear sign that the moderation ain't as moderate as it needs to be. But I stay far away from temporary fixes and special diets, because I'm only going to gain the weight back once I go back to "normal". I am only interested in building some good habits and letting go of some others that aren't serving me.

Eating habits are a mental thing. For people who are well-fed and carrying around copious amounts of stored fat, we have never known true hunger. We are surrounded by tempting food in all directions and it is easy to get used to feeling full, and use food as a self-soothing tactic when we're stressed or bored. I'm trying to catch myself when I do that. I did a sugar free month nearly a year and a half ago and it has had lasting effects in weaning me from automatically reaching for sweets whenever I see them in front of me.

Use your foodie tendencies for a good cause. You can use your foodie tendencies to your advantage, making foods that are very satisfying and tasty but also wholesome and satiating.

Overeating is a form of food waste, and if there is anything I abhor, it is food waste. Even as I enjoy cooking and eating, I am trying to remind myself that food is fuel and primarily for nourishment.

Tastes change. This is something I have learned in the last few years. Salads were never my first choice for something I'd want to eat. Now I make hearty salads in a dozen different ways and thrive on them. Tastes can change and change is good.

Learn from others. This summer, our family went on vacation to the Georgia golden isles with my BFF from St. Louis days, Neighbor Girl. She is, and always has been, a fitness enthusiast. I learned so much from watching her eat all week- the snacks she chooses, the quantities and types of foods she eats. Incidentally, I am a $$ saver by nature and she is a spender who struggles to keep a healthy bank account balance. So I have a little something to teach her too. We pick up tips just by being around each other.

There are plenty of resources out there. You need to be discerning and pick and choose what advice to take, but there is a lot of inspiration out there. Other than books, recently I have been lurking on some Reddit forums like LoseIt and xxfitness. As an example, here is a weight loss compendium from Reddit. All the resources provide fodder for experimenting on myself and trying to find my own way.

My personal habits have ripple effects. I'm the primary grocery shopper and cook for my little family. I also regularly make meals for friends and visiting family, and bring dishes to potlucks and such on a weekly basis. Whatever positive changes I make in my eating habits also benefit my family and that in itself is a huge source of motivation.

I am only a few months away from a big milestone birthday- the big Four-Oh. I'm working on a fabulous birthday gift for myself- a chance to start this decade off in the best shape of my life, at a weight that is healthy for me and with an exercise habit firmly in place. Who knows what curve balls life will throw (as life does) but I want to be able to honestly say that I am grateful for my body and never take my good health for granted.

Note that I am not a nutritionist (or physician/ fitness coach etc.) and nor do I play one on TV. This is an essay of my personal experience and not to be taken as personal advice to anyone. 

Tell me your thoughts- what works for you, what are you struggling with? Inspire me with your stories!


  1. This post really resonated with me. I'm also turning 40 in the next few months. I don't exercise at all and have been thin until the last 2 years or so. I've put on about 10 lbs in the last couple of years and all in my mid section. I have been thinking of getting a dexa scan. How did you find out about the study?
    I will ask my doctor about it. I'm sure my results will be the same as yours. During my last annual check last month, my A1C was at the higher end of normal.
    I definitely need to start making some changes in my diet and start moving. Inspired by how you've made time to work out. I'm not a fan of diets either and agree that it's not sustainable over the long run. Do you plan your meals in advance?
    Thanks for the post Nups, I'm all fired up to make some changes!


    1. Anu- The study was locally advertised- check out universities in your town, the nutrition/kinesiology departments of all major universities often conduct studies using human participants- and often use dexa scans. Anyway, a dexa scan is useful for giving you a "here it is in black and white" picture of your body composition but isn't necessary by any means. (I think it costs around $150 to get one done outside of a research setting- don't know if insurance covers things like these).

      South Asian genetics and physiques are well documented to be of the skinny fat variety. And the problem with the mid-section variety of fat is that it is riskiest for chronic disease :/

      Having said that, small lifestyle changes can and do work to reverse all of this. I've done it in the past (before baby #2) and am doing it again- it is harder because I'm older and because life with two kids can be quite the circus but still, very doable and very important to do.

      I plan meals loosely and prep food to some extent but not in a very thorough or organized way. Actually this is something I'm planning to work on and will post about in the coming weeks.

      We can do this :)

  2. Hi Nupur, glad you are back to exercising and incorporating it into your everyday life. In terms of diet, what worked for me sounds a bit silly but helped a lot - brushing my teeth as soon as I ate dinner (so I could not snack) and eliminating or severely limiting the purchase of junk food to snack on at home. For some reason, I can eat very healthy at work and do not seem tempted by the random donuts etc - but I do not feel the same way at home about snacking!;). I also eat a giant bowl of veggies for lunch with plain Greek yoghurt - it is mindless and easy, and surprisingly keeps me full for a good 4 hours.
    I also exercise 3 or 4 times a week, and find that I feel low if I dont exercise two days in a row, so that is enough motivation to work out. Im the opposite of you though - group classes intimidate me, and I much rather work out on my own!

    1. Sonali- Those are some great tips- thanks so much! I second the teeth brushing trick to curb snacking after dinner. Popping a mint also works in the same way. I have a "kitchen is closed" mindset after dinner so that I am fasting from 6 PM (we eat at 5:30 PM) to 6 AM the next morning.

      And yes, I'm very careful these days to not store my favorite snacks at home- too much temptation. I'll buy chaklis and chips etc. only when there's a specific occasion to serve it. My kids do need snacks now and then so my little trick is to buy snacks that they like but I don't- like pretzels, raisins and goldfish crackers.

      As for exercising, it is fun to discover what works and doesn't work- and it is so different for everyone. I've tried so often to exercise on my own and I just couldn't but the group classes have been a true gift! I just try different classes and see what I enjoy and do it. If I get bored of something, there are plenty of other things in town to try (running groups, crossfit, yoga, zumba) so fitness will never be boring.

  3. Great post Nupur. Good for you for periodically keeping a watch on your lifestyle choices. That is the only way to go I feel. Especially once you cross 30, what you eat and how you eat matters so much more than when one is in the 20s.
    For the past decade or so I have been doing small tweaks in how I live life (food, exercise, habits in general) and those tweaks have stuck with me for so many years because they were small and manageable. It is a bit easier for me on the exercise front because of my love for trekking.. I plan quite spontaneous treks and having a basal fitness helps in just putting a few weeks on intense training to be ready to head out. I do struggle though in the food department. I go through periods of clean eating where I stick to home cooked meals but then slowly eating out and the sweets creep in, causing a havoc on my skin, out of all things :(. But as I said, periodic evaluation of lifestyle checks make me come back to a cleaner eating normal. All said and done, I am much healthier now than I was 10 years back. So I guess I am on the right track?!
    Good luck on your health/food routines!

    1. Neha- Thanks for this nice note! I think it is so empowering to be able to say "I am healthier than I was before", knowing that we are not just victims of age and time. You are so right about not being to just eat whatever you like. It is amusing to think of how I spent my teens and 20s getting away with eating quite ridiculously. Trekking/hiking has got to be the most rewarding ways to enjoy being fit- just being a human out soaking up the beauty of nature. In fact you are inspiring me to do a solo hike soon! Also I want to hike more regularly with my husband and kids- we live in Northeast Georgia which is just blessed with natural beauty right at our doorstep.

  4. Hi,

    Curveballs - is such a right word. I was on a healthy track- sticking to something that worked for me in terms of food and exercise. Life - being life - I got a condition - which needed me to take steroids. Im off the medicines now - but displaying all the typical side effects - moon face - swollen body - and the pounds are back. Was completely depressed - that Im back to not square one - but minus square - if that makes sense. Two days of self pity - I realise - I got to pick myself up - dust off and start again.

    Heres to a healthy you and me - curveballs notwithstanding!!


    1. Oh Meenal- that's such a rough situation! I can imagine what a setback this is. I'm glad you're off the steroids now. You were on a healthy track before and you're on it again, after this unwanted detour. Here's wishing you great health. One day at a time, we can definitely do this.

  5. Hi Nupur, I totally luvv ur blog, ur writings and suggestions and have subscribed to your blog. This post today resonates with what & how I am currently albeit a poor version when it comes to maintaing good habits. Wishing you best in health and life to all who are trying their best to maintain a healthy lifestyle for ourselves and our loved ones.

    1. Thanks for reading, and thanks for the kind words! I too wish you good health- we are all in this together.

  6. Parama MukherjeeOctober 24, 2018 1:51 PM

    Hello Nupur,

    I have been reading your blog for years now - but commenting for the first time (! yes that's me !) I was wondering if you could post some weekly meal plans - especially since you mentioned having lots of salads. I would love to get new ideas.
    Thanks for the great posts - they are very real sounding :)

    1. Thanks for commenting, Parama :) it is always nice to hear from lurkers ;) I should round up and organize some of the salad recipes on this blog, as well as others that I make regularly- stay tuned!

  7. Hi Nupur,
    I am a long time reader and really like the way you write.Your fitness posts and recipies have inspired me to cook healthier. I also had gestational diabetes and I am currently trying out intermittent fasting as a way of life. I follow the 16:8 method where you fast for 16 hours and eat for a 8 hour period.It is working well for reducing cravings and losing weight so far. I still struggle with exercising on a regular basis though. Please do post more salads maybe some of the meals that are there on your regular rotation if possible. I am also trying to eat more veggies and protein while cutting down on simple carbs since I am at an increased risk for Type 2 diabetes. Thank you so much for keeping it real and honest.

    1. Roshni- Good for you for making many dietary changes and trying the 16:8 intermittent fasting and it is great to know that it is working for you. That is my goal as well. Right now I'm at a 12 hour overnight fast which is a start. I'll post more salad and vegetable-heavy recipes for sure.

  8. As usual, great post Nupur! The post resonated with me. A couple of years ago, I came across this book Fitness after 40 (https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/081444900X/ref=crt_ewc_img_huc_1?ie=UTF8&psc=1&smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER) which I loved. I have been trying to follow it as much as possible. Wish you all the best!

    1. Deepa- Thanks! The book looks interesting!

  9. Hi Nupur,

    What a fabulous post. It make me evaluate my lifestyle too. I am 50 years old and was quite fit until my early 40's. I had a very healthy eating habit and walked 2 to 3 miles on most days. Then I developed a chronic health issue that derailed my eating habits and didn't exercise much.

    I am now back walking 10,000 steps a day for the last couple of years. That is my goal everyday. I do it in 2 - 4 stretches through the day, some at work and some at home. I got a treadmill and that makes it so much easier to get my walks done.

    I am still working on getting back to good/clean eating habits. A balanced Indian lacto-ovo vegetarian meal is what works for me. It is important to enjoy the food I eat, so I don't crave good food. I have gone back to cooking a lot of vegetables and healthy meals like when my kids were home.

    I would like to lose about 5 pounds. I probably should lose 10 pounds, but that is not a sustainable long term weight for me now. I am not able to lose the weight. I need to cut 500 calories every day, but it is easier said than done :)

    Maybe this will be my motivator to get going on it. Thank You!


    1. SS- Thanks for the nice note! It is great that you're getting back in the swing of things after facing health issues. Like you, lacto-ovo vegetarian meals work for me too- simple Indian food is brimming with vegetables, lentils and beans and it is what we enjoy the most. Cutting calories is not easy, I agree, we simply get used to eating a certain amount...but changing habits means that the weight loss will come in time, slowly.

  10. Nupur, that is a brilliant post, close to our hearts. Last month my sister in law in Pune told us about Dr Jagannath Dixit's "Vinasayas ( effortless) weight loss" plan and simply put, it is a plan to keep the body in a fasting state longer than it is in the fed state. India is fast becoming the diabetes capital of the world, the number of diabetics is alarming and so it was late Dr Shrikant Jichkar who after a lot of research came to the conclusion that keeping the body in a fed state releases insulin and it's not really lack of insulin rather excess insulin that causes type 2 diabetes. I recommend that you listen to his talk on You Tube. For the past month I have been following his guidelines ( I've always been a very consciously healthy eater) and although like you I am five feet with a small frame ( never been "fat"), I have a milestone birthday coming up next year - the six O - and want to keep myself fit and healthy. My husband and I power walk Km every morning and do a bit of strength training. We eat out once in six months, eat blueberries and strawberries in preference to bananas. Please do listen to Dr Dixit's talk. I wish you great success in eveything you do in life. With lots of love - Shubha

    1. Shubha- Thanks for the kind note and the love! The big 60- so exciting :) Looks like 2019 is going to be a big birthday year ;) Yes, there is lots of recent research on intermittent fasting and not feeding around the clock relentlessly as most of us are habituated to.

      You are an inspiration on staying fit as the years go by!!

  11. Hi Nupur,
    Long time lurker. I remember your long post when you changed your food habits due to diabetes. Thank you for all the interesting posts, keep them coming.

    I am petite too and inching close to 40. I have major sweet tooth problem - I could gulp down 5 bottles of grand sweets badam halwa in 5 days with no effect on my weight until 35. Now at the cusp of 40, I have observed a gradual weight gain of 20 lbs in the past 2 years. I have a mostly sedentary lifestyle but trying to get into yoga and meditation.

    Like the anon poster above, I've also started a 17:7/16:8 IF fasting schedule very recently. I do see a very small weight loss due to my sedentary lifestyle but somehow I am able to control my sweet cravings. Personally I feel it is sustainable for me. I try to eat plant-centric but sometimes end up eating carbs because it is very easy.

    Off late I am also getting into veg bowls(without rice), so it will be interesting if you could post a few.

    1. Hi Vi- Thanks for the nice note! Grand Sweets- man, those people, what do they put in their food??!! Everything they make is addictive. It is dismaying how the pounds start packing on as approach 40 :(

      I keep reading that IF helps people with cravings even without any other changes- that's wonderful. I'm trying to inch towards 16:8 but even the bare minimum of 12:12 helps me in not wanting to snack at night. I don't have a sweet tooth but snacks are my kryptonite.

      Veg bowls are awesome- I make them all the time, very on-the-fly, but will certainly try to jot down notes, take pics and post some! Stay tuned!

  12. Hi Nupur - thanks for the thoughtful post - it took me years to understand I could not eat as much as others who were taller than me - annoying but got to live with it. I find if I eat lots of vegies and fruit I generally am healthier - sounds obvious but making a big kale and broccoli salad last week really helped fill gaps when I was hungry instead of reaching for less healthy stuff. However I have also found that stressful life changes can make more of an impact on my diet (good or bad) than when I make conscious decisions. Good luck on your journey and I look forward to hearing how you go (and as others have commented - good salad recipes are always welcome - my kale salad is just posted and I highly recommend it)

    1. Hi Johanna- Yeah, what a revelation indeed, that we small humans don't need as much food as the long legged variety! And you are so right that the common sense of filling up on veggies and fruit works like a charm. Lots of nutrition for not a lot of calories. I'm off to look at your kale salad!

  13. Hi Nupur:

    As I read your post, I kept saying "Copy that" especially to your pithy comment ( you should put it on a T-shirt lol) "You cannot out-exercise a poor diet."

    Am the same point age wise as you ..next April is a milestone and am also just a few inches more than 5 feet.

    I have struggled with weight my whole life but definitely the times I lost weight effortlessly were during intermittent fasting and juice fasting. In my early twenties I did a 365 day Bikram yoga challenge and lost weight pretty unconsciously it seemed.But not so easy any more.

    I had a major life change two years ago and quit my job. That single change packed on 20 pounds (quelle horror��).

    It's like the Zen saying about one must keep running to stay in the place with weight loss for sure !

    Another similarity is coming from an ethos of a $ saver rather than a spender tend to also be a member of the clean plate club . All terrible enablers of weight gain. I like your approach though especially the one where overeating is also a form of food waste. Another thing that resonates with me that I've seen work with others too is having the same few meals day after day. Eating a variety somehow makes one eat more. For instance, if you can you're better off eating the same meals at least for breakfast and lunch with very slight variations for dinner . Over a period of time, it's probably a psychological thing but one automatically eats less since the novelty of a new taste experience has been removed from the equation.

    But yes this is definitely THE cardinal issue that most of us "first worlders" have to grapple with...

    1. Hi Janani- So good to hear from you! That pithy saying is well known in the exercise community (I didn't make it up)- that you can't outrun your diet! The 365 Bikram yoga challenge sounds pretty amazing and quite the commitment.

      Intermittent fasting is something I'm definitely interested in trying. Juice fasts, on the other hand- never. Weight loss will be effortless but weight gain just as effortless once the fast is done!

      Yes, the clean plate club is well-intentioned but it backfires. Better to save the extra food in a container for the next meal. I love that you mentioned having the same meal day after day. That is an excellent way to (a) automate meal planning and save time and (b) treat food as fuel and eat what you need. It is one thing to appreciate and enjoy a variety of food but every meal does not have to be a production and a feast. Great points to ponder!

  14. Hi Nupur,

    I loved reading your honest write-up about the journey of staying fit. I had gestational diabetes with my 2nd one. I was always weight conscious, so if I had few weeks/months of bad eating and not exercising, I would make up by dieting (not starving :-) and exercising.
    My weight fluctuation saga stopped after I started meditating. Food is a huge comfort source, and rather a very easy source that gives instant pleasure. Raja Yoga Meditation and Spiritual knowledge taught by Brahma Kumaris changed my life for good. I have noticed when I keep myself happy/peaceful, then my reliance on food is very little. It is when we depend on others/situations for happiness, that we become dependent on food for happiness. I learnt that when I give happiness to others unconditionally and selflessly, I automatically feel happy. My experience is that spirituality and meditation help in controlling the emotional eating we end up doing.


    1. Meghana- Thanks for the very thoughtful comment! It is so true that ending emotional eating and developing a healthy relationship with food addresses the root cause of overeating and unnecessary weight gain. Where you're not battling hunger and cravings every day but instead are at peace with eating just what the body needs. I don't meditate but am working towards it.


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