You can’t be ‘healthy’, if you don’t know what it means
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“How fast is the health-food industry growing?” asks the journalist.
“But that’s healthy, no?” says my friend as he opens the second can of juice.
“I don’t understand a thing. I’ve been keeping so healthy,” says everyone in my gym who isn’t getting the desired results.
I’m the founder of a “healthy” food startup, and I hate the word healthy. No one knows what it means. Some use it interchangeably with weight loss. Most use it as an adjective: people, foods, habits, behaviours — anything can be tagged ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’. And everyone uses it devoid of context.
Soup is healthy, pizza is not. Peanuts are healthy, chocolate is not. ‘Fat-free’ was healthy in the 90s, ‘sugar-free’ is today. A thin dude is healthy, or that muscular guy, or ‘health at every size’ — or whatever else the lifestyle magazines are splashing on their covers.
Bullshit. Using the word ‘healthy’ in isolation, without context, is misleading. The wellness industry exploits this: they create new definitions every decade, use them to manufacture FOMO, and sell you stuff.
The starting point to break this cycle is to settle on a definition of ‘healthy’. And that’s tough because, at its most basic, healthy is a state of being—a feeling.
We want to feel healthy. We want to feel strong and energetic throughout the day. We want our bodies to support whatever our minds wish to do. And to keep doing so, even in old age. And the source of this feeling, is progress.
So no, you don’t feel healthy. You feel healthier. Compared to yourself from a day ago. The baseline is *you*. Not Virat Kohli or your gym buddy. You run longer, lift heavier, eat better and sleep deeper than yesterday, and it’s in that progress that the feeling of being healthy lies hidden.
It took me 15 years of thought and self-experimentation, but here’s a 10-point framework that encapsulates my definition of health. Along with some of my best tips for getting there.
1. Eat real food
No food is inherently ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’. I mean, no real food. That’s food grown on a farm— not the one that’s heavily processed or made in chemistry labs. I try eating mostly good stuff and avoid mostly bad stuff.
What’s good and what’s bad?
In their raw form, corn, wheat, and oranges are all good, meaning nutrient-dense.
Now hand those over to food scientists. Extract the corn’s sugars and convert them into high-fructose corn syrup. Process and refine wheat into maida. Remove the fibre from oranges and bottle its sugars into canned orange juice. And the same good stuff — corn, wheat, oranges — becomes not so good. Just empty calories.
2. Eat to maximise nutrition: Balanced macros
I’m writing this article at a Starbucks cafe. Someone just ordered a Tall Java Chip Frappucino. Is that coffee? How does that look from the lens of nutrition?
Basics first. All the food you eat — meats, leaves, dairy, nuts, legumes, and fruits – comprises three macronutrients, meaning nutrients you need in relatively large amounts: proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. The three macros.
They provide the basic building blocks for our body and the energy required for building, measured in calories. One gram of protein and one gram of carbs each have four calories, and one gram of fat has nine calories.
The frappuccino this guy ordered? That’s 18gm of fats, 72gm of carbs and 6gm of protein. Do the math: it’s 474 Calories. So nutritionally speaking, that isn’t coffee. It’s a liquid dessert.
More than 65% of calories come from carbs (mainly sugar)—less than 5% from protein. No balance. Have three of these a day, and you will exhaust a significant proportion of your daily calorie needs and the chances of ever feeling healthy.
The National Institute of Nutrition recommends a balanced diet that provides ‘around 50-60% of total calories from carbohydrates, preferably from complex carbohydrates, about 10-15% from proteins and 20-30% from both visible and invisible fat.’
Through years of self-experimentation, I found the macro-balance that works better for me (to maintain weight while gaining a little muscle) is 40:30:30. That’s 40%, 30% and 30% of calories coming from carbs, protein and fat, respectively.
Within carbs, I optimise for complex ones: ragi over maida, veggies over everything. Within fats, I rotate several options: mustard oil, sunflower oil, ghee and sometimes, coconut oil. And with protein, I go for variety: paneer, chicken, egg, soy.
3. Sufficient Micros
Food also has nutrients that do not provide calories but are critical for maintaining various body functions. They are needed in tiny quantities, in milligrams. So they are called micronutrients, or micros: vitamins and minerals. There are around forty of these.
The only problem is scientists don’t really know or agree on how much of those you need and what exactly they do. And the risk of taking too much is as significant as the risk of taking too little.
As Bill Bryson writes in his book The Body:
“Iron similarly is vital for healthy red blood cells. Too little iron and you become anaemic, but too much is toxic, and there are some authorities who believe that quite a number of people may be getting too much of it. Curiously, too much or too little iron both provide the same symptom, lethargy.’
I don’t know how to keep track of micros. Impossible. So here’s my hack: eat from varied food groups (fruits, veggies, meats, lentils, dairy), eat colourful foods — eat the rainbow (the colours come from different micros).
(Oh, and get tested for deficiencies at least once a year. I just found out I’m Vitamin D deficient. I’m yet to find a friend who isn’t.)
4. How much to eat: portion control
Labelling certain dishes as healthy or not has no meaning. Think of a soup and salad combo. Can anything be healthier? During my third 25kg weight-loss cycle, I ate this every night.
Know what? The nutritional lens gave me a shock. I was on a 1300-calorie weight-loss diet (that’s for me, don’t read too much into that number), and this combo alone exhausted a thousand calories. So 1,000 of 1,300 in one ‘healthy’ meal — gone.
The soup was the culprit. The bowl had over 500 calories. But I never bothered checking because, hey, ‘soups’ are healthy.
Another example: peanuts. I was told they are the healthiest snack, high on protein and good fat. However, they go down so quickly that I’d devour a whole packet every time I opened one.
And then I found out they are more calorie-dense than chocolate. Peanuts are 630cal per 100gm, and chocolate, 550 cal. But the latter I would eat once a week. One piece. As a treat. Why? Because peanuts are healthy, chocolates are not.
If you’ve ever had an entire packet of chips because they are ‘baked, not fried’, you know what I’m hinting at. We tend to over-eat what we consider ‘healthy’. And a loose, fuzzy definition of the word allows us to lie to ourselves.
The solution, in theory, is simple: portion control. In practice, not so easy.
Not because we are gluttons. But because there is a ~20min lag between our stomach being full and that signal reaching the brain. And we take less than 20 minutes to eat. So we feel we have more space, and we overeat. That’s why it’s 10 minutes after a large meal you realise how large it was!
Here are my four hacks to beat this lag:
A) Prioritise quality, eat real: Try over-eating a salad. You probably can’t because nutritious food satiates you. It doesn’t make you want more and more. But food with empty calories makes you uncontrollably want more. Eat burgers, fries and coke every other day, and you would cross 3500 calories without knowing. Nutrition-deficient meals make the tongue happy and the body deprived of nutrients, which keeps asking for more. My soup and salad combo is better any day than this junk. Yes, I overshot my goal, but not as much.
B) Eat fibrous: Fibre is low on calories, bulks up food, slows down digestion, and helps stool formation. It’s found in fruits and veggies. Eat more of those. Hack: add some veggies to every meal. Please.
C) Eat slowly: That helps reduce the signal lag to the brain. The best hack? Don’t pick the next bite until you’ve chewed and swallowed the first. Try it.
D) Eat till you’re 80% full: Learn to stop eating when you feel you’re almost full, but not quite. Because you are, but you’ll know it in about 10 mins.
5. When to eat
This point isn’t about the timing of your meals. It’s about eating vs not-eating.
Not eating is fasting. And fasting has various benefits. From giving a break to your overworked digestive system to turning on ketosis (and hence fat-loss) to helping repair damaged cells (autophagy) — fasting is fantastic. No wonder all major world religions practise it for ages: Yom Kippur, Ramzan, Karwa Chauth.
Think of your digestive system as a car. A car we keep running all day for life. Never once letting it take a break. And you can’t do maintenance on a running car. Fasting is rest and recovery for your digestive system. Your gut. And as per emerging science, our gut forms the core of all bodily functions. So giving it a break and letting it heal is a great idea.
Water is essential. You don’t need me to tell you this.
How much should you have? Eight glasses, three litres? I can’t track. And ‘feeling thirsty’ isn’t a good signal, especially for us folks who spend their days in air-conditioned environments.
My hack: The first thing I do when I get to the office is fill a bottle and keep it next to me. I refill at lunch. And every time I get a cup of coffee, including the morning one, I also get a cup of water. Simple. I know I am fine if the pee is never yellow. It should always be transparent.
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Once your food (fuel) is sorted, comes what you do with it. We are humans. We eat so we can move.
In fact, we were born to run. We’re the only mammal that can sweat (and hence cooldown) while running. Dogs can’t. Horses can’t. Tigers can’t.
So we out-ran them. Sometimes to kill. Sometimes to not get killed.
In either case, we needed to master a few other forms of movement too. We needed strength to throw a boulder or climb a tree. We needed the flexibility to hide in an awkward position or get out of a tight spot.
This is what our bodies evolved to do. And here’s how I think about each
7. Strength training
Our bodies are the tool through which we manifest our thoughts, from lifting a finger to building a company. Everything is first born as an idea in your head and then translated as a signal to your body to execute. That’s why we want to be physically healthy. So that (even in old age) our bodies can keep up with our minds.
In this analogy of a body as a machine, muscles are the motor. Muscle degeneration hence means system shutdown. You might want to go for a trek, play with your grandkid or go to the toilet without anyone’s help. But as you age, your body doesn’t comply because your muscles have withered.
And the only way to extend muscle life is through strength training.
Muscles are made of thousands of muscle fibres. The bigger the size of these fibres, the more strength you have. The only way to grow muscle is to break it down. And you do that by progressively loading it with slightly more stress than it can take (weight-training).
The body goes into survival mode when the fibre breaks. It realises it needs to be stronger to manage this level of load. So next time the fibres are repaired, they come back stronger. Bigger. Then you pick a slightly higher weight and break them again. And the process repeats.
So don’t fall for the myth: lifting weights is not about building a muscular man’s body. It’s about having a body that complies with your mind for as long as possible.
8. Endurance training
It measures how long your body can keep going under continuous duress; how long you can go before you run out.
Bodily endurance combines three systems: skeletal, muscular, and cardiovascular.
How much can my bones endure under constant pounding? That’s skeletal endurance.
How much can my muscles bear before completely breaking down? How many sets? That’s muscular endurance.
And how long can my heart keep up with it all? How long can it pump enough oxygen into my veins to keep my cells energised? That’s cardiovascular endurance.
If you’re trying your hand at an endurance sport (long-distance running, cycling, swimming), the next time you reach your limit and stop, scan your body and ask yourself: Which of the three systems gave up? Did you run out of breath? Did you stop because your knees hurt unbearably? Or because your legs (quads) just gave in?
Answer this, and you’d know which system is holding you back. Isolate and train that system in the gym. Then hit the track, and you’ll find you have more fuel. You’ll see progress. Until some other system breaks. And you repeat the process.
I added flexibility to my definition only after I started Yoga a few years ago. I used to think of it as ‘old people exercise’. I couldn’t be more wrong.
From years of running and resistance training, my hamstrings had become less like strings and more like logs. Given my rare back disease, I couldn’t even think of attempting risky postures like Sirsasana (headstand) and Chakrasana (bend-over-backwards ‘wheel’ pose). Even the most basic twists and stretches would make me pant heavily and leave me in pain.
Now that I can do headstands, Bakasana (crow pose) and Chakrasana — that is flexibility. What that does to my energy levels, and to me, feeling my body is now ‘open’, is just magic. Hard to capture. This one you need to experience.
Once you’ve eaten and moved enough to spend that energy, you need to rest. It seems like a waste of time (you’re doing nothing), but it is a force multiplier. It improves everything from strength (muscle fibres recombine when you sleep) to digestion (forced fasting so your gut recovers) to stress levels (cortisol, the stress hormone, recedes when you sleep).
When you get adequate rest, cells repair and grow, and only when we see growth do we stick to anything in life. So rest and recovery are critical to eating right and moving holistically and consistently.
Not to mention, lack of sleep can be deadly. A meta-regression of 40 prospective cohort studies found that sleeping less than seven hours per night was associated with an increased risk of all-cause mortality.
So that’s it. Eat right. Move holistically. Recover fully. Do this day in and day out, and you’ll get better at it. And that sense of progress will make you feel healthy. (I don’t hate this word now.)
Editor’s Note: Now, of course, that’s just one way to think about food and fitness. Not the only way. Food is not just about health but also about pleasure, community, and the expression of our identity. And health is not just about physical health: mental health is equally important. Shashank wanted to get into all of it, but I wanted the first story to focus on physical health. We will get on the rest later.
What are your principles? What would you add? Anything you disagree with? Tell us. Please. We will publish a select few responses in a special newsletter edition where readers get the platform to voice thoughts, feedback and criticism. So write to me personally at firstname.lastname@example.org
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