“Most of us get on fitness plans which are unsustainable and very ambitious,” says Rujuta Diwekar. She speaks from her experience as a nutritionist of over 20 years in Mumbai.
Two years ago, Diwekar launched The 12-week Fitness Project on Facebook with the hashtag #RDFitnessProject2018. Within a few days, 125,000 had signed up from 40 countries, including Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the US. “There were participants from the Middle East and Iran as well, because culturally we eat similarly,” she says. The idea was to chart out a sustainable and easy-to-follow health plan to guarantee lifelong commitment to physical and mental health.
Every week, Diwekar would introduce a simple guideline, pertaining to diet, exercise or lifestyle, as a Facebook video. For instance, if one video was about adding ghee in all three meals, the next would be about limiting screen time, followed by practising Suryanamaskar every day. At the end of 12 weeks, all the participants reported a decrease in acidity and bloating by 68%, energy levels increased by 44% and women reported a 53% improvement in pre-menstrual symptoms and menstrual cramps. The results were calculated on the basis of participant inputs. There’s more: About 83% people reported losing inches at the waist. Subsequently, Diwekar’s team tracked 5,000 participants till the year end, and 70% reported an overall improvement in health parameters, such as better sleep and higher energy through the day.
It’s interesting to note that weight loss is conspicuously missing from the list. The findings of the project were published as a research paper by The International Institute of Knowledge Management (Tiikm), a Sri Lanka-based organization that focuses on Asia’s research culture. The paper is titled Culturally Relevant Food And Lifestyle Interventions Lead To Sustainable Public Health.
Motivated by the overwhelming success of what she calls “a mass health movement”, Diwekar will release her book, titled The 12-week Fitness Project on 5 January.
The book goes beyond diet and nutrition to embrace lifestyle aspects and fitness. Apart from highlighting screen-time reduction, for instance, it touches upon being active, especially if you have a desk job, and the chapters on exercise explore strength training and the practice of Suryanamaskar daily. While these seem deceptively basic, they rest on nutrition wisdom. “The narrative around health is heavily misinformed and entirely tilted in favour of the weighing scales,” argues Diwekar, explaining why her markers of 12-week fitness go beyond weight loss. Instead, they are qualitative metabolic parameters such as energy levels during the day, sleep quality at night, acidity/bloating, sweet cravings, compliance to exercise, and for women, pain before and during the menstrual cycle.
Diwekar’s recommended diet is rooted in her philosophy of eating local, traditional and seasonal, and includes something as simple as starting the day with a locally available banana or fruit to nullify sugar cravings through the day. What if you have dessert first thing in the morning on your birthday? Diwekar would say relish it, and don’t feel guilty. In the book, she shares a story about actor Alia Bhatt going all out with food and drinks on a holiday. When Bhatt was back, Diwekar’s advice to her was, “Food nahi, guilt is fattening.”
Science supports the view that your relationship with food is more important than what you eat. What’s more, emotions have a role to play in digestion. Marc David, founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, Canada, and author of the book Nourishing Wisdom, writes on his website that if you feel a negative emotion such as guilt after eating, the hypothalamus sends inhibitory signals to the nervous system, decreasing its efficiency in breaking down calories via increase in insulin and cortisol. In other words, guilt turns into fat.
Diwekar’s opinion on diet fads such as Keto and intermittent fasting are well known. She writes that these have a reductionist view of food groups, be it reducing fat or carbohydrates. Her belief is food should be viewed as nourishment. Do these diet fads make her angry? “No. I am quite aware that if there were no diet fads, I would not have a job. I have made my career saying eat local, traditional and seasonal. Something which seems so simple that people don’t quite opt for it; unless they have tried, tested and suffered the consequences of every diet trend out there,” she says.
Diwekar says the real test lies in considering whether you can stick to a diet for at least 50 years and if it’s true to your life. “Will you be happy if your grandmother ate like that? Will you be happy if your grandchildren adopt it? That’s how we need to look at diets.”