How much food can one eat? Is it okay to eat lots just because it's healthy stuff? Nutritionist Rujuta Diwekar's second book Women and the Weight Loss Tamasha, to be released in January, gives you insights into the worrying question of portion size. An extract from the last chapter “The four strategies for well-being”.

Eating local and eating in season appeals to our common sense, but how much should we eat? Can I eat all I want just because it's local and rich in nutrients; won't I put on weight if I overdo it? Arrey, I know what you want to hear (read) — NO. You won't gain weight. Mitahar means eating with all your senses, eating healthy (local) and eating in peace, which will ensure that you eat the right quantity. The quantity of food you consume should be dictated only by your stomach and not by a dietician (or trainer/doctor/mother/any health professional), the latest fad or much less the fear of getting fat...

The rule of UNO

...Have you played Uno? If you have, you know the rules — when you have just one card left, you're supposed to say ‘Uno', or else you've missed your chance and are forced to pick another card from the pack, and that one card can turn your winning streak into a losing one. Guess you're getting where this is leading. When there is still a bit of space left in your stomach, it says ‘Uno'. If you are alert enough to hear that, you put a full stop to your game of eating. If you didn't hear your stomach say Uno, or you heard and chose to ignore it (or you were just ‘busy'), then you pick up another morsel and lose at the game of eating ‘right', looking thin, staying fit, healthy, happy, calm. Congratulations. And no amount of ‘working out tomorrow' or ‘slogging at the treadmill tomorrow' is going to change that — you are doomed to stay trapped on the bridge that leads you from greed to fear. To escape the bridge, simply listen, listen to your stomach.

Now the stomach will say ‘Uno' at different times during different phases of our growth and menstrual cycle. When it says ‘Uno' is also dependent on your stress-levels (mental and physical), the time of day, season, geographical location, company during meals and a host of other factors. Women should never, ever (saying this at the cost of knowing never say never) ‘standardise' their meal size. We are hormonally vibrant, and it's perfectly NORMAL to feel like eating more on some days and less on other days. The key is to stop at the right time. Oh, btw, even our genes can determine the stomach's capacity.

Overeating disturbs not just our feeling of well-being, sense of calm and pride (yes, people; there is a sense of dignified pride in stopping at ‘Uno', trust me), but also the hormonal balance, specifically that of serotonin (now emerging as a strong link to appetite control) and insulin (obvious, isn't it?), our satiety centre and of course our blood circulation (that's why we feel so numbed, all we want to do is sleep). And believe me, as counter-intuitive as it may sound, it's really difficult to overeat. Yes, you heard (read) right, it's DIFFICULT to overeat and EFFORTLESS to eat right. The only reason that we manage to overeat all the time is because, as ‘modern' women, we are fast losing our ability to rely on our intuition, much less nurture or value it.

Gut feeling

What is listening to your stomach? A gut instinct? Intuition?

...Our ancient scriptures tell all of us to be fearless. You get that — be fearless, listen to your own voice and learn to stop eating at the right point. What do we do instead? Listen to our friends, mother-in-law, well-meaning relatives who goad us into eating more (‘one day you can eat more/ek din khane se kuch nahi hota/a little mithai is not going to make you into a hippo/oh come on, be a sport have another one/don't be so stuck-up, etc.'). I have been working since 1999, and I have NEVER met a person who didn't know that she was overeating...

The next time somebody goads you to eat a little more, ask them if they will share your burden of overeating, of hormones going for a toss, of the brain being drained of blood, of insulin being overworked, of fat cells getting bigger, of feeling fatigued, of your heart rate and breathing rate going up, of organs feeling squeezed under fat cells. If they answer in positive, then maybe, just maybe you can do it... So overeat at your own risk and discretion.

Eating small

Probably the most misunderstood concept by all those who want to eat right. Once you start practising the four principles of eating right, your meal size may naturally drop or become smaller as a consequence of eating every two hours. But that's not the agenda, really. The agenda is to stay tuned to your stomach and fearlessly eat what it requires. So on a day when you feel like one roti, eat one; when you feel like five, eat five; when you feel like half, eat half. Just make sure you are not crossing the overeating threshold or disrespecting the ‘Uno' signal. Eating right is not about having a ‘small portion', but the right portion. And only you can decide what the right portion is for yourself... Aim to feel light and energetic post a meal, not stuffed and dull.

The one thing that hurts me a lot is to see how my clients who have been to all the dieticians and diets and weight loss programmes in the world still struggle with their weight (because of the yo–yo effect) and lose faith in their ability to know the right amount to eat. Some of them have even asked me to return their money for refusing to ‘fix' their portions. ‘I just want to eat exactly what you tell me,' said an exasperated client. ‘I want to give getting thin a chance.' Well, you stand a chance to get and stay thin only if you listen to your stomach and not me. If I fix your quantity because you don't want to use your brains (ya, she said; if she had to use her brains in deciding how much to eat, then why pay a dietician), then it's going to be a disaster for both of us. For her, because with me restricting her portion, she can eat ‘small' for a while, but what after that? She goes back to eating big because she didn't learn to listen to her stomach. Then she may need another diet/dietician/weight loss programme, so it's a never-ending story. For me it's a failure because she would be a client who gained weight post her diet with me. I rate my programme's success based on what clients learn and how well they learn to listen to their stomach, and not on how much weight they lose.

Women and the Weight Loss Tamasha; Rujuta Diwekar, Westland, to be released in Jan 2011.

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