She’s sitting in a café but won’t touch coffee. “I don’t do dairy and sugar,” she explains. She sips on water and says that between two interviews she’s snacked on figs and nuts. “Yesterday, I brought my lunch and ate it sitting on the roadside,” she says somewhere along our conversation. And by the time we wind up, she’s looked at the time saying, “It’s time for my lunch. I always eat on time.” It’s easy to dismiss Shonali Sabherwal as some sort of diet freak.
But talk to her a little more, dig a little deeper, read her book, and you figure she must be doing something right. I mean, she’s fastidious about her “good habits” — won’t eat sugar, won’t touch caffeine, avoids eating out, eats on time.
Shonali’s first book The Beauty Diet hit the stands this January. With a glowing Hema Malini and Esha Deol on its cover, it comes across as a diet book of Bollywood’s who’s who. “Mine Is not an ‘ actress ka diet ’,” she says vehemently. “It’s pegged as ‘the beauty diet’ for the reader. Health and beauty sells. Bollywood is the trendsetter in our country. That’s why Hemaji is on my cover. But the book is also about beauty, but after being cleaned up from the inside and getting healthy. The message of my book has transcended the title. I’m spreading the message of macrobiotics. I’m not a beauty consultant.”
Shonali claims to be India’s only practicing counsellor/chef and instructor in macrobiotics — an approach that takes “a big view of life”, writes Shonali in her book. It taps into the healing power of whole foods, specially grains, unprocessed and unrefined, avoids animal products. Her approach is not about starvation or denying yourself carbs or other specifics; it’s to eat your way to health. “Weight loss is a by-product of my diet.”
“Macrobiotics goes deep — it analyses your organs, looks at your meridian lines. You get very specific. You change not just the food, but cooking styles too. You look at the yin and yang of a person. Macrobiotics is an old philosophy and you’re bringing about a lifestyle change.” Like most people who suddenly wake up to the sorry state of their health with sudden illness, it was sadly when Shonali’s father was diagnosed with cancer that she started looking for an alternate way of living for him.
Shonali is a graduate of the Kushi Institute, USA where she studied macrobiotics (its Japanese connections comes from Michio Kushi and it’s combined with certain principles of Indian Ayurveda too). “What you don’t practise you can’t preach. I walk the talk,” says Shonali of what she brought back from four rigorous years of study, after she did some initial research under Mona Schwartz in Dehra Dun.
Back in Mumbai, she started a meal service, banking on dabbawallas to deliver her lunch to corporates, lawyers, homemakers. “Get the food out there was my mantra. How else do I let people know about this?” Bollywood folk soon jumped on to the bandwagon. Katrina Kaif, Neha Dhupia, Shekhar Kapur, Vikram Bhatt, and Kabir Bedi are just some of her clients. “Once Katrina spoke openly about my approach, everyone sat up and took notice here in India.” Currently she delivers 40 dabbas (four-dish meals) a day in Mumbai. A whole month’s lunch, with delivery charges, comes at Rs. 7,000. Very soon she’ll be launching her ready-to-eat macrobiotic range of foods that are free from dairy, gluten, yeast, sugar, and white processed flour, and are non-GMOs.
Some of the ingredients Shonali recommends in her books like spirulina, the Japanese miso, and kombu are expensive and hard to come by, not to mention they may not exactly please our Indian tastes. “You don’t have to have these. I’ve given them as options. I look at the income levels of my clients and adapt the plan for each person. I always have a range. There’s organic food; there’s also food you can get from your baniya’s shop. It’s not a diet only for the rich and famous. But, for people with certain health problems, some of these elements help.” Traditional Indian foods like brown rice, dals, fresh vegetables, and good quality fermented foods (including brown rice idlis and quick brine pickles) are all you need, she insists. “We Indians always ate balanced foods. The problem is now we’ve moved away from it all.”
She does admit that “everybody wants quick results”. “Clients always mention real problems last. When they first come, they are complaining about bad skin or bad hair. They don’t realise that their constipation may be the cause.” Shonali makes it very clear that it takes four months for results to show. “I tell them straightaway that if you can’t give up dairy and sugar don’t bother coming to me — and it’s very difficult to tell Indians that. You have to have will power and determination or this won’t work. I always ask them ‘How committed are you to yourself?’ Or you’ll mess yourself up.”
The Beauty Diet is published by Random House India (Rs. 250)