The compassion of the ‘Dangal’ diet
These days all dietitians are compassionate, but does this approach work?
They eat bread but we get along. They were coming home for dinner so I had to sneak into a dealer’s place and score a whole loaf. The things we have to do for friends. I was wearing a hooded jacket but the boys in the pastry shop recognized me. I thought they were trying to suppress a laugh, and all the addicts in the bakery too. They were thinking, “Eventually everybody falls". I wanted to scream, “It’s not for me." Outside, it was broad daylight and there were children about, including little girls, who have a moral compass, and I tried to hide the loaf with my elbow. A passing old woman surely tried not to meet my eyes; she was probably widowed by maida (refined flour). I hoped I will not encounter anyone who knows me, and I remembered the time when I was a boy and my father sent me to buy rum from the local store, and I thought that if any classmate saw me with the liquor, I would hold my breath and die of shame.This is exactly what happens to me every time I am sent to buy bread. I am happy to be seen holding a Chetan Bhagat, but not bread. White bread, brown bread, other bread are, for all practical purposes, blobs of sugar.About five years ago, I quit all kinds of grain in the hope of running the half marathon in under 85 minutes. Some days I yield, but I know that modern mainstream food is a civilizational failure and a diabolic triumph of culture, which is the delivery device of a drug called sugar. You might be happy to learn that the latest diet book to hit India argues that people like me are completely wrong.
It is Dr Dhurandhar’s Fat-Loss Diet by Nikhil Dhurandhar, whom the actor Aamir Khan had consulted for his role in the film Dangal, in which Khan had first gained a lot of kilos and then lost almost all of it to gain muscle.The book is compassionate about the entire spectrum of the human condition, including ignorance. One woman who had come to the doctor to solve her obesity problem thought she was fat because cold winter air was trapped in her. Another woman had come to him after the failure of a therapy that involved being beaten with a cricket bat—to “break down" her fats.
But the most compassionate aspect of the book is in asking you to continue to eat what you love as long as you reduce the portions and shift protein-heavy meals to daytime. The doctor is a man who appears to accept that life is worth living chiefly because of the decadence of food. He even lets you have dessert. He himself consumes them. In fact, he is most compassionate about sugar, and highly refined grain like maida and white rice, which release sugar quickly into the bloodstream. Every diet, like all good stories, needs a villain, and his is old-fashioned—fat. This makes the book highly unusual.
Processed carbohydrates are the most disgraced forms of food in modern scientific dieting. Fat—like oil, butter and ghee—has been rehabilitated and recognized as a victim of the campaigns of the sugar lobby. I have full faith in this hypothesis. In my own experience, and the experience of those who are close to me, I have seen the extraordinary and transformative benefits of quitting grain, especially refined grain.
In most cultures, especially Indian, the very act of asking a person to quit grain is devoid of compassion. Carbohydrates from wheat and rice work exactly like a drug and the immediate consequence of quitting, for most people, is sorrow. Also, they are then confused about what exactly they must eat as the very anchor of all meals is food made from grain.
In Why We Get Fat, which was released in 2010, Gary Taubes makes an argument that is compassionate but he limits his compassion to the fact that excess weight is not a character flaw. The genes and hormonal regulation in most people, and not food, make them grow fatter as they age. We do not become fat because we overeat, he writes, we overeat because we are fat. “Anything that increases its mass, for whatever reason, will take in more energy than it expends."
That overeating is the effect of becoming fat, and not the cause, has to be the most compassionate argument in dieting. For those who are unlucky enough to store fat easily—most of the world actually—there is one piece of information that can transform their bodies and health. Why and how do people get fat? The main character in the drama is a hormone called insulin, which has a Pavlovian connection with carbohydrates. “You think about eating a meal containing carbohydrates," writes Taubes, and you begin to secrete insulin, which alters the flows of fatty acids in the cells, in turn making you hungrier. When you begin to eat, you secrete more insulin. The refined carbs you consume meanwhile quickly enter the bloodstream as glucose, a sugar, which makes the body release even more insulin, which works to ensure that we do not burn our fat as energy and instead store it in our fat cells in the form of a large cluster of three molecules called triglyceride. The triglyceride, once formed, is too large to leave the fat cell, he says, like a piece of furniture that has been assembled in a room and cannot be taken out in one piece.
“If we can get our insulin levels to drop sufficiently low...we can burn our fat. If we can’t, we won’t." And refined carbs are the major contributors to the secretion of insulin, which is the only hormone in the body that works to make us fatter. This is all we need to know to be lean.
The central compassion of Dr Dhurandhar is in the advocacy of moderation. He does not ask you to abstain from grain and sugar, but reduce the quantity. Compassion is an effective way to persuade people to make realistic changes. Most people do not wish for perfection at the expense of habit and fun; something reasonable will do. That is why moderation is more popular than abstinence. But this is precisely the reason why most people will fail to lose fat or get healthier. Moderation is compassionate but intrinsically ineffective compared to abstinence. His most famous client, Aamir Khan, did not achieve his goal through moderation.
Abstinence gives you a clear direction. There is no confusion. It is all or nothing. Moderation is ambiguous. At times it is as fantastical as Barack Obama’s imagination of the “moderate Taliban". The totality and wisdom of abstinence is the only way to quit powerful addictions and stay that way, as present and former smokers know. Also, human nature is such that abstinence occasionally becomes moderation anyway, but moderation always balloons into excess. If we consider the seven deadly sins, human society has been able to abstain from these vices with the help of religious and ethical pressure. These have slowly escalated to the level of moderation. If our religions had allowed these vices in moderation, whole civilizations would have collapsed in complete decadence.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous.
He tweets at @manujosephsan