In 2020, like many people comfort eating their way through the pandemic, I was larger than I had ever been before.
This was still not alarmingly large, by middle-aged mum of two standards. I was 5’7 and about 75 kg, which some might consider normal-ish in my late 40s. My Body Mass Index put me in the slightly overweight category. But the problem was that I was Indian, which can mean a terrible gene pool. My entire family was full of slim, tall diabetics, some with heart disease.
A visit to the doctor found that I was not surprisingly pre-diabetic. It was alarming to realise that I had put on nearly 25 kg in the last 25 years, since I was teased at university for being too skinny. I was also beginnwng to develop back ache, wobbly knees, and was tired by 4 pm everyday.
Things needed to change. But how?
For one, I found the entire language of weight loss and dieting phenomenally dull. I hate gyms, but I also hate group exercise. I hate measuring food, and counting calories. I hate being patronised by 25-year-old gym instructors who assume I have all day to spend at the gym. I hate dull conversations about cardio and calorie burn. I hate keto bores.
Most of all I hate being given unsustainable advice that I can’t follow.
So, I didn’t do any of that.
Three years later, I am 10 kg lighter. I do not have abs of steel, and nobody would mistake me for a fitness influencer. My weight loss has been extremely slow, and my before-after pictures are not dramatic clickbait. But I also have no back pain, am no longer pre-diabetic and am not on a crash diet. Most importantly, it’s a fitness strategy I can sustain for the rest of my life.
What I did was quite simple: move more, eat less, eat better, cook at home.
This lifestyle overhaul became easier when I moved from India to London in September 2020. London is, of course, one of the world’s best walking cities. I no longer needed a car. I walked everywhere, up to 10 km a day, listening to podcasts, since there was nothing else to do in the pandemic. It didn’t feel like exercise, because I was going somewhere, seeing the city on the way, looking at interesting things.
Walking isn’t the best exercise for weight loss, as personal trainers keep telling me. It burns very few calories. What I should be doing is hard, sustained cardio. But for me, it is the most sustainable, because I build it into my day. Instead of taking the Tube or a bus, I walk. I walk to the supermarket. I walk to the library. I walk to meet friends. I walk everywhere. Occasionally I swim, but walking is my main exercise and the one I do daily. Better an exercise that burns few calories than one I don’t do at all.
As for eating better, London is also one of the world’s most expensive cities, and eating out or getting a takeaway is very poor value for money. I had no option but to cook at home, which meant much less oil, fat and no hidden sugar.
You can’t outrun or even outwalk a poor diet. I changed my diet, but not drastically. Personally, I didn’t need a nutritionist or a complicated diet plan. Common sense has worked well enough for me. As a mostly vegetarian on an Indian diet, I was eating too many carbs and not enough protein. Less bread, rice and pasta. More vegetables, lentils, eggs, paneer, tofu, nuts and Greek yoghurt. No processed food, no ready meals, no fizzy drinks, nothing that comes out of a packet or a jar. Small changes are more sustainable. Instead of eliminating rice completely – not sustainable at all – I eat it only once a day. I didn’t have a sweet tooth, so cutting out sugar was easy, but I allow myself dark chocolate once a week. Snacks tend to be nuts or fruit, not biscuits or chips.
It’s a sad fact that women in their 50s do not need as much food as they once did, because metabolism slows to a crawl. This doesn’t mean starvation or crash dieting. It just means keeping an eye on your portions. Eat out of a small bowl rather than a large plate. I eat out on the weekends, but if I eat a big lunch, then I skip dinner. If I lose control and binge eat one day, I get back on the wagon the next.
I expect all this sounds deeply sanctimonious or joyless, and I am by no means qualified to give diet advice to anyone. I just do what works for me. It definitely involves a shift in mindset. Most Indians live to eat, and social life revolves around eating. I find that impossible to do in midlife, so I have had to choose. While I don’t quite eat only to live, food and drink is no longer the cornerstone of my social and family life.
Keeping motivated is hard, especially in the winter when it’s dark by 4 pm, and my body craves carbs and sugar. Weight loss at this age is very, very slow. Last year, I almost gave up, as none of it seemed to make any difference. But I kept going. And eventually, the pounds very slowly dropped off. It’s a long game, and realistic targets are important. Perfection is the enemy of the good.
A healthy amount of personal vanity has been a great incentive – fitting in my old jeans is motivating – but my main goal is health. I also have a role model in my mother, who is slim and active in her late 70s. Next year, we are planning a walking tour in Uzbekistan together. Life is so much easier when you are not out of breath climbing stairs, dealing with back pain or falling asleep on the couch every afternoon.