In this modern day and age of ‘one too many’ many diet and wellness theories out there, how do you find the one? Well, for starters a tête-à-tête with the Founder of SelfCare and award-winning nutritionist Suman Agarwal will certainly help. A force to reckon with ever since she made her foray into the fitness and nutrition space almost two decades ago, Agarwal has come a long way. Her no-nonsense approach to diet and wellness was certainly a revelation for me; also the fact that she introduced me to a traditional Japanese principle—Hara Hachi Bu (but more on that later). Cutting through the clutter, she sheds light on a road map to boosting immunity, the cheat sheet to modern living and why the 4X diet is the key to well-being on a holistic level.
How did you embark on this diet and fitness journey? How has the experience been so far?
My goal has always been to avoid any health issues or genetic illness that I could be prone to. I remember that even when I was young, I used to read books on diseases and find out the symptoms and how they could be avoided. Back at home my father was a lot into fitness and hence this has been instilled in us from a very young age. Without being a nutritionist, people used to ask me about my fitness ritual, so I used to advise them. Then I realised it's high time I pursue a course. So when I was around 32 years, I studied nutrition for a year after my three kids were born. Once I started understanding nutrition, I stopped following the fads. I started realising my problem areas and I corrected everything. When I benefited from this, I started offering this help to everyone with proper consultation. I embarked on this journey in a very small way, and now we have come really far.
Whenever a client comes to us, the first data we take from them is their genetic history. Then I explain to them, their future problem areas and try to find out any early signs or symptoms of any disease they might be running in the family with the help of special blood reports. Next, we try to reverse it for them. Through this process, we have been able to revert diabetes for thousands of people and treat it preemptively.
What is your dietary and fitness mantra?
We believe in 4X diet, implying you need to have four meals in a day: Breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner. These meals also should be four hours apart as our body needs nourishment every four hours and this also increases the efficiency of our digestive system. Moreover, we have a continuous flow of energy, our immunity doesn’t fall, and we don’t binge eat because we have the right gaps between our meals. You can always have tea, coffee, coconut water, buttermilk, nuts, fruits, soups, salads etc between the meals. The three major meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) should have all the components of macro-nutrients i.e. proteins, fats, carbs and fibre.
We also strongly believe in the theory of Hara Hachi Bu—the Japanese statement implying you need to eat 80% of your fullness and leave little space for gastric juices and acids to work on your food. Once you follow this, you will get a feeling of fullness after 20 mins of your meal. When you eat to your full, while the juices are still being secreted your stomach goes over capacity—leading it to expand. This makes our appetite grow steadily. However, by following the principle of Hara Hachi Bu, oxidation is reduced, you don’t feel lethargic and you also stop binge eating. We concentrate on nutritious or even calorie dense food which is healthier than filling it up with soups and salads that are devoid of fats and proteins—that are the basic building blocks of the body.
We also believe in consuming 60% of calories by lunch time. This way you are more energetic throughout the day and till dinner when your body is shutting down; you are also eating less, and you sleep better. We also believe in the right form of exercise, but we make a custom plan according to different people and their needs. It can’t be the same for everyone. Last but not the least, its best to avoid deserts, aerated drinks, papad etc.
What’s your take on fad diets such as juice cleanses and Intermittent fasting?
Intermittent fasting can work for a lot of people but can be problematic for many. We choose our clients who should be doing this, but only ask them to do 14 hours of fasting; we don’t really recommend 16 hours unless someone is not losing weight or have a very sedentary lifestyle. However for people who suffer from acidity, migraine and tend to have low immunity, then IF can actually prove to be detrimental to their condition.
We also don’t believe in detoxing with fruits and juices as it can actually flush out all the good bacteria in your gut (which helps in the absorption of vital nutrients and digestion). So, while you might get rid of the bad bacteria, the good bacteria will also go; and it takes a long time to get the flora and fauna back. This can actually prove to be more troublesome for your gut and may result in Calcium, Iron, hair and muscle loss along with fat loss.
5 must-have farm-fresh ingredients that we need to include in our diet STAT?
First and foremost are first class proteins which you can obtain from eggs, yogurt, milk, chicken, or fish; and if you are vegetarian, then pulses. Secondly, fats in fish and vegetable oil are vital (Re: absence of fats can trouble your immunity and cause hormonal imbalances). Thirdly, you can have one fistful of nuts such as almonds, cashews, pistachios etc. Fourth are spices, especially turmeric. Lastly green, leafy vegetables that are rich in fibre for the gut and help in diversifying your microbiome.
COVID has changed everyone’s perspective on health and nutrition. Which are the best immunity-boosting foods according to you?
While the term ‘immunity boosting food’ has become huge, it’s not just food but a combination of your lifestyle habits that contribute towards your immunity. For instance, if you are eating a balanced diet but not sleeping well, your immunity will drop. Hence sleep is of utmost importance. That’s also why when someone gets Covid, the first thing they are given is Melatonin along with other medicines. The next most important thing are proteins, as antibodies are made of proteins. Thirdly, don’t forget Vitamin D, Vitamin C, Zinc and Iron (to maintain haemoglobin level). Zinc supports the metabolism of glutathione which is a super immunity booster. However, a multivitamin that has 10-20 mg of Zinc is enough; people started taking extra zinc and getting zinc toxicity. Curcumin is also good, but we normally get that from our diet. Last but not the least, its essential to keep the fitness levels high.
One health/diet myth you want to bust today?
A lot of nutritionists talk about consuming fruits on an empty stomach. That’s a very bad thing to do. You might not know this but 99.99% of people who have fruits on an empty stomach in the morning are more prone to acidity and gas (post 3 months) and might even get diabetes (if they are prone to it). This can be very detrimental to your health in the long run. Our traditional diet values have never recommended fruits first thing in the morning. Fruit is always with or after a meal. Also, remember to have it only till 4 PM.
Can you share with us 3 tips (for beginners) that could help them change the way they look at nutrition?
So as I mentioned earlier, the 4X diet is the best way to start; eat every 4 hours, have four meals in a day and make sure they are balanced with proteins, fats, carbs and fibre. Also don’t forget to follow Hara Hachi Bu.
What are some of the cheat sheets for modern living?
So, all the millennials drink socially, and I never tell my clients not to drink. Instead I advise them to drink on Friday/Saturday but compensate it by omitting carbs from that day’s diet. In addition to this, I also ask them to intersperse a drink with a glass of water. Desert lovers can indulge in their favourite sweets once or twice a week; but don’t have it post dinner. Instead, consume it with your evening tea, since you have the option of burning off the calories by dinner time.
What’s next for you?
We have a few interesting things in the pipeline. Our app* should be out soon, where people would be able to input their food details and get the calorie count. I am also looking forward to my fourth book release which is going to happen in the middle of this year. It will talk about the major lifestyle ailments along with recipes. We have also commenced a series called ‘Find my Strong’, where we are going to interview people who had a personal setback and learn from their inspirational stories. We have also opened a small shop called Suman’s kitchen where I would be creating some healthy and low calorie desserts.
*Priyanka Agarwal, her eldest daughter, joined SelfCare in 2012 and is currently the CEO. She handles PR, marketing and social media at SelfCare. Her second daughter Dr Juhi Agarwal, who joined her mother quite recently, envisions Selfcare’s expansion into a holistic health centre, which provides medical advice, guidance on nutrition and fitness, offers a dance studio as well as on-the-go healthy dishes based on her mother’s delicious recipes. Komal Agarwal is her youngest daughter and technical head of SelfCare. She is currently working on the SelfCare App, scheduled to be launched this year. In addition to overseeing the SelfCare website, she assists Priyanka with PR and marketing as well.