A year back, on 28-Jan-2019, I got the rudest shock of my life. I say rudest because I thought I had a healthy lifestyle. I had been a vegetarian all my life. Since 2003, I almost never consumed fried foods of any nature. I stayed away from carbohydrates (except in my pasta and bread), I ate only wholesome foods and I exercised at least three times a week.
In fact, I barely ate (if ever) any processed food of any kind, certainly not in the last 15 years. Nothing out of a can, box, or a packet, in other words.
I took my protein (whey protein at the time) and I used to regularly take my multivits (Ultra Mega Green Men’s by GNC). It had been more than fifteen years since I had any fizzy, soft or sugary drink. Nothing bottled except still or sparkling water. I couldn’t even recall the last time I had junk food. I ate at set times of the day and never more than 75% of my appetite.
You can read about my diet here. In fact, two years ago, I even got rid of my study desk as I realized I was sitting for hours at a stretch. I shifted to a treadmill desk which forced me to walk, sometimes up to 7-8 hrs. in a day (All my books and posts I write while walking, including this one). And yet, when I’d got my annual medical checkup done, nothing was right:
- My cholesterol was 220.
- Weight: 79 kg. I was overweight. I weighed 81+ kg in Nov 2018. The most I’d ever been.
- I was low on Vitamin B12 and D. Like very low.
- Worst of all, my liver reports were terrible with SGPT and SGOT (also known as ALT and AST) at eight times the average value in a healthy adult. It was an indication that it could be NAFLD (Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease).
- GGTP: 163.
The condition was so bad that, among other tests, I was told to get a Liver Fibroscan to ascertain the extent of damage to my liver.
The result of the scan? Worse than anyone expected.
On a scale of S1 – S3, S3 being the worst steatosis, I was bordering on S3. Simply put, steatosis is a measurement of fat in your liver. And on a scale of F0 – F4, F4 being liver cirrhosis, I was nearly F3 (severe liver scarring).
Vegetarian. Teetotaler. Moderately active. Health-conscious. Disciplined. And yet, a fatty and scarred liver, high cholesterol, overweight. Even the radiologist felt bad for me.
The irony of it all makes me laugh even today. Here was the author of “The Wellness Sense” who was not well at all. How amusing, I thought. It was time to follow my own writing to the T. With some changes. And the interesting thing is that I’d not been feeling low on energy or any other symptoms. If anything, I’d been hopping around like a rabbit on steroids (spare the visual).
I wanted to take time off and just focus on regaining my health but with back-to-back events already announced, it wasn’t possible.
Plus, the ashram needed me as did Black Lotus, in addition to my publisher commitments and blog writing. Not to mention the daily flow of queries, some of which are always urgent, and private meetings to many people who visit me from all parts of the world and meeting the ashram residents who were waiting for me to get back in Feb. Development work on os.me was also going on.
Every little thing adds up and I simply just hadn’t a spare moment, let alone the luxury of taking time off.
And the thing with health is that no one else can take control of it for you. If you want good health, you alone have to make it happen.
This was the time when Sadhvi Shraddha Om, one of my longtime and devoted resident disciples, who prepares my breakfast and one other meal along with Swami Vidyananda, requested me to speak to Dr. Smita Deshmukh, a top cardiologist and a kind devotee. I am ever grateful to Dr. Deshmukh for her timely intervention and insistence.
She prescribed a series of tests (including Fibroscan after consulting her husband who is a renowned liver surgeon). Initially, I was not open to the idea of taking any medication. At the same time, however, I knew that my body needed some immediate damage control. I agreed to take a pill for cholesterol for 45 days and one a day for my liver for 90 days. I also got B12 injections at regular intervals. Plus, and, more importantly, I made radical changes to my lifestyle. As follows:
- I began doing cardio 4 days a week and 2 days of weight training. (Earlier I used to do light cardio and weight training). I started running for 45 min on the treadmill, often one hour. I would run for 9 km in 60 min, clocking up 14-16kms/hr in spurts. My methodology was along the lines of High Intensity Interval Training or HIIT as it’s called. Some days, I alternated between a treadmill and elliptical.
- The most important decision I took was to eliminate dairy from my meals. Almost completely. I still take a little bit of butter (less than half a teaspoon) in my breakfast and a bit of milk in my coffee, but other than that there’s no dairy in my diet. Actually, at times I may eat a whole-wheat pizza so it has cheese on it. That’s certainly about it.
- I also stopped eating chapatis made from just wholewheat and replaced the dough with 80% buckwheat and 20% wholewheat.
- 70% of my diet consisted of salads, sometimes sautéed or steam veggies, but mostly salad.
- In the morning, earlier, when I’d have my tomato soup blended with paneer (for protein), I replaced paneer with a handful of soaked walnuts and almonds. I also added one half of an apple to my morning diet.
- I used to stay away from desserts anyway (as much I as liked them, I always knew that they had no nutritional value; if anything, they are not good for your health), I made my resolution even stricter. Since, I was working most of the time, my body needed some energy, so sometimes, I’d have a small piece of dark chocolate (some more harmless dairy). Other times, 3-4 walnuts/almonds with sultanas.
- I stopped having whey protein completely and replaced it with plant-protein. The one I used is called Orgain (unsweetened).
- The downside was that I did feel a bit hungry most of the time but not in a bad way. Not like having pangs of hunger.
- I started following The Wellness Sense with a more intense focus on a nearly vegan diet that was also very low on gluten.
- I religiously followed my diet and exercise regime for three months and got the following results when I underwent the tests again.
- Cholesterol: 138. Finally, lower than my IQ.
- ALT & AST: Averaging 17.
- GGTP: 24 (from the original 163).
- Fibroscan: Not a trace of fat with a value of F0.
The radiologist looking at my scan said to me that in his career spanning thousands of liver scans, he never saw a case recover as fast. From F3, where I was heading towards the worst possible condition of my liver, to F0, which meant that the liver couldn’t be healthier, only 90 days passed in between. Dr. Deshmukh advised me that my optimal weight was around the 71-kg mark. It took me four months to achieve that target and I’ve maintained that weight ever since without much effort at all (just regulation and natural self-control).
Here’s my weight chart (generated from the workout app I used to use), for your reference:
Notice the consistent drop in weight after around 10-Feb. And that’s the thing with weight loss. When you start on a sustainable diet, results take a good few weeks before they reflect on the weighing scale. We don’t gain our bodyweight overnight and as such, we don’t lose it overnight.
I continued to exercise and went in maintenance mode sometime in April. Maintenance mode means I stopped exercising like crazy but to date I have continued to stick with my plant-based diet with very little gluten. Having said that, I fundamentally believe that we don’t need to be a fanatic when following anything in life. Hence, I’m a bit more liberal when I travel or just at my leisure. At any rate, I try and avoid refined carbs, breads and pastas. In the afternoon, I may eat a small bowl of rice with some veggies.
Of course, no one wants to share their medical history or dietary preferences with the whole world. But, I have done it here because I do care about every single person who takes the time to listen to what I’ve to say. And, through this post, I wish to convey an important message in three parts:
- What, when, and how much you eat are at the root of all lifestyle diseases including hypertension, obesity, cardiac issues, and as you see from this post, liver problems, too.
- If you are not exercising an average of three times every week, be prepared to make regular trips to the hospital as you grow older.
- Almost always, most of us are eating more than we think we do. Maintain a meticulous journal to see how much you eat in a day. Sugar is not good for anybody. So avoid as much as you can. Most natural foods have plenty of sugar. All carbohydrates are sugar.
No mantra, incantation, sadhu or guru can save you if you choose to neglect your health. Good health is an extraordinary privilege and its maintenance is entirely in your hands. All kinds of illnesses live longer in an unhealthy body. You can meditate as much as you like but if you are not exercising, you can’t expect to stay well. Meditation is not enough.
If must you lose control of your heart, let it be because you are in love and not because you are in McDonalds or KFC.
Some readers have asked relevant questions, here are my answers:
1. Were there any signs in my body/energy levels? No, my body showed no symptoms of fatigue or low levels energy prior to my tests showing such alarming values. (I’ve also updated as much above in the para starting with The irony of it all…) It was my regular check up.
2. When my earlier diet was so wonderful how come it still caused the damage? Very simple: I used to eat paneer daily as my protein source. In my soup, a stuffed parantha, and sometime during the day in one of the meals. Plus, pasta and bread (even wholewheat). Removing dairy from the equation and a heavy cut on carbs has left me feeling healthier and more energetic.