Have you tried keto because everyone says so? What is it about diet culture that has taken over the internet? We decode the maintenance of calories, the science behind dieting, and dos and don’ts of popular diets through India’s leading nutritionists and health experts.

Dieting and weight loss can be complex processes. They vary with each individual,” celebrity trainer and nutrition expert, Prasad Shirke, tells me during a recent conversation. His clientele includes Bollywood’s who’s who; most notably, Shirke was the man behind actor Hrithik Roshan’s recovery and transformation from a slipped disc to six-pack abs for the movie War, in the pre-pandemic world.

One of the biggest challenges for Roshan during this period was shedding the extra pounds that he had gained for his preceding role in Super 30. He was able to pull off a physiological miracle in a matter of a few months. But Shirke reiterates that there is no one-key-fits-all approach. “Say, if a person is obese, then the calorie reduction has to be gradual. Crash diets can damage organs like the pancreas and the thyroid, sometimes irreversibly,” he says. For a lot of us with weight loss aspirations and Instagram-induced body-image issues, the initiation into nutrition science begins with terms like calorie-deficit or calorie-maintenance. A conversation with Mumbai-based physician, Dr. Karishma Harbada, helped gain further understanding of the subject.

“Calorie is a unit of energy, which the body needs in a certain amount. For example your phone needs to be charged 100 per cent to operate for the entire day. Similarly, our bodies need a minimum number of calories, called the base amount; anything above it is surplus. However, while the phone won’t accept anything above its 100 per cent limit, our bodies keep taking in even above their equivalent of 100 per cent,” she says.

“Some people have misconceptions, like consuming whey protein four times and having no carbs and fat throughout the day, will help them lose weight. But anything extra, even protein, will get stored in the adipose tissue or fat cells of the body,” says Dr. Harbada.

Lesson one: don’t always listen to wannabe gymbros (who encourage the unregulated use of dangerous supplements) and maybe speak to actual experts once in a while. Lesson two: the body needs all forms of nutrients to function properly. Ideally, 25 per cent of your plate should be protein, 25 per cent complex carbohydrates (whole grains, all lentils, pulses, beans), and the rest 50 per cent should come from greens, non-starchy vegetables, or different coloured vegetables, and maybe one to two servings of fruit in the day.

“There are many food tracking apps and things like that to help you make note of what you’re eating. Based on that, you can track if you’re overeating. In fact, there are some others who struggle to gain muscle, and are constantly feeling fatigued, etc., because they aren’t even eating enough. So they can make sure they’re eating close to their Basal Metabolism Rate (BMR),” says sport and exercise nutrition scientist, Mishti Khatri.

Commonly termed as the resting metabolism rate, the BMR represents the number of calories you burn as your body performs basic (basal) life-sustaining function — technically, it’s the number of calories burned if you stayed in bed all day. Your unique metabolism rate, or BMR, is influenced by a number of factors including age, weight, height, gender, environmental temperature, dieting, and exercise habits.

“It doesn’t take into account the exercise you’re doing in the day,” says Khatri. “Say, my resting metabolic rate is 1,200 calories, and I burn about 300-400 calories in my workout, and then daily life activities like walking my dog etc. are burning another 500 calories; so, to maintain what I’m currently at, my intake should be about 1600-1800 calories in a day.”

On paper, she needs to consume about 1800-1900 calories in order to gain muscle, or go into a calorie deficit (eat 1600-1700 cals) for losing weight. “Obviously, the deficit that you create depends on how quickly you want to see your results etc. But again, I don’t recommend going below a 10-15 per cent deficit because it cannot sustain your daily expenditure otherwise. Your RMR is the baseline,” she underlines a critical talking point.

Weight loss is also considered to be a spectrum; it can be a matter of two or three kilos for someone, which is really an aesthetic goal, but for someone else who is obese, it represents a risk factor for lifestyle diseases like diabetes and other chronic issues. “So, weight loss, as a journey,” according to Manasa Rajan, the Holistic Health Coach at Cult.Fit’s R&D department, “can be pretty diverse for different people. But weight loss should not come at the cost of health.”

She says that after shedding 10 kgs, there are people who come out with dark circles under their eyes, skin sagging, looking less healthy and more sick. “If I go on a diet, which s a short term fix but probably increases my cholesterol or puts too much of a load on my kidneys, then that’s a problem,” she says. So how can one lose weight without suffering these other side effects?

“It’s about the quality of the food and quality of the ingredients, because a calorie in instant noodles is not the same as one in a salad. The latter contains more fibre, and what fibre does is that it creates satiety,” she says, and adds, “So if I’m making a lifestyle shift, and I just focus on my calories, it will never be enough because we can’t live in that hyper aware discipline state where we are counting calories and eating it right all the time.”

Eventually, she also cautions that there can be scenarios where you’re creating a calorie deficit but still not losing weight because of other factors like hormonal parity off balance. “That’s why people who go on diets very often gain back more weight, and continuously have to struggle with it. So it should rather be about creating weight loss in a way that you can have it forever.” And that, fellow weight-loss enthusiasts, is where the buck stops at.