CHENNAI: What does it say about our collective lifestyle and work culture when it takes a pandemic and near-absolute restriction on movement for most of us to find the time to take a break? It says plenty but nearly none of it good. As much as we feel like we are part of a disaster movie, with the virus descending upon the world’s population and the governments scrambling to keep a tab on its spread, some have managed to look upon it as a blessing in disguise. Some of us, who are privileged enough to suffer less from the consequences of the lockdown but not privileged enough to escape the woes of life and livelihood — lockdown or otherwise.
With companies jumping to offer a work-from-home alternative, when you no longer have to spend hours behind the wheel, and you certainly do not have to skip breakfast to make it out of the house on time, there’s much you can do to bring some order to your life, it seems. Where better to start than how well you eat? It was perhaps the lack of access to restaurant food in the first few weeks of the lockdown that did it. People who banked on take-out and home delivery for every meal were forced to consider cooking at home — even if it were just semiya upma (say what you want but it can save the day when you need it) or Maggi.
The transition has been far more voluntary and joyfully so for many others. Anuradha H, a 25-year-old journalist, is one such happy convert. “Eating at odd hours, ordering in, skipping meals, restaurant-hopping during weekends, and late-night dinners, were the norm. My appetite and sleep cycle have gone for a toss in the past three years because of the nature of my job. Fortunately, this lockdown came to my rescue. I was asked to work from home and I treated it like a detox. I picked up many healthy habits that I had neglected. I started consuming plenty of water, ate on time, chewed my food instead of hurriedly swallowing spoonfuls of it, enjoyed home-cooked food patiently, kept a count on my calorie intake and maintained a balanced diet. I also made some time to work out,” she narrates.
A self-described foodie, Anuradha had some trouble getting used to having only home-cooked food. With time though, she found ways to control her cravings and try her hand at replicating exotic delicacies at home instead. She also found herself learning to appreciate simple staples like dal and vegetable curry. And for all this, she has had plenty to gain, it seems. “My gastric issues have subsided, I feel light in the stomach, my body feels energetic, my abdomen bloating has reduced, and — more than anything — I have saved so much money. Earlier, I used to work out and binge on outside food; hence, there was no change in my weight or BMI. Now, I’ve shed many pounds by having control over my diet. My body has adapted to the new diet chart so well that I’m confident I won’t bounce back to the pre-lockdown weight or routine even when things get better. I have learnt to control my temptations and live without depending on restaurants,” she declares.
Healthy at home
For 20-year-old engineering student Gokula Krishnan, going home for the lockdown turned out to be best-case scenario. “I’ve been living away from home since class 10. Now, studying in a college near Erode, I’m used to skipping meals at least once a day because the hostel food is average or there is no time for it. We have to travel at least 20 km to reach the decent restaurants in town. My friends and I make it a point to either cook at home or frequent these eateries once in a week. It affected my appetite, lifestyle, and I gained weight drastically,” he recounts.
At home, with healthy food at his disposal, he was able to correct some of the damage. He plans to take as much advantage of the lockdown as possible, eating healthy food; for he knows it won’t have this luxury when he returns to college. People like Madan and Dinesh Murali — both 25 years of age — have found more time to spruce up their workout routines. Madan, who has been working on building an athletic physique, has only had to manage the lack of availability of meat. “Substituting it with alternatives has worked well for me. Consuming fruits and vegetables has been making me feel more energetic during the day. I also balance the protein with wheat-based bread, carbs, and fruit sugars. This new diet has certainly been a revelation to me,” he reveals, adding that he might just keep at it even after the lockdown.
Yogesh Mahadevan R (28), says that he was able to incorporate two significant changes to his diet since the start of the lockdown — having only home-cooked food, and focusing on the intake of macronutrients. “I started measuring everything I ate. Yes, it is a tedious task but the results are worth it. Focusing on food and workout during lockdown has been one of the best decisions in recent times. I have lost a significant amount of fat and reduced 10 kg of weight during this lockdown. More than fat and weight loss, workout has certainly helped me to be in a better space both mentally and physically,” he notes. On the other hand, Dinesh — whose ‘fitness freak’ diet comprised 15 eggs, 300 grams of chicken, lots of vegetables and fruit salads — has had some trouble sticking to his routine. “Because of the lockdown, I’ve had to cut down on meat and fresh fruits.
While the unavailability is one concern, the scare of venturing out and contracting the virus has made me stay home. Over the months, it’s become increasingly hard to follow workouts that are focused on strength training while being indoors. The workouts that I now do are mostly enabling me to build my stamina and it only turns me lean. I also seem to have gained some body fat as it’s become impossible to go for a walk or a jog outside. So many months of hard work has gone down the drain. I can’t wait for everything to go back to normal and rebuild myself,” he shares.
There are many like Dinesh, who have not exactly had it better during the lockdown. For Lavanya L, a journalist, trouble started with the work-from-home routine breaking down the separation between work and home. With the bedroom doubling as her workspace, she can no longer see it as a place of rest and relaxation, she reports. “It’s problematic because I’ve settled into a gluttonous pattern. I find myself barely having the time or motivation to step out of the room and keep myself agile. My knees have gotten extremely stiff because of just sitting at my work desk for about 15-16 hours straight. I don’t snack too much but irregular hours (due to changing shifts) mean my body clock is completely thrown off. I get an hour’s sleep here and there.
And feel hungry and very hungry at that when I do. I haven’t gotten my period during this time and it is making my mental and physical health a little difficult to deal with. It takes some initiative, I’m aware. I’m eating more vegetables, but I also have the time to make more snack-type small meals when I’m hungry. This is the time for Maggi and Top Ramen to thrive and that’s what’s happening,” she details.
Vikram found himself admitted to the hospital for a week after his Haemoglobin count dipped to a dangerously low level. While the ideal range for an average adult man is between 13 and 16, he registered a mere 4 when he landed on the gurney. His doctor reasoned that drastic changes to the diet or stress could have caused this. Vikram, who reveals to have been eating pretty well during the lockdown, puts it down to the stress brought in by the lockdown and the significant loss in work — he is a photographer/creative designer who only months ago left his day job to pursue his passion fulltime.
The only way to get past this stressful period is through it, as trite as it may sound, offers psychiatrist Vivian Kapil. “With this COVID situation, there is definitely some level of stress or distress. This is something you cannot escape. You have to accept the fact that you are not going be completely okay because the situation isn’t okay. Forcing yourself to be okay makes things more complicated and is far from possible; this will only compound your anxiety and add to the stress,” he explains.
Even as a few people report to have resorted to stress eating, he suggests that they can wean themselves out of the habit by consciously making time for things that make them happy or offer pleasure. Sticking to a routine during times of uncertainty and chaos can also help, he adds.
From the diet side of the spectrum, Dr K Baranee Dharan, senior consultant – Diabetologist and General Medicine, Kauvery Hospital, advises that any change should be focused on improving immunity. “People sitting at home seem to want to try different diets, particularly intermittent fasting. While it may work for some time, it might cause more harm than good. Their emotional and psychological behaviour may also change when they suddenly stop eating as much as they used to. The body responds to whatever we eat, when we eat and how much we eat. Hence, what we should try to do during the lockdown is follow a balanced diet and focus on improving immunity,” he explains.
As much as the virus seems like it’s here to stay, so will the changes we pick up during these wildly uncertain times; at least, that’s the hope. So might as well make them on the ‘better’ side? If nothing else, here’s hoping it amounts to some memorable kitchen experiments, a better handle on temptations and, if we’re lucky, a healthier BMI.
The sudden change in pace and lifestyle, ushered in by the pandemic-induced lockdown, has had an impact on people’s diet for better or for worse. Chennaiites recount their experiences, and experts weigh in
(Inputs from Anushree Madhavan, Roshne Balasubramanian, Vaishali Vijaykumar)