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Losing It: The internet has something for everyone struggling with weight and body image issues

From YouTube dieticians to online hucksters of miracle diets, the internet has something for everyone struggling with weight and body image issues. But how do you know it is not playing you?

Written by Ankita Dwivedi Johri |
Updated: February 4, 2018 12:05:13 am
Of the nearly 300 million smartphone users in India, a sizeable number is going online in search of quick fixes for weight loss. (Illustration: Subrata Dhar)

In July last year, Vibhor Attreya planned a trip to Amsterdam with his friends. But one thing weighed on the 32-year-old doctor’s mind. “I was 8 kg overweight. All my friends were fit and I didn’t want to stand out as the fat one,” says Attreya, who weighed 87 kg then.

He hit the gym with renewed vigour, but also began to trawl the internet for tips to lose weight. “That is when I came across the keto diet. I read a lot about it on discussion forums, on Facebook. All reports said ketosis was a swift way to transform your body. I had to do it,” says Attreya.

The keto diet is a high-fat and protein diet, and involves the intake of minimal amounts of carbohydrate, which forces the body to burn up fats. It was used, originally, to treat epileptic children. Attreya opted for “extreme keto”, which meant consuming less than 20 gm of carbohydrates a month. “I was only living on fats and protein. So there was a lot of cheese, ghee, butter, seeds and nuts,” he says.

While some experts say the diet is suitable for “body builders looking to cut down fat and conserve muscle” or someone looking to lose a large amount of weight, Dr Preeti Lal disagrees. “Keto is recommended as a diet therapy for children with epilepsy. Because there may be some weight loss in the process, some people suggest its use. But it may lead to metabolic aberrations. There are not enough studies in India to substantiate its role in weight loss,” says Lal, the former head of sports nutrition at the Sports Authority of India, and now a faculty member at Delhi University’s Lady Irwin College, where she teaches sports nutrition and dietetics. “High performance athletes, especially those in weight category sports, are the worst victims of diets,” she adds.

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As a doctor, Attreya knew what he was getting into. But the testimonials he read on the web, he says, made him try it. He wanted fast results. “It soon started f***ing with my head. I had massive mood swings. One night, I went to a friend’s house and had a drink. I fainted. There was no carbohydrate in my body to absorb the alcohol,” says Attreya, who, at the time, was spending Rs 30,000 a month on the diet. “I couldn’t eat any of the local fruits because they had carbs. I was eating avocados, blueberries, cranberries, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, macadamia nuts, blue cheese, etc,” he says.

By the end of a month, he reached his target weight of 80 kg but within days of his return from Amsterdam, the kilos crept back.

Looking back, he says, he was “played by the internet.” “You enter a search item once and almost immediately Google and Facebook clutter your webpage with articles related to the subject. You think you are reading both sides of the debate, but that is not the case. All the articles only listed keto’s benefits. No one told me of its health repercussions,” he says.

He is not the only one. Of the nearly 300 million smartphone users in India, a sizeable number is going online in search of quick fixes for weight loss. A search for “weight loss transformations” throws up 1.52 crore images on Instagram; there are 74 lakh “weight loss remedies” on YouTube; and a Google search for “weight loss” yields 29.2 crore results. Thousands of websites prescribe diets and exercise routines promising “10 kg weight loss in 10 days”; miracle tonics that will “flush out all your fat”; and Ayurvedic potions, most claiming to be from Baba Ramdev’s stable, are finding their way to diets via the friendly neighbourhood WhatsApp group. The internet is now a dietician, trainer and doctor all rolled into one. But how much can you trust it?

“About two-and-a-half years ago, things went crazy on YouTube. But not everyone who doles out advice on weight loss is a trained professional and that is where the viewers need to be careful,” says Ranveer Allahbadia, the 24-year-old behind one of the country’s most popular YouTube fitness channels, BeerBiceps (8,28,459 subscribers and 4.29 crore views). Allahbadia often finds a mention on “Most Influential People in Health and Fitness” lists.

The engineer, who has undergone “fitness training”, shot to fame when he helped stand-up comic Tanmay Bhat lose 110 kg in 2016. He put him on the keto diet. “It is a diet for those looking to lose weight fast but I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. Most people are looking for shortcuts and they end up watching videos that promise instant fitness,” says Allahbadia. He admits that social media has helped people like him forge a career in fitness, and that “YouTube pays alright”.

The internet has given an army of health enthusiasts a platform to “share their journeys and help other people struggling with their weight”. One of them is 23-year-old Sheena Agarwal from Punjab. After watching videos for over three years, she decided to take the plunge and launch her channel, Eat More Lose More, six months ago. It has already found 15,961 subscribers.

Her most popular video is “How To Lose Weight Fast With Oats | 7 Kgs in 7 Days” — it has nearly a million views. She urges her viewers to have “oatmeal for breakfast, masala oats and oats roti for lunch and oatmeal and fruits for dinner again”. She admits that she has no formal training in nutrition, but relies on her own experiences for making videos — she lost 12 kg in six months.

“I have researched a lot on the internet for my recipes and diet prescriptions,” she says. She also admonishes dieticians for giving “impractical diets”, whereas her recipes are “tastier and keep you fuller for long.” She shoots all her videos on her own and edits them on Filmora software.

Her 900-calorie diet plan to lose “10 kg in 10 days” is also a hit. “See, the point of such videos is that even if you do not lose 10 kg, you will end up losing at least 3-4 kg, and people are not complaining,” she says.

Like Agarwal, beauty and health blogger Suman Pahuja, whose subscribers’ list on YouTube crossed 2 lakh last year, also relies on “personal experience” to make her videos — she lost 28 kg in 6 months. She is now 57 kg. “People come to my channel because it is more personal. I have been fat through my 20s and I know what it can do to you,” says the Gurgaon-based Pahuja, who runs the YouTube channel, Fat to Fab.

A week to weight loss: Suman Pahuja runs the Fat to Fab channel on YouTube.

While she complains about proliferating diet clinics, her vlogs have helped her become a “professional nutritionist”, she says. “I have 98 clients, and 99 per cent are international clients,” she says. She guarantees 8 kg weight loss to her domestic clients for Rs 6,500. For international customers, it is Rs 15,000. She recently enrolled for a diploma programme in nutrition at a VLCC Health Care centre after a “few complaints about [her] lack of training”.

Nutritionist Ruchi Bhatia warns against any kind of restrictive diets, especially those prescribed by untrained people and promising drastic weight loss. “An effective diet plan should keep in mind a person’s body type, geography, age etc. Fad diets downloaded off the internet are of no good. A person who has eaten dal-chawal all her life cannot start eating quinoa suddenly. A dietician should empower her clients to make intelligent choices,” she says.

“I still remember the ads — ‘5 kg in one month, no dieting, no exercise’. They were all over my Facebook wall,” says a 26-year-old marketing professional, sitting in her living room in a plush Gurgaon apartment. “For the past five years, I have often found myself searching for weight loss diets on the internet. And now all Google shows me is that,” she says between sips of chamomile tea. “It speeds up your metabolism,” she says.

In June last year, just before she was to travel to the US for a project, she went to a slimming clinic in Gurgaon. “I was 65 kg and wanted to reduce to at least 55 kg in a month. I had to pay Rs 10,000 in advance. For 15 days, things went fine. They would check my weight first and then hook me to a vibrating machine. Later, they would put me in a steam room. Then there were sea salt massages for ‘tummy tucks’. After an hour, they would ask me to urinate and then take my weight again.”

I lost a few hundred grams each time. I was ecstatic,” she recalls, but adds, “I hope you are not putting down my name, I don’t want anyone to know I went to such a clinic.”

After losing about 3 kg, things began to go downhill. “After about two weeks, I just stopped losing weight. I would also feel nauseous and dehydrated through the day. When I complained, the staff started body shaming me, accused me of lying to them about my food habits,” she says. By the time she quit, she had paid Rs 27,000 and stopped eating out of fear. “I later found out that the women who worked on me were beauticians,” she says. “It was a big mistake.”

She admits that the internet has increased the pressure to look a certain way. “There are pictures of people from holidays wearing lovely clothes. All my friends talk about is weight loss. I have not worn a sleeveless shirt in three years and I am always worried about how big my hips look in trousers. My parents were against my decision to go to the clinic but they don’t understand the pressures that our generation faces,” she says.

What doesn’t help is the lack of regulation and monitoring bodies for the flourishing slimming clinic and diet centre business. Nor is there a reliable government body to turn to for the facts. Dr Anoop Misra, chairman of Fortis C-DOC Hospital for Diabetes and Allied Sciences, bemoans that “90 per cent of our country is following the health advice given by Akshay Kumar and Baba Ramdev.” But he is not surprised. “Publications released by the National Institute of Nutrition, the official body for such advice, is of poor quality and doesn’t appeal to the younger generation. So they go to the internet,” says Dr Misra.

Preeti Sharma, who heads VLCC’s nutrition centre in Noida, also warns against poorly trained “professionals”. “Dieticians these days are advising people to drink apple cider vinegar to lose weight, but no one tells them it leads to osteoporosis in the future,” says Sharma, who has 50 students at her centre. There are 50-80 students in each of VLCC’s 70 branches. “We are ISO certified but I can’t say the same about the other training programmes in the country.”

Dr Lal points out that trained health practitioners need to be much more than sensitive to vanity. “They need to have comprehensive knowledge about multi-factorial etiology, patho-physiology, chemical aspects of food, behaviour change approaches and the effects of poorly managed obesity or underweight programme,” she says. She also urges people, especially the young, to make a distinction between fitness, which is related to health, and the fitness industry.

“Sports and film celebrities should not be role models for ordinary people. The demands of their professions are different,” she says.

Apart from diets and exercises, the internet is also now flooded with suggestions urging people to turn vegan (avoiding all animal products), give up gluten (wheat) and lead a lactose-free life (without milk and its products). With over a 100 groups and millions of members on Facebook alone, veganism, especially, has enthused several Indians to change their dietary habits. Credible research confirming its benefits are still scant.

Nayoneka Shankar, a 23-year-old Master’s student in Kolkata, turned vegan in July 2017 after “some very disturbing reads and watching films about animal cruelty” on the internet. “I had been consistently gaining weight since 2012 when I was in high school. By May 2017, I had gained over 20 kg and weighed 78 kg,” she says. She lost 15 kg by October last year, although she says that wasn’t why she changed her dietary choices.

Dietician Bhatia says that excluding any food group is only bound to cause health issues in the future. “The key to a long-lasting weight loss plan is to eat frequently, include all seven food groups in your diet, including fats and carbohydrates, and get moving. If you do this, weight loss will be a by-product. Nothing else works,” she says.

If YouTube, Facebook and Instagram have turned health advisors for the millenials, the older generation, by all accounts, is hooked to WhatsApp for its daily fitness fix. With over 200 million users in India, the app bombards many senior citizens with “natural health remedies”. Pratibha Singhal, a 62-year-old housewife, says she receives a minimum of three-four “health messages” on WhatsApp everyday. “I don’t delete the ones that are ‘natural’ and won’t do the body any harm. For our generation, weight loss is linked to a number of diseases, including diabetes and heart attack, and I keep an eye out for home remedies for those,” she says.

She has tried one concoction of walnut, bay leaf, cinnamon, melon seeds and mishri or palm candy, which claims to “prevent blockages of all kinds”. “Another message said that a mixture of pomegranate seeds, pudina, and ginger can help with diabetes. These are all natural cures and my husband and I have been using them,” says Singhal, who lives in Jaipur.

Her husband Ghanshyam, who is, self-admittedly, a “health enthusiast” — he is regular with his walks, watches his food habits and meditates — agrees with his wife. “We, as a country, are lagging behind when it comes to health. WhatsApp and the internet have opened our minds and are very good sources of information. Before this, I didn’t know that eating too much ghee and peanuts was making me fat. Now, I take amla and neem and maintain a healthy weight of 87 kg,” says the 65-year-old businessman.

Despite this explosion of information, the number of obese people in the country has doubled in the past 10 years (according to the latest National Family Health Survey-4). And India, along with China, now accounts for 15 per cent of the world’s obese population, says the British journal Lancet. According to a survey conducted by Reebok in 2016 — of people between the age group of 20–35 years in eight cities — 60 per cent of the respondents said that they spent at least four hours a week on fitness. Attreya says he is “definitely one of them”, but claims he has learnt his lesson. “I have realised that health and weight loss is all about balance. That is what I am aiming for now,” he says.

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