A FEW YEARS AGO WHEN Deepraj Vedpathak began to get offers to model for ads from some male grooming brands, he felt the need, like many of us would perhaps do, to lose some weight.
Then a 22-year-old in his final year of college in Mumbai with a large follower base on his YouTube and Instagram accounts, Vedpathak was already fairly fit. About 74kg on the scale, he had been lifting weights in the gym for many years before that. What he wanted now was something more specific. “I wanted a lower body fat percentage,” he says. “For men, anything under 20 per cent is a good look. It’s the kind of look models have. Your face looks more chiselled, your muscles look more toned.”
So, he went on a diet that to many might appear very severe. He ate just one meal every day for two weeks. This consisted of a lunch timed right after college that was large and nutritious enough, he says, to satiate his body’s needs. For the remainder of the day, he would consume green tea or black coffee, without any sugar, to blunt any hunger pangs. “The idea is to create a large calorie deficit in a short period of time. You lose fat very quickly this way,” he says.
Vedpathak estimates he lost between seven to eight kilograms in the span of those two weeks. He uses this diet like a shock system to the body now, adopting it once for a week or two every year or so to achieve his desired body fat percentage. “I do it to get rid of body fat. So, I will eat [regularly] for 10 months, and for two months, I will check my weight. How long I maintain this diet depends on the number I want to achieve on the scale. But I can drop like seven to eight kilograms this way,” he says. He hasn’t however been on this diet for some time because he is looking to build more muscle mass. Vedpathak, a certified nutritionist, does not recommend this diet to most people. “It is not for normal people. I don’t advise it to my clients. And not for diabetics either, whose sugar levels can drop alarmingly with this diet. Only people who are advanced in fasting can manage this diet,” he says.
This diet—more commonly known as OMAD (or one meal a day)—is but an extreme form of intermittent fasting. While most intermittent fasters restrict their eating to a daily window of just 12 or eight hours, in this form of fasting, this window for eating is further squeezed. A person can eat all that they want, what they want, so long as it is done for just one meal within one hour in the day (although most advise moderation and eating only nutritious food).
Instead of the conventional dietary advice: to eat several small portions throughout the day, OMAD’s practitioners champion the reverse: eat just once, and big. From an evolutionary point of view, it might sound reasonable. OMAD’s practitioners point out that our ancestors experienced cycles of feasting and fasting, and the concept of eating three meals a day is a relatively modern idea.
OMAD’s biggest pull is its simplicity. Instead of counting calories or eating only certain types of food, all it asks is to give up two meals. “When I first heard of it, I wasn’t sure, to be honest,” says Shilpa Spoorthy, a Bengaluru-based architect who has been on an OMAD regimen for two-and-a-half years. “But it was simple and we [along with her husband NM Spoorthy] gave it a shot. And it really does work.”
So, how effective is OMAD? It is difficult to tell beyond the anecdotal because very little research has been conducted on it. What exists are studies conducted with small sample sizes and over short periods. One such study conducted in Norway that was published in Frontiers in Psychology last year, for instance, compared the results of 11 healthy individuals eating three meals for over 11 days to the results of the same group consuming only a single meal in the same duration. The study found that eating just one meal per day reduces body weight and fat levels and displays features of “metabolic flexibility” (changes in measures of how fats and carbohydrates are metabolised). But the participants also experienced a loss of muscle and bone mass. The more common forms of intermittent fasting with larger eating windows have received more attention in comparison. But the results here, too, have been mixed, and the scientific community remains divided. Most point out that intermittent fasting seems to work in reducing one’s weight, but only as much as any other diet that restricts the daily calorie intake. Reducing the window of eating to a few hours, these seem to suggest, may not confer any additional benefit. But then most individuals find counting calories cumbersome; skipping a meal or two is easier by comparison.
While Shilpa found following the diet difficult when she first adopted it, over time, she says, the pull of food vanishes. “When I would prepare my son’s meals, I would set aside a little bit of whatever I made for him throughout the day for myself, so I could have a taste of it all in the night with my dinner. But I don’t feel that kind of urge anymore,” says the 46-year-old.
Shilpa and her 50-year-old husband NM Spoorthy, also an architect, were drawn to OMAD as a way to bring down their weight. Spoorthy, who had once led a very active lifestyle and played various sports, needed to lose weight more urgently. A combination of depression and binge eating had led him to weigh in excess of 200kg. Shilpa’s weight also kept increasing and reached about 92kg. “We had tried everything in the past. We tried gyms too. But in Spoorthy’s case, you cannot do much in a gym because of the impact [of the weight] on his knees and ankles. He once tried naturopathy, where he went to a naturopathy resort for 10 days. But none of those things worked. Bariatric surgery was an option, but he wasn’t keen on that,” says Shilpa.
Spoorthy’s weight was beginning to affect various aspects of his life. He would sleep poorly every night, and only for a couple of hours at best. Exhausted from a lack of sleep, he would sometimes doze off at office meetings, and while driving, even at traffic signals when the traffic came to a halt. Once when he fell asleep on a flight, he nearly choked on his tongue. His vital signs were also often off the charts, and he was once rushed to a hospital because of breathlessness. His weight also kept him away from important occasions in his life, like the times his son would speak on stage because he knew the seats would be too small for him.
Today, Spoorthy weighs about 135kg. Shilpa’s weight has come down to 62kg too. Spoorthy sleeps better, his vital signs have improved, and he is in a happier mental state. They attribute their improved lives to the weight loss that has come from the OMAD diet. Their 17-year-old son, who has never had weight issues, has also started a form of fasting, where he eats only two meals a day.
Apart from OMAD, Spoorthy adopts an even more severe form of dieting for a few months every year or so where he consumes nothing but water, or beverages like black coffee or tea without sugar. The longest he has gone consuming no food has been for 110 days, and he eventually returned to eating because after losing about 50 to 55kg in that stretch, the weight loss stopped. “So, what happens is that your body gets used to that lifestyle of not eating and your weight stagnates. When that happens, you need to kickstart it again, so you go back to eating [in Spoorthy’s case, to OMAD], and a year or so later, you do the long fast [no meal] again,” Shilpa says. At the time of conducting this interview, Spoorthy was on another such fast, now entering its 39th day. This time, Shilpa says, her husband has not set any goal and he wants to see how far he can go.
Meenakshi Karanth, a 39-year-old event management professional, is currently on a similar long fast where she consumes nothing but water. She had initially planned to go 40 days without any food, she says, but now 42 days into her fast, she has stretched the goal to 65 days. “I was about 50 to 55 kilograms overweight. Then a month-and-a-half back, I was diagnosed with diabetes as well. My [blood] sugar levels were out of control, my cholesterol and blood pressure were very high too,” she says. Karanth began to go on this fast as a way to control these health parameters. She also began to go on daily walks, clocking at least 10,000 steps at one go. Her health, she says, is much better now. She’s lost about 12kg, apart from bringing her health parameters under control. “For a few days, I felt like I had some craving for food. But those settled down and I have no such cravings at all now,” she says. “I’ve realised it’s not difficult. It’s just [having] a mindset.” Her next move, after she completes her goal of 65 days, she says, will be to shift to an OMAD diet.
Karanth is guided in her fasts by Ramana Krishnan, the founder of The Fasting Studio in Bengaluru, who promotes fasting as a method to deal with obesity and other health disorders. According to Krishnan, the best way to look at health is through the prism of longevity. And this, he says, can only be achieved by restricting one’s calorie intake. “When you attempt calorie restriction, what is the most practical thing to do is not to eat less at each meal, because you will only get more and more hungry. You should rather eat just one meal, and then nothing for a while,” he says.
Krishnan moved to an OMAD diet about 11 years ago. When he was growing up, everyone in his house usually consumed just two meals—breakfast and an early dinner. But after his marriage, when Krishnan moved into his in-laws’ home, where elaborate lunches were prepared, he began eating lunches regularly for the first time in his life. The effects, he says, showed immediately. “I had been about 76 to 78kg all my life after Class 12. After I got married at 30, in just eight or nine months, I gained 10kg. By 36, I touched 102kg,” he says. Within just two years of adopting OMAD, Krishnan says, his weight came down to 78kg.
To Krishnan, habits like regularly exercising and consuming more nutritious food, while beneficial, are secondary to restricting one’s calorie intake. “Eat two meals, or preferably one meal, a day. You begin to slow down ageing. Throw in a decent diet, and add some exercise, and you begin to do phenomenally well. But if you eat just good food and exercise, and you don’t fast, it won’t really work that much,” he says.
Many of us have an unhealthy relationship with food. But when one listens to Krishnan talk about how he grew up finding “lunches overrated” or that there is “nothing called good food, but only worse food”, one can wonder if he does not lie on the other, equally unhealthy, end of our relationship with food. But Krishnan says that OMAD makes an individual appreciate his meals more. “I just finished having my dinner. I had four chapatis, a heavenly bowl of yellow dal, a sabzi with potatoes, and rice. Most people will ask what is so special about this meal. But I will give it a 9.99 rating. You get just one meal, and OMAD makes you enjoy that meal,” he says.
Contrary to the common belief that going without meals would be akin to making the human body run on empty, OMAD practitioners claim they find themselves more energetic and sharp. For Krishnan, nothing can beat that feeling of energy the diet imparts. “I can deadlift about 180kg, bench press about 110kg, and squat about 140kg. I have run 10km in 43 minutes. You don’t expect most 47-year-olds to do that. And I eat once. With OMAD, your body responds with minimal effort,” he says.
When Spoorthy first adopted OMAD, unlocking larger health goals was far from his mind. He only wanted to get through the day. When he managed to go an entire day without eating anything, and the time for his first meal approached, he began to crave the familiar though unhealthy comfort of a burger. “He had two burgers that dinner,” Shilpa says. “But as our OMAD journey went on, such cravings disappeared.”