I exercise at least twice a week, and I’ve always assumed that this gave me licence to eat whatever I wanted. So I was taken aback when Tisha Jaswantlal, founder and lead coach at Wellness with Tish, told me otherwise at our first coaching session.
Here’s what a health coach does. She doesn’t make you count calories, nor does she stand over you at the gym and force you to work out. Rather, she focuses on changing your mindset towards food, wellness and exercise so you can hit your health goals.
Diet is far more important than an exercise routine, Tisha explained. What we put into our bodies affects our health on a much larger scale. Hearing that, I decided that my long term aim would be to develop better eating habits and maintain them. See, I tend to gravitate towards comfort food, which means creamy pasta and a bucket-load of dessert. If a health coach could kick that dependency on comfort eating, I was all for giving it a go. So I signed up for a six-week programme to see if it would help me ditch some of my bad habits.
I had assumed that Tisha would just tell me what I should and shouldn’t be eating. But I got so much more from her than that. She gave me an education on nutrition, fitness and wellness – like how to manage stress and develop better sleeping habits.
Every week, she turned up at my house and took me through a crash course on caloric density, dietary acids, refined oils, and more. She taught me that food isn’t just “good” or “bad” – everything is on a spectrum, and only by understanding the science behind it would I able to get the bigger picture of how certain foods impact my health. Vegetables, for example, are a nobrainer. But there are grey areas like dairy, which I learnt might have inflammatory properties.
Gaining the knowledge was the easy part – the trouble was putting it into practice. I find it hard to say no to dishes I love, whether or not they’re good for me. That’s where the coaching came in. Tisha worked with me to come up with achievable weekly goals. It’s not about excluding certain foods or suddenly eliminating the stuff you love to eat, she reminded me.
We took baby steps – all I had to do in the first week was eat a palm-sized portion of vegetables every day to meet my daily fibre needs. In the second week, we upped my fruit intake, and I had to limit my dessert consumption to just four times a week. I would submit reports on how I was doing, and we texted frequently.
I had assumed the weekly goals would be laid out by Tisha, but it was more collaborative than that. She always sought my opinion on what was achievable, which I liked. Because I knew exactly how my week was going to play out, I could tell her if the goals were realistic.
Another practical aspect of the coaching was a pantry makeover and supermarket tour. Having taught me how to read food labels so I’d know what to avoid, Tisha guided me through the food in my kitchen. We looked at the labels of what I had, and during a visit to the supermarket, she showed me healthier brands for foods that I love – like pesto and hummus. So I did a revamped grocery shop, and started taking packed lunches to work, which allowed me to stay away from the greasy food in the staff canteen.
We implemented a new health goal each week. I started gradually reducing my intake of red meat (which is high in saturated fat) and dairy. As someone who doesn’t drink milk and infrequently eats yogurt or cheese, I thought I would find cutting back on dairy a piece of cake (or not). I underestimated how often dairy pops up when you least expect it. It made cameo appearances in my sandwiches (hello cheese), in salads (creamy dressing), and of course, anything with butter. And as for red meat, my nemesis turned out to be minced pork. I never say no to wanton noodles or xiao long bao.
By the end of the six weeks, I was down to reducing red meat and dairy to three times a week (that’s three meals, not days). Sure, it was difficult to say no, especially when it came to meals out. However, I fell into a new habit of making smarter choices. For example, if I knew that I had a friend’s birthday party at a steak restaurant, I would factor that into my meal plan for the rest of the week. Looking at menus online before going for a meal out gave me a heads-up on what to expect. I also found alternatives, like dairy-free coconut milk yoghurt. These do tend to be more expensive, but they were treats rather than part of my daily meals.
The results paid off – I felt lighter, and more energised. Taking packed lunches to work meant I no longer passed out at my desk in a food coma, and I found myself more motivated to exercise. I upped my workouts to twice a week on my own accord, and my friends and colleagues started commenting that I looked leaner and more toned. My problem areas are my stomach and upper thighs, and I could see a visible difference in a reduction of fat. The scales didn’t reflect this, but Tisha assured me that muscles weigh more than fat. It was true – whatever the scales said, I could tell that my body had changed.
But here's a caveat: you're only going to feel this good when you're consistent. When I disregarded my goals and ate poorly over a weekend, it hit me like a ton of bricks the next week. I felt more irritable, more tired, and let's just say I had poor irrigation in the bowel systems.
So at the end of it all, here’s my take. Your health coach won’t be the fast track to a fit bod, but what you’ll get is an overhaul in your lifestyle and mindset, and information to stand you in good stead in the long run. For me, that’s a good enough reason to hire one.
What's the difference between a health coach and a dietitian?
1. Only focuses on diets, and not other aspects of your personal life. Has had at least a year of training in a hospital and undergone a clinical internship. He understands medical conditions such as kidney disease.
2. Is very specific about the diets prescribed for clients, “even down to the grams”, says Jaclyn Reutens, clinical and sports dietitian and founder of Aptima Nutrition & Sports Consultants. “Dietitians create diets that are customised towards specific nutritional needs.”
A health coach:
1. Takes a more holistic approach, which includes “the client’s relationships with food and their bodies, sleep, stress and lifestyle”, says Tisha Jaswantlal.
2. Has undergone a one-year online nutrition and coaching course. Look for certifications where the training programme has been approved by at least one of the following: ICHWC (International Consortium for Health and Wellness Coaching), ACE (American Council on Exercise), and NANP (National Association of Nutrition Professionals).
Tisha is a certified health coach from Dr Sears Wellness Institute, and also has a certificate in plant-based nutrition from Cornell University. A six-week programme with her costs $599. Visit www.wellnesswithtish.com.
This article was first published in the February 2018 issue of Her World magazine.