From Grocery Cart to Dining Table: How to Improve your Diet

Zainab Sarwar is a  certified 500-hour Power Yoga Specialist and Nutritionist, and has run highly successful yoga studios in Pakistan. She has now moved to Dubai and is re-establishing her brand – Moksha Studio Power Yoga. She shares some of her nutrition / exercise tips with AltMuslimah.

What should people focus on during grocery shopping?

There’s a list of healthy foods that one can eat on any budget. When people wants to lose weight and they first step inside the grocery store, they have every intention of filling up their cart with the healthiest options but what they usually get is a mixed bag, health wise. Here are some tips for people looking to improve their diets:

  1. Avoid Junk. Avoid junk and processed foods completely and focus on food quality more than anything else.
  2. No Fortified Foods. Fortified food which is supposedly rich in vitamins and minerals isn’t necessarily healthy. Many of these products are actually highly refined. If they have to convince you they are healthy, they’re probably not.
  3. Grocery Lists. Always make a list before you go grocery shopping. It will help you plan your meals and stay organized.
  4. Buy Foods without Labels. Buy whole foods such as fruits, vegetables or grains that usually come without any “Nutritional facts label,” because they haven’t been altered from their natural state.
  5. Fiber, Fiber, Fiber. Check the fiber content, which should ideally be 5 grams of fiber or more.
  6. Go Small. Grab the smallest cart or basket available.
  7. Quality Ingredients Win. Read the ingredients not just the nutrition label, as nothing is more important than the ingredients. The fewer the ingredients in any food, the better it is.
  8. No Refined Sugars! Check the refined sugars level in the labels. Some of the low-fat foods available in the market are stabilized with the help of added sugars. While people are more concerned about high-fat content, they actually end up stuffing themselves with more added sugars and artificial stabilizers.

What are some ingredients that people should always have in their kitchens?

In my opinion, people should have a mix of balanced and healthy ingredients from all food groups available in their kitchen like olives, honey, dates, lentils, beans, quinoa, whole wheat flour, eggs, vegetables, fruits, fresh herbs, chicken, mutton, butter, nuts and cold-pressed cooking oils.

What are common misconceptions about diet food that you have learned from your clients?

That’s an interesting question. Weight loss is not easy but our general misconceptions actually make the whole process even more challenging. Some of the common misconceptions are the following:

  1. Quantity doesn’t matter: As a matter of fact, the amount of calories is more important than the source of calories. People think they can lose weight quickly by just eating unlimited quantities of fruits and vegetables and that way they are avoiding carbs. This actually works against the whole process of weight loss. Portion control is a very important aspect of losing weight and maintaining it.
  2. If you workout, you can eat anything: You simply can’t lose weight if u create a calorie deficit one way and increase it the other way. That is why I keep telling my clients that exercise and diet go hand-in-hand. People generally ruin a good workout with bad eating habits and then complain that their bodies never change.
  3. Starving makes you lose weight: Starving can induce initial weight loss, but it is not sustainable. You lose muscle mass and water weight which makes you weigh less on the scale, but the moment you get back to your normal eating patterns the weight bounces back. Some people actually end up gaining more weight than their original weight. Skipping meals is not advised at all and it tends to make one overeat later. It’s important to keep your blood sugar levels stable and we can do that by having proper meals at proper times. People who skip breakfast tend to be heavier than those who don’t.
  4. Starch is fattening: As a matter of fact, starch is less dense in calories than other types of food but the main issue is not the starch but the way we consume it. For example, potatoes are often consumed with fats like cream cheese, sour cream, butter or mayonnaise. If we load our diet with such added ingredients then we are adding up to the total calories and we gain weight.
  5. Desserts or sugars are not allowed: Our dilemma is that we only consider processed sugar-loaded items as desserts like cake, brownies, biscuits, and chocolates. People can satisfy their sweet tooth by having healthy options like dates, dark chocolate, and homemade honey fruit yogurt while maintaining their calorie count.
  6. Carbs make you fat: Carbohydrates are an essential part of your diet and complete elimination of this group can deplete your energy resources, as carbohydrates are our main source of energy. Choosing the right kind of carbs in the right quantity is essential in your weight loss process. Always choose complex carbs such as whole wheat breads or whole wheat pasta, brown rice, and couscous as they make you feel full for longer.
  7. All fats are bad: Just like carbs, not all fats are bad. You need to select them wisely. Always look for “TRANS FAT” on labels and avoid those foods because they can wreak havoc on your health. Saturated fats (like in butter) used in moderation is also not bad, but you need to be careful in their use. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are actually very healthy when taken in moderation. Foods like avocados, nuts and fatty fish are great for your health.

What are some foods to completely avoid?

The human body is designed to take and digest food in its natural form so if you feed your body with something that is unrecognizable by your system, you are only opening yourself up to so many potential health problems and risks. People should completely avoid processed and junk food and try to buy as much organic food as they can.

What advice do you give to mothers planning meals for their children?

I think mothers should really keep in mind ”portion control” when planning meals for their children. ”Portion control” is one thing that every mother & school should teach to the children. It not only prevents wastage of food but also keeps children’s interest alive in the food. Introduce every food group to your children when they start weaning. Junk food should be limited to once a week only.

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Most of the mothers are not bothered about their kid’s water intake, which is very important. It’s a common observation that kids get hungry every few hours so most of the time they are getting thirst pangs and not hunger pangs because ironically thirst pangs and hunger pangs are the same and to distinguish them, you need to ask them to drink a full glass of water and wait for 20 mins and if after 20 mins they are not hungry anymore then it was a thirst pang. This trick actually works in child obesity management.

Also tell your children to chew slowly as it prevents them from developing so many digestive problems.

Zainab writes monthly columns on yoga, diet, nutrition and life for altMuslimah.  Please send in your questions for her by contacting her at +971 52 986 5868 or at  She conducts yoga classes in Dubai in the morning and evenings, and also provides nutrition counseling.

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