‘Growing up in Dubai, I remember I was always on a mission to lose weight. At age 10 I was about 68kg; at 14 I was 82 kilos. I constantly struggled with weight problems, as I had hormonal issues and was an emotional eater to boot — quite the combo. I come from two cultures that love food — Greek and Lebanese. So family gatherings and outings revolved around food. At the table, the first thing I’d reach for was the bread basket, and I could finish it on my own if I my parents would let me (which they didn’t). My family was and is moderately health conscious. They watch what they put in their bodies and lean towards more organic produce, but aren’t extremely diligent.
My daily diet ran something like this: I’d start with toast and two eggs for breakfast, or some form of hefty breakfast loaded with carbs, and juice. Then I’d have two or three Diet Cokes as a mid-morning snack, along with some chips or chocolate. For lunch I’d have Arabic or Greek food, and then it was more snacks — everything from ice cream sandwiches to cotton candy, sour candy, then another Diet Coke. Dinner would be like lunch, after which I’d have another Coke and more snacks, maybe some popcorn. Basically I’d be snacking through the day.
I was pretty active; I was into ballet, hip-hop, baseball, softball and also on the swim team, but gave them all up at some point as I was too busy, or as they weren’t girly enough — I was getting to that age where girls were wearing make-up, and here I was playing softball.
Being overweight in school is tough, and I often got bullied. I’d get negatively judged on my eating habits, both by adults and children, and got called rude names. It’s a rough time; you have the pressure of figuring out who you are, battling social norms — trying to find that balance of truly being yourself yet also being accepted by your peers. Then to have the added pressure of being assessed by your looks is harsh. I remember one of my nicknames was Shamu, after the SeaWorld celebrity killer whale. Kids can be so mean sometimes. Being an adolescent is such a crucial time in your life, and when you’re figuring out who you want to be, sometimes all it takes is a bully with a nasty comment to knock your confidence off.
There were times when I’d be reaching for some food at parties and adults — be it parents’ friends, friends’ parents — would frown. I’d go for a second serving and someone would say “are you sure you really want another serving? Why not have some fruit instead?” At that age such remarks are especially hard to hear, because you watch your other friends without weight problems eat whatever their hearts desire, with no side serving of judgmental comments.
The comments made me feel disgusted with myself. I’d go home from school crying because some kid had said something mean to me. My mum would try getting me to go on a diet, and I’d follow the plan for two days, but then get back to a ‘normal’ eating pattern.
Besides the mental trauma, there were of course the physical aspects to contend with — like the fact I couldn’t go on certain rides at theme parks due to weight restrictions. My sister, who was four years older to me but weighed less, was able to, and that would really upset me.
The one coping strategy I developed was humour and I hid behind that. I was the funny, large girl to all of my friends. I found that if I was goofy and made jokes and was able to make people laugh, they wouldn’t notice the way I looked — it was my protection mechanism.
But one day when I was 16, at 96kg, I’d had enough. There was no particular trigger, but I realised I wasn’t happy with the way I looked, my clothes that were a size 18... I felt bloated all the time, I’d sleep for 14 hours straight, was lethargic, bullied, and was just unhappy and disappointed with myself.
Another loud wakeup call was when I began developing minor health issues related to my weight — it terrified me.
So I decided to take control of my life. I set an ultimate goal, and also set smaller goals to achieve that big goal. I was 96kg and set my first goal to reach 80kg. The second was to reach 70. My final goal was 64kg.
Initially, I contemplated the easier route — surgery. But at age 16 I was too young, and I felt it wasn’t right. I preferred to change my lifestyle and eating habits and turn weightloss into a habit rather than go under the knife.
My mum and I did a lot of research on doctors who could help with natural weight loss, and zeroed in on a nutritionist in LA who believed in a holistic approach. He put me on the elimination diet, where you cut out certain foods to see what affects you negatively. Through it, I found I was intolerant to gluten and dairy. I stopped eating both immediately. Only once I cut them out did I realise just how addicted I was to gluten. I used to eat it at pretty much every meal — bread, stuff coated with flour or breadcrumbs, sauces... To just wake up one day and not be able to have it was a huge adjustment needing a lot of patience.
But it worked. The cravings disappeared over time, and the urge to have gluten at every meal diminished. The dairy was easier to stop, as I wasn’t that addicted.
Next on my list was fitness. To introduce exercise back into my life, I started off with yoga and kickboxing. I did yoga with a trainer and my mum for eight months, which really helped.
I started eating salads with protein predominantly (chicken or steak), seafood (fish and shellfish), carbs such as quinoa, rice, and sweet potato, fruits, and veg. I rarely ate gluten-free replacements, like gluten-free pasta, cake, pizza, etc... when I do now, that’s a real treat!
My family were extremely supportive and encouraging through it, cheering me on. Their encouragement was so positive I wanted to lose weight, first for myself, and second for them.
At 16, the weight didn’t budge much. It took a few years for me to fine-tune my diet and get it right, but between ages 18 and 19, things really kicked off, and I lost 20kg over five months. That figure on the scale and how great I started feeling, motivated me further. So over the next few months I kept losing more. Until one day I was at my end goal of 64kg.
I can’t even describe the feeling of getting there. It was a sense of accomplishment. I remember all those people who didn’t believe I’d ever be able to lose weight, and were almost encouraging me to fail. But seeing my goal weight on the scale was the best feeling because I’d finally proven them wrong. It made me so proud, and gave me another life lesson, that if I really wanted to do something, I would do whatever it took to make it happen. But I didn’t stop there; I kept going because I had the drive and motivation. And in a few more months, I went from 64kg to 52. In a span of two years, I had lost 44kg.
I have put some back on and I’m happy where I am now — 58kg at 161cm. I feel healthier and better in my own skin.
An average day’s diet for me now is black coffee and banana for breakfast, a salad with quinoa and protein for lunch, a snack of an apple, protein bar or nuts, and dinner of steamed veggies and fish. On weekends I may have a bowl of sweet potato fries (my weakness), or chocolate or sorbet (those are typically my cheat meals).
Losing the kilos is but one phase though — keeping it off the next big one. So now I make healthier choices throughout my week, I walk about 2km a day to get lunch, take the stairs instead of the elevator, try to spend my weekends doing more outdoor activities now that the weather is still nice — I choose these rather than going to brunches every weekend.
My workout schedule is dependent on what’s going in my life. I train 2-3 times a week. But I have a trainer who is extremely patient and understands my goals. I tend to focus more on HIIT training, boxing and TRX.
You often hear of weight loss wreaking havoc on the skin and hair, but my hair actually improved. It got thicker and healthier the more weight I lost. My skin cleared up too once I cut out dairy, and though I still battle with breakouts, they are much less severe than they used to be. I think cutting out a lot of saturated fats and processed junk food really helped my skin.
Managing social situations while making eating clean a lifestyle is always a challenge. I make sure I have a snack on me at all times — whether it is homemade protein balls, dried fruits, or veggie sticks, and these always help curb cravings if I am out. It was so difficult at first when I would go out with my friends and there would be a spread of fatty foods — fries, chicken wings, sliders, breads, pasta, pizza, tempura prawns... But I found that if I ate at home before going out, resisting was easier. Thankfully a lot of my friends were understanding and accommodating during my weight loss stage, and would make sure we went to places that had fresh salads or healthier alternatives.
I go through phases where I don’t find the time to have a proper workout, or do meal prep, so I turn to delivery, but even with that I always make sure I follow my diet. So it might be real easy to put on weight in Dubai, but it’s all about will power and choices. If you order from a delivery site, go for healthier options. It’s all about balance and not overdoing it.
The reactions have been great — my family and close friends are proud and supportive and beyond encouraging. I went to a party recently where I saw some old school friends, and most of them didn’t recognise me — that was fun!
I know it’s cliché, but it was never about dieting or sticking to some short-term restrictive diet and training plan — I went in with the mindset of changing my way of life. If you want to lose a substantial amount of weight, you have to think of it as a lifestyle change and not a short-term diet. You need to find it within yourself to change your habits, and with practise and will power it’ll become part of your routine — at one point you’ll find yourself reaching for clean foods without even thinking about it!
Switch off, set work limits and get a gym buddy
I was lucky enough to have started my weight-loss journey in my last year of high school, so by the time I got my first job while at university, it was second nature to me and I didn’t struggle as much. As an adult, having a full-time job, however, and trying to have a work-life balance is tough at times. But if you stick to it and pack your own lunch and snacks for work, it can be easier.
Focus hard on your career, but make sure your health and personal goals don’t take a backseat. It’s hard to switch off and make time for healthier living, so having a colleague to go to the gym with or do activities with is super helpful. You can really support each other and push each other to hit the gym. Set limits for yourself when it comes to work. Set a switch off time for yourself that’s early enough to allow you to go get active.
As told to Sangeetha Sagar