By Life Positive
Naini Setalvad, once tipped the balance at 169 kg. today, a svelte 60 kg, and an avid activist for healthy and wholesome nutritional habits, she shares her inspirational story of gain and loss for us
I was 32, could not sit on a chair, and could not travel by bus. Sitting on the floor was a dream because I did not know how to push myself up. I loved the theatre but had been exiled for years from watching a play because I could not fit into a seat. My father frequently went to Matheran, a charming hill station near Mumbai, for a break, but I denied myself the pleasure because I could not walk, get on a horse or go boating. My knees and back hurt all the time! Breathing was difficult, my head was constantly congested, and I would frequently be racked by coughs and colds. I lived on tablets and a minimum of six painkillers a day. And all because I was grossly overweight. I weighed 160 kg approximately – I did not have a scale to get my exact weight.
Was I born fat? Was there a thyroid or hormonal problem? Absolutely not! I was born skinny, weighing six pounds. Like a normal child, I played morning and evening; swimming was my greatest passion. I spent at least half of the day playing and running around. Sitting in one place was impossible. I took ages to eat. Any meal would take a minimum of one hour to complete. I liked simple food; three meals were more than enough which worried everybody. I was petite and tiny. I came back from school, threw my bag down, and rushed for a swim. Food was the last thing on my mind. After that, I was famished and exhausted. Either I would have to eat food at that moment, or I would fall asleep coming home. What was easily accessible outside were French fries, wafers, milkshakes, and heavily buttered cheese sandwiches, or fried cheese toast. My addiction to junk, packaged food full of preservatives and chemicals had begun.
I would eat this evening snack, go home and be forced to eat dinner too even if I was not hungry. My parents strongly believed in the importance of healthy eating, and did not want me skipping a meal consisting of salads, vegetables, rotis, dal, rice and curd. This started my habit of overeating. When I was younger, I would just eat one roti and fall asleep on the table, leading the family to be concerned and worried about how little I was eating. They had no idea of nutrition. They did not realize that the evening snack was highly calorific, too heavy and difficult to digest, making me sluggish. These habits ingrained in childhood became a part of my lifestyle.
As a drug addict craves for his daily fix, a junk food eater craves junk. This food was difficult to digest, and it made me so lethargic that I could not get up in the mornings. I needed a fix of sugar and white flour laden with fat – in went the milkshakes, sandwiches, and fried snacks like puris, chaklis, sev, and ganthias. The school snack box was filled with cheeselings and cream biscuits. School timings became longer, lunch breaks became shorter, and food had to be eaten faster. My lunch box consisting of dal and rice, veggies and salad was pushed aside as it required chewing and took time. I could gobble junk food fast, and run out and play. Obviously, I was not satisfied and started digging into canteen food to satisfy my taste buds. The diet every day was a killer. I would feast on wafers, batata vadas, samosas, sandwiches, aerated drinks, ice-creams and chocolates.
My weight slowly and steadily crept up as school hours became longer, and exercise became less. My crazy diet shifted me from skinny to plump to fat to obese. I was 50 kilos in my 5th grade, when my concerned mother took me to a naturopath, Dr Jasawalla. He really tried hard, but I could not as a child remain on fruits and vegetables, and bear steam boxes and massages. I needed to be slowly weaned off from junk food. Eventually, I went to him on the sly and asked him to tell my mother that this treatment was not for me. In the 7th grade, I was 70 kg, and went for another round with a dietician. He used to make me exercise in his rooms and I hated it. I gave up! In the 9th grade I was a whopping 85 kilos. I was hospitalized in Breach Candy Hospital, South Mumbai, to lose weight. Ten days of sheer torture and lying to my friends that I was on a holiday, as I did not want them to know I was in hospital. It was a diet of pill popping, starvation, and enemas. The result was 10 kilos weight loss in ten days, but I put on more than double subsequently. Side-effect: constipation for years.
By the time I was in the 12th grade, I was 96 kilos. My next stopover was Jindal Health Farm. Being a city girl, I went completely crazy! I ran away in 12 days with 14 kilos off. To recover, I took off for a holiday in Europe, but my unhealthy condition did not let up on me, and I landed on the surgery table with a cyst in the rectum. I refused to do any more dieting for a few years. I went back to my old ways of eating and touched 145 kilos. Again I pressed the alarm button and set off for some more diets: Sherry Louis, protein powders, a high-protein diet – I went through them all. Ridiculously expensive, they left me constipated with no energy, and I gave up.
Then I tried gyms and other dieticians. The gym instructors pushed too much, too fast, not even realizing that I could barely walk. I would end up with aches and pains. Obviously, I gave up.
Finally at 32 when I had crossed 150 kilos, I saw the light. I think that is when I hit rockbottom. A new determination stirred within me. I wanted to be free of the pain that weighed me down. I wanted liberation from the obesity that cruelly restricted my activities. All those years of feasting and fasting, trying all kinds of shortcuts had finally made me recognize the simple truth that all I needed to lose weight was to eat sensibly and exercise. Fad diets only have a temporary effect, and I would not recommend it to anyone. I went on a sensible weight loss and exercise programme. In two years I was down to 60 kilos. So fast was the weight loss that I actually went the other extreme, and slipped into anorexia.
I would open diet books to know which the lowest caloric food was. A cucumber had only 18 calories. I would cut it into paper thin slices and spread it on my plate and chew on it slowly; a bowl of cabbage had only 25 calories, and that was my vegetable. Clear soups with barely a few pieces of vegetables floating around were another choice. My cereal would be white bread or roti, barely four in the entire day. Dairy was totally out. I lied while visiting friends and family saying that I had just eaten. I would take food on my plate and throw it out. I was exercising like a maniac, and landed with amenorrhoea (not having periods for months), dry nails, brittle hair, sunken eyes, pale skin, looking as if I was from Ethiopia or a concentration camp. I took laxatives galore as I was severely constipated due to the refined flour which was prescribed to me. On top of it, because of the massive weight loss, my skin hung about me. I actually underwent surgeries for skin tightening that excised 12 kilos of skin! In my second surgery to tighten my skin, I lost a lot of blood, and the surgery had to be left incomplete. As I was recovering, I went back to the operating theatre again, this time for a cyst in the rectum. I was mentally, physically, and emotionally drained.
Return to Normality
Life was bleak, blank, frightening, but a myriad possibilities opened up. I had come down to normal size. I had achieved my goal. I could now choose, decide, command like other people. On the one side, I was in bad shape, but on the other side my cup was running over, my soul dancing to enjoy my human form in every way.
Having achieved my goal of becoming slim, I next embarked on the process of winning normal good health. I knocked on the doors of nutritionist, Dr. Vijaya Venkat and yoga master, Jehangir Palkhiwala. I wanted to study nutrition and went to Gopi Krishna Piramal Hospital and Indian Institute of Health Science. I slowly got over the fear of eating small quantities, and I only ate right food. Suddenly, I was beset with excruciating pain in the abdomen. I was diagnosed with gallstones – the answer was surgery. I was in so much pain that I begged to be wheeled into the operating theatre. Luckily for me, naturopathy saved me from one more surgery. I cured myself with food, rest, and oodles of sunlight.
Today I am fit and normal, but my journey to this state has transformed me.
I am now obsessed with the cause and effects of food in our life. I think of food, dream of food, and write about food. I have only one mission. I do not want anybody to go through what I have gone through. I know today what junk food can do to your system. The chemicals, the preservatives, the additives, the growth hormones, cause complete imbalance in our bodies. Psychological disorders, mood swings, constipation, humongous sizes, eating disorders, elevated blood pressure, lipids, and even cancer are some of the consequences.
In today’s highly-stressed and fast- changing world, the one person with whom you spend the longest time is with yourself! Do you not think then that you owe it to yourself to be careful about your health? Do you not owe it to your children? A better life, a healthy body away from fads and eating disorders! Let us wake up before we go the American way of gigantic sizes, psychological disorders, and life-threatening diseases. We are not the dustbins of the West! Let’s eliminate packaged foods and get back to real food. Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food. Add a little exercise, and good health is yours.
Naini Setalvad is a nutritionist, obesity, health and food consultant.
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