My Story: A lifelong affair with food
I’m passionate about being a dietician; so passionate, in fact, that when people often ask me why I chose dietetics as a career. I always tell them that it is not my career, it’s my “whole existence”.
I’ve actually been in training all my life; even as a child the subject of food fascinated me. As you will see later on in my story, an epic teenage battle with an eating disorder, together with certain other mysterious forces, conspired to nudge me in the direction of dietetics.
But let me start at the beginning.
As a little girl, I had lots of energy and grew up tall and skinny so tall that I always had to stand in the back row when class photographs were taken. My parents were mystified by my scrawny frame, because I ate more than what the two of them put together ate. So concerned were they about my insatiable appetite that I was routinely de-wormed in the hope that the food I was consuming would add some flesh to my bones!
I had a passion for food that was expressed in many happy noises at mealtimes. At school, I used to wait with mounting eagerness for the bell to ring for break so I could wolf down the contents of my lunch box and muffle the groans of my perpetually empty tummy.
Another infatuation of mine was ballet: I wanted to be a professional ballerina. As a teenager, I went to classes every day, including Saturdays, for two rigorous hours. On Sundays I practiced on my own. All this strenuous exercise increased my already enormous appetite. My mother, watching me consume bowl after bowl of frosted flakes, began to worry that such an appetite in an adolescent would take its toll on my figure.
Ever protective, as any parent should be, she had good reason for concern. But somehow I sensed her anxiety, and I quietly became more aware of my shape and of the shape of the other girls in my ballet class. When I questioned them about their eating habits, I discovered that they were all beginning to ‘watch what they ate’ an idea that was utterly foreign to me. I started to feel increasingly fearful about the imminent obesity that my friends were trying so hard to avoid.
I joined the game and started ‘dieting’. It was difficult for me to resist satisfying my raging appetite, so I sought the help of a reputable diet club. The food was supposed to be eaten in small pre-weighed portions, and was unexciting and mostly tasteless. Even so, following the diet made me feel like a martyr: I was, after all, fighting for a worthy cause. My determination was reinforced by the leader of my group, whose hearty cry of ‘No pain, no gain!’ at the weekly weigh-in was followed by a round of applause from other members. The Scale God had spoken -I had lost two kilograms in a week!
Playing the eating game
Then I began to play a game with myself, seeing just how little I could get away with eating, and watching with great satisfaction as the kilograms -which I could ill afford to lose – melted away and my shape became more sylph-like.
A small-boned, tall girl, I weighed what I thought was a hefty 49 kg. Even so, I was relieved to have taken control of the situation in time: if I had carried on eating as before, I would no doubt have realised my mother’s fears and actually exploded.
Food became the enemy. The enemy, because my need for it was almost uncontrollable. Once food had offered me complete joy, now viewed it as a temptress whose only goal was to make me fat. And growing fat, to my mind, was a fate worse than death. I would never be a dancer (a career in ballet depended on thinness). I would never be pretty. I would never have a boyfriend. I would never be socially acceptable (after all, every magazine I picked up showed pictures of models with toothpick arms).
Thus began a concerted game of dietary Russian roulette. I filled myself with ‘free’ foods, such a tea and celery. I scrutinized the calorie content printed on every box of food. I cut sugar out of my diet and gave myself a mental thrashing every time I opened the fridge door.
Emotionally drained at 16
At 16 I felt cold and empty inside. Every other aspect of my life was controllable: I coped effortlessly with the rigours of ballet, with my school work, and with every other challenge that life threw at me, but I could not cope with avoiding food.
I started eating late at night, with vigour that was spurred by panicked yearning: a yearning for warmth, happiness and flavour, a yearning for the foods that had comforted me as a small girl. But these late-night binges only served to increase my anxiety to the point of paranoia. ‘This won’t do!’ I admonished myself . ‘I must regain myself-control and dignity!’
The only way forward, I decided, was to purge my body of these hedonistic foods. Purging, laxative abuse and starvation became a pattern in my life, and nobody – not even my parents – knew a thing about it.
This pattern continued for many months, and my mental anguish increased. I lost my sense of self-worth. I became aggressive to any-one who commented on my eating habits or my weight. I became overly competitive and very selfish. I was terrified of the future because I knew that my efforts to gain control of my appetite were doomed to failure.
Then something worrying happened. I began to notice that weight was no longer dropping off my bones. To my horror, some of my epic binges would actually increase my weight by 100 g in a single day! But, as always, I had a solution. I started doing strenuous aerobics classes after my daily ballet lessons, and was thrilled when my appetite started to diminish.
My turning point
The turning point came late one night when I climbed out of bed and collapsed onto the floor. One side of my body was numb and paralysed, and I was terrified. After a cup of sweet tea and a day in bed, I recovered completely. My parents, however, suspecting that my meagre diet and exhausting ballet classes were to blame, were adamant: no more ballet, they told me, and no more obsessive dieting. I was quite happy to let them make the decisions because I knew I had lost control. I had failed.
I never danced again.
Over the next six months, I let myself go to ruin. My school marks plummeted. I dropped two subjects at school. I became slovenly and dejected. And, believe it or not, I gained a whopping 18 kg.
There was one small ray of light, however: my mind and my self-worth were slowly starting to recover.
After I had matriculated, I enrolled for a BSc. at the University of Cape Town (UCT) , grateful to change out of my revealing school uniform into baggy sweatshirts and jeans that disguised my new lumps and bumps. Somehow I had resigned myself to the fact that I was always going to be a ‘big girl’. And what was so bad about that? So what if I gained a few more kilograms? It was easy to shrug off the guilt.
Living in residence as I did, it was impossible to avoid chocolates, greasy lasagnes and toast with lashings of butter. But as the months went past, I began to notice something very strange. Even though I was eating at least a hundred times more calories than I had eaten a year previously.
I was no longer growing fatter. In fact, I was very gradually losing some of the fat I had gained. This discovery intrigued me, and ignited a small spark of intense speculation: was there some undiscovered mechanism that played a part in controlling the speed of the body’s metabolism? Was it possible that getting slimmer had nothing to do with how little you were eating, but with how much?
Curiosity lead me here
This curiosity was the first step on the road towards making the study of human nutrition my life’s work. Perhaps another fortuitous event was that I failed chemistry outright that year, and as a result I had to change , my subject choices if I wanted to complete my degree in three years. When a career counsellor suggest studying something that needed only one year of chemistry, not two, I looked into the various option.
One was to major in medical physiology, and then go on to doing dietetics as a post-graduate course. However, I as openly sceptical. I was, after all, the world expert on dieting, and I didn’t want to be subjected to a bunch of health nuts teaching me about mundane subjects I’d already covered in Home Economics class at school. I had intellectual aspirations! I wanted a real challenge!
Then the career counsellor told me that dietetics was an honours course at the UCT Medical School, with strict entrance requirements and an extremely limited number of places available. Immediately my fiercely competitive streak perked up its ears and I applied for further information.
When I received the papers, it was like a light turning on inside my brain. Here was my future! The course in dietetics would offer me the key to unlocking the mystery of metabolism and would help me understand my passion for food. Not only that, but I could use the knowledge to help and encourage others who were going through what I had suffered as a teenager. I knew I had found my niche, and I was going to fight tooth and nail to be one of the 11 students accepted for the course.
I was crushed when I wasn’t accepted. But, once again, the hand of fortune was hovering nearby: one of the 11 students dropped out in the second month of the first semester, and I was contacted out of the blue by the UCT Dietetics Unit. Was I prepared to catch up all the work I had missed, they asked?
‘Yes!’ I shouted through disbelieving tears. I started that Monday. Now I had daily access to the knowledge I craved. For once, I could actually trust the information I was lapping up. It wasn’t coming from a women’s magazine, or from a fellow ballet dancer, or from the mouth of an unqualified diet club leader.
I became a scientist
This was science, and I couldn’t get enough of it. Dietetics quickly became my brain food: I binged on information about psychology, health and metabolism; I furiously gobbled up facts about disease and therapeutic dietetics; I chewed endlessly on data about drug-nutrient interactions, pathology and biochemistry.
Still my hunger for answers wasn’t satisfied. Secretly (for fear of being labelled obsessive) I began to extend my research interest. Using the medical school’s computer network, I scoured the world for information. The pile of research papers in my bedroom began to grow, yet I wasn’t content. There were too many unanswered questions about metabolism; too many theories that hadn’t been challenged; too many gaping holes in the big picture.
My interest in metabolism was further stimulated by my hospital internship. In my second year, I was introduced to an eccentric enthusiast, Professor Heinz Rode, who was looking for someone to research metabolism in paediatric burns patients (in burns patients, the metabolism goes into overdrive as the body tries desperately to recuperate).
Aware of the high regard in which the medical fraternity held Professor Rode, I accepted the challenge. I was immediately captivated by his passion for healing and his staggering knowledge. Professor Rode’s manner of bulldozing over medical pettiness and pedantic posturing sometimes intimidated people, but was a great inspiration to me. He would try any new method that could heal, and I greatly admired his courage to break new grounds in therapy. I was determined to learn as much as I could. He demanded much, but he gave me even more.
Specialising in metabolism
So I found myself gravitating gradually towards specialising in metabolism. But the more research papers about physiology, biochemistry and nutrition I read, the more I began to suspect that – let me put it this way -something was not adding up. My suspicions I kept to myself, however, for fear of being branded a heretic! Surely this was too good to be true? Was I going off at a futile tangent?
Bear with me, please: the penny has almost dropped.
One Saturday morning, I was lying in the sun in the garden of my little home in Cape Town, musing over my suspicions and scribbling diagrams on little scraps of paper. Then, in a flash, it all fell perfectly into place: Carbohydrates can physiologically help you burn fat. Carbohydrates call help make you thin.
Papers scattered into the swimming pool and I leapt up and ran to the kitchen.
There I was, in the middle of the afternoon, giggling maniacally as I opened a beer, but I had to celebrate. I had cracked the problem. I could now explain – at least in theory -why I had been a skinny over-eater as a child. Why eating so little as a teenager hadn’t worked in the long term. Why my personality and behaviour had changed so radically while I was living on starvation rations. Why a level-headed child changed into a food-obsessed teenager with a severe eating disorder.
I could finally explain to others that they and I had been conned by magazines by diet clubs, by self-appointed nutritional gurus, by hundreds of best-selling diet books. Best of all, I could make it my life’s work to ensure that other people wouldn’t have to suffer the rigours of low-calorie diets ever again.
I sat down and wrote a five -page plan that pulled all the medically proven facts I had assembled into a concrete proposal. At two o’clock the next morning my proposal was complete. It looked innocent enough lying on my desk, but to me it represented the eerie silence of the lull before a storm. I was going to explode the diet myth. I knew how to do it, and I was quite sure of my facts.
My proposal for a Master’s thesis and PhD was accepted by the University of the Witwatersrand and, even better, an offering of substantial funding for the research was made. In the meantime, I set up a part-time practice as a clinical dietician in Johannesburg, specialising in metabolism and associated disorders, including diabetes, hypoglycaemia, cholesterol and obesity. But the practice grew more quickly than I had anticipated, and I was forced to make a choice between finishing my research or expanding my practice to work full time. I chose the latter.
Treated over 3000 patients
Since then, I’ve treated over three thousand patients using as a basis the information laid out in my original student proposal, and have done so with great success, as my patients will attest. Not only have they shed the excess fat and kept it off, but many have seen a remarkable improvement in many debilitating ailments linked with the common metabolic disorder known as Syndrome X.
The astounding success of this nutritional approach has taken even me, its most ardent adherent, by surprise: it’s delicious, it’s easy to follow, it’s good for your health. And I promise: it really works.