Opinion: I wasn't born big

Intense diets don’t work, weight management isn’t about ‘willpower,’ and your self-worth isn’t determined by the scale, writes Obesity Matters' Priti Chawla.

Priti Chawla 5 minute read October 14, 2021
priti chawla

Priti Chawla is the head of Obesity Matters, a Toronto-based group dedicated to changing the conversation around obesity. SUPPLIED

I was not born big. In fact, my parents were on the slim side. We lived in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India with my grandparents and ate fresh, unprocessed food all the time. I still remember the colourful home cooked meals that we got to enjoy: yellow curried cauliflower, green saag paneer (spinach cheese), brown chicken masala and rice pilaf with saffron strands.

When we entertained, my grandmother would spend a lot of time making sure the buffet table looked visually appealing for guests so they could see it before they chose what they wanted to eat. That made me realize the importance of presentation when cooking.

I can’t recall when I started gaining weight, maybe after I hit puberty. But when I was around 14, I realized I needed to lose weight, and that’s when my struggles began. My mom felt sorry for me. She felt bad that I had to be on a diet for the rest of my life, but she did her best to help and make sure my meals included plenty of salads.

The problem was when I would get hungry, I would often reach for cheese, chips and other savoury items that was usually reserved for guests — only to feel terribly guilty immediately afterward. I made sure no one would see me indulging and often avoided eating meals with my family.

Despite that, I learned the value of eating meals at the proper time with family — a practice I made sure to implement with my own children. These meals are something I now cherish because it helped my kids become conscious of the value of unprocessed, home cooked meals.

The rest of my teenage years were a constant struggle as one of the ‘chubbier’ girls in school. I was often a victim of weight bias and discrimination from students and teachers alike. I went on strict diets and exercise routines, but it never lasted, and I regained any weight I lost. This was frustrating and affected my self-esteem, which I struggle with to this day.

I went to a private, all-girls school and did not have much male interaction. Occasionally we would have ‘mixed parties’, but the boys never asked me to dance or date because they gravitated to the slimmer and (I assumed) ‘prettier’ girls.

In my family, marriages were mostly arranged, and I did not fit many people’s criteria for slim and beautiful. I remember my aunt once telling me that I was too fat to get a husband.

But I did.

I met my future husband when I was 21. When I became pregnant, I was particular about staying active and eating wholesome, healthy food. I had my struggles, but it taught me to stay disciplined with my diet and habits — something that has held me in good stead over the years.

I learned that environmental factors can also have an impact on weight. When I moved to Canada 30 years ago, I followed my usual eating patterns and put on 10 pounds in one month. Was it the climate – going from plus 32C in India to –20C here? Or was it the quality of ingredients? Regardless, I realized I had to make significant changes to my food habits since there were so many more choices in Canada, especially when it came to processed foods.

But like many other people, I soon became a victim of diet culture. I tried the Atkins diet. Then the Paleo diet. And every other carb-restricting diet only to get frustrated when I plateaued. My body would crave carbs and I would get lightheaded.

To battle that, I now make sure meal prep is part of my week. My favourite Saturday routine is going to the St. Lawrence farmer’s market in Toronto and spending the day prepping meals. Not only do I get to prepare nutritious and delicious meals, which are visually appealing too (thanks, Grandma), but it keeps me from reaching for processed and take-out food. My journey has been one of lessons learned and skills acquired — and learning to cook was maybe the most important one.

I now know that a healthy lifestyle is essential for physical and mental well-being, and that’s why I started Obesity Matters — an organization that supports and advocates for the health and wellbeing of those who are going through the same struggles as me, every day. Our goal is to empower Canadians affected by obesity to self-advocate for medical care, work toward a society without weight bias, and drive policy change.

We hope to advance patient care and well-being through evidence-based education and get obesity recognized in Canada as the chronic disease that it is. We are also determined to address childhood obesity and the urgency to act now to improve the welfare of our children and youth.

I am passionate about obesity because it is so personal for me. It took a long time for me to learn that food is not my enemy and that making nutritious food in delicious ways is a winning combination.

The road to lasting change is paved with personalized information, support from friends and family, and the development of skills and routines which become rewarding lifestyle habits. Intense diets don’t work, weight management isn’t about ‘willpower,’ and your self-worth isn’t determined by the scale.

At Obesity Matters, your struggles are our struggles. Hopefully you will join our movement and help us change the conversation around obesity.

Priti Chawla, is the executive director of Obesity Matters and can be reached at priti@obesity-matters.ca.