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Are you skinny fat?

Your weighing scale may be hiding a host of health issues from you

At 18, I was tall and skinny, and no matter how much I ate, my weight never really budged from a happy 45 kilos. The sandwich vendor outside my college was so keen on fattening me up he would add an extra cube of cheese for free. When I started to gain weight in my 20s, I didn’t really notice it. It didn’t hit me even when I’d put on almost 15 kilos in five years, although I didn’t fit into my old clothes, because in my head I was still that skinny teenager who could eat whatever she wanted. Like everyone else, I too believed that being skinny was equal to being healthy.

At 31, I was working a hectic job at a very successful magazine, when I found myself suffering from breathlessness and palpitations. Often it felt like there was a giant hand squeezing my chest. After some prodding from my fiancé, I consulted a doctor friend, Samrat Shah, who is also a metabolism consultant. He put me through a battery of tests, and sat me down for a long chat about all the stressors in my life, my work-life balance, and my health and fitness goals (I had none, in case you were wondering). The tests returned and my cholesterol levels were through the roof. I was shocked… he wasn’t.

I couldn’t wrap my head around the diagnosis: wasn’t cholesterol a middle-aged-man kind of problem? I weighed about 62 kg then, just a couple of kilos more than the ‘ideal’ for my height. After some research (and some stern words from Shah) I learnt something new: my problem wasn’t weight, it was chronic stress, a condition that can alter the way the body metabolises fat, spike levels of bad cholesterol or LDL (low-density lipoprotein) and reduce the good HDL (high-density lipoprotein). Stress kick-starts the body’s fight-or-flight mechanism and stimulates the release of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. These, in turn, increase the production of triglycerides and free fatty acids, which over time boost the bad cholesterol.

My doctor gave me an ultimatum: reduce my cholesterol in the next two months through a lifestyle change, or go on medication. He outlined a seemingly simple plan that involved cutting down on stress at work, maintaining a healthy diet and starting some sort of exercise routine, preferably yoga. I didn’t really understand the gravity of the situation till Shah proceeded to write a letter to my boss saying that I needed to resign because of a medical problem. It was almost as if I was being told I couldn’t do it, like I was being dared to prove otherwise.

I took a month off and set about changing my diet. Bye-bye, tasty things. Hello, green tea. I researched healthy recipes and made meticulous meal plans. It really helped that my fiancé decided to get on the same program as me. That way there was some motivation to grit my teeth and survive all the wonderfully healthy, but terribly unexciting meals. Around the second week, I realised it was impossible to sustain this plan. So I found a few ways around it. Raw almonds were depressing as a 4pm snack, so I starting roasting them. I scratched that itch for junk food with dry bhel. Basically, I swapped some bad stuff for some good, and just practised eating more mindfully. This new, less ambitious plan just ‘fit’ much better.

Next up was fitness. After a week at The Yoga Institute in Mumbai (Theyogainstitute.org), I found myself actually loosening up. It started with a physical change. The yoga helped release tension from my body; it relaxed my muscles and eased the stiffness in my shoulders, neck and back. I felt lighter, easier in my body. I was so thrilled, I signed up for another week at a health centre in Lonavala, Kaivalyadham (Kdham.com). The yoga was more intense, the naturopathy sessions helped ease away every little ache and pain, and I was introduced to pranayam, yogic breathing exercises that I still use to get through stressful situations. My month of healthful living flew by and soon, I was back at work, shining with resolve.

The first two weeks were awful. I’d forgotten that my role hadn’t changed, the volume of work was still formidable and all the old stressors were still around. Every single day I struggled to find time for yoga, for pranayam, to plan meals, to just breathe! It took over a month to bring some semblance of order to my life. Instead of trying to do yoga at home, I carried my yoga clothes to the office. Whenever there was a small break, I’d hurry to the office gym and do a quick 20-minute session. I hired a cook and that took the guesswork out of lunch hour.

Most importantly, I let go of the illusion that I was in control of all that happened at the office. I could only control myself, and how I reacted to situations. I started to identify the trigger points and found ways to cope. And honestly, this was the hardest part of my journey. Yoga and healthy eating was all very well, but stress took me right back to square one.

Bit by bit, I inched myself into a more positive space and two months later, it was time to see Shah again. To my immense relief, the tests showed that my cholesterol levels were closer to normal. My doctor was happy, (relative) peace reigned at work and I was even beginning to enjoy green tea. But, five years later, this new way of life can still feel like a struggle sometimes.

Every few weeks I have to remind myself why I’m doing this. Fitness has never really figured as a priority in my life before and unlike friends who battled weight problems, I wasn’t ever offered free health advice from well-meaning strangers at every turn. I was encouraged to eat what I wanted, sit at my desk for hours and finish everyone’s dessert. It took almost a long time for me to figure out that being fit is not about losing weight or having a flat stomach, it’s about treating myself right, no matter what the scales say. 

Photograph: Polito Gustavo