Maverick Life

Opinionista

In the grip of obesity and a lifetime of self-loathing, Ozempic is the Holy Grail

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Charmain Naidoo is a journalist and media strategist.

As the hit drug makes Hollywood stars miraculously thin(ner) in a cruel body-shaming world, I’ve seized the chance to follow their lead and try to conquer obesity.

There is not a person on the planet with a few kilograms to lose who does not dream of a quick fix to their problem.

My own wish includes an abracadabra spell that gives the nod to almond croissants and cream buns for breakfast and makes exercise and “cheat days” unnecessary since every day is “cheat day”. It’s a throb, a pulse in your throat, this desire for a magic potion that lets you eat what you want to and stay flat-stomach slender.

If that elixir came in the form of an easy-to-swallow pill, how much better – one that would release the brakes and let you eat as much chocolate, chips and ciabatta as you want.

That dream finally moved into the realm of the possible – only, the elixir came in the form of a self-administered injection.

I first learnt of this secret fat-busting weapon when US media personality Kim Kardashian wore a tiny, body-­­­­hugging Marilyn Monroe dress to the Met Gala, announcing that she’d lost 7kg in two weeks to fit into it.

Eyebrows were raised. All Kim’s effort? Or some enchantment that she was keeping under wraps?

Quickly, rumours of how she’d achieved this rapid, extreme weight loss began doing the rounds on social media. Before long, tales of a miracle drug that dulled your desire to eat, that killed cravings, emerged.

Word of this miracle drug spread. Ozempic whispers grew into a hubbub and there was rejoicing in the world where thin equals happy. The fat world heaved a communal sigh of relief. Finally. A drug that made you thin. Hallelujah!

No matter that it was intended to treat type 2 diabetes; it was a way out of fat jail and into the world of thin freedom.

My own relief was palpable. Eight years ago I chose the extreme option of having bariatric surgery, an operation that resulted in a very quick loss of 55kg. I have put 20kg back on, most of it during cooped-up Covid. Ozempic heralded hope.

My Favourite Cousin, who lives nine time zones away, and I spend hours on WhatsApp, talking family and work, but mostly weight, diet, exercise, surgery, recipes and, well, food. The advent of Ozempic and Wegovy, in which the active ingredient is semaglutide, thrilled us.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Obesity and HIV – semaglutide should be rolled out in SA, says Dr Nomathemba Chandiwana

Now there are other brands – Saxenda, Trulicity, Mounjaro – using the ingredient tirzepatide. What they all have in common is that they give hope.

And a promise that once the weight has been lost, you can keep it off.

At last, we could be shadows of our former selves with very little effort. Or so we thought.

Favourite Cousin could more easily obtain Ozempic in her country nine time zones away. Her doctor happily provided a prescription, and she embarked on her journey.

A few months later her enthusiasm had waned. She’d lost no weight. She’d discovered that there was a catch: You had to eat healthily, control portion size and embark on a fairly rigorous exercise regimen for the drug to work.

Favourite Cousin was unimpressed. The drugs are expensive (R2,722 for a month’s supply of four 1mg subcutaneous injections that have to be jabbed into your fat bits). The side­-effects – burping, farting, nausea, acid reflux – were embarrassing. And you have to diet and exercise along with it? Is it worth it, Favourite Cousin complained through the ether.

I thought so. When the drug became available in South Africa and my doctor suggested it, I jumped at the chance and began the weekly injections. Unlike my cousin, I had no side effects at all.

And so I waited: For the craving for sugar and carbohydrates to vanish. It did not. Nope, no change there.

It must be admitted: At the time I made no major lifestyle changes. I ate as I normally did.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Ozempic means junk-food manufacturers need course correction

And then I saw weight loss results en masse on the red carpet at the Oscars. It felt like watching the television reality show The Biggest Loser.

Ozempic was one of the winners at Hollywood’s most glamorous party, in a category of its own, as star after normally thin movie star appeared thin(ner), beaming through narrower-cheeked faces, revealing more flesh and collarbones than ever before.

You know something has been given a global stamp of approval when renowned television talk show host Oprah Winfrey owns up to using it.

After nearly a year of silence and massive weight loss, she admitted using the drug to maintain her weight loss, announcing that she’d finally learnt that obesity is a disease – that it’s not about willpower, but about the brain.

I buy into that theory.

A mean girl once told me I have the snout of a truffle pig – only I sniff out calorie-laden food instead of the fruiting body of a sub­terranean ascomycete fungus, the mighty truffle.

It’s both unkind and true – far worse things have been said to me about me, all of them irrefutable.

And it’s also a little unfair. I am not greedy, out of control or undisciplined, the things people often say to fat people with disgust in their throat as they pull disapproving faces.

As Oprah says, I don’t just like carbohydrates and sugar; I need them. In true addict style, I crave them and am never sated, always wanting more – more bread, more chocolate, more, more, more.

I don’t have a stop button in my head that says okay, enough.

And so I am, and have been my whole life, fat. Apparently it’s a bad word these days and you could be cancelled for using it. But I’m not big-boned or sturdy or statuesque or plus-sized, though I am that too: I’m fat.

I’ve lived with fat-­shaming all my life. When I was five, starting out at big little school, a boy – whose mother washed his straight-as-a-pike hair in bitter orange shampoo that made him smell citrusy – called me Blobby.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Obesity in South Africa — experts explain how inequality is driving the surge

Before long, the class had joined in, the way children do, walking around with blown-out cheeks and rounded arms, giving Blobby body. That I was plump and asthmatic, huffing and puffing my way through running games at playtime, didn’t help.

The story being told about obesity is changing. In the same way that alcoholism was declared a disease by the World Health Organization in the 1950s, obesity appears to now have the same status.

Now the common wisdom is that obesity may be the result of hedonistic overeating where the arousal of the pleasure centre in the brain makes one want to recapture the high that sugar, fat and carbs give. The definition of addictive behaviour.

Looking at smug photographs of thin Oprah, Mindy Kaling, Whoopi Goldberg, Kelly Clarkson – the list is long – I decided it was time.

I’ve joined an aqua aerobics class and have started walking three times a week. I’m cutting back on the carbs and sugar and slowly becoming less squeamish about stabbing myself in the stomach once a week.

It’s time to end a lifetime of humiliation and self-loathing.

Ozempic is the new Holy Grail. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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  • Johan Buys says:

    The body is not much different from a car. If you keep on adding 50 liters a week of fuel but only drive 250km a week, the tank will overflow.

    I’m not saying it is easy. But this is literally a life & death choice. You do not see fat 95y olds often.

    Try drinking 750ml of water before you eat anything whether meal or snack. Take stairs instead of elevator and take them two at a time. Walk briskly instead of slow shuffle. Start walking 15min outward and back every day and see how over time that turn point gets further. Then go 20min and later 30min. An hour a day is not a big ask. Listen to music or podcasts to counter the boredom.

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