Like most African men, I came to America as a skinny 160-pound dark-skinned young man full of life and zeal. And upon arrival to the States, the most-common advice one receives is to eat to gain weight and use good lotion to improve your skin tone. As far as I was concerned, no amount of lotion was going to help my skin, so as a result, I gave up on the latter advice. The first instruction, though, was very easy to keep.
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Mickey D’s and Walmart Experience
Coming from a place where we ate chicken on special occasions, such as Christmas, and had ice cream by the divine provision of God, America was the perfect description of a land flowing with milk and honey.
I remember my first visit to Walmart and seeing refrigerators full of ice creams, yogurt, shakes, and several other dairy products.
I stood in disbelief at the variety and their affordability: 10 containers of yogurt were selling for 3 dollars!
And of course, I got all 10.
I also could not resist the tantalizing whole chicken being roasted over open flames, especially when it was selling for under $5.
Roasted chicken and ice chilled coca cola was my favorite staple.
I loved ice cream, cookies, candies (toffee), and of course McDonalds.
I remember fumbling through my first order to find out I received a burger, fries, ketchup, and a drink.
I said to myself, I think they gave me too much.
Well, it turned out that was the typical serving. Even more impressive was the fact that if I went in to the restaurant, I could get unlimited refills on my drink.
This kind of life seemed completely unreal but that was the reality, and I loved it!
The ‘Rich’ Young Man
The Ghanaian dishes were no exception to my American experience. In Ghana, having a lot of meat on your plate was a sign of great wealth or social prominence.
Well, it turned out I could enjoy this cultural designation of wealth without actually being wealthy.
I became a carnivore overnight.
I loved beef in all of its varieties at the store. Back home in Ghana, I had to kill the chicken myself, take it through a gruesome cleaning process, and cut it up for use. Here, someone has been kind enough to cut up the chicken and package my favorite part: the drum sticks.
All I needed was salt and an oven and my drum sticks came out smoking!
Another one of my favorite delicacies was Kenkey, (cooked corn dough). The Ghanaian Kenkey in America was so soft and so rich in texture, how could I deny indulging in such greatness!
Even more amazing was that my kenkey supplier was a fellow church member, and so every other Sunday, I would stock up two weeks’ worth of this amazement!
Oh and life couldn’t get better with fufu. I was quite convinced the fufu flour was one of the best inventions ever. As a typical Ashanti man who loved his fufu, not having to boil and pound was just too convenient!
Of course I struggled with the soup initially but as long as I had enough meat, I counted it all a blessing.
Then Came the Weight
God indeed blessed me with “good” food…but He did not leave out the weight: Within a year, I had gained 20 pounds, and my waist size had gone from 34 to 36 inches.
With the weight gain, came endless praise: Everyone who saw me related how good I was looking to the extra weight I had gained.
When my family saw my new pictures, they were full of praise for God had “blessed” me. Within three years I had a pot belly.
Yes, in my late 20s, my abdomen was already ahead of me.
When people made comments about my belly being too big, my initial response was “Nyame ehyira mi,” (God has blessed me) or “eye sike fuo” (it is the belly of wealth).
Unfortunately, the excuses did not undo the reality.
My suits were getting too tight, my pants crawled up my thighs in to the most awkward places, and I completely avoided wearing shirts and pants because it put all my business out there, literally.
I resorted to suits and sweaters as they were better at hiding my “wealthy” silhouette.
None of the inconveniences, however, was enough motivation for me to stop me from eating recklessly or ignorantly, even though in college and medical school I was learning about all of the health implications of gaining excess weight.
In a typical African fashion, I completely dismissed the facts, saying my weight has nothing to do with my health and even if I became ill, God was going to heal me.
A Good Marriage Didn’t Help Either…
As Africans, one of the best ways of saying, “I love you,” is through food, good food! A good wife is expected to serve her husband the most delicious meal she can cook every day.
My wife, being a product of the women’s ministry in her local church, had adopted this creed. I came home from work every night looking forward to her latest assembly of food.
After enjoying her one-in-a million jollof rice, we would always get a nice dessert, which was always in our freezer compartment. After supper, we would sit around catching up on the days’ events or just watching television.
Physical activity had no role in our lives.
The weekend was my turn to say, “I love you,” at the dining table: I went all out from breakfast to supper. My specialty was pancakes, with sausage, bacon, and a four egg omelet (Kyibom- Fried together).
Certainly life was good. I was blessed with a good marriage and everything that came with it.
The Wake-Up Call
My wake-up call came after the birth of my second daughter, when I went to the store to get a new pair of pants. I had a rude awakening when I could no longer fit in to the size 36. I had to get a size 38!
The next size after 38 was 40, which implied I would have met one of the criteria for diagnosing metabolic syndrome, a condition which increases the risk of heart disease. When I made it home, I decided to get on the scale, and again, to my utmost surprise it read, “207.4 lbs.”
I had gained 47.4 pounds since coming to America some 12 years ago!
I had to lose weight.
There were no questions or excuses to make at this time, even though I was quite skeptical about the idea of going to the gym every day. To complicate issues, as a medical resident and a Father of two, I knew I was not going to be able to accommodate the gym with such a busy schedule.
But I did it anyway, and in six months, I lost 30 pounds….
Watch Antwi-Boasiako discuss making healthy choices in the African immigrant community here:
(Look for the continuation of Samuel Antwi-Boasiako‘s experience next week.)