Barely a year or so ago, he couldn't walk five steps without resting, needed belt extensions in aircraft, couldn't lie down for sleeping and had to travel with a custom-made wheelchair. Today, he enjoys playing tennis and squash.
Meet Adnan Sami, the singer-music composer, whose extraordinary transformation is the stuff that inspiring stories are made of. He lost a whopping 130 kilos in a span of one year - a feat that few can imagine, leave alone achieve. Interview excerpts:
Manoj Khatri: What is obesity? How serious is it? How does it affect a person?
Adnan Sami: It is very serious, but I did not know the seriousness of obesity till my nutritionist told me.
When I signed up for losing weight, they did a lot of tests on me to check my reaction to various foods. What I realised is that it's all in the mind. Everything you think and do affects your health. For some people, even if they smell food they put on weight [like me].
Every person reacts differently to different foods, and situations. Nutritionists analyse all your habits as a person - physical, physiological and emotional. They make you change your lifestyle, and do not make you feel that you are on a diet.
It was a tough call for me. I was put on a no-sugar, no-rice, no-bread, no-oil diet; only high protein. They asked me questions like, "What do you do when you are sad, or happy." My answer to both was: "I eat!" I associated food with every emotion. It was difficult then. I had no self-control. When I was depressed, I used to eat and then feel guilty, and again eat. It was a vicious cycle. It was difficult to get out of this. You lose confidence.
There is another important factor that my nutritionist pointed out. Obesity can be genetic [disorder] and that is what people don't understand. They simply pass comments like, "Ah, what a careless person." But people are genetically different and that is also true for their eating habits. We know some people who eat a lot, but still do not put on weight, and for some, eating small portions also amounts to a lot of calories [their body makes a mountain of a molehill]. The body set-up and chemistry is different for each person, and it reacts in a different way to every food.
Obesity is as much a disease as any other physical disorder. Today, people are sensitive and sympathetic towards those who suffer from drug or alcohol addiction, but they don't realise that obesity is as serious an addiction. which is why people go to rehabs or controlled-environment farms. But, what happens is that you follow those rules only till you are there; the moment you are out, you go out and party, and start hogging.
People look down upon obese individuals and make fun of them. You don't make fun of a person's physical disability—if they're handicapped, blind, short, tall; it's not their fault. This is true for obesity, too. Many times, for most people, especially for those who are morbidly obese, it is not that they are just over-indulgent, but they seriously have a mental/physical problem. Hence, people need to be made aware and educated as there is a lot of ignorance about this aspect.
The first few weeks are always the most difficult. Can you share your experience when you started your weight loss programme?
For the first month-and-an-half or so, I went through serious withdrawals—just like any person with an addiction goes through. There are so many things that we take for granted. For example, we walk into the kitchen, open the fridge, and just stare at it. We have nothing better to do, so we indulge. It's all calories. To discourage me, my mom stuck two fridge magnets—one right on the handle saying, "STOP! FAT HERE!" —like a traffic sign. The other said: "A Moment on the Lips, Forever on the Hips."
In the US today, obesity is acknowledged as a certified disease. So, they treat it with seriousness. It is a huge problem in the US, the most obese nation in the world. India is not far away. People in India are unaware, and it is time that they start taking care. Because the US is aware of the obesity problem, there is a parallel diet food industry that runs there. Today, you will find a diet solution to every kind of food. You even have one per cent [fat] milk there.
Coming back to your question, my nutritionist came up with all possible options for me to snack. Rather than grabbing potato chips and going crazy with them, I could have home-made popcorn without butter, may be with a little salt. She asked me whether I liked ice-cream. I looked at her and said, "Hey look at me and get serious. Do I look like the kind of person who doesn't like Ice-Cream?" [laughs]. She said, "OK fine, whenever you feel hungry, or you are watching a movie, instead of having a chocolate ice-cream, grab diet fudge sticks [they are made of fudge chocolate], but they have only 30 calories. You also get a lot of diet ice lollies which have only 20 calories; soft drinks with one calorie with different flavours." I suddenly discovered a whole new world. So, whenever I had those cravings, I grabbed these things and they helped me pull along the initial stages. By the time I was ready to come back to Mumbai [after three months], I was following a diet regime which I had settled into. After that, when the scale starts talking to you, and starts coming down, it gives you encouragement and energy.
What has been people's reaction to your weight loss?
A lot of times people say to me, "Oh my gosh, you have lost 130 kilos. Why didn't you do it before?" But, they don't understand that if I could have, I would have. The point is, first of all, it took me Herculean strength to build up the courage and the mental strength to go through such a task. Frankly, in the beginning, I didn't think I was up to the job. I saw this huge mountain in front of me and said: "How the hell am I going to climb it?" At that time, I had tried [to diet] and failed so many times. I would break my resolve within a week's time! The kind of profession I am in, there is always something or the other happening. There are parties, functions to attend, we travel a lot, and it was difficult to stick to the diet.
Did obesity affect your professional life? If yes, how?
Oh, yes, it did, absolutely. Take travel, for instance. In my profession, airports figure very prominently as we have to travel a lot. There was a time when I used to love travelling a lot, because I have grown up in that kind of atmosphere, where we have lived in different parts of the world. We have travelled extensively, exploring new cities. But, a point came when travelling became my biggest mental block—my biggest fear and nightmare—because of the big airports where there is a lot of walking involved and I used to hate it. Not being able to travel was affecting my profession.
I couldn't fit into the chair of the aircraft. My biggest fear used to be: will I be able to fit into that aircraft chair? It was so frightening for me. Then I began to choose airlines where I would still feel a little bit comfortable as they had bigger seats. Then a point came when even in those I was starting to barely fit. I had to make an effort, and hold my breath to sink in. There was even an occasion where I didn't fit into a seat in the first class and so I had to shift to Economy and pull up the middle armrest and use two seats together. It was very upsetting and embarrassing. Then I used to weep within myself and wonder what I have got myself into. Even then, I wouldn't be able solve it.
I had to [then] use a wheel chair at the airport and a time came when I used to not fit in airport wheel chairs because they were too small for me. So, I had to get a wheel chair custom-made, which used to travel with me wherever I went. If I had to walk [I am talking about the last stage before I went on diet] I had to use a walking stick. A lot of people thought I was making it up. But, the fact of the matter is that I actually had a walking stick. My legs had become so weak that they couldn't carry my weight. It was really terrible, terrible.
Where did you derive your emotional and mental strength from, especially during the period when you were consciously losing weight?
When you have a sword hanging over your head—the doctors had given me the ultimatum that, "We give you six months, that's it"—it's inspiration enough. I had tremendous support from my family: my father, brother, mother. They held my hand through it all, and it couldn't have happened without them. They were there for me 24x7. I remember when I lost my first 5-10 kilos, all of them were like, "Wow, you look so different," and I looked in the mirror saying "From where? What are they talking about?" They'd say, "I tell you, those trousers, they look a little bit loose from here," and I used to wonder, "May be, I can't see it." But, that really worked for me. When I would have a craving they used to say, "Hey, listen you are here, it has already begin to show; now you can't stop it," and that used to keep me from giving it up. So, my family encouraged me tremendously.
They were also with me in tangible ways. Like in the beginning, I was not in a position to exercise. I was too big for that. The initial exercise we used to do was to arrive at a shopping mall and I used to walk five steps, then stop and continue. During those five walking steps, my father and brother would be right next to me, to support me in case I lost balance. My legs had become so weak, that suddenly I would have a spasm and my legs would suddenly say, "No!" They were standing next to me to take care, in case I plummet. For me, even standing was an exercise.
What was your state of mind just before you determined to get rid of obesity?
At the time when I was given the ultimatum [May 2006], it took me a lot between then and the first week of July to mentally condition myself to do this. My initial reaction was, "Okay, well if this is it, I cannot control it. If I have to go, everybody has to go someday." I didn't have the courage. I believed that I couldn't do it. I had tried it so many times earlier and I had become so addicted to it. You will not believe, I was given the ultimatum and I went straight after that consultation and hogged at a buffet. That was the reaction. Initially, I didn't want to even face the truth. My reaction was, "Ha, what a melodramatic doctor! I am not going to die because of eating, what does he know!" But, deep inside my heart, I knew whatever he said was so right because I knew how I was living. I knew I couldn't sleep, or even lie down on the bed. I was sleeping on the sofa, sitting posture. As a result, I developed lymphodoema [swelling of the legs], water retention, my body was swollen, and my legs were "blown" because the blood was not pumping up properly. I was in a bad state.
You know, there are two types of fat, one which is just beneath the skin and one underneath the muscle. The fat that I had developed beneath the muscle was dangerous; it had started to push into my diaphragm and ultimately ended up pushing into my lungs. So, breathing became very difficult for me, which is why I couldn't lie down. As I would lie down, it would automatically push up and get into my lungs causing difficulty in breathing. As a result, I had to get up and allow gravity to pull it down. I also became an asthmatic, and this was really a nightmare.
I remember speaking to my dad that this is it. "Dad, listen, I just wanted you to know that I have lived my life and enjoyed everything. So, if I go there should be no regrets, because I have lived life a king and enjoyed every indulgence in the world." Imagine my father listening to this nonsense from his son. He didn't pay attention to what I said. He just shook me up, and said, "Damn you, I am not going to take this. I am not listening to this nonsense; you are going to get out of this. You have been through all kinds of trials and tribulations and have come out of it, and you have been a fighter all through. I am not going to let you go down like this. You are going to give me six months of your life. Today, I am exercising my right as a father to order you to give me six months. You are not doing anything else; otherwise, I am walking out of your life."
So, he gave me an ultimatum of a different kind. Then, we started negotiating. I said I can't give six months, I have work to do. He said, "Work can go to hell. How will you work without your health?" He was right. Ultimately, we negotiated it down to three months. He put a condition: "For these three months, there's no work or anything else. You are going to forget the world and solely be there for me."
I went to Houston and shut myself from the world. The night before I was to hand over my diet to the nutritionist, she turned to me and said, "All right, tonight you will have your last indulgent meal and after that you will follow whatever I am saying." So, she said go out there and eat whatever you want for the last time. I remember I had a huge feast that day. I call that my "last supper". The next day, I started. And, the rest is history.
When did you begin to feel "it's working!"?
Initially, I couldn't exercise, it was only diet. So, for the first two months it was only dieting and just doing very minor walks. It was only after I lost my first 40 kilos that I was in a position to start doing the treadmill. To be honest, I did not feel that I could run even 100 metres, but I began to realise little things like I could lie down. Initially, I could lie down only with the help of pillows at the back where I'd stretch my legs and needed help getting into and out of the bed. So, I started noticing small changes like I could lie down, sleep longer, my sleep apnoea was beginning to disappear slowly, I could stand longer [Hey, I got up on my own today. I didn't need two people to help me out]. It was very gradual. Then, as I moved forward, things began to get better and better.
Today, I play tennis and squash. I love travelling again and don't have to travel by Economy. I don't need belt extensions any more. Earlier, the belts didn't fit me. These are things you don't even think of. I used to get a belt extension and even that used to be at its tail-end. I used make that bigger sometimes. So, now, I don't need them. Basically, I can lead a normal life. These are things that we take for granted, but they did happen to me, and it was terrible. Recently, I was in Malaysia and I even went sailing and had a great time. I am enjoying it. Sometimes you have to reach rock-bottom to come back, because you can't go any further.
If I were to ask you to divide in terms of percentage, how much was it mental and how much physical?
70 per cent is mental; only 30 per cent physical/physiological. So, I think it is more mental than physical. Our body has enough reserves to go without food. Most of the times, our mind controls the stomach.
There are occasions when your stomach is sending you a signal that I am full, but your eyes are saying: one more. Wo kahte hain na, pet ki bhuk khatam ho gayi par aankhon ki nahi [It is said that stomach's hunger may end but the eyes are still hungry]. It's exactly that. Your eyes and mind are tempting you whereas your stomach is saying, "Hey, hang on, I am full, I cannot take it," and your mind says, "Shut up, I am sending it down, so deal with it! I am sure you will find a place...do something, negotiate with your intestines and create some space, but I want that damn thing down!" That is another problem we face: the mind and the body are two separate things, and are often not in agreement.
After I started my weight loss programme, attending parties became a nightmare. Imagine going to a party where you can't eat or drink! I used to sit there with a glass of water. Initially I felt weird about it. I didn't want to tell people about my diet. Nobody ever imagined at a party that I am sitting there with a glass of water. People used to walk up to me and say, "Oh, since when did you switch to vodka?" They could never perceive that I could be standing with a glass of water, because I usually would have Scotch or something. became sick of that and if anybody asked I would say, yes I am having vodka.
Yet another problem was when I went to somebody's house for dinner. Our culture is such: "You've hardly eaten anything. Here, have some more," and things like that. I used to keep a huge pile of food on my plate and the host would look and say, "He is going to have a good time today." Then I would quietly put the plate away without so much as a bite. And, if anybody asked, I would say, "Didn't you see? I finished off my plate" They used to agree because they saw me with full plate a while ago. But, to have the ability to put it away is difficult, and that's where the mental strength comes in. So, yes, 70 per cent of the effort was mental.
As far as the body is concerned, it does not suddenly get into spasms and say [makes a desperate face], "No, I need that brownie, now!" The body has plenty of reserves.
Physical changes are evident. But, in what ways has the experience changed you mentally, emotionally and spiritually?
Spiritually, I look at this as a second lease of life from God. My faith and belief in God has become more profound. It is said that God helps only those who help themselves—it could not have been truer than this situation. I tried, I worked hard, and God helped me. I feel that my effort could've lost me only five kilos; my belief is that God helped me lose the rest. I feel that God has rewarded me. It is not just the question of losing 130 kg, but doing it in a year's time is an effort worth considering.
Emotionally, it has made me much stronger. It has also pumped in the most amazing amount of positive energy. It has made me believe that there is so much that one can achieve. Physically, too, it has made me more confident and amazingly more energetic.
I feel more in control of my life. I feel that I have my life back—the reins of my life are back in my hands. I am not anymore on board some kind of a runaway train which is out of control. This is an important factor for confidence.
I can be more spontaneous now. A small example: earlier, if my friends suggested that we go out to eat at a restaurant, I wasn't sure whether I will be comfortable there. I thought: what kind of chairs would they have, do they have chairs with armrest, or are they armless?; what if I don't fit in them, I don't want to walk out feeling embarrassed. These were the questions that came to my mind. I would agree only after confirming that the restaurant we were visiting had an armless chair, and if they don't, they would organise one. This may be a very small thing, but everything became a managed affair, a production. If I went for rehearsals, my chair would go before me, because I did not fit in those plastic ones they have. I didn't feel free. I couldn't travel alone. I needed a helper with me. I had become subservient to my physicality.
Today, if somebody has to suggest, "Let's go, and check out that place," my response is, "Hey I am game, let's go!" Today, I can get up and do whatever I want.
We take a lot of these things for granted and only realise their value when we are deprived of them. One more important thing is that you begin to value life. Today, I value every single thing that I am able to do, which I couldn't do before. Sometimes you value those things that are suddenly snatched away from you. Today, I value being able to walk into any store and find my size. Recently, I was in Kuala Lumpur and I loved the fact that I could walk into any designer store and pick up anything I liked. The funny thing was that in the past my size was 6X, and that size is not available anywhere, apart from those special plus-size stores and those were a handful in the States. So, everything was tailor-made for me. Even the tailor would require two tapes to measure me. So, whenever I would walk into any store and was lucky enough to find my size [and, 6X was the last size available], I would pick up anything, even if I didn't like it. That mental habit had become so apparent in my mind that I used to buy five of them, instead of one.
So now when I went to Kuala Lumpur, and I liked something, I was automatically picking five pieces. My wife said, "No, you don't need to, buy something else instead." I still insisted on buying five. She said forget, change that, you don't need to do that anymore. It took me a while for me to accept that I could actually do that.
I met my dad recently and complimented him on one of his shirts. He said "Listen, just try it if you like it." My reaction was, "Dad, are you crazy? Me fitting into your clothes?" He said, "Yes, you should be." I tried it and, wonder of wonders, I actually fit into my "normal father's normal shirt!"
Even today, when I see some new shirt, and get about to try it on, my first reaction is, "No way, it's too small for me. I won't fit in it." Because, I had been so used to those big, huge ones. And, suddenly when it fits, I feel: Wow!
It's a whole new world, and I feel great about it.
What would be your advice to our readers who are struggling to overcome a health challenge?
Two things: one, regardless of what your ailment is, always consult a professional, before you take any step. Go to the expert. Don't think that because Adnan Sami did this, it will work for me. Your body is different and may react differently. You need to find out from the expert what the issue is. Consult the relevant expert.
Two, if I can do it, anybody can. Because, I never thought I can do it. I am a living, breathing example of mind over matter.
Everybody, including me, had written me off. I proved to everyone, including me, wrong. If I can overcome it, anybody can.
This was first published in the September 2007 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
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