Overweight Dubai schoolboy Hamidreza Ebtekar used to eat “everything and anything” and spent almost half his waking hours playing games on his computer. The 16-year-old who, at his heaviest, weighed 92kg, was constantly teased about his appearance at school, but buried his misery by binge eating. He didn’t do any exercise, and constantly ate to feel better, leaving him at risk of becoming morbidly obese and increasing his risk of numerous associated diseases, including Type 2 diabetes, which many children in the UAE suffer from.
Last year, a nationwide survey of Emirati and expatriate schoolchildren by the Ministry of Health found that 15.5 per cent are obese, 39.2 per cent are overweight and 21 per cent are eating fast food three times or more per day. Childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the UAE, with children at increased risk of diabetes and hypertension. The World Health Organisation has called it “one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century”.
But it’s not just life-limiting physical illnesses and diseases that obese children are prone to. They may encounter bullying, which can lead to low self-esteem and depression. Hamidreza, from Jebel Ali, Dubai, understands these issues all too well. “I’d been struggling with weight issues for the past three years – I simply loved fast food and hated exercise,” he says. “When I wasn’t playing games on my computer, I was eating.
I loved cookies, chocolate, fried chicken, burgers, pizza – all the wrong kinds of food. “Although I knew people were making fun of my size and some of them said very hurtful things, I couldn’t find the willpower to give up these foods or do any exercise. And food wasn’t Hamid’s only problem. A lack of interaction with his peers saw him become increasingly alone. “I spent all my free time on the computer and it became a vicious circle, because then I had fewer friends and felt isolated, which led to me eating even more.
I sometimes spent up to ten hours at a time playing games on my laptop. “I was reluctant to go out to play because I lacked self-confidence. I was scared my friends would taunt me about my size, so I didn’t really want to communicate with anyone. When you’re online, no one can judge you. “If anyone said anything hurtful at school, when I got home I would just open the fridge and gorge on cake, ice cream, chocolates... It was my way of dealing with the pain.
“But there were moments when I felt bad about my size. I couldn’t wear the same kind of clothes as my friends because I was a size XL. “I realised I had to do something when my feet started hurting when I walked even short distances. I also developed pain in my ankles, because they were carrying my weight. It was a really low point.”
Luckily for Hamidreza, his mother read an article in Friday about an obese woman who’d lost half her body weight after having hypnotherapy. She knew her son was suffering because of his weight, so she contacted the hypnotherapist Russell Hemmings. “I had to do something to help him,” she says.
“I used to spot him late at night eating cookies, chocolate or chips – basically lots of junk food. I tried to dissuade him, but he was never able to stick to a proper diet. “I realised that Hamid wanted to change when he came over and hugged me one afternoon. He was sobbing, ‘I don’t want to be fat, but I don’t know what to do’. He looked really depressed and told me his legs were hurting and he couldn’t walk properly.
“I read the article on a hypnotherapist helping a woman lose weight, so I looked up Russell’s number and booked an appointment at his clinic in Dubai. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was willing to try it to help my son.” So Russel had four sessions with Hamidreza, in which he talked to him in detail about his diet, his fears, his relationship with food and where he wanted to be in the future.
The effect of the sessions was immediate. “I didn’t expect it to be so successful – or so easy,” says Hamidreza. “But once I had my first session, I couldn’t wait for the next.” Russell found it easy to connect to the teenager. “To be honest, I saw a lot of myself in Hamid. His mum said ‘you’re our last hope’ and I was determined to change his life,” he says. “During hypnosis, I get people to see themselves having achieved what they want to achieve, and allow them to experience the feelings that brings.
Then I take those feelings and apply them to the present, so they actually get the benefit before they’ve ever achieved it. “A lot of people can’t walk towards that future, because it seems so very far away, but I got Hamid to visualise himself thin and happy, and then to bring that into his current life.’’ The sessions had dramatic results. “I really liked the way it made me feel,” Hamidreza says, “I stopped eating chocolate straight away – I just didn’t want to eat it any more. Next went burgers and fries – I soon grew to detest them.
“Russell treated me like a friend, which made it easier to open up to him and share my fears and dreams. He seemed to know what I was going through, and I was sure he could set me on the right course. “After the first couple of weeks, I could see a change. My clothes were looser and I developed a passion for exercise. I joined a gym and began to work out on the treadmill and cycling machine. Russel even came with me for the first few times, which was hugely motivating.
“I began the hypnotherapy sessions before the school summer holidays, so I didn’t see anyone for around three months. It was good to surprise people when they saw me for the first time after I lost weight. My self-confidence was higher and a lot of people didn’t recognise me. “Now I work out every day and I love it. My favourite food is strawberries. I weigh 62kg and I wear S/M-sized clothes.
“My weight loss has had a huge impact on me, my family and my friends. They are all pleasantly surprised and happy to see the change in me. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”