Nara Hojayeva
Nara Hojayeva Image Credit: Supplied

“The first time somebody told me ‘you’ve became fat’, I was 16 years old,” says Turkmenistan-born and Dubai-raised expat Nara Hojayeva.

By the time she was 20, she had begun to Google terms such as ‘quick weight loss’ and ‘how to get fit fast’. The 168-centimetre tall expat weighed 85kg at the time. (As per US-based Weight Watcher’s, the ideal weight of a woman of this height is between 56kg and 71kg.)


“I was young, I was not aware of how nutrition works. Even pre-pregnancy, I had conditions, you know, polycystic ovary syndrome. It's difficult to get pregnant when you have the condition if you don't lose weight. So I did proper nutrition, a lot of sports but still, it could not help me to reach the point where I would be satisfied with my weight loss,” she recalls.

What is polycystic ovary syndrome?
US-based Mayo Clinic explains: “Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a hormonal disorder common among women of reproductive age. Women with PCOS may have infrequent or prolonged menstrual periods or excess male hormone (androgen) levels. The ovaries may develop numerous small collections of fluid (follicles) and fail to regularly release eggs.
“The exact cause of PCOS is unknown. Early diagnosis and treatment along with weight loss may reduce the risk of long-term complications such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.”

Years passed as Hojayeva battled her weight and then in 2018, she found herself – much to her delight – pregnant. “During pregnancy, I definitely could not control myself, my cravings, and the way I wanted to eat all the time. But everybody told me, ‘Don't worry, after you give birth and you will breastfeed and you will lose all the baby fat’, and so on. But when I started breastfeeding, I was even hungrier! I was constantly hungry and I gained weight, lots of it,” she says. She went from 74kg to 110 kg.

“I had tried all the diets of the world even before getting pregnant, you know, like keto, vegetarian, non-vegetarian. And I really could not understand what was wrong with my body – [I had spent] more than 10 years talking to dieticians and nutritionists, trying to understand why my body was not like others’. If I ate a little bit of bread or pasta I would gain weight very fast … I used to think that something is wrong with my body. I did all the blood tests to understand what was wrong with me. I had no I had no issues with gluten or anything, but I kept convincing myself that something was wrong with me,” she says ruefully.

What is a keto diet?
The keto, or ketogenic, diet calls for carbohydrate restriction while upping the amount of protein and fat that one consumes. This leads to a body producing a chemical called ketones that use fat instead of carbohydrates for energy.

“I always felt huge, the biggest one in the room, regardless if I was pregnant or not pregnant; I started avoiding friends, avoiding people, because even friends would unconsciously say, ‘Oh, you're bigger than your baby’. Such messages hurt really badly,” she adds.

Finally though when she found herself starring into an exhausting abyss, she decided to take matters into her own hands. “I was worried [when I was overweight] because my vitamin B 12 was abnormally high and I was battling it through weight loss because as B 12 increases, there are higher chances of cancer. It was only in April last year that things stabilised for me,” she recalls.

Finding triggers

“I started investigating myself to learn what works for me and how nutrition works,” she says. And she began to understand her triggers:

  • Restriction: Giving up a specific food group – as diets push towards – caused Hojayeva to binge eat often on, undoing the progress she had made.
  • Boredom: “If I would go to the dieticians or nutritionists, I would explain to them about my likes and dislikes,” she says. And they would plan a menu taking some of that into consideration. The problem – they would hand over a specific meal plan and expect the same dishes to be followed day after day, week after week. They would say, ‘you can come back when you lose 10kg’, but until you lose 10kg to be on the same menu, it was a struggle,” she explains.
  • Stress: Stress can trigger bouts of emotional eating and a run at comfort food rich in fatty, sweet concoctions, leading to more weight gain.

“What I was doing wrong is that I was restricting food and I was just following diets, which was not within my comfort zone.”

Revising relationships

She realised that what she needed was to change her relationship with food. “Today, there is no such thing as good food and bad food in our house,” she says.

“I don't like to plan my meal one week ahead. I just go to grocery, I look what I really feel eating, I buy the stuff. And then on the days I’m in the mood to cook, I cook and freeze meals. Because during the weekdays, I don't have much time to do it. But if I feel like I have an urge to eat something very special then I cook it on the day, definitely,” Hojayeva says.

This doesn’t mean anything goes – there is method to this behaviour. Hojayeva explains that she knows how many calories she needs on average (1,800 to maintain her current weight); what macros work for her, which she learned through trial and error; and to stop eating when she feels full. “All of them – protein, carbohydrates and fats - are very essential to our health, our well-being,” she says.

She offers an example of how this works. “When I see biriyani, I will see how many grams of fat, carbs and protein are in this so I’ll eat accordingly. If for my mental well-being I feel I should eat a certain amount and I feel full before finishing my plate, I’ll listen to my body.”

Mental health, physical benefits

Listening has also helped her understand her body and mind’s need for exercise. “I exercise mainly for my mental well-being. I don’t exercise for more than 45 minutes. And most of the days I just exercise 15 to 25 minutes. I exercise maximum five days a week,” she says, adding that her choice of workout involves a high intensity routine.

With the change in lifestyle has come a shift in focus. Today, Hojayeva tries to help other women get to their goal weight. She encourages others who are going to dieticians to talk in detail about their likes and dislikes, and what strategies have failed them in the past and what have worked.

Scale down

Two years ago, Hojayeva was terrified and sad because of her weight; today, she’s fit and proud, having shed 45kg and standing tall at 65kg. “I have more energy to play with my daughter,” she says, talking about how it’s changed her life. And it’s helped her change the narrative of ‘good food’ and ‘bad food’ in her home. “It was very important that my daughter one day will not be in the same shoes as I am because unfortunately, nutritional values are not taught since childhood. We are not taught that having balanced meals is not something scary or something bad,” she adds.

The mum-of-one says the positivity has also improved her bond with her husband. “Our relationship was not the best. I had gained a lot of weight, my husband had gained a little weight. I didn't want to push my husband to change his ways but seeing the way I started putting efforts and changing my lifestyle, he has joined me. He lost about 22 kg as well,” she says.

It’s time to remove labels on what goes on a plate – one meal at a time.

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