When Unhealthy Food Is Part of Your Culture, How Do You Lose Weight?
I remember the exact moment I first thought, I am fat.
I was sitting at a desk in my fifth-grade classroom, working on an essay about my pets—an essay that would go on to win a coveted county prize, no less—when I looked down at my thighs and suddenly realized they were larger than the thighs of the girl sitting next to me. She was tall, but her thighs were narrow, unlike mine, which were so thick they barely squeezed into my desk chair. It was the last time I wore shorts to school.
When I told my mom about it later that day, she agreed that my thighs were large. "Just like my sister," she commented in Russian, her native tongue. From then on, I was known as the big one in the family. But the truth of the matter is that almost everyone in my family is or has been overweight.
I don't remember seeing many vegetables on my plate when I was a kid.
My mother was taught to cook by her own mom, who was from the suburbs of Moscow, and by her mother-in-law, my Cuban father's mom. Although my family was poor, we often ate caviar on toasted dark rye bread for breakfast (caviar is cheap and easily accessible in Russia) or my dad's special "bread with eggs" (scrambled eggs cooked with toasted bread in a pan so that the eggs stick to the bread).
After my family immigrated to the U.S. when I was eight years old, we moved from Miami, a cultural hub for Cuban-Americans where Spanish is the dominant language, to the west coast of Florida because my parents wanted badly for us to integrate into American culture. And oh, we did.
I embraced double cheeseburgers with supersize fries at McDonald's and Hawaiian pizza at Domino's (where my dad worked nights, delivering pizzas after a long day at his construction job). I loved them just as fiercely as the Russian and Cuban favorites I'd grown up with.
Our family's three cultures became quickly interwoven, and that first year, our Thanksgiving table was a testament to this new, blended approach to eating and living: Alongside the standard American turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie, stood our favorite Olivier salad, a Russian potato salad made with cooked potatoes, carrots, eggs, peas, pickles, and ham, mixed with mayonnaise, as well as pernil, a slow-roasted Cuban pork shoulder marinated in mojo sauce, and fried sweet plantains.
And sure, that was a holiday, but the truth is, my family ate rich foods all the time. Eating this way, I reached 231.6 pounds just after Christmas during my freshman year of college. With a 5'2" frame, I was officially morbidly obese.
I knew that I needed to lose weight.
My mom never failed to remind me that I was "gorda" (a Spanish term for "fat" that is used semi-endearingly but still hurts). At her encouragement, I had experimented with over-the-counter weight loss medications in my teen years, but this time, I wanted something safer.
I tried Weight Watchers at first, vehemently monitoring my calories even though I continued to eat not-so-healthy foods. I started incorporating healthier options like sushi, but would still gorge on candy and fell in love with Diet Snapple. Sometimes I would miss my family's favorites and spend my extra weekly points on a single meal of Russian borscht, a traditional beet soup, and pelmenyi, Russian pork dumplings. Or I'd go all in on bistec de palomilla—thin steak cooked with onions—and moros y cristianos (a.k.a. white rice with black beans).
Eating this way, I reached 231.6 pounds just after Christmas during my freshman year of college. With a 5'2" frame, I was officially morbidly obese.
Eventually, I lost 90 pounds. But the stress of graduating college—along with finding my first real job—packed 80 of those back on within a year. I decided to try losing the weight again, but this time, in a way I felt was more permanent: I traveled with my mom to visit a doctor we knew in Colombia, where I received a gastric bypass.
The following year, as I adjusted to life as someone with an almost impossibly small stomach, I lost 100 pounds and reached my goal weight. A year later, I went back to Colombia for reconstructive surgery, since my dramatic weight loss left me with loose skin pretty much everywhere.
I thought that all of this change meant I was finally free of my weight issues, but I quickly realized that my journey was just beginning.
Since I had already lost and gained back a significant amount of weight, I realized that I needed to change my eating habits if I wanted to successfully maintain my weight loss this time. But as I visited home for the holidays two years after first making the decision to get a gastric bypass, I knew it would not be easy.
Even though my portion sizes were smaller than ever before, I still wanted everything to fit on my plate: the surprisingly juicy turkey my grandmother made, the greasy fried plantains, an extra-large helping of my mom's special Olivier salad. I knew this kind of eating couldn't last.
Slowly but surely, I committed myself to healthy eating to remain at my desired weight. I knew that despite dropping the pounds, I wasn't truly healthy on the inside. I still wasn't eating vegetables, despite being 25 years old, and I was terrified to try.
I began my real healthy-eating journey by inviting friends to bring over their favorite vegetables so we could cook them together.
American friends from all different cultural backgrounds brought their favorites, and I got to try—and learned to actually enjoy—broccoli, mushrooms, turnips, asparagus, and so much more. A friend from the Midwest taught me how to make Brussels sprouts perfectly delicious by roasting them at a high temperature in the oven, while a Korean-American friend helped me discover why bok choy makes the best ingredient in a stir-fry.
I even fell in love with kale and began to challenge anyone who told me they weren't a fan. "Trust me, you'll LOVE my kale recipe," I'd tell anyone who would listen.
Eventually, after almost a year of experimenting, that person was my mom. I came home for her birthday and wanted to cook a special meal, so I made a pasta dish that included plenty of vegetables—kale included.
My parents looked at their plates with trepidation and didn't understand it at first. They knew I had successfully lost weight thanks to my weight-loss surgery, but they could not get this new fascination I had with healthy eating.
What about arroz con pollo or blintz with caviar, they asked. I didn't have answers for them yet, but I assured them that our culture—which we had primarily expressed through our food—would be with me always.
Still, it was a struggle. Although my parents tried to be supportive as I went on my health journey, it was hard for them to stop offering me the foods of my childhood. Whenever I came home for a visit, my mom would spend days beforehand cooking—and then insist I take home all the leftovers (along with snacks and goodies she bought from our favorite Russian store).
They knew I had successfully lost weight thanks to my weight-loss surgery, but they could not get this new fascination I had with healthy eating.
It was difficult for me to let go of the food I grew up with too. Although I had finally learned to eat vegetables, I didn't know if they belonged on my plate full of Cuban moros y cristianos, or how to fit them in with my Russian beef stroganoff. But despite my conflict, I knew I had to try.
Eventually, I began to learn how to make my Russian and Cuban favorites in a healthy way.
On a food writer friend's recommendation, I subbed half the ground beef in my picadillo (a Cuban meat cooked in tomato sauce) with roughly chopped mushrooms. I gave up sour cream and embraced nonfat Greek yogurt instead as a topping for my favorite Russian cheese pancakes and as a dip for those traditional dumplings I loved so much.
My biggest triumph, however, came when my brother and I took over cooking Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. He's younger than I am and, having noticed the overweight trajectory that most of our family follows, began cooking and eating healthier shortly after I did. This gave us the opportunity to cook our favorite Russian, Cuban, and American dishes with a bit more nutritional value. We could add in some vegetables (like a shaved Brussels sprouts salad that has since become a family favorite) and cut some of the fat in traditional dishes.
Most of all, I learned a new kind of balance. I learned that I could eat the foods I grew up with and even make them healthier, but that there were also times to indulge a little. I learned to continue to embrace my culture through my food while maintaining my weight loss. And I learned that I would be myself, even with my still-thick thighs and newfound love of healthy living, through it all.
Irina Gonzalez is a freelance writer and editor, focusing primarily on food, healthy living, relationships, travel, and Latinx issues. When she's not working on her book about growing up Russian and Cuban, she's probably reading an audiobook or cuddling with her husband and their attention-loving kitties and pup. You can find her work on her portfolio or by following her on Instagram.