For many years food was a crutch to Desiree Pienaar, a way to deal with life’s stresses and strains.
“I was addicted to food. It was a comfort,” she says.
The single mom of two recalls grabbing food from KFC after her night shift ended, then buying an extra meal to indulge in at home.
Once she arrived at her house in Ravensmead, Cape Town, where she lives with her mom and kids, she’d eat her mom’s leftovers, then on her way back to work the next evening she’d buy a burger meal at McDonald’s.
“I ate throughout my night shift,” she tells YOU.
She’d also eat hot chips and drink two to three litres of Coke a day.
At her heaviest, Desiree, a carer who looks after an elderly woman at a Welgemoed care home, weighed 135kg.
Then in 2016, Desiree came to a turning point.
Her doctor warned her about her high blood pressure and told her she was in danger of having a heart attack.
Over the following year, the now-36-year-old embarked on a healthy diet and exercised every day to shed the kilos.
“I felt happy and excited to do the weigh-ins. I was thrilled to see the weight falling off.
“There were many occasions I felt like I couldn’t do it anymore. I just asked myself, ‘Where do I even start? How can I lose all this weight?’” Desiree says.
“I prayed and asked God to relieve me of this weight I’m carrying.”
The healthcare worker’s super-strict dedication to sticking to her workout schedule and eating plan has paid off big time: in one year she dropped from 135kg to 75kg and went from a size 50 to a trim size 34 dress size.
“I’ve lost a whole person,” she says.
Now, Desiree is as fit as a fiddle and enjoys physical activities with her kids – Cassy (17), who’s in Grade 11, and Bailey (12), who’s in Grade 7.
“We walk together, we shop together. We went to the beach and I could swim with them and play beach soccer.”
Another big plus is that she’s able to wear whatever takes her fancy and is enjoying her slinky new frame.
“I couldn’t wait to go shopping for the first time. It took me just a few minutes to find clothing that fit. When I was overweight, it would take me hours. I couldn’t stop looking at myself in the mirror.
“The first items I bought myself were black skinny jeans and navy blue tights.”
Desiree, who’s 1,61m tall, has been overweight since she was a baby, she says.
“I’ve never been slender.”
She loved the curries and stews her mom, Maraldia (66), made and tucked into fast food whenever she could.
At school she was taunted because of her weight and “called a lot of ugly names”.
“I didn’t have friends,” she says.
After matric she did a home-carer course, which she enjoyed and found solace in the care environment where no one bullied her.
But it was a different story in the big bad world.
The nasty comments continued, with people often telling her to eat less or remarking on how heavy she was.
“When I went to fast-food restaurants, people would look at me and go, ‘She’s fat already but she’s still eating this food’.”
Eventually Desiree’s ongoing health battles took their toll.
Over the years, she suffered from severe backache, swollen ankles and stomach ulcers.
Things came to a head one day in 2016 when she had to rush to the doctor after “feeling like someone who’d been partying all night”.
Her doctor told her that her blood pressure was perilously high.
“For more than a week I had to visit the surgery every day because he was worried I’d have a heart attack.”
Then she got a lucky break: the daughter of the patient Desiree looks after offered to send her to Weigh-Less and to pay for the food she’d need for the diet plan.
Over the next year, she followed her low-carb diet plan to the letter.
Her day would start with a “muffin in a mug” – a health muffin consisting of flaxseed, cinnamon, sweetener and digestive bran.
Lunch would be cracker bread with tuna, then for dinner she’d have 90g of chicken plus a plate of veggies.
At the same time she began exercising.
She started out walking until her weight went down to 83kg and then she started jogging until she could run a full 5km.
Wednesdays were weigh-in days.
A year after she’d started her journey, Desiree was thrilled to discover she’d lost 60kg – effectively almost halving her body size.
“There’s so much to be thankful for,” Desiree says.
“The reward is to lose all that weight and keep my weight down – I can’t even describe the feeling.”
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Keeping off the weight hasn’t been hard either, she adds. “Sometimes the cravings return but that happens if I skip a meal, so I try to avoid doing that. I always keep some fruit in my bag.
“Occasionally I’ll indulge in a small bar of chocolate and a packet of chips. I usually let Weigh-Less know that I’ll be eating something unhealthy.”
Desiree says her children have been her biggest motivation.
“I look at my kids and ask myself, ‘What would happen to them if I got sick or died or if I couldn’t work anymore?’”
They’ve also been a tremendous support.
“When I came back from a weigh-in, Cassy would always ask me how it went. My son jogs and walks with me. He always tells me, ‘I can’t believe you were so overweight’,” she says, adding that she loves taking pictures with her kids now.
People often don’t recognise her. “I’ve lost a lot of weight in my face. My chin isn’t as round. My legs are smaller, my feet are no longer swollen.“I even tell the people that I’ll only come to their party if they make a fruit table,” she jokes.
So what were the hardest parts of her weight-loss journey?
“Exercising and drinking water. I wasn’t used to doing either but I told myself, ‘Listen, it’s for your own good, so just do it’.”
She encourages people who are going through the same journey to keep trying and to be consistent.
“If your mindset isn’t right, it’s not going to work. Find something to motivate you. For me it was my kids.”
Desiree’s journey isn’t over. During lockdown she put on 5kg but now she’s back on her regime and walks 4km every day.
She’s also saving money for excess skin-removal surgery on her underarms and stomach – loose skin doesn’t go away with exercise, so it’ll have to be removed.
“If I can tighten the belly and the arms, I’d be so happy. I’d love to be able to wear a bikini.”