October 2, 2022

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“You’ve gained weight, what are you eating?” This is a normal query in Rwanda’s capital city Kigali, and often followed by unsolicited dieting advice. As it turns out, fad diets are strikingly similar in Kigali to California. And the results are similar, too.
– with reporting by Rachel Garuka from Kigali, Rwanda
Intermittent fasting is an increasingly popular weight loss strategy in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city.
 
“I started intermittent fasting to drop the weight I gained after the birth of my second child, and have been at it for three months now,” says Doreen Uwase, a communications rep in Kigali.
 
“I went with the 16/8 routine that I came across in an Instagram post. I fast for 16 hours, which has controlled my snacking.” As opposed to diets that prohibit certain foods, Uwase says she was drawn to intermittent fasting because it doesn’t restrict which foods she can eat.
It is easy to find oneself confused by the seemingly endless weight-loss approaches being promoted. Take Alice Muhoza, for example: the Kigali resident says she didn’t know much about diets and was unhappy with her weight and the many suggestions people around her gave to lose significant weight.
 
“I eventually signed up for a keto diet and have been trying to follow it for three months, but I fall short sometimes and it hasn’t really made a difference yet,” she laments.
“Detox” diets with special cleansing drinks are also steadily gaining popularity as a weight-loss trend in Kigali.
 
“I start my day with water to hydrate, but at some point, I add lemon, apple cider vinegar, and a bit of cayenne pepper,” says 32-year-old Lucy Uwimbabazi, who has been imbibing the detox drink religiously for two years now. “I also take late evening walks at least thrice a week, so imagine my frustration when every month or so I weigh myself and nothing has really changed,” she complains.
 
Edgar Karuhanga works as a copywriter for an advertising firm in Kigali and told OZY he started detox drinks to fight stubborn belly fat. “I am generally not a fat person, but I am fat around the stomach and waist, which makes me so uncomfortable. I tried the gym for some time but I ended up losing weight in all the wrong places,” he says, irritated.  
 
Frustrated and desperate, Karuhanga turned to Google for other ways to lose belly fat, which included teas and other detox beverages. Green tea, lemon, ginger, cucumber and mint are some of the drinks he takes at least four times a week, on rotation. “Hopefully by the end of the year, I’ll see some positive results,” he says. The doubt in his voice was discernible.
In Kigali, some of the most troubling new fad diets include the “five-bite” diet, which involves skipping breakfast, then eating just five bites of food for lunch — it doesn’t matter whether it’s a salad or pizza — and another five bites for dinner. There’s also the “werewolf diet,” which restricts the follower to a juice diet timed to the phases of the moon. That this regimen was supposedly endorsed by American celebrities Demi Moore and Madonna underscores that diet culture has become homogenized, from Kigali to California. Dieters around the globe struggle with the same grim food restrictions yet often feel alone and ashamed in that struggle. 
 
David Rukerabigwi, a certified dietician and nutritionist in Kigali, says that fad diets often involve severe calorie restriction, which is not sustainable in the long-term. He recommends challenging the information promoted in new diets by asking questions and seeking alternative perspectives.
 
According to Emma Laing, registered dietician and spokesperson for the U.S. nonprofit Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “Detox diets and other fads grow rapidly in popularity despite a lack of scientific evidence.” This led us to ask: What does science actually say?
According to a study published by a team of international researchers and cited in Harvard Health, popular diets simply don’t work for most people. The study enrolled nearly 22,000 people who were considered “overweight” or “obese” and who followed one of 14 popular diets — including the Atkins, DASH and Mediterranean diet — for an average of six months. While weight, blood pressure and cholesterol measures generally improved at the six-month mark, by 12 months these had largely disappeared. 
 
If popular diets rarely work — and often cause misery, followed by renewed weight gain — why do we keep trying them?
 
“When people struggle with body dissatisfaction, their self-esteem also suffers, so they’re more likely to be swayed by the unfounded promises of fad diets,” said dietician Laing. She also noted that many products on the market, such as slimming teas and pills, contain herbal supplements, diuretics or laxatives that are actually harmful — and expensive.
Private Kamanzi, a dietician at Amazon Nutrition Cabinet in Kigali, emphasized that fad diets may be misleading simply because they are not tailored to an individual body’s particular needs.
 
“Every person’s dietary needs differ,” Kamanzi told OZY. In other words, from our biology and genetics to the often stressful day-to-day circumstances that shape our lives, every solitary body on earth is unique. This point is underscored by physiologist and best-selling author Lindo Bacon. Social factors such as discrimination and deprivation are significant drivers of health, Bacon explains in the book “Body Respect.” This means that some dieters may be restricting their food intake to address their weight or other issues  — like self-esteem — that have little to do with diet at all.
In a bid to lose weight, people around the world regularly set a goal to avoid carbohydrates. But Kamanzi notes that carbs are essential to the body, and skipping them entirely will cause cravings, likely ultimately resulting in a carb binge. That’s why he recommends moderate consumption of healthy carbohydrates as a promising path to long-term health.
 
“Dieticians can guide you on healthy carbohydrates,” Kamanzi told OZY, citing examples that include whole grains, chickpeas, kidney beans, and fruits like apples, berries, and melons.
 
This was consistent with advice dispensed by Laing. “When meals are enjoyable and balanced with nourishing foods like proteins, healthy fats, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, you are more likely to feel satiated for hours,” she said.

In the best-selling book “Health at Every Size,” Lindo Bacon highlighted research indicating that the most promising route to health may be to avoid crash dieting, even referring to such diets as “those rocky shoals against which so many good health intentions have shipwrecked.” Underscoring this point, Laing said, “Intentionally dieting for the purpose of losing weight or burning fat can actually lead to overeating.”
 
Instead, Laing suggested finding a nutritionist through the nonprofit tool EatRight.org, and then approaching food from a place of positivity or even cultural celebration.
 
“Appreciating that food has powerful significance rooted in one’s culture and traditions can have a positive impact on health,” she said. “Focusing on what you can add to your plate to provide flavor and nourishment is a more positive way to approach eating versus focusing on what you should limit.”
 
This advice is consistent with a new book called “The Body Positive Journal,” recently released by “You Have the Right to Remain Fat” author Virgie Tovar. Tovar uses uplifting essays, journaling prompts and even whimsical stickers in her new book, to shift readers’ focus from diet fads and feelings of shame toward self-esteem and even — just imagine — fun. Tovar’s work is something of an invitation to take a more lighthearted, even childlike, approach to nourishment and physical movement.
In Kigali, nutritionist Rukerabigwi says that part of finding a healthy path forward is surrounding yourself with the right people. Some peers and family members are prone to making judgmental comments or dispensing unsolicited advice, while others tend toward a more love-you-as-you-are approach. We often know who falls into which category.
 
“It can be helpful to build a support network of people who share your values around food and body image,” Rukerabigwi told OZY.

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