Diaspora Talk: “Bellyful” eating learned in Africa leads to weight gain in the US
It happened to me as it did my brothers and many of people who I know. When I moved to Maryland in 1998 I got fat. This is how it goes down. Rather..how it goes up.
You move to the US and before you know it you’ve but on 20 pounds. Your chiseled face becomes fuller, your flat stomach turns to rolls and if you are like most West African women and are blessed with thighs and nyash then those expand as well. For men the fat usually ends up in their stomach and their buttocks too.
Until a couple of days ago I blamed gaining weight almost exclusively on America’s food industry from growth hormones, to saturated fats, sugar, fast food, snacks, and good old consumerism. But America is not entirely to blame and here is why. Most Africans have unhealthy eating habits developed from living in countries with food insecurities or families that could not provide them with three daily meals.
In Sierra Leone when you want to ask someone if they’ve had enough the question in krio is ” yu don bell ful?” which in English translates to “Is your belly full?” As a child you grow up with the understanding that satisfaction and “belly full” are the same but they are not.
When I moved to the US to a more sedentary lifestyle, and all the above mentioned of the US food industry I put on weight quite quickly. It was never enough to cause embarrassment or to develop low self-esteem but I know many more young African women my age who now struggle with their weight and are as a result are unhappy. What helped me shed and keep off unwanted pounds was being able to deconstruct an unhealthy relationship with food.
If you grow up in a poor, working or middle class family in Sierra Leone then that means that you probably never had access to all the food you wanted. Unlike the US there is no refrigerator full of goodies or stock of food. In most households back home breakfast is either a plate of rice from the nearest chop bar or bread with butter and tea. You get milk with your tea occasionally but most times it is just “sugar wata”. The main daily meal for most working or middle class families is rice and sauce. You get home from school and you eat your rice and that is expected to hold you until morning. So for most of your youth you look forward to family occasions like saras, weddings, and awujohs when you know you will have access to a lot of food. And on those special occasions you eat until you get a condition we call colic. If these are the conditions that you grew up in, then you probably have deeply embedded food insecurities.
When you make it to America food is dirt cheap. You can have whatever you want and as much as you want. So on the one hand you think eating till your “belly full” is the goal and on the other hand you now have access to all the food you never dreamed you could eat. Now you can drink soft drinks whenever you want, in fact you get free refills. Chicken is no longer for Sunday stews it is $2.99 for 3 pieces at Popeyes. You have been introduced to the “All you can eat buffet” restaurant so you go often to show them the true meaning of the word “all”. And finally you can now eat what those happy kids and teenagers ate in all those films you watched: pizza and hamburger.
So you eat and month after month, year after year and you gain weight. Before long in the more extreme cases you are unrecognizable from that original African version of you that arrived in America. When you go to functions where your people gather you hear this often “You don fat oh!” You can’t believe that this is being said to you when you think back on how you once were in Africa. Where you were teased for being all flesh and bones But it is not your fault. It is America right? Wrong! It is you!
You still relate to food like an African who doesn’t have enough even though you do. Stop seeking to eat till you “bellyful” but instead eat till you’re satisfied. If you have to loosen your clothes after you eat then you are eating too much. There is always tomorrow, you don’t have to finish it all today. You don’t have to store excess food in your stomach because you don’t know when you will eat again. You are in America now.