An Emirati fitness influencer, who was recently hospitalised after a bout of overtraining led to an extreme eating disorder, is asking residents to prioritise mental wellbeing, while pursuing fitness goals.
Weight loss used to be Essa Al Ansari's number one goal. Today, it's mental health.
The 29-year-old has lost nearly 100 kilos over the last five years — 99, to be precise. But though his weight loss has been "completely natural" and achieved with nothing more than diet and training, Essa says he's developed severe anxiety of late due to the stress of trying to attain self-imposed goals.
KT readers may remember Essa from a 2017 interview in WKND that featured his inspirational weight loss story. At the time, he was already 70 kilos down. In August this year, however, Essa set a new target for himself.
"I wanted to be as lean and 'shredded' as I possibly could, and bring my total body fat down to just seven or eight per cent. No steroids, just right food and training," says the fitness advocate, who commands a following of over 273,000 on Instagram. "However, it was really important to me to do it all naturally, because that's what I'm constantly encouraging my followers to do."
In order to motivate himself, Essa booked himself a photo shoot, so he had a deadline to work towards. He also got himself a trainer and began following a rigorous diet plan of 5-6 meals a day, while training 2-3 times a day. "I had to be up at 3.30am in the morning for cardio and gym sessions, followed by another round in the afternoon. I couldn't eat anything except what was dictated by my meal plans and I lost my social life altogether, as I had to be in bed by 8.30pm every day."
The overtraining gradually led to depression, says Essa. Soon, he began experiencing several anxiety attacks in a day, together with breathlessness, dizziness and a racing heart. "I stopped going out, because I was scared the attacks would occur in public or while driving. Isolating myself at home made me even more depressed. Not being able to eat food I loved turned into an emotional rollercoaster."
Because of his extreme diet, Essa began binge eating. "Every day, I would eat 8-10 doughnuts until I threw up. My anxiety started affecting my training, as I couldn't breathe."
It all culminated in early December, when a binge fest finally landed him in the hospital. "I was at a mall, having a meal with some friends. After some time, they left to go home — but I went on to have 10 doughnuts, two burgers, a milkshake and a cake. I got home and fell asleep, but woke up with the most painful stomach ache I've ever had in my life."
Essa was admitted to the ICU, where docs diagnosed him with acute pancreatitis, with levels over 900 U/L. Normal levels are usually below 160 U/L. "I never suspected the way I was eating was a problem till that day," he says. "I figured if I can burn the calories, I can eat as much as I want. But in hospital that day, I realised I could've died. It was a huge wake-up call that I had an actual disorder."
The TEDx speaker has since taken himself off his extreme diet, and is much happier for it. "I've been seeing a psychologist and a psychiatrist, which has really helped. My binge eating episodes have greatly reduced, and I even took a break from social media for a while to detox." Essa says he's taking it a step at a time now, going for simple morning walks and spin classes. "I'm training myself to have a new relationship with food, and also going to places I used to like — not just hitting the gym all the time."
He has also been very vocal about prioritising mental health over fitness — something he says he's been receiving a lot of flak for from others within the community. "Many of them want to know why I'm blaming it on training — but I'm just sharing my personal experience. In fact, despite the negative feedback, I've also had a lot of followers, especially trainers, reach out to say they've also been suffering from binge eating and anxiety."
Essa believes it's important to talk about mental health, especially as an Emirati — because it's "not addressed much in the Middle East". Life is too short to not seek help for mental health issues, he says. "Mental health trumps fitness and diet. Don't ever go on extreme diets," he adds. "Balance is key."
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