It was just a few years ago, around 2015, that Monica Muvindi was in the hospital for a month, fighting to fully regain her vision and the feeling back in the left side of her body. She had been diagnosed with idiopathic intracranial hypertension, a condition where pressure in the skull increases. While there is no obvious reason for the pressure surge, this form of hypertension is most common in obese women of childbearing age. Muvindi was in her early to mid-20s and had been big her whole life.
She was able to obtain the proper treatment to help with her symptoms, but she was forewarned by her doctor that if she didn’t lose the weight she’d piled on due to years of binge-eating, a shunt would be placed in her back to relieve pressure.
After a few stops and starts, the Zimbabwean-born but England-bred biomedical scientist finally started to see her hard work pay off. She lost more than 70 pounds in seven months, relieved herself of her hypertension, and now, the 28-year-old is in the best shape and overall health of her life. She cites the popular ketogenic diet for that. A friend encouraged her to try it, and after seeing the effects on patients she worked with, she got on board. Nowadays, Muvindi is a keto weight loss coach offering tips about the best veggies to eat on the diet (leafy greens are lower in carbs), helping people plan out their meals (it’s better to cook your own meats and vegetables) and eating cleaner, and simpler, than ever before (she hasn’t had anything non-keto in a year).
“It’s changed my whole life,” she told me over the phone. “I now love and value myself so much because of this diet. You need to take time out to think, ‘Do I really need to be eating this? Is this going to be healthy for me?’ I have to sit down and have a conversation with myself and ask, is it worth it for me to eat this food that’s going to make me feel bloated, that’s going to make me put on weight and when it’s going to take three days for me to get back to where I am today? It’s not worth it. From asking myself those questions and constantly reflecting, I have now taken all of that and applied that to everything in my life. It’s just made life so much easier.”
We talked with the charming scientist, weight loss coach and fitness blogger about her journey, overcoming negative thoughts about her body even after weight loss, and why the ketogenic route is nowhere near a fad diet, but rather, the real deal.
MadameNoire: Tell me about your relationship with food growing up. Had you always struggled with your weight or did something occur later in life that caused you to gain and have issues with your health?
Monica Muvindi: For me, I’ve been big my whole life. I remember I was always the biggest kid in school, in primary school and growing up. When I looked at my family, my aunties, my grand-mom, my mom and just all of the women in my family, they were all big. We’re all built the same so growing up I always said, “I come from a family of big women, there’s nothing wrong with me. It is what it is.” Obviously, growing up in Africa, what you’re eating is organic. What you’re eating, you’re not going to put on the weight. I moved to England, my mom still continued to cook our traditional meals and everything was fine, but because I had pocket money and I had access to take-aways, chocolate and things, that’s when everything started to happen. My mom cooked our traditional African food as she always had, nothing changed, but as far as what I was doing outside of the house, I didn’t know anything about nutrition or about food. I was just eating because food is nice.
When I got to university, my mom wasn’t there to cook for me, so instead of cooking, I just started to binge eat. Everything was take-away. I put on a lot of weight. When I went to uni, we did an exercise in one of the lectures and we had to take our weight and I was at 95 kgs (209 lbs). I was so shocked because the last time I weighed myself I was 70 (154 lbs). And then here I was, one year in uni, and I was 95 kgs. So I was like, okay, this is what it is, but that didn’t stop me or turn on any alarms in my head to say, you might want to slow down or watch what you’re eating. I just continued eating take-aways, I just continued eating crap.
It became a problem after university when life started happening. I had my first job and I was constantly working and I stopped looking after myself. I started using food more and more as an emotional crutch. So anything would happen and I would lock myself away, buy myself as much take-away as I would want and then I would eat. After I finished eating, I would look at myself in the mirror and hate how I looked just from being down, and then I would hate what I looked like, and then I would also hate the feeling from the fact that I just binged. I would start crying, cry some more, and then I would go out and get some more food to make me feel better. That became a really, really bad cycle, it became a toxic cycle. After I would do that, I would then find myself starving myself for the next two to three days, and after starving myself I would do the same cycle again. It became bingeing, starving, bingeing, starving. Whenever I wasn’t happy, whenever I was working too much, when I was depressed, not coping with things in general, I would turn to food.
A friend of mine, I remember about 2014, 2015 she said to me, “Why don’t you join the gym with me because you’re putting on a bit of weight.” Obviously I was a bit offended by her saying that, but looking back now, she kind of started the whole journey. After she said that comment, I joined the gym with her. Initially I thought to myself, I’m going to the gym now, I can eat whatever I want because I’m going to the gym. It’s fine. So I would literally say to myself, if you eat now, eat the chocolate, eat the take-away, eat everything, you will work it off in the gym. When you get to the gym, you’re not going to work off those thousands of calories. When I would go to the gym, I would probably work off 200 calories and then I’m out. That’s nothing. It was literally no deficit whatsoever.
With the gym, I then started learning what nutrition was. I also fell in love with weightlifting more than anything. So I started doing that. But I changed jobs, moved to a different city. When I got to that city a lot of different things were happening in my life and that’s when I started to binge again and I ended up in the hospital when I found myself at 136 kgs (299 lbs). That was in 2015, going into 2016.
I was going to ask you about your condition. What was that about!
I ended up in the hospital with a condition they call idiopathic intracranial hypertension. When that happened, I remember, I had gone to the gym, I came back home and I had a headache. I thought, it’s nothing. I woke up the next day and I was literally partially blind and I couldn’t see. I went to [the doctor] and I told them what was happening. They checked to see if I had meningitis, I didn’t have meningitis, so they let me go home. So when they let me go home, my parents then came to get me because I couldn’t see and I couldn’t cope. When my parents came, I woke up and half of my left side was paralyzed. I immediately went to the hospital, I was hospitalized for a month, and that’s when I received my diagnosis saying that I had a lot of fluid that was retained within my brain. What was happening was, because the fluid kept expanding in my head, the pressure, all of my optical nerves were moving. My eyes, the left one started to look to the left, the right one started to look to the left, and obviously, I started to go down the route of having a stroke, which is why my whole left side was paralyzed. All of these things happened in the space of two days, and I was in the hospital for a month until the doctors were happy with my recovery.
After I came out of the hospital, my doctor sat down with me and he said, “Monica, you’re 26 years old. You have a lot to live for. I could put you on medication to alleviate the symptoms, but it means that you are now on medication long-term. You’re a young lady, and the way we can reverse this that has happened to you is if you lose the weight. Just lose the weight.” So I was like, sure, I’ll lose the weight, whatever. I did though, because I went from 136 kgs down to 100 (220 lbs). Then I was like, “Yay! Let’s celebrate!” Then after that celebration, I cheated, continued to binge, binge, binge and never went back to losing weight. The weight crept up and I found myself back at 125 kgs (275 lbs) last year in 2018. It was around February that I went to see my doctor again because I was having six month reviews to make sure I wasn’t relapsing. When I went to see him he was like, “Monica, you do realize that your weight is creeping back up. We’re going back to where we started. I can guarantee in a few months you’ll be back to 136 and you’ll be back in this hospital. What we’re going to do is if you don’t lose the weight now, we’re going to have to put a shunt in your spine.” One of the possible side effects of that type of procedure is that if it goes wrong, I could end up paralyzed forever. He said, “The choice is yours.”
After he said that I was literally like, no. No way. I’m not going to go under the knife and have a shunt put in my spine for something I can control. I started to lose weight again, and by August I got to 115 kgs (253 lbs), and that’s when I started the ketogenic diet and that changed my whole life.
How did you come across keto and decide this was the best option for you?
Last year a friend told me she was doing keto. “It really works, trust me.” She explained what the diet was to me, that it was low-carb and you would have to fast. I was like, you’re joking. You do realize I’m African [laughs]. I love rice, I love all of these starchy foods and I can’t eat those things anymore? She said there are so many benefits to this fasting and this diet. “I eat and I’m not bloated, I’ve been losing weight, just try it.” I found a lady on Instagram named The Keto Belle and she runs a monthly challenge, and I joined her challenge in August and after four weeks I lost 20 pounds and I won. I never won or stuck to anything in my life pretty much. I was still eating a lot but I cooked every single one of my meals and hadn’t done take-away. I saved money because I cooked my own food. It was like little revelations of different things happening, so I decided to stick with it.
I continued doing keto and I lost 70 pounds in seven months and I said to myself, this is a lifestyle. There is no going back. What am I going back to?
What made this diet sustainable compared to other diets you tried in the past?
It was sustainable because it wasn’t a fad diet. I actually ate real food. I ate the most amount of food that I’ve ever eaten in my whole life, but healthy food, so that was the thing that made it sustainable. Also, there are benefits in how the actual diet works that makes it sustainable. I feel like I might have had an addiction to carbs because anytime things were going wrong — carbs. I literally had an addiction to food and I would eat until I couldn’t move or I couldn’t breathe. So I said to myself, that’s not something I want to go back to. I know moderation works for some people but I’m one of those people where it’s I’m either doing something or I’m not doing something. Also, with the fasting and with the feeling of fullness that you get from the types of food you eat, I don’t snack and I only eat twice a day. My first meal is at 1 p.m. and my last meal is before 9 p.m. and that’s it. I feel full constantly. I’m not thinking about food. People can eat anything in my face and I don’t care anymore because of how the diet works and how it makes me feel fuller for longer.
After transforming your body, how have you managed to work on the body dysmorphia moments you have? How do you deal with that and work through it?
I had an incident where I went to Primark and I got some clothes. Primark clothes sizes are the worst sizes in the world. Nothing is regulated. You could walk in there, be a size 8 and not be able to fit in a size 8. On that particular day, I went in, tried on a size 10, which was the size I was fitting into, and the dress didn’t fit. I tried on a 12, the 12 didn’t fit. I tried on a 14 and the 14 fit, and I started to cry. I said to myself, “Oh my God, I’m fat! I put on all of the weight!” I started to literally cry in Primark. I looked at myself in the mirror like, you’ve unraveled all of the hard work you’ve done. When I was finishing up I was like, wait, no you haven’t. You haven’t eaten carbs in over a year. You haven’t cheated or anything like that. So I tried on a dress that was on the next rail. I tried on the 14, it was baggy. I tried on the 10, the 10 fit. I laughed at myself. Why did you let a dress size take away from all of the hard work that you have done? So that was one of the experiences that I had because I was so fixated on that dress size.
Another thing I experienced was that I was so scared of coming out of the calorie deficit. It’s only now, July, that I’m eating maintenance calories, but I had been losing weight and then I would get really small and look at myself in the mirror and think I’m too small. Then I would eat and the more I would eat, I would start to tell myself, you’re getting fat, stop eating. So I’ve had to have conversations with myself to say, it’s fine, you can eat now and the food that you’re eating it’s not bad food, it’s healthy food. I have to have those conversations with myself on a daily basis now, now that I’m eating maintenance calories, to say it’s okay. You’re not going to put on the weight because you now know exactly what you need to be eating. But body dysmorphia is real. It is so real because it seems as is if you change so quickly, the physical changes are there, but your brain is so slow to catch up on these physical changes. You still see and feel like you’re still that fat girl. You don’t realize when you’re good and that you’ve done very well.
What advice would you give to those who are considering keto but are overwhelmed by the details?
Do your research. There isn’t one way of losing weight. If you want to do keto, do your research and ask, can I see myself eating in this type of manner for the next six months? Can I sustain this lifestyle? Because whatever method you choose to lose weight, you have to sustain that method for the rest of your life. So if you choose to lose weight by eating in moderation, you have to eat in moderation for the rest of your life, because the moment you start to overindulge, you’re on your way back to where you started.