Many of us see fat and obese people as prime candidates for heart disease and diabetes. These two killer diseases have reached such alarming rates in South Africa that the government has introduced a sugar tax to curb our sweet tooth.

But enough of the labels – being fat or fuller-figured doesn’t mean you can’t be fit insists Noxolo Mchunu (23), founder of online group Fat and Ugly. She started the group in 2016 with the purpose of discarding stereotypes that curvier women are unfit and unattractive. “Unfortunately our society hasn’t accepted that there are people who are fat and healthy,” she says.

Thandeka Bhengu from Sarnia, Durban, echoes Noxolo’s view and is part of a new breed of body-positive fitness fanatics who believe healthy comes in many sizes. “Being fit isn’t about being slim, it’s about being healthy and loving yourself. For me, fitness is a lifestyle that must be maintained throughout the year,” she says. FAT and fit, more politely known as the obesity paradox, was first suggested in a 2003 study by the University of South Carolina in the US. It claimed that contrary to perceived wisdom overweight people lived.

 Since then, however, research indicates the stereotypes are right and most people who are overweight or obese show potentially unhealthy changes in metabolism. These include high blood pressure or high cholesterol, which damage arteries in the heart and elsewhere, and resistance to the hormone insulin that leads to high blood sugar. This puts fat people at high risk for having a heart attack or stroke, developing Type 2 diabetes, or suffering from a host of other life-changing conditions. In particular, a 2017 study from researchers at the University of Birmingham in the UK of 3,5 million people found that even “metabolically healthy” overweight people are still at a higher risk of heart disease or stroke than those within a normal weight range.

Metabolically healthy obesity is defined as those who are clinically obese – with a body mass index (BMI) of more than 30 – but don’t have the complications usually associated with obesity, such as high blood pressure, diabetes or poor blood sugar control. But weight and weight loss are not simple issues and a body that exercises regularly is generally a healthy body, whether it’s fat or slim. Certainly it’s healthier than one that doesn’t exercise at all.

“There’s no perfect weight – the key is rather individualism and tailormade health rather than following a certain health fashion,” says spokesperson for the Association for Dietetics in South Africa, Faaizah Laher.

 “If an individual is overweight although she follows a healthy diet, exercises and has a healthy cardiovascular and metabolic system, the plan should perhaps be to target abdominal fat rather than just looking at weight. This means assessing body fat percentage and muscle mass rather than just looking at weight and BMI.”

For the 47-year-old asthmatic Thandeka dieting was the norm and she tried every trick in the book. She says she’s always been “big” and, as a nurse, knew the dangers of being overweight and eating unhealthily. But she “never really paid attention to it” and only started taking exercising seriously after she was diagnosed with hypertension. “My world came crashing down in 2004 when I was diagnosed,” she says. “I was supposed to take medication but I refused. The thought of being a double-disease patient and taking chronic medication didn’t sit well with me. From there I decided to go to the gym.” It wasn’t just her health she was concerned about. “I also decided to go to gym because I couldn’t find clothing that fitted me. This used to frustrate the hell out of me. I’d complain to shop owners for not catering for bigger people.”

 Since changing her lifestyle Thandeka no longer has hypertension and has shed 36kg. “I’m not exercising to be slim but to be healthy. I know I can never be slim because I’m naturally big. But I’m healthier and fit. When I started gym I weighed 112kg. Now I wear a size 38,” beams Thandeka, who is 1,52m tall.

 It’s been a hard road for Thandeka, who’s a nursing instructor at Durban University of Technology (DUT). After her diagnosis, she tried crash diets. “I’d lose weight only to gain it back. As a result I wouldn’t recommend crash diets, also known as wohloza, because the results are quick but they can be dangerous. They can make your body wobbly, especially if you’re not exercising. In my view a diet must be supported with exercise.” Laher agrees. “

Crash or yo-yo diets may prove to be effective on the surface, but they play havoc on the body,” she says. “You may lose a lot of weight initially, which depending on the type of diet could be water loss or muscle loss, but not necessarily fat loss. “Crash diets are also not sustainable and often leave out whole food groups, so when the individual goes back to eating normally they just gain all that weight back again, and possibly a little bit more too.”

At one point Thandeka even resorted to having her jaw wired to prevent her from eating. “My teeth were tied for six weeks and I did lose a lot of weight. But that didn’t last because only a few weeks [after the wires were removed] I’d gained even more weight.”

Dr Thoganthiren Perumal Chettiar, a maxillo-facial and oral surgeon, explains jaw wiring is usually used in trauma cases – such as when the jaw is fractured. “However, people have been using this procedure to prevent themselves from eating. This is a fallacy because weight gain is related to kilojoules – anything that is high in kilojoules, even if it’s a liquid, can make you gain weight.”

Experience has taught Thandeka there’s no quick fix or shortcut to fitness. “You just have to be disciplined,” she says. Being disciplined means the nursing instructor starts her day at 4.45am daily. “I start by jogging for an hour. When I come back I cook oats or drink black sugarless tea.” For lunch she only eats home-cooked meals. “This is important because I don’t have to eat junk food. In fact, if you stick to your exercise routine you won’t crave junk food,” she says.

Critics are quick to argue there simply isn’t enough time to exercise in today’s fast-paced world, but Thandeka says nothing is impossible if you put your mind to it. “I’m a wife, a mother to two children aged 21 and 18, a student, a lecturer and I run the clinical department at DUT. I live in Durban but work in Pietermaritzburg, so I travel for two hours every day. I have a duty to fulfil all these roles without missing gym.”

Part of her success lies in planning her day. “When I come back from work I cook supper for my family before going to the gym. When I come back from gym I do my schoolwork and prepare for the next day. “I just finished my master’s in nursing health sciences and this year I’m starting my PhD in access and utilisation of antenatal care services in the rural community of eThekwini District, KwaZuluNatal,” she says with pride.

Running has become part of her life.

“In 2007 I ran my first 10km race and finished it in a record time. I felt proud of myself. The next year I became a licensed runner for Eskom.” This year she plans to take on the gruelling 89km-long Comrades Marathon.