Help for the Heavy at Ramadan

Mehdi Saadati, 24, holds a photo of himself a year ago, when he was 350 pounds. Ramadan, his father said, was difficult for the family because of his son's gorging.
Mehdi Saadati, 24, holds a photo of himself a year ago, when he was 350 pounds. Ramadan, his father said, was difficult for the family because of his son's gorging. (Bu Newsha Tavakolian -- Polaris)
By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 28, 2008

TEHRAN -- Millions of faithful Muslims worldwide do not eat or drink between dawn and sunset during Ramadan, a month of sacrifice and humility punctuated by joyous family gatherings -- and vast quantities of food.

But until the Saadati family consulted a Tehran diet doctor, Ramadan was a time of frustration and anger. Their obese son, Mehdi, struggled to contain his appetite at a time of year when it becomes normal to consume the equivalent of several meals at one sitting.

Every evening, the Saadatis would gather around a plastic tablecloth on a red Persian carpet in the living room of their basement apartment to break the day's fast. There would be a huge bowl of soup, chunks of Turkish goat cheese, dates, and fresh, long loaves of bread.

The Saadatis would eat and eat to satisfy their hunger. But Mehdi was famished even after the meal. He would eat five more servings of soup, five more loaves of bread and just as many chunks of cheese.

"After all that food, Mehdi would go out for a sandwich," said his father, Ali Asghar, a big man who loves to talk. "We had so many arguments with him. He didn't move the whole day, he just waited to eat."

Mehdi was moody as he craved food during the day, his father said. "To be honest, we never had much fun during Ramadan because of his appetite."

Last year, just before Ramadan, Mehdi, who weighed nearly 350 pounds, consulted Mohammad Sadegh Kermani, a physician and diet guru who has developed a seminar to help patients ride the Ramadan roller coaster.

Mehdi has since lost 180 pounds. He had to change his passport after customs officers said the photo was no longer a valid likeness. Now when he breaks the fast with his mother, father, sister, brother-in-law and infant nephew, he eats only modest portions, carefully weighing pieces of bread on a scale.

"It's all part of the special diet made for me by Dr. Kermani's people," said Mehdi, 24, moments after state television aired images of dreamy colors and a verse from the Koran to announce the end of the day's fast. His face hollow from the sudden weight loss, Mehdi took small pieces of cheese and bread and ate slowly. "This is the right way to eat during Ramadan," he said. "Not bolting down lots of food in the shortest possible time."

In a northwest Tehran apartment building one day this month, dozens of people, some obese and some extremely thin, filled one of Kermani's clinics. Some sought advice on dieting; others wanted to enroll in a program to lose or gain weight.

Jafar Hosseinzadeh, a young tailor from downtown Tehran, had come with his wife and mother, who also were trying to shed pounds. Hosseinzadeh said he knew he was overweight when he kept needing to alter his clothes.

"Iranians are extremely polite," he observed. "But they would just say to my face that I am fat. Now that my overweight uncle has gotten diabetes, I decided to go on a diet."

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