A short history of dieting in Russia

Source: Lori/Legion media

Source: Lori/Legion media

Dee Dee, a fresh expat, recently wailed: “Is there a Jenny Craig in Moscow?”

“Of course,” I quipped back. “I’m amazed you didn’t notice it - it’s right there on Red Square, between Target and Whole Foods.”

Alas, no. There is not even one single Weight Watchers meeting. If you are feeling homesick for the United States, there is a McDonald’s on almost every street corner, KFC and a newly opened Chili’s on New Arbat Street. Moscow is the last place you want to diet: It takes twice as long to lose a kilo as it does a pound, and stocking your kitchen with fresh fruit, lean meat and whole grains is a three-day marathon. Is it any wonder expat women are struggling to take off some weight?

I met Dee Dee for a latte, and after much persuasion, Larissa the barista made them with 1.8 percent instead of the usual 3.5.

“I’ve put on 10 pounds in two months! I didn’t notice at first because the scale in our hotel room was in kilos - I actually thought I’d lost some weight - but then our container arrived with my regular scale and I was horrified. Do you think it could have been recalibrated during the voyage?”

“Very possibly,” I soothed.

“And look at all those skinny girls out there,” she waved her hand toward Tverskaya Street. “Are you telling me they subsist on high-fat milk and deep fried everything?”

“They are the Banana Generation,” I explained. The dubious Banana Generation theory is a soothing balm to every expat woman who ever warily eyed her husband’s 89-pound secretary. According to the theory, the generation of Russians who are now abnormally tall and enviously slim were entering puberty in the years just after perestroika, when vassal states such as Cuba were repaying their debt to Russia in fruit, flooding the previously barren shelves with bananas. And, the theory runs, bananas produce abnormally high growth spurts.

“That’s ridiculous,” scoffed Dee Dee. “There must be some dieting help here.”

In 20 years of Moscow life, I have seen hundreds of diet fads come and go. In the early 90s, there were hyperactive salesmen in the metro wearing buttons on their grimy leather jackets saying, “Want to lose weight? Ask me how.” Soon a revolutionary program known as “New Vays” took their place. “New Vays” potions and powders turned out to be manufactured from outdated talcum power at a dubious factory outside Minsk. Diet pills from Thailand enjoyed huge popularity, until a spate of hospitalizations.

Then-president Vladimir Putin introduced the briefly popular Kremlin Diet — an innovative program that eliminated sugars, starches and alcohol, leaving protein and vegetables. This was eclipsed by the arrival of the Atkins Diet. Finally a diet made for Russians!

Dee Dee and I hit upon a very expat solution. We created our own Weight Watchers-type support group, easily recruiting other expats as members. We met a few times for weigh-ins, but it quickly spiraled into a wine drinking/moaning evening about the servant problem.

Which is how we piled on the kilos in the first place.

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