I sat across from my dad having dinner this week. Thirty minutes after the sea bass with roasted cherry tomatoes arrived on the table, the bright red juices from the tomatoes seeping pleasingly into the creamy mash, most of mine remained on my plate. “That was perfectly cooked fish,” he noted. “Absolutely perfect.” I agreed before sadly shrugging: “But you know how it is now. No appetite.”
This has been the state of things since last summer, when I was put on new medication. I take one pill each morning and the drug has been immensely helpful to my health, but one of its side effects is I have no desire for food. I once took so much joy in eating, but it now feels like such a chore that I long for a future where I can just take a pill for all my nutritional needs.
Life after food has never been such a hot topic. The diabetes drug semaglutide, sold under brand names such as Wegovy and Ozempic, has been found to produce significant weight loss by all but suppressing appetite, and has dominated headlines in recent weeks after English chemists announced they would stock it from the spring. The popularity of “skinny jabs” has dramatically increased in recent years, and many Ozempic users will find themselves in the same state as me: setting alarms to make sure they eat enough to stop them feeling faint, and finding that even the tastiest foods have the appeal of chewing on wet cardboard.
In the pursuit of good health, this may be a price some decide is worth paying. Despite Ozempic garnering a loyal following of the rich and famous, seduced by its promise of effortless weight loss, the medication is an effective treatment for type 2 diabetes, with lifesaving benefits for those who truly need it. The drugs are now being licensed for weight loss specifically – in the UK, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has released draft guidelines that semaglutide could be prescribed to those who have a BMI over 35 and at least one weight-related illness. Taking medication for my own health condition has, on balance, been the right choice. But it has come at a cost, something I am still grieving.
Food has always been fundamental to my identity. My mother was a brilliant cook who taught me to bake. I earned extra pocket money by gleefully deveining buckets of frozen prawns when she had people over for special occasions, and took over making family dinner when I was 10. I worked in food throughout my 20s, reviewed restaurants on the side and fell in love with my husband over themed evenings where we’d pair movies with food. He made creme brulee with Amélie, I whipped up kimchi noodles for Parasite and made dozens of tiny pintxos to accompany Pan’s Labyrinth. Our honeymoon in Turkey involved walking miles to find Istanbul’s best kebab and tracking down a legendary octogenarian who hand-rolled exquisite lamb-stuffed manti. But now, on a recent anniversary weekend in Paris, I couldn’t tell you one thing I ate, beyond that it consisted mostly of my six-year-old’s leftovers.
As I learned from the late, great Anthony Bourdain, exploring a country’s food connects you to its soul. I loved talking to chefs and reading about the origin of dishes, often tied to the movement of people and scarcity of resources. Great food, from coq au vin to kedgeree, is often borne from the ingenuity of the human spirit; from people who innovated with what they had, just to make life more delicious.
Food in my family was our shared love language. My grandmother would go to markets in Khartoum to haggle for perfectly ripe fruit to send us. My father’s talent for growing and shopping for vegetables is peerless. At Christmas we form a crack team, him on procurement and me in the kitchen, and each time he will throw in some exciting last-minute wild cards, having spotted an irresistible lacy-edged cabbage or wedge of pungent cheese. This passed down to my own parenting. I’ve spent hours baking with my children, debating the order Starburst should be eaten in (purple, orange, green, red) and making them crispy veg so tasty they claim kale as their favourite food.
I still cook but it’s a mercenary task, enjoyable only as an opportunity to practise my knife skills or catch up on a podcast. I have discovered I can still take some pleasure in eating things connected to treasured memories. I try to recreate a salad with an anchovy crumb I had visiting my brother in New York or the garlicky lamb’s liver we’d eat as children on Fridays. If I focus on how delicious I once found these dishes, I can trick my brain into a semblance of that feeling. But it only lasts a few bites and the rest is typically, and joylessly, repurposed as breakfast for the next day.
Health is complicated, and medicine’s approach to fatness has well-documented problems. The explosion in popularity of Ozempic at a time when food banks are buckling under demand and food shortages are rife feels uncomfortable. Of importance, too, is the post-pandemic surge in disordered eating. Diet culture remains insidious, toxic and complicated to unpick.
Regardless of the purported benefits Ozempic may have for many, for me a life without appetite is not an enviable one. Doctors tell me this may not be permanent. Perhaps one day, my husband will come home to find me enthusiastically hand-rolling gnocchi to watch Cinema Paradiso. But until that happens, I believe that when I lost the desire to make life more delicious, a little bit of my humanity went with it.
Leila Latif is a freelance writer and critic
This article was amended on 5 March 2023. An earlier subheading said that Leila Latif took semaglutide for diabetes, but she is not using that medication and does not have diabetes
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