I am always fascinated by stories of transformation, especially those that hold no bars and tell gritty truths about what it is like to change. Death by Dim Sim is one of those stories. A weight loss memoir by Australian author and former playwright, Sarah Vincent, the book chronicles Sarah’s struggle with obesity (she once weighed 122 kilos) and her impressive 40-kilo weight loss. However, Death By Dim Sim is more than a recount of kilos lost. Sarah gives us a real look at her life, determining when issues with her weight began (she started her first crash diet at 13) and relaying emotional issues she faced as a teen and adult (feelings of isolation and anxiety). Furthermore, the path to weight loss included huge hurdles—the biggest one being her husband’s cancer diagnosis (it was a close call). Despite it all, Sarah succeeded in her goal and the result is a compelling, hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking story.
I had so many questions after reading Death By Dim Sim I reached out to Sarah and asked for an interview. We talked about why diets don’t work, her approach to weight loss, what it is like to write highly personal content, how she became a published author and more. A lot of ground was covered in our chat and thus this article is of the longer variety. I have broken it up into subheadings so you need only read about topics that interest you. As I have been doing with other interviews on this site I have highlighted parts in bold that I find to be particularly profound.
Death By Dim Sim (published by Penguin Random House Australia), RRP $34.99.
Sarah with an old pair of shorts. This photo is by Damjan Janevsk and was sourced via Star Weekly .
On the name
The name Death by Dim Sim is catchy and intriguing. It definitely caught my eye. The story behind the title is even more interesting.
Sarah’s journey to better health began one afternoon at work. She was working at a hospital and walking through the car park to secure her daily dim sim (think round deep-fried spring roll) fix when an epiphany struck. Sarah was no better than the addicted patients inhaling cigarettes in their hospital gowns—except she was slowly killing herself with food. Boom.
This moment of realisation informed the name of Sarah’s book and was the beginning of her journey to better health.
“The book was so much about the fact that I was killing myself with food I just thought that Death By Dim Sim was a really great way to encapsulate that”, said Sarah.
“Whatever you do don’t go on a diet”.
This is Sarah’s advice to her 13-year old self. The 13-year old self who started a crash diet, beginning a cycle of binging and restriction that lasted thirty-four years. That is thirty-four years of shakes, fruit-only diets, soup-only diets, Weight Watchers, eating for your blood type and so on and so on.
“There is so much great research now that shows dieting over time is a fantastic way to put weight on. Because as soon as the willpower runs out and it always does, you eat everything in sight and you put on more weight”, said Sarah.
Sarah’s advice is not subjective. There is plenty of evidence to show that crash diets lead to greater weight gain over time (click here and here and here ). Even a cursory look at the statistics indicates a flaw in the system. The diet industry makes billions of dollars a year. There is no question that people are dieting and yet we are the fattest we have ever been. About 63.4 percent of Australian adults are overweight and statistics indicate that this percentage is set to rise.
Sarah’s take on the issue?
“Restricting calories isn’t the way to lose weight. You need to look at WHAT you’re eating. Whole foods, real foods”, said Sarah.
“I think cutting down on those terrible empty carbohydrates, processed packaged carbohydrates, is the best way to good health and weight management”.
Considering the size of the diet industry it is safe to say most of us—clinical weight problem or not—have attempted a fad diet or at least a very strict, unsustainable diet. This can lead to cycle of binging and restricting. I asked Sarah what she thought stopped her from adopting a slower and more sensible approach sooner.
“I thought about food so much. I had so little control around food, I think I thought slow and sensible wasn’t going to do it. I thought I needed something drastic and radical—the latest thing”, said Sarah.
It turns out fads were not the answer.
“Get off the fad diet bandwagon and eat whole foods and listen to your body and find out what works for you”, said Sarah.
On weight loss
Sarah lost weight by adopting a low carb high fat approach to eating (LCHF), introduced to her by her nutritionist Aprille McMahon.
“I’m a big fan of [LCHF] but look it’s not for everyone”, said Sarah.
A low carb high fat approach to eating eliminates foods like rice, legumes and potatoes and will sound very much like a diet to most people, flying in the face of Sarah’s earlier advice about ceasing fad diets. I would like to make it clear that this style eating works for Sarah, it helps Sarah control food (particularly sugar) cravings and experience satiety. It is a lifestyle Sarah can maintain BUT it is not for everybody.
“Everyone is different. You need to find what works for you and I think one of the really important messages (hopefully) in my book is to listen to your body, stop eating foods out of packets, find what works for you”, said Sarah.
“I’ve tweaked low carb high fat to suit me, I think you have got to find your own way….For example I just cant eat sugar. I am so sensitive to it, it triggers all sorts of terrible cravings and eating, I am much better when I stay away. I don’t always, but I know that about myself. Not everybody else is the same”.
Sarah once weighed 122 kilos
It took one year and nine months for Sarah to reach her goal weight. Photography by Peta Dempsey.
Losing 40 kilos was not a smooth ride for Sarah. It took one year and nine months and there were a lot of stops and starts and hurdles along in the way. Perhaps most difficult was the cancer diagnosis of Sarah’s husband, Russell.
Russell was diagnosed with a serious form of cancer and at the same time suffered from stress-induced psychosis. Did I mention Sarah was also a mother of two? Times were hard.
So what was the key to Sarah’s perseverance?
In Death By Dim Sim, Sarah relays a powerful understanding she came to in the dead of night. To quote from the book,
“Successful weight loss was not about committing myself to be healthy. It was about re-committing myself over and over and over again”.
As well as understanding that the ride would never be smooth, Sarah also had a strong goal.
“I think the goal of being healthy was a really strong one. Because I have young children, because I’ve had cancer, because my husband has had cancer, I finally woke up and realised that being overweight, being seriously overweight is really, really bad for your health”, said Sarah.
“I think I had kind of known that but I had been in denial about it. You know we hear so much about how bad smoking is for you, it is a lot more prevalent in the press now that being overweight is a huge risk factor, I couldn’t keep my head under a rock anymore about that. [Health] that was a really strong motivator. I think that was the difference”.
Do you want to know what the biggest serial killer in Australia is? Cardiovascular disease, an illness directly linked to obesity. Another serial killer linked to obesity? Diabetes. One person develops diabetes in Australia every five minutes. Sarah was right being overweight is risky.
Sarah’s first workout (not her first workout ever, just to be clear) was hard. It was comprised of five minutes on the bike, five minutes punching a boxing bag and one failed attempt at a sit-up. One. This was in a gym in full view of other people
Sarah did not run and hide after this experience she kept going.
I was impressed by this and asked Sarah what she thought spurred her on when many would have wanted to run and hide.
“I think finding the right place to exercise is really key”, said Sarah.
“I never felt judged at the gym. There were people there with varied levels of fitness…. I never felt like anyone was looking at me going “oh she’s wasting her time”, the exact opposite. People were really supportive”.
“Find something you enjoy and don’t be too hard on yourself”. Word.
On getting a book deal
Death by Dim Sim was written in real time. After losing the first ten kilos, Sarah realised that this was a topic she could write about.
“I don’t normally write memoir. I just thought everything was really interesting and the weight was falling off me and I started writing about it”, said Sarah.
“The book deal came about because I entered a section of the manuscript through a program called Hard Copy which is run through the ACT Writing Centre, and it’s a manuscript development program. I got in and got great feedback on the script even though it wasn’t finished”, said Sarah,
Part of the Hard Copy program enabled Sarah to pitch to agents and publishers.
“That’s how I got my agent and that’s how she then got me a book deal”.
“I had only written about 40,000 words but the publisher was so supportive and encouraging, they gave me time to finish the book”.
On sharing her story
Writing memoir isn’t easy for a number of reasons. One of them simply being you are telling strangers highly personal details about your life and once it’s out there, it’s out there.
There is one particular chapter in Death By Dim Sim where Sarah talks about what it is like to be morbidly obese. It’s confronting to say the least. Sarah talks about boob sweat, skin tags, chafing, not being able to get out of the bathtub, not being able to fit into chairs and well….finding it difficult to wipe her own behind. It can’t be easy to relay that stuff to the world, especially this world where trolls do not only belong in fairytales.
“I purposely pulled out all the stops for that [chapter]. I thought I absolutely needed to go to the places that, I’ve read lots and lots of books about people losing weight, everyone kind of pussyfoots around what it is really like to be obese. I purposefully exposed everything and I have no problem with that”, said Sarah.
“There were some things about my family and my kids that I took out. I was really careful about what I said about my kids. I am their mum it is my job to protect them not embarrass them so I was very careful about that”.
“My husband my two sisters and my step daughter each read the book before I submitted the final book to the publishers and gave me the tick of approval. It was really important I did not hurt anyone that I care about”, said Sarah.
Sarah was writing Death by Dim Sim while working part-time (she works at Writers Victoria), studying part-time (a writing course) and raising two kids. Let’s not forget she was also in the midst of her weight-loss journey.
“It was pretty busy….I have an amazing husband who is incredibly supportive and my kids are very supportive, yeah it was busy”.
I asked Sarah, who has just finished a second novel, what her current writing schedule looks like and she relayed an important lesson she had learned.
“Before I had kids I could spend the whole weekend writing, I could put in massive long stints. Once you become a parent you can’t do that. It took me a long time to learn to sit down at the computer [and write for however long I had available]. If I had 20 minutes then I would write for 20 minutes”.
“It actually took years to learn to do that and that was a skill really helped me in writing this book. I didn’t have four hours to sit down on the weekend and have a big session. It had to be a little bit here and a little bit there”
“I think when you become a parent that skill applies to all sorts of things not just writing”.
It has been a year since Sarah submitted the final manuscript of Death By Dim Sim to her publisher.
What does maintenance look like for the mum of two?
“I still eat low carb high fat, I still eat whole foods. Basically my diet is vegetables, meat, dairy, nuts. A little bit of fruit, that’s it. And cheese, of course lots of cheese”, said Sarah.
“Book publicity it made it really hard to commit to a regular routine so I haven’t been as strict with personal training this year but I am still swimming and walking and things like that”.
I’d like to once again thank Sarah for the time she took to have this interview.
You can keep in touch with Sarah on her Facebook page and visit her website for more information.