A New Path: Courtney Lewis Opdahl’s Success Story

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One woman’s journey from yo-yo diets and a spirit-crushing obsession with weight to a happy, healthy rebirth.

This is a sadness I feel very deeply, and my heart sinks when I type these words: I haven’t taken very good care of myself, and I need to apologize to my body.

Today, I’m a smart, curious and happy 32-year-old woman with great friends, a wonderful family and a terrific job here as a senior editor at Experience Life. For most of my adult life, though, I was clueless about basic self-care. I chose convenience over quality food, wore stress as a badge of honor and skimped on sleep so I wouldn’t be the “party-pooper.” Instead of finding time for exercise or play, most days I moved from my bed to my desk chair to my recliner. Because of these transgressions, my weight fluctuated between 118 and 221 pounds.

For too long I used television viewing and bar hopping to relieve stress. I learned to “cook” by following instructions on a boxed meal. And I stood in front of the mirror, time and again, crying at the image reflected back at me — a body I didn’t recognize, one I didn’t dare undress in a locker room full of women at the gym, let alone my own loving husband.

Even at my slimmest, I wasn’t happy with my body, and instead of treating it with love, I was cruel and abusive. Finally, though, the thought of continuing this bad relationship with my body gave me such dread — for myself and for my future children — that I decided to make a fundamental change that would completely transform my life, shift my mindset, and open my heart to living in a healthy, joyful way.

The Wrong Messages

When I was 11 years old, I vividly recall standing on a scale in front of my female peers in gym class. Our teacher was screening us for scoliosis and healthy weight, and when my results didn’t match her chart, she announced aloud that I wasn’t in the “normal” range. Girls were snickering behind me, and I was humiliated. I was 5-foot-4½ inches and 120 pounds. That night, I paged through my cousin’s teen magazine, found a “model’s secret” diet book and sent in my mail order the next day.

Over the years, I purchased exercise gadgets that promised to burn fat and reveal sexy, sleek muscles; diet books that claimed to help drop belly fat and slim my thighs; and pills that would speed up my metabolism and help me eat less. I tried low-fat, low-carb, point-system and meat-free diets. I’d skip meals altogether or I’d eat only bars and shakes. I may have been skeptical about their claims, but I desperately wanted a solution that would be easy — a simple pill or plan that would let me get back to my life and not overtake it.

The Worker Bee

I was a dedicated student in school, and in college I focused on becoming a journalist. Soon my days were filled with studying and writing papers, interviewing professors and writing articles for the school newspaper, and indulging in too much alcohol and cigarettes on evenings and weekends. I stayed up late cramming for tests and subsisted on a diet of ramen noodles, pizza and mac ’n’ cheese.

During my freshman year, I gained 35 pounds and kept it for most of college.

I had stopped thinking about my weight and health and instead had become diligent in only my studies. By the summer of 2003, right before my senior year, I decided I wanted to lose the weight. So I joined a women’s-only gym, followed their low-fat, low-carb diet plan and lost 36 pounds rather quickly. Once I took off the weight, I felt like a new person.

After graduation, I landed a job, bought a house and ended a three-year relationship. I made new friends, dated new men and traveled to Florida, where I met my future husband, Kyle, through mutual friends.

In my mind, weight gain was a thing of the past. I could resume my usual habits and eat whatever I wanted again, now that I was thin.

Fat and Unhappy

About a year and a half after we met, I married Kyle.

I had gained about 11 pounds by our wedding in September 2006, but still felt healthy at 140 pounds. Over the next two years, the numbers on the scale crept up. I was very aware of my weight gain, but my priorities were to advance my career and spend time with Kyle, friends and family.

When a challenged publishing industry forced a round of layoffs at my company in February 2009, I was out of work. I had invested so much of my time and energy into my career that losing my job was a wake-up call in more ways than one: I now weighed 208 pounds and I realized that I needed to take care of myself.

In September 2009, Kyle and I decided the timing was right to have a baby. I stopped taking my birth-control pill (I had been a regular user for 12 years) and assumed I would be pregnant within a few months. When I missed my period that November, I took a pregnancy test, but it came out negative. When this pattern continued into the spring, my intuitive side was speaking loudly, telling me that my body wasn’t healthy enough for a baby. My doctor’s only solution was more hormones, but I sensed there were bigger health issues that I needed to address.

The Long Road to Better Health

In January 2010 I started researching local doctors and holistic practitioners in the Twin Cities area. Over time I met with an acupuncturist twice a week; visited with a clinical nutritionist and a functional-medicine specialist, a naturopathic physician, an integrative medical doctor, and a chiropractor; and eventually started sessions with a life coach to support the behavioral changes I would have to make.

I underwent a bevy of tests, and the results were troubling. Among the concerns were adrenal fatigue, a pattern of metabolic syndrome (a sign of prediabetes) and extremely low levels of vitamin D. I also had chronic inflammation, which makes it difficult to lose weight and puts my cardiovascular system at risk. I was low on iron and magnesium, dehydrated, and had high white-blood-cell counts, indicating an infection that was later found to be caused by both a gut bacterial infection and a parasite called Entamoeba.

I was shocked to learn that I wasn’t just overweight and missing my periods, but on a treacherous path to severe health complications. My stress levels were still elevated; I had put on more weight, hitting a high of 221 pounds; and I felt overwhelmed by all the work I needed to do to get better.

As scary as my findings were, they also served as an important push to help me readjust my priorities. When the team at Experience Life asked me to come aboard full-time in October 2010, my days became focused on the world of health, learning all I could for the magazine as well as for myself. I began to change my diet dramatically, started working out with a personal trainer and actively managed my stress — ever aware of my struggles with work-life balance.

Changing Behaviors

At the urging of my healthcare team, I decided to try an elimination diet to see if I had any allergies that may have been stalling my weight loss. Some of my coworkers had success with Mark Hyman’s UltraSimple Diet, so I gave it a shot. For two weeks, I ate only nonallergenic foods and lean proteins, healthy fats, and lots of vegetables. When I started to add back certain foods containing gluten or dairy, I was surprised to discover that I had major intolerances.

Removing gluten and dairy gave me huge relief, but when I was eating outside my home, I found obstacles at every turn. My friends and family didn’t completely understand my new way of eating, some even telling me that I couldn’t be gluten intolerant unless I had celiac disease. Others insisted that “a little cheese” wouldn’t hurt. If it wasn’t grilling season, Kyle would scratch his head at dinnertime and often conclude there was nothing we could eat.

Since meat is frequently the centerpiece of family meals, I’d usually bring a large salad to share at group dinners, and happily enjoyed the protein and veggies and skipped the other sides. But I could see concern on my dining partners’ faces as they pushed around the food on their plates while examining mine. Or they’d defend their food choices aloud, thinking I was judging them for taking the extra scoop of cheesy potatoes.

Handling these reactions turned out to be much more difficult than actually changing my diet. Very often it was heartbreaking — I just wanted to be normal, and there were so many moments when I felt defeated and weird. I felt as if I was breaking away from my tribe, and it was extremely lonely. It seemed easier to give in to temptation and eat the cookie when offered than to worry I’d offend the hostess.

Through working with my life coach, Lauren Zander of The Handel Group, I was encouraged to stay strong. Lauren assured me that this life I was forming, one of health and fitness, was the “new” me. It was a life that I could be proud of, even if it was a little odd at first to those around me. And because they loved me, they would learn to accept the new me.

And they did. Some of them even changed their own habits.

I started getting requests to bring salads to family dinners and questions about exercise, food trends and alternative-health practices. People wanted to know about yoga and acupuncture and gluten. Once the fear passed and they started seeing my improvements, I could feel the walls break down. With it, I found relief and permission to continue healing myself from within.

Getting Stronger

In October 2010 I started working with personal trainer Shane Kinney, NASM-CPT, CES, and I have to applaud him for his patience. At the gym, I felt weak and fat and frustrated with my body, and I was still struggling to implement healthier eating habits.

My past attempts at working out were halfhearted: I’d hop on a treadmill and walk for 30 minutes to an hour. Bored and displeased with a lack of results, I would soon give up. But Shane encouraged me to believe in myself, and it motivated me to work out like never before.

He set up a circuit of dumbbells, kettlebells, a TRX suspension trainer and a row machine, and he had me work in shorter bursts, similar to HIIT or metabolic-resistance training. I went from swinging a 15-pound kettlebell to one weighing 45 pounds in eight weeks; I added 20 pounds to my barbell clean and press in three weeks; and eventually I was doing burpees in an hourlong Boot Camp class next to a former enlisted Marine, a triathlete and a marathoner.

My strength gains in the gym gave me the confidence to be steadfast in my diet. I still occasionally get comments on the “weird” vegetables I’m eating, but they don’t bother me so much now. I know that it’s not a personal attack, and sometimes it’s just coming from a place of fear: They may be thinking, Since Courtney changed, does that mean I have to, too? I know that can be a scary thought if you’re not ready — or wanting — to make the switch. And that’s OK.

To date, I’ve lost 60 pounds and five dress sizes. I’m still working on losing another 35 pounds, but I’m less concerned about the number on the scale and more focused on doing what’s right for my health. It’s a place where I feel empowered, not restricted, where I love my body now and going forward for life.

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