I was always the big girl with the pretty face. I was the biggest one in the group ever since elementary school, and it didn’t help that I was tall, too.
In high school, I was an officer in many organizations and was very active in choir and theater. I won’t lie: I was dissed here and there by certain male “friends” ashamed to take me to school dances. I remember hearing the constant, “Tonnisha would be fine if she lost weight,” blah blah blah.
My mom would bribe me to lose weight, but I never thought I could really do it. In high school, I was wearing a size 22 or 24, and by the end of freshman year in college, I was wearing a size 26.
The day I decided to change my habits was after going to the doctor and finding out that I weighed 350 pounds. I was horrified! I instantly felt naked, ashamed, and for the first time, unhealthy. I was scared for my life, and this time, the doctor nagging me to lose weight was not going to be ignored.
I started off just telling myself that if I stick to a plan, I couldn’t gain any more weight. I would tell myself that I may not lose weight as fast as I wanted to, but if I changed my eating habits and worked out daily, I would slowly but surely see results.
I think telling myself that it was going to be a slow process is what helped me lose the weight. It took me a year and a half, but I went from a size 26 to an size 8/10.
Today, I encounter people wanting me to help them lose weight the fastest way possible, but I tell them that it’s a lifestyle change, not a quick fix kind of thing.
To be honest, being smaller has been so hard for me. I was so hard on myself; I picked out every flaw every day and weighed myself multiple times a day. I was striving for perfection, but ended up developing self-hate. I envied the bigger me that accepted her size and lived regardless. I was smaller, but had lost my personality and the love I had once had for myself.
My turning point was last December, three days before my birthday: It was the day I was in a bad car accident. I was driving from Atlanta to my hometown of Houston and was in a wreck with an 18-wheeler. I was inches away from being completely run over by the 18-wheeler — my car caught on fire and I had to crawl out of my car. I came away with only three scratches on my leg.
Afterward, I remember looking at a tree and crying my eyes out because it was so beautiful and I was so thankful for being alive to see it. That day has helped me see the beauty in everything — including myself. I realized that I had broken up with the bad eating habits and lazy lifestyle of my past, and I was now entering a loving relationship with myself. It doesn’t get any better than that.
I was once a 300-pound, potato-chip-addicted couch potato, and lived that way for almost 20 years before getting a wake-up call five years ago when my weight hit an all-time high of 345 lbs.
There I was on Jan. 5, 2009, sprawled on the couch with my usual bag of chips, watching Oprah, when a miraculous vision appeared before my eyes: Carnie Wilson, who was, for the first time ever, thin, radiant, and happy. I’ve always considered her my genetic twin: a fat kid who became an obese adult struggling constantly with her weight. Seeing Carnie finally free of the “obesity demon” filled me with hope. I pried myself off the couch and shuffled over to the computer for a Google search. I found her fitness guru, who turned out to be a former pro wrestler who’d healed his battered body through yoga.
The vision of Carnie Wilson that day somehow dissolved the wall of apathy and doubt I’d been living behind for decades. I realized change was possible, but that I would have to work for it. I’d been on and off of diets enough times to finally concede there are no shortcuts or magic cures. I reached out to Carnie Wilson’s trainer via social media. When he realized I was willing to do whatever it took to change my eating habits and work out regularly, he agreed to mentor me long-distance. His support was crucial because I believe no one makes it out of a situation like mine on their own.
As for my new way of eating: I knew some boundaries were in order, but my one rule was it could not feel like a diet, so I set about making reasonable changes I could live with. At the request of my nutritionist I gave up gluten and dairy and watched in amazement as my energy levels soared and the weight began coming off at a steady pace. Also crucial: I had to come to terms with quantity — and agree to feed myself when I was hungry, not bored or trying to evade an uncomfortable feeling.
My new way of eating and living wasn’t always smooth sailing, but for the first time, I wanted change more than I wanted the taste of a binge food. After a lifetime of struggling with yo-yo dieting and regaining weight, I dropped 185 pounds without surgery, dieting, or drugs.
Aside from good nutrition, my transformation also required an honest look at what drove me to overeat. For many years, three main life situations contributed to me drugging myself with food:
a toxic, hostile office environment;
an unhappy 20-year relationship;
and a deep sadness over the long process of losing my father to Alzheimer’s disease.
I didn’t deal with all three at once; that would have been overwhelming. But I decided it was time to wake up and face them.
My boyfriend at the time was not a bad guy at all, but we weren’t right for each other. It was a relationship of safety and convenience for both of us and we knew it deep down, but never touched the truth in terms of discussion. I chose to hide this way for 20 years, overeating to compensate for the feelings of emptiness that came from being in a romantically loveless relationship. When I realized I no longer wanted to live a lie, and live with stuffing myself as a way of life, I got courageous enough to be truthful with him and part as friends. I also made the bold move to quit my job and become a freelance writer.
The last hurdle was the most painful: witnessing my father’s transition, and what a long one it was. He lay in a nursing-home bed for nearly a decade, nonverbal and mumbling. The good part was he was unaware of time and seemed to be in another dimension most of the time. But my heart ached every time I visited him because I missed the man I grew up with and loved so deeply.
For the first half of his illness, I ate myself into oblivion. For the second half, I was front and center, standing squarely in reality and whatever feelings that brought. Overeating only compounded my problems and contrary to what I’d rationalize to myself, never really made me feel better. Stuffing myself till I was groggy with a hurting stomach didn’t alleviate the sad feelings — it only sent them deeper underground. It was actually a huge relief to have the luxury of feeling the feelings in the moment so I could let them pass through me. I was there for my father and for myself like never before. And when his time finally came, I was able to embrace it and be there at his side, fully present with my tears, my sorrow, my gratitude.
As for physical activity, I discovered I loved it! The lighter I got the more I wanted to do. During my first year of the transformation, I did my first (walking) marathon for the Avon Breast Cancer Research movement. I was down 100 pounds by that point and felt fantastic. Participating in that marathon changed me both physically and emotionally. I pushed past barriers I didn’t know I could push through and it was one of the most triumphant moments of my life.
This is what real transformation takes. The diet industry wants to keep us trapped. I’m just another average American hardcore overeater who made it out of the woods. I’m living proof that it’s possible. Especially since I was 44 when I began — the time in a woman’s life when metabolism is alleged to grind to a halt and life is said to be downhill from there. This year I turn 50 and I look and feel better than I did in my 20s!
I love food more now than I did in my days as an overeater because I eat with awareness, not in a trance. Breakfast will usually be a couple of eggs with sautéed vegetables, or if I’m in the mood for carbs, I make it healthy: whole-grain hot cereal with chia seeds and unsweetened shredded coconut, which is delicious. I love juicing and practice it regularly as a way to get more vegetables in. Nothing is off limits: I won’t play the “never again” game because that just sets me up for longing. I find, however, that I feel better when I avoid dairy and wheat products and use them very sparingly. I adore lentils and even bake with them! You haven’t lived until you’ve tried a piece of my coconut almond cake made from chickpeas.
I eat moderate amounts of carbohydrates, usually only once per day. Often it will be rice, potatoes, quinoa, or gluten-free pasta. I’m definitely “veganish” — I’m not 100 percent anything. I love vegan dishes, but salivate over meatballs too much to give them up! For dinner, I love grilled salmon or catfish with a side of sautéed zucchini, spinach, or asparagus. Another favorite dinner: a bowl of homemade lentil or tomato soup. Sometimes it’s all I want.
The amazing thing I discovered, as a lifelong emotional eater, is that when I dealt with the things that were plaguing me to overeat, I didn’t have to micromanage the food or obsess over it. Instead, I reconnected to my body’s wisdom and let it handle the speed of weight loss, and let my body tell me when it was hungry and when it’s had enough. We come into the world with this ability and all too often it’s conditioned out of us. I relearned it and it really wasn’t all that difficult.
I love being a smaller size, but I’m clear that it doesn’t make me a better person. What it does make me is FREER! And freedom is the biggest gift of all. I no longer panic when boarding a plane, wondering if my circulation will be cut off halfway through the flight because I’m too big for the seat. I go to plays and movies now with abandon and love shopping. No longer do I have to settle for what fits. I saunter up to clothing racks now and rifle around for my favorite colors. And by the way, it feels GREAT to wear color. For 20 years it was all black, head to toe. Even during heatwaves. Try to picture a 345-pound woman on a hot day wearing all black. I probably don’t have to go into much detail regarding how dangerously foul my mood was. Heatwaves, airplane seats, and delicate folding chairs no longer bring me to my knees. It feels so fantastic to be free.
If you’re willing to dig deep, look at yourself and your life, there are rewards to be enjoyed, I promise. I’m living a life I never thought would be possible. I’m the weight I was in middle school. I have a fantastic, loving, and romantic man in my life now who is a partner in every way. And my life purpose with writing is satisfying and fulfilling.
I grew up on good old macaroni and cheese from the box and hot dogs. I didn’t try a vegetable until I was in my early 20s. If it had any artificial ingredients in it, I loved it. Any food having a shelf life of 100-plus years sounded delicious to me. And what was that you said? Ten for $2?! What a bargain! In my cart it went.
Bad habits have a tendency to sneak up on you. One moment I was a voluptuous teenager enjoying a beer and a hamburger, and then before I knew it, I was married and had four beautiful girls. After having my fourth child, I weighed 280 pounds, but I was happy — or, at least, that was what I told myself.
When my first daughter was a few weeks old, and I would wake up numb. I would be in a cold sweat and gasping for breath. This prompted a much-needed physical with my doctor. To say that my insides were screaming for help was an understatement. My cholesterol was through the roof, I had sleep apnea, high blood pressure, anxiety, panic attacks, heart palpitations, and depression.
I was 36 years old.
I will never forget what my doctor told me that day. She said all of these conditions could be reversed. I said, “Wow, sign me up! What do I have to do?” She said I had two choices: First, I could go on a list of medications. Or, instead, I could change my diet and start moving my body. Use food as nutrition and fuel, and not as entertainment. The right foods have the power to heal the body. The idea that food could be medicine was so foreign to me, but I was not ready to give up. I knew that this was not how my story was going to end.
I started walking that night, just around the block. My body ached and my heart pounded, but I knew I had to keep going. I did my research, read the books, spoke to my doctor, and came up with a plan. First, I cut the soda, junk food, and fast food. With these changes, along with walking every night for 30 minutes, I lost 50 pounds.
Then the dreaded plateau happened.
I had to shake up my routine. I set a goal for myself, which was to run a 5K. I trained for this race using an app on my phone called Couch to 5K (C25K). I started by running for 30 seconds and then walking for four minutes and 30 seconds. Every week I added 30 seconds to my run. I ended running my first 5K and finishing in 30 minutes! I ran the entire time. Not fast, but I ran. I continued my training, setting new goals, and I never looked back. (You can follow my progress on Instagram; my username is momoffourchicks37.)
Today, I have lost 125 pounds. I am now a Beachbody Coach, working on my personal trainer certification, and looking forward to taking holistic nutrition classes in the summer. I am no longer a passive participant in life.
My diet consists of lean proteins, vegetables that are in season, and no white carbs or simple sugars. Everything in moderation. If I want a brownie, I eat a brownie. But I may eat half of one, not three. I don’t deprive myself.
My exercise plan consists of weightlifting, running, and pushing play on my Beachbody workout DVDs. Being a mom of four busy little girls, I can’t always get to the gym, and working out at home makes it possible to stay on track and get in a killer workout.
My advice: Many people still think you have to eat less and go on a “diet.” But what we all need to do is eat right, do something that makes us sweat every day, and don’t ever diet. I have made this a lifestyle change. If not now, when?
Special-education teacher for Nassau Boces
Wife and mother to four beautiful girls
37 years old
Before Weight: 280 pounds
After Weight: 155 pounds Total Loss: 125 pounds
This week, a blog and photo that was meant for a popular women’s magazine went viral: Brooke Birmingham had been interviewed by a freelance writer for Shape magazine’s online “Success Stories” section. When she submitted an “after” photo of her in a bikini, the writer asked her for another photo of her wearing a shirt, citing “editorial policy” (which the magazine later denied, stating this was a misunderstanding with the freelance writer).
Brooke was, understandably, hurt by this request. She had lost 172 pounds, sharing her story along the way on her blog. Her new body was the result of her hard work, and as she pointed out in her blog post (which later appeared on the Huffington Post):
I spent MANY years hating and hiding a body I was ashamed of because it wasn’t society’s ideal of beautiful. Being asked to send a photo of myself with a shirt on made me feel like I again should be ashamed of my body. That since I have the loose skin, I shouldn’t be in a bikini. I wasn’t willing to do that though.
Having struggled with my weight, I applaud Brooke for standing by her story — and for being so brave. Even after losing weight and reaching a goal, there are still hurdles to overcome, not just in maintaining weight loss with all the unhealthy obstacles in the world, but also in reframing our body image. There are comments from loved ones, good and not so good, so for Brooke to receive this feedback from a total stranger was completely uncalled for. And deserved her pushback. As she stated in her email to the writer: “I feel like the industry is teaching us to be ashamed of our bodies, even when we have done amazing things.”
Isn’t it time that we nix the notion of “ideal bodies” and love our amazing bodies at every stage of our lives? It’ll take demand from consumers, and more magazines like ours that are ready to do away with the “Six Packs and Sex Lives” cover lines that sell those magazines. (Check out a Q&A with our creative director, Lydia Anderson, on how we present images in the magazine.)
We’d love to hear from you: How did you feel about this story?
Managing a healthy relationship with food is tricky enough when you’re trying to lose weight, but imagine being a chef who has to make rich, sugary foods for his patrons nearly every day. You want to know if a dish is good? Well, you’ll have to taste it. And then taste that. And then you’re pushing meal after meal out of the kitchen and what happened to your time for dinner?
Unless you work at a restaurant expressly focused on preparing and serving only healthy food, it’s no doubt a challenge to maintain your weight when working in the restaurant industry, as chef Rocco Whalen from Cleveland’s Fahrenheit Restaurant shares in this video below from Nightline.
If you work in a restaurant, what are your tricks for staying slim? Can you identify with Chef Whalen’s struggle?
I hope you’ve been enjoying hearing more from our January/February issue’s featured How I’m Doing It writer. I had a chance to catch up with Kathe over the phone recently, and she spoke about her strategies for success, the unexpected lessons she learned as she lost the weight, and the surprising challenge of weight-loss maintenance.
It was my pleasure to meet Kathe Yamagata, the author of this month’s How I’m Doing It, in person. I traveled to Washington, D.C., to spend the day photographing her, and conducted a short interview as well.
As you can see from the video, Kathe is the real deal. Her commitment to her new healthy lifestyle is truly inspiring.
Thanks to Kathe for her hospitality, and for sharing her story with our readers.
For those of you looking for some motivation to exercise this weekend, check out LaKeisha Shurn’s story: She took on a challenge through GiveIt100.com to go to the gym for 100 days in a row. Not only did she lose weight, but she reveals that she learned so much more about herself.
Why is she sharing this? “I want you to see how one person really changes everything about their life.”
Perhaps you can relate if you’ve shared your story here with Experience Life readers. If you haven’t and this inspires you, we loved to cheer on your own personal successes, too!
It started in June 2010. I was attending the Prayer Quake conference in Phoenix. On the morning of the second day, a man I didn’t know said he had a word for me from God. This is what he said:
“Steve, you say you love Me yet you don’t love yourself. You will never be able to fully love others until you start truly loving yourself as much as I love you, and by the looks of your body, my temple, you do not love yourself. You really need to learn how to love ‘you’ as much I love you. Then you will be able to truly love others for me.”
Wow. I had no idea what to say as the gentleman hugged me for God and then walked away. I began to ask God if this was from Him or if this was a very rude person who has issues with overweight people. Later that morning and throughout that day, God made it clear that it was a message from Him.
First, God spoke through another conversation I was part of, about Israel defiling the temple of God and needing to restore it. Later, I had it come up again in my own devotional readings. Yes, you guessed it: Israel’s King had defiled the temple by putting in Asherah poles.
So by now, I realized I had an issue to deal with. Taking care of me! I began to ask God for his help in knowing where to start and for his strength to be able to stick with it. It was then God led me to an endocrinologist named Dr. Chung.
The first thing Dr. Chung told me to do was journal everything I put in my mouth. That sounded simple enough. To my surprise and horror, I filled three pages in one day. If I didn’t realize it before I did now: I was in serious trouble. I was living to eat. Eating had become my coping mechanism. I would need God’s help to change.
By this time, my diabetes was out of control. My A1C was 13. My average sugar reading was around 225. I was taking 100 units of Lantus insulin a day plus five oral medications. My weight was in the 345-pound range. I felt awful.
So the journey began — or rather, my Temple Restoration project, with God as my guide and source for strength.
I started to cut down on how much I ate, keeping my food journal to a half-page each day. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to realize that I needed to make some life changes, not just go on a diet. What made it more difficult was that we would be traveling from September 2010 through the first week of November 2010. After three months (from August to November), my insulin was reduced to 80 units a day and I had lost 24 pounds. By November 9, 2010, I weighed 321 pounds.
Then God gave me an extra source of help. I found a free app and website to track food intake called SparkPeople. The tools they provide were just the tools that I needed to help me change my life as the Temple Restoration continued.
From November 13, 2010 to March 30, 2011 — just four months — the results were amazing. I’ve lost 83 pounds total since August 2010. My doctor took me off one of my diabetic medications completely, and I was down to 17 units of Lantus insulin a day. (My goal was to be off insulin by the end of April 2011.) Each day starts with my restoration workout, both physical and spiritual. I’m eating much healthier and I’m also walking every evening. I still have another 80 to 90 pounds to go to reach my goal weight, but I know with God’s help and strength, it will be realized.
Through it all, I pray that God is glorified and for others who are challenged to start or continue their own restoration project. Start loving yourself as much as God loves you.
Loving Me and Restoring My Temple
As of June 21, 2011, I will have been on this Temple Restoration journey for a year. For the first month and a half I was trying to do it with little results. It was only after my first endocrinologist appointment that I began to understand just how messed up I was, not just physically but mentally and emotionally. You see, I am an emotional eater. I use it to cope with stress and other difficulties, but I also use it to celebrate victories and to have quality family time. And when it was all said and done, I would feel so guilty for eating that I would eat again to comfort myself. (The refrigerator became my therapist.)
Sounds crazy, I know, but that is the vicious cycle I was in.
All the while I would blame my medicines for my weight gain. In reality, a portion of my weight gain was due to my meds, but 80 percent was me and my dysfunction. As best as I can remember, it all started while in college. I never admitted I had a problem but I did. I know that you can’t live in the past, but one can learn from it and grow. That is what I’ve chosen to do. In short, I am a foodaholic. I lived to eat when I should be eating to live.
It was only after my encounter at Prayer Quake, where I was confronted with God’s truth about me and my lack of love for myself, that I realized I needed to make some radical changes in my life. I would have to rely on God for strength and a daily renewed purpose. That is where the Temple Restoration came in. I realized I had defiled His temple/my body because I wasn’t loving me enough to take care of my life and my health, the greatest gifts God had given me. I knew I had to make changes and that I needed His help.
We Americans tend to look for the easiest and quickest way to accomplish everything, and the same is true when it comes to our health. We want to be in good health and have our cake, too. We look for the “magic pill” that will allow us to keep on doing what we enjoy but still make us into a better person. I wanted to find a quick and easy fix to get me off my insulin and other meds. I begged God to heal me yet I was unwilling to do anything to change my destructive habits.
I have news for you: There is no magic pill or quick fix. It takes determination, discipline, and a desire to care for yourself. The great part is that, as I made my effort, God met me halfway and provided the strength and purpose I needed to make the changes. I’m not on a diet: I’m making life changes!
The day God directed me to SparkPeople was the day that my restoration kicked into another level. It helped me learn more about the foods I ate and their nutritional value for my body. It helped me see that just 10 minutes of activity here and there will add up and make a difference in your health: parking farther from the store and walking, taking the stairs when possible, just getting yourself moving more than you do now.
When I started out, I was doing 10 to 15 minutes of exercise or walking. Over the past year, I have discovered that I am looking for more and more ways to move. I am now walking 3 to 4 miles each morning. That has required me to rise earlier, but I really enjoy walking. I am currently walking at a pace of a mile every 13 minutes. And I still find myself looking for ways to move during the day. Beginning in August, I will start to train for my first half marathon.
OK, I realize some readers will think I am judging others. That couldn’t be further from the truth. My heart is crying out, longing to see people love themselves as God loves them. I like the phrase in the scriptures that says we are to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves (Matthew 19:19; 23:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27, Romans 13:9, Galatians 5:14 and James 2:8). Now, I’m not promoting an unholy pride but a love that longs to care for one’s self. The question that I was asked was, How can I truly love others if I don’t truly love myself? Ouch!!! No, I’m not perfect and I still need to continue working on this.
Luckily, my wife, Debbie, has being on the same lifestyle journey with me — without her, it would have been a lot harder. Together we have dropped 260 pounds. (Editor’s note: Read Debra’s story here.)
I think the key to getting healthy is momentum. Every little thing you do to change the momentum in your favor gives you the spark you need to make the next change.
My story is one of bad momentum turned around.
My husband, Steven, and I were both overweight diabetics with high blood pressure and a myriad of other concerns. His story is a miracle in itself: He lost half his body weight, down to 170 pounds; rid himself of every diabetes medication and other prescription; and, in the process, went from his first 5K as a walker to a full marathon. (Editor’s note: Read Steven’s story here.)
But this is my story. Not as spectacular but every bit as big a turnaround. I’ve gone from an exhausted couch potato to an active, healthy person carrying 85 less pounds, all in a span of just a few years. My concerns over my husband’s failing health and extremely expensive medications woke me up to the truth: I was at a point of no return. I either changed the momentum in my life or I would be on those same expensive meds with multiple side effects and damage to our pocketbooks.
I needed to change for him, but mainly I needed to change for me. I was worth it.
A website and phone app called SparkPeople got me over my excuses that counting calories was too hard. It also gave me a cold dose of reality: I wasn’t eating halfway healthy like I thought. I was eating 3,000 or 4,000 fat-laden calories a day and moving very little. What else did I expect to get from that besides sluggishness and added pounds year after year?
I made the decision to change just days from my 48th birthday and during Thanksgiving week. I felt if I could succeed on a week like that, the following weeks would be easier. During that week and the many weeks following, I gained momentum. I saw that if I can change, then I truly believe anyone can if they really want to be healthier.
How I did it:
I was determined to take as long as I needed and refused to starve myself, following a moderate-calorie diet and never going below 1,200 calories. I logged my food every day, and I’m so glad I got in the habit because it has helped me to maintain what I’ve lost and even keep on losing those last stubborn 20 pounds.
I also refused to swear off any foods. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to think about anything but chocolate if I told myself I could never have any. (That said, there were a number of things I only had rarely, including fried foods and rich desserts.)
I began to move more. I started with 10-minute walks and light strength training, then added more activity as I started to feel better and have more energy. My 10-minute walks became 3-mile walks to the grocery store and back. (I love exercise with a purpose and reducing my carbon footprint was a great purpose!)
It feels great to be active now, free from diabetes and blood-pressure medications, and to be able to sign up for a 5K on a whim and not even have to train extra because I can already do it! I also love my new app, Charity Miles, because my miles can go toward a great charity. (Exercise with a purpose again!)
My weight loss has slowed to a pound or two per month and I still have 15 pounds to go to reach my goal, but I’m not discouraged. I know, whether I get to my “scale goal” or not, that my goal has already been reached — I’m healthy! I even got through breast cancer and radiation exercising all the while, and I’m convinced I won’t be hearing that “C” word again.