Only 5 to 10 percent of people who lose weight keep it off long term, say the statistics-and those grim numbers were borne out as we searched for local members of that elite group. They were hard to find.
“Losing weight is the easy part-keeping it off is the hard part,” confirms Michele Canny Gilles, a registered dietitian and director of nutrition services of Wenmat Fitness Centers. “In my practice, I begin to incorporate skills for keeping the weight off while my patients are in the losing-weight process, because so many of the things we do during weight loss are the keys to continued success.”
It’s a tough road but, like anything else in life, success is possible for those who are determined enough to find what works for them-and to stick to it. That theme came up time and again, like a melodic refrain, while interviewing the individuals whose stories follow. Although the details of their experiences may differ, they share a commitment to a whole new way of life-and a certain “never say die” tenacity.
Carol and Rick Clinger: Married to a New Way of Life
“You aren’t still dieting, are you?” is a question people often ask Carol and Rick Clinger, who have cashed in the chips and dip for a low-carb lifestyle. “It’s not a diet anymore,” says Carol. “It’s the way we eat.”
Collectively, this husband-and-wife team has dropped a total of 208 pounds-a statistic made more remarkable by the fact that neither has gained back an ounce. “For some reason,” says Carol, “people think they should be able to diet off the weight and then go back to their old habits. But a commitment to a permanently new way of eating is necessary if you want to keep the weight off.”
When they started on the Atkins diet in April 2003, Carol says, the two were undeniably clinically obese-Carol topping the scale at 265 pounds and Rick at 278. High cholesterol and high blood pressure had begun plaguing Rick, and Carol was retaining significant amounts of water, leading to the onset of edema (and, subsequently, a prescription for diuretics). “I was on the diuretics for about a year, and I knew it wasn’t good, long term, for my health,” says Carol. After watching “Dateline’s” diet challenge, in which six high-school reunion attendees tried different methods to lose weight, Carol began reading up on the Atkins diet, and it spoke to her. “When I read the part about the kinds of foods we’d been eating-carbs, carbs, carbs and highly processed foods-it really hit home,” she says. When she read that the Atkins diet often has a natural diuretic effect, she was sold.
“I approached Rick, and he immediately agreed: ‘Let’s try it,'” recalls Carol. After throwing out all the “bad food” in the house and converting to Atkins’ high-protein, low-carb eating plan, the two were surprised by how much fresh, good-tasting food they could eat and still lose weight. “There were so many good things we could eat, so many food choices, it was actually easy to stay on the diet,” says Carol. “And after just a few weeks, we not only were losing weight rapidly, but we got this great energy rush. What’s not to like about this diet?”
As the pounds fell away, so did their health problems. “I went to see my doctor after six months of being on Atkins,” reports Rick, “and my cholesterol had dropped so dramatically, he thought the lab report was a mistake!” His low density lipoprotein (“bad cholesterol”) pre-Atkins was 162 (less than 130 is near optimal, according to the American Heart Association); six months later it was 118.
Although neither exercised in the beginning (“I was afraid I’d have a heart attack!” admits Rick) they eventually added it to the plan, buying an exercycle about five months into the diet and a Bowflex home gym a few months later. “We’ve been working out pretty much every other day ever since,” says Carol, who pursues Pilates, bike riding and in-line skating on the days in between. “The exercise has improved our health, obviously,” she says, “but it’s also been a tremendous help in terms of reshaping the body-muscles taking the place of fat.” Carol shed a total of 107 pounds to reach her current weight of 158; Rick dropped 101 pounds to reach 177, and went from size 44 jeans to size 32/33.
Dieting with a partner was definitely a big help, adds Rick, who recently turned 50. “Doing it all with my wife, eating meals together, and having the support of a partner made it a lot easier,” he says. “I’m not sure I would have been able to do it myself.” Carol, 37, agrees, adding that getting into weight-loss mode “is almost like a switch in your brain that needs to be turned on. Once you make that initial switch, your food choices become black-and-white-there is no gray zone that says, ‘Oh, I can have a handful of M&Ms’ or make an exception and eat cake because it’s someone’s birthday. It’s all or nothing.” Since both of them work full time-Carol as a web developer for the California Dental Association and Rick as an operations technician-Carol prepares and freezes their meals in advance.
Picking the right diet plan is key, adds Rick. “This diet worked for us, but you gotta do whatever works for you,” he says. “If Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig works for you, great. But I like steak.”
Ann Hurd: 16 Years of Success
Diet pills, Weight Watchers, starvation diets . . . Ann Hurd has tried them all. “I even got injected with the urine of a pregnant cow,” she chuckles. After struggling for about 20 years to unload her 50-odd extra pounds, Hurd finally found success with the Optifast plan, losing 55 pounds-and maintaining it for an impressive 16 years.
Hurd was 41 when it first hit her that she wasn’t getting any younger, and that her health was increasingly at risk. “I thought, ‘Wait, you’re getting older, and from here on, it’s going to be a health issue,'” recalls the 58-year-old Woodland resident, an attorney for the Yolo County District Attorney’s office. “I remember specifically telling myself, ‘If you’re going to lose this weight, you’re not going to gain it back,’ because I’d been yo-yoing for many years, and I knew it wasn’t healthy.” Hurd had been a chubby child and teen, but piled on most of the weight while in college at UC Davis, burdening her petite 5’4″ frame with 190 pounds. At one point, Hurd starved herself down to a lean 112, but the pounds didn’t stay lost for long.
“I’d like to say my metabolism changed when I got pregnant at 23,” she says, half-joking. “But the truth is, I just had bad eating habits. I ate lots of sugar, carbs and fats-I loved Kentucky Fried Chicken-and I didn’t exercise, either.”
It was Oprah Winfrey-and some pals at work-who moved her in the direction of the high-protein, all-liquid Optifast diet. “This is the diet that Oprah did years ago and got thin on, which of course made it very popular,” she says. “It was kind of the ‘in’ thing at the time, and I also knew some co-workers who had lost weight on it.”
Under medical supervision at the Woodland Clinic, Hurd began the plan in December 1988. “They monitored us closely, and did blood work on a regular basis,” she recalls. “There were vitamins to take, so all our nutritional needs were met.” The daily caloric intake, however, was extremely low-only 500 calories. How on earth did she do it? “I’m very religious about stuff,” Hurd says. “If you give me a plan, I’ll follow it exactly; I won’t waver. But I’d better get the results!”
She got results, all right: In three months, Hurd dropped 55 pounds, and has been fluctuating between 132 and 136 ever since (though lately she’s been in a losing mode again, weighing in at a slim 125.) “Of all the people I know who did Optifast, I’m the only one who kept it off,” she says. (That includes Oprah, who regained the weight she lost on Optifast.) “But that’s partly because of some things I learned while I was at the [Woodland] clinic.” A behavior modification class was particularly helpful, Hurd says. “We did some pretty in-depth work about our eating habits, which helped me to pinpoint where some of my problem areas were.” She says she hasn’t touched fast food since ending the fast 16 years ago. “No more McDonald’s, no more KFC. I can’t even eat that stuff anymore because the fat is too intense-it makes my stomach feel bad.”
Although it’s been a struggle to say away from sugar (“I love sugar,” she admits), Hurd has recently adopted a modified Atkins diet, mixing healthful, high-protein foods with “good” carbs, such as fruit. “But no sugar, no white bread, no potatoes or rice,” she says.
Even more radical than the shift in her eating habits, perhaps, is Hurd’s metamorphosis from couch potato to marathon runner-a pendulum swing she credits largely to her husband, Stephen Mock, whom she married in 1993. “When we were first dating, I didn’t exercise much at all,” Hurd admits. “But eventually I decided to try running, and because my husband is into marathons, I eventually got into marathons, too.” In addition to Hurd’s personal program of running three days a week, gym workouts three days a week and long bike rides on weekends, she and Mock maintain a fitness-oriented lifestyle-even on vacation. “Most of our vacations revolve around some form of exercise,” Hurd says. “In fact, our next trip is a bicycling trip in Ireland in August.”
Linda Meeks: From Vegetarian to Vegan
On New Year’s Eve 2002, Linda Meeks was 30 pounds heavier than she wanted to be. So she made a new year’s resolution: Become a vegan, lose weight.
Three years later, Meeks remains a vegan—and has only regained 10 of the 30 pounds she lost.
“I don’t believe in diets,” says Meeks, 44, an analyst for the county office of education. “Only the basics of eating less and exercising more will create lasting change in a person.” For Meeks, these aren’t just hollow words; she lives by them.
Meeks never had a weight problem until she quit smoking in her early 30s. At 5-foot-7, her normal weight was 130, but by the time she turned 40, she was tipping the scale at 160. To her credit, she had been exercising (mostly bike riding and running) all along, “just to make sure I didn’t get really huge, and to stay in shape,” she says. “But exercise wasn’t going to be enough.” At 40, she became a vegetarian, but it wasn’t until she became a vegan the following year, she says, that she started seeing a real difference. “Vegan means no more animal products, and no more dairy,” she says. “I think that was the key.” Once vegan, she dropped the 30 pounds in about six months.
True, a vegan diet might not feel like a realistic choice for many (just ask Meeks’ meat-eating husband and 17-year-old son). But it came fairly naturally to Meeks. “Switching to vegan wasn’t hard, because I was already a vegetarian, and I was already used to a life without meat,” she says. “So I didn’t miss anything at all, really—except cheese.” But she’s learned to make substitutions for everything, she says, and has even learned to eat pizza without cheese, instead using soy cream cheese, vegan meltable cheese or simply no cheese at all. “There’s no real need for cheese,” says Meeks.
But keeping the weight off means more than just sticking to an eating plan, says Meeks, who has developed an arsenal of tools to keep herself on track. On top of the list is a food diary. “To this day, I keep a food diary and keep track of everything—calories, protein, fat, carbs,” she says. “I don’t think you can really stay on course without it.” Meeks monitors herself in other ways, too, with daily weigh-ins and a written log of exercise activities, which typically includes daily runs and four-times-weekly free weights.
Losing weight has changed the Rancho Cordova resident’s life in a multitude of ways. “I feel better and more energetic,” she says. “And I’m happier when I look at myself in the mirror. But the main thing is, it’s just common sense to try to be as thin as you can, and stay in good health, if you want to live a longer life.”
That’s not to say, of course, that Meeks isn’t frustrated by those last 10 pounds that just won’t budge. “I’ve been trying for three months now,” she said during our interview in March, “and it’s just not working. I’ve dropped my calories down to 1,200 a day, and I’m running every day, and I still can’t lose weight.” Puzzled, Meeks consulted her doctor, who suggested the problem might be metabolic after her thyroid and diabetes tests came back normal. “He basically told me that metabolism is genetic, but what I find odd is that two years prior I had no problem losing the weight,” says Meeks. “Why did this ‘genetic problem’ take so long to kick in?”
Whether it’s metabolism or something else, Meeks says she is “incredibly stubborn” and won’t give up the fight. “I can’t really reduce my eating any more than I already have, so it’s all up to exercise to help me,” she says. She’s looking forward to long, two-hour nightly runs this summer, and may kick things up a notch by adopting a twice-daily workout routine.
Still, even Meeks has her limits. “I still treat myself to a quarter-cup of chocolate chips every night,” she admits. “You can’t starve yourself.”
The key to success, she says, is finding an eating plan that you can live with forever. “If you can’t find something you can do forever,” she says, “then it won’t work.”
“It’s not a diet anymore,” says Carol Clinger. “It’s the way we eat.”
“Of all the people I know who did Optifast, I’m the only one who kept it off,” says Ann Hurd. (That includes Oprah, who regained the weight she lost on Optifast.)
“To this day, I keep a food diary and keep track of everything—calories, protein, fat, carbs,” says Linda Meeks. “I don’t think you can really stay on course without it.”
10 Tips for Keeping It Off
Ask any dieter: Losing weight is tough, but maintaining the loss is harder still. Here are 10 tips that may help, courtesy of Michele Canny Gilles, a registered dietitian and the director of nutrition services for Wenmat Fitness Centers:
1. Recommit. Make it a daily practice to recite all the reasons you want to lose weight. Remind yourself how good weight loss feels.
2. Be proactive. Every day is an opportunity to be healthy. Be aware of situations that will encourage your healthy lifestyle—and those that will inhibit it.
3. Set goals. Know what your mind and body are capable of. Have a plan that is specific to your personality and fits into your daily life.
4. Keep the glass half full. A positive attitude can only be motivating.
5. Do frequent reality checks. Record your food intake and physical fitness activities. Look for the re-emergence of old patterns, such as emotional eating. Review records to see how you previously handled challenging situations (the holidays, for example).
6. Know the difference between a lapse and a relapse. A lapse is a one-time occurrence. A relapse is repeating old behaviors or thoughts.
7. Select appropriate rewards. If you find yourself saying, “I’ve been so good, I deserve this,” and reward yourself with food, you may be headed for trouble. Find new, healthy kinds of rewards, such as a massage, a special outing or a long, hot bath.
8. Find new tools for coping with stress. Instead of indulging in emotional eating, find new ways of coping with stress, such as deep breathing, exercising or confiding in a friend—whatever works for you.
9. Look for red flags. Going more than three days without exercising or healthful eating is a red flag, telling you to get back on track—the sooner, the better!
10. Keep spice in your life. Try new recipes. The same old foods will lead to boredom and binge eating. Periodically changing your workout routine also can help to keep you motivated and on track.