Natasha, 36, Tells Her Story:
It's one thing to be told you're "big and beautiful," a phrase I got used to hearing, but it's another to need a special scale at the doctor's office because the regular one only goes up to 250 pounds and you're at 438. People have asked me how it's possible to reach that size. Here's how: The pounds creep on one at a time, so sometimes you don't notice how big the problem has become until it's too late. And it's hard to stop gaining when food is your go-to for coping with life.
My 20-plus years of bad eating began when I was 10, after I lost my dad to lung cancer. Food became my comfort and my friend. I'd run home from school and start digging into cookies, popcorn, chips—anything out of cartons, bags, and boxes. This is how I developed a habit for grazing instead of eating real meals. There were many days when I didn't eat anything that required a fork. Even when my mom told me I was going to become as big as a house, it didn't stop me. I would still eat a whole box of doughnuts. I was addicted to food.
Then, in high school, I met my guy, fell in love, and got married right after I graduated. It seemed that overnight, I went from being a child myself to being a wife and stepmother. My husband was a bit older than me and already had three little kids. And at 18, I got pregnant with our son (who is now 18 himself).
Those first few years of motherhood were very confusing. I went through most of my days quite numb—instead of feeling my feelings, I ate. I had fast food for three meals a day, with visits to the vending machines for cookies or chips in between. If lunch was a double quarter pounder, I always added mayo to the burger, and ate it with supersized fries and a large Coke. My son, at the age of 3, knew every fast-food restaurant in the neighborhood because we frequented them all.
I had stopped getting on the scale, but in my early twenties I went to the doctor because I was having irregular periods. It was during that visit that I learned my weight had crept up to 330 pounds. I was shocked.
The doctor told me this weight was very risky—heart disease, stroke, and diabetes were all more likely for someone of my size. She suggested I get tested for fatty liver disease, a risk factor for heart disease and type 2 diabetes, but I didn't.
Climbing the Scale
Over the next few years, I continued with my bad eating habits. I knew I needed to make a change but didn't know how to begin. I got pregnant again—with twins. And that's when I was referred to a high-risk ob-gyn, because my doctor thought I could have a stroke while I was pregnant. Being hungry all the time and "eating for three" led me to gain more than 100 pounds during my pregnancy. I reached the 400-pound mark during my third trimester.
But the heaviest I ever got was two years after my twins were born: 438 pounds. Being so overweight was affecting my life in radical ways. I worked in sales at a cellphone company, and the uniform was always a problem because it didn't come in my size, a 26. I was good at my job, but eventually I had to switch from a sales position to a customer service role in the back because I could no longer stand on my feet all day. This change came with a pay cut, which put a financial strain on my family.
I worked until 10 P.M. My husband, who did the night shift as a mental-health technician at a hospital, would also get home late, so we regularly ate our biggest meal together at midnight. Then I would wake up at 7:30 A.M. and take my oldest son to school, stopping for breakfast at Burger King after dropping him off. One day I pulled up at the drive-through and the lady at the register asked if I ever cooked a meal. It was like a slap in the face. I knew it was wrong to be eating there, but I didn't have the energy to take better care of myself.
The Beginning of a Transformation
Somehow, despite all the pressure I was under, I was excelling on the job. (I was now working at a cable company, doing telephone sales.) In 2010, I earned a trip for two to Mexico as a reward for being a top performer. My husband and I were so excited to be flying first class, but I didn't fit in the seat. The only seat I could manage was at the back of the plane with the flight attendants. The stares from the crew and passengers upset me so much, I spent the entire trip depressed. I hated that my weight was standing in the way of my ability to enjoy the good things in life.
Right after we returned home, I made an appointment with my doctor, who suggested gastric bypass surgery. I'd have to lose 30 pounds before I could be eligible for the surgery, and one possible risk I was warned about was that I could stop breathing while under sedation. I didn't want to die on the table with kids and a husband I loved at home! I said no to the operation, and told the doctor I wanted to try to lose weight on my own. I'll never forget her touching me on the knee and saying "Natasha, sweetie, you can't lose 200 pounds by yourself." First that made me mad, and then it made me determined: I said, "Give me three months to see what I can do."
I started reading everything I could about how to lose weight. I cut out soda and processed foods, starting with the vending machine (I was spending $4 a day on chips and cookies at work). I also eliminated fried foods, and I found that I was losing at least a pound a day. When I went back for a follow-up with my doctor after just one month, I was down 42 pounds. My doctor still wasn't sold. She told me: "That's great. Now you can have the surgery." But I wouldn't hear of it.
That initial weight loss motivated me to begin exercising, too. I started by just walking the perimeter of a playground where my kids run around with their friends. This little ring couldn't have been more than 1,000 feet, but I'd get winded before walking a quarter of it.
I kept at it, and then decided I would join a gym. I got lots of stares there, but I did not let that stop me from doing what I needed to do. One day I got on the treadmill and it broke because the weight capacity was 350 pounds. I flew off the back of the treadmill and created a hole in the wall behind me. (The hole is still there, and I visit it from time to time when I need a boost of motivation.)
I gave myself little fitness challenges. When I first tried the elliptical machine, I could do only three minutes at a time. Next I did those three minutes with one-pound weights on my wrists. Little by little, I worked my way up to 15 minutes. I started doing Zumba. After eight months, I'd lost another 90 pounds. I didn't have a full-length mirror at home, but one day I caught my reflection while walking into the gym, and I couldn't believe it was me.
Celebrating a New Body—and Life
In the past two years, I've lost another 100 pounds for a grand total of 232 gone. My body and my life look drastically different: I left my sales job to help mentor women with weight struggles, most of whom have a BMI of 30 or over. (An adult who has a BMI between 25 and 29.9 is considered overweight; over 30 is obese.) And this past spring, I was asked to become an ambassador for the National Diabetes Prevention Program. I've yet to meet anyone who is as heavy as I was, but I love sharing what I've learned about the physical and mental parts of achieving a healthy lifestyle.
People always want to know my "diet secret," like if I've gone low-carb, Paleo, or gluten-free. My secret is none of those things. I eat balanced, moderate meals, with an emphasis on whole foods, but I don't follow any particular fad.
Sometimes people ask me if I get bored with my meals, since I keep things really simple—lean proteins, veggies, fruit—and don't switch up my food that often. It's not that I'm scared to try new recipes, but I no longer look at eating as recreation, so boredom with my meals isn't an issue. I reach for healthy foods that taste good; I see what's on my plate as fuel. I also try to keep to good habits, making sure I don't eat in front of the television or in the car, for example. And I exercise almost daily.
At 5-feet-9 and 206 pounds, I'm still not considered "small," but being healthy, not fitting into a petite dress size, is my main priority. I was once a morbidly obese 29-year-old who could barely walk to her car. Seven years later, I can run three miles without stopping. That's my victory.
Natasha's Weight Timeline
1996: At 18, before getting pregnant with her first son, 190 lbs
2003: Before getting pregnant with twins, 275 lbs
2005: A year after giving birth, 390 lbs
2010: Her top weight—and a turning point, 438 lbs
2012: One year into her weight-loss efforts, 310 lbs
2015: Natasha today, 206 lbs
Total lost: 232 lbs!
Dr. Oz on Losing Major Weight: Whenever I ask people who have dropped 100 pounds or more how they did it, they all share different paths to success. Some chose gastric bypass surgery; others, like Natasha, found a way to do it on their own—but they were all equally brave. The one thing everyone has in common? They realized they were worth it. That's the key to making a "You Turn" in your own life, whether you have 20 pounds to lose or 200.
This story originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.