Growing up in Sunnyvale, CA, I was known as the kid who could eat seven of my mom's homemade enchiladas in one sitting. I was raised in a big Mexican-American family — I'm the second oldest of five children — and my mom's an amazing cook. Some people snack because they're anxious or depressed, but not me. I just loved to eat! Unsurprisingly, it showed: By the time I was in my twenties, I was a size 18 and the only one of my siblings to have a weight problem. I thought of my sister as "the pretty one" and myself as "the fat one." I was convinced that being heavy was just part of who I was. My other defining characteristic: being dependable. My father used to call me fornida y fuerte (big and strong), and I was everyone's go-to, whether a friend needed a ride or my brother needed help moving.
Though my dad had never struggled with his weight, he was a type 2 diabetic (the condition runs on his side of the family) and was eventually put on dialysis. I drove him to nearly all of his doctor's appointments. By then my siblings were busy with their own lives, but I still lived at home — I wanted to stick around to help my parents.
I was 29 and working as a promotions manager at a tech company in Silicon Valley. For the next decade, my routine was crazy: I would come home on breaks to take my father to treatments, head back to my job, and then pick him up later. I had time for little else, so I ate whatever was nearby and easy, including greasy hamburgers, and snacked on the free junk food I got at my job. I can't say I felt guilty about what I put into my mouth; I paid so little attention to my body that I didn't think twice about it. Plus, since I'd always avoided mirrors and rarely took pictures, I didn't see just how much damage I was doing.
That changed when I was 42. By then my father had passed away and I was living in stretch pants and my brothers' double-XL shirts. With my nephew's baptism coming up, I forced myself to hit the mall for a nice outfit. But that meant I couldn't hide from mirrors anymore. Standing in the dressing room, with a pile of clothes that didn't fit, I was shocked to see that I'd ballooned to a size 26. The only dresses I could slide into were those giant muumuus someone's grandma would wear!
I was so angry with myself. My dad had always been proud of how strong I was, but I realized that I couldn't just take care of others — I had to take care of myself, too. For the first time in my life I decided to make my health a priority.
I started small, walking for 30 minutes twice a day. I also got on a strict high-protein, low-carb program. I wouldn't do it again — it wasn't a balanced diet — but it did help jump-start my weight loss. In five months, I dropped 25 pounds. One of my coworkers, Scott, noticed that I was slimming down, and since he's a huge fitness buff, he offered to coach me in strength training. I was so sore after our first session I walked funny for two days!
Scott pushed me to get out of my comfort zone, so I took up jogging, which quickly became my "me time." I would leave my phone at home so no one could interrupt me. Before long, the weight was flying off.
I was changing in ways I couldn't have imagined, and sometimes this caused friction with my family. They were used to the person I'd been, not the one I was becoming. The old me would drop my plans at the last minute if one of my siblings asked me to. The new me wouldn't miss a workout for the world. One time, some relatives invited me to a barbecue, but since I knew there wouldn't be anything healthy for me to eat, I passed — and they weren't happy about it. After a while I stopped getting invited out as often as I used to. Now I know how to be social and still stay on track: I'll eat before an event or bring a healthy dish of my own.
My family has also been learning from my example. After watching me prep meals, my mom started eating quinoa and cooking with coconut oil. And my sister-in-law makes smoothies a part of her breakfast now.
In 2012, I was laid off and decided to become a personal trainer. Obesity is such a huge problem in the Hispanic community. Every time I see an overweight Latina, I see the old me and I want to help. My mom told me recently that she looks at me and thinks, Si, se puede. It means "Yes, you can." That's what I tell my clients, too.
Sandra's Game Changers
Stick to your guns"I didn't reschedule my fitness plans to accommodate my family or friends. When I took myself seriously, they did too."
Tinker with family recipes"I found ways to make my favorite Mexican foods healthier, like filling chiles rellenos with ground turkey rather than cheese, and roasting them instead of frying."
Say yes to new things"I decided to shake up my workout by playing basketball. It's harder than it looks!"
This story originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.
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