That moment when people don't recognize you at your 10-year high school reunion can be pretty awkward, but for me it felt triumphant. I was half the size of the girl my classmates knew then.
I don't remember a time when I wasn't overweight. In first grade, I already weighed 99 pounds. By third grade, outfits my friends were wearing didn't come in my size. I recall returning home from the mall one afternoon and riding my bike in circles in the driveway, thinking it would help me slim down. But bicycle circles couldn't fix the damage I had been doing with my main hobby: eating.
My parents got divorced when I was 9, and after that, food took on an even bigger role in my life — it was the thing I relied on for comfort. My dad tried hard to help me while raising four kids and also running a medical practice. The summer after third grade, he bought me a membership at the local YMCA, where a trainer who had experience working with kids tried to keep me active and make fitness fun. Two or three days a week, we'd meet to play tennis or even run side by side on the treadmill.
Nutrition was a different story; I didn't have anyone holding my hand or teaching me about healthy eating. We grew up in a small town in the South, and our staples were premade meals from the grocery store, like fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and green beans slow-cooked with bacon. I wasn't the only one suffering the effects; my father, at 455 pounds, shared my struggle.
Getting my driver's license led to lots of self-sabotage — picking up fast food on the way home from school and eating in secret. At the start of high school, I weighed 220 pounds, and in junior year I hit my top weight of 340. How does someone put on more than 100 pounds in two years? By eating to numb the pain of being overweight: a horrible, dangerous cycle.
Shopping for a prom dress my junior year was particularly painful. I had to order a gown online in a size 30, the largest the company carried. This was terrifying; as a teen, I wasn't thinking about my chances of, say, getting diabetes. The worst consequence of obesity that I could imagine was not finding something to wear for prom.
"I'm proof that it's never too late to start over."
My father's fears were different. He knew he was on a deadly path, and he wanted to be around for all of his children. So my senior year, he underwent gastric bypass surgery, which resulted in his own 170-pound weight loss. Having the operation required a radical lifestyle change. I took mental notes of everything he did and ate, thinking that maybe I could adopt new habits too.
Anytime I told my dad how badly I wanted to lose weight, he'd say to me, "Cindy, I know you can do this." We went on power walks together at the local track. And for Christmas that year, I asked him for a workout DVD and began doing step aerobics in my living room.
The summer between high school and college, I made it my goal not to eat after 7pm I tried to stop grazing and to eliminate processed foods/soda/sweets. At times when I felt like eating for comfort, I'd head out to a beautiful park, turn on my iPod, and walk until the blues passed. They pretty much always did.
I managed to drop over 40 pounds that summer. When you're 340 pounds, you can lose major weight pretty quickly. After that, my weight loss steadied to about 10 pounds per month.
Before college, I'd always felt too big for the gym, but I discovered a surprising source of support there. Because I worked out at a consistent time every day, I saw people on a similar schedule, and often they'd say things like, "You're doing great. All your effort is paying off!" They were right: I started college weighing 290 pounds, and got down to 210 by sophomore year.
After graduation, I decided to go to nursing school. There, I attended a lecture about obesity treatment and ended up training with the speaker at her bariatric surgery practice. Now she's my coworker! It was scary to see how many illnesses were weight related, and it inspired me to reach my current weight.
Although I didn't choose surgical weight loss myself, I view it as one of the most effective tools we have available to fight obesity. I'm so proud of my patients, and I assure them that they're losing weight the same way I did — through lifestyle changes. I also tell them that a major weight loss is more of a marathon than a sprint, and I'm a great example of that. Keeping the pounds off requires daily effort: I stash sneakers under my desk, and whenever I can, I do laps around the office building to get in 10,000 steps a day. Whether it's a five-minute walk or a 40-minute jog, every step counts. I'm still strict with my diet. Sure, I indulge, but no more than once a week.
When my 10-year high school reunion rolled around a few months ago, I knew I had to go. I was done avoiding things. Finding an outfit was no problem: I wore a pair of jeans, a fitted top, and the highest heels I own. I can't say I minded the double takes from former teachers and classmates — hey, sometimes my own father does one. Recently, he was meeting me at a crowded church and I waved to get his attention. He stared blindly for a minute, and then flashed a huge smile. "Oh, wow, that's my daughter," he said. His support has always meant the most.
Cindy's Typical Day
Breakfast: Greek yogurt, berries
Lunch: Baked chicken with steamed broccoli and cauliflower, a side of quinoa, a crumble of feta cheese
Dinner: 4-oz grilled salmon over mushrooms and peppers roasted with garlic-infused olive oil and lemon, a small baked sweet potato
Snack: String cheese and fruit or 1 oz almonds
This story originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.
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