Winning at losing
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- There's no doubt that Americans are struggling to lose weight -- and with some of the highest obesity rates in the nation, West Virginians are struggling more than the residents of a lot of other states. But there are plenty of people -- right here in West Virginia -- who have succeeded, people who have somehow managed to lose significant amounts of weight and keep it off for the long term.
Any number of discouraged dieters might chalk those success stories up to luck, or good genes, a secret magic potion or something else far out of their own control. After all, it's about this time every year that the millions of people who resolved to lose weight begin to lose not their weight but their momentum.
By year's end, only 8 percent will have kept the resolutions they made with such determination, and only a fraction of those will ultimately keep the weight off -- somewhere between 5 and 10 percent, according to studies by the National Weight Control Registry, researchers at Harvard University and the Penn State College of Medicine, among others.
With discouraging statistics like that, you might well as yourself, "Why bother?"
Before you decide to throw in the towel and reach for the ice cream, let's hear from those who have literally walked this path before. Today we begin the first in an occasional series on "successful losers" -- how they overcame past dieting failures, what made the difference this time around, what programs they followed, and what advice they have for others.
'I felt bad, physically'
With a name like Candy, how could you not have a weight problem?
Candy Douglas began gaining weight shortly after high school, and continued piling on the pounds through stressful times with family health problems or during intense classes in nursing school.
It wasn't that she didn't try to lose the weight. In fact, it felt like she was trying all the time.
"I lost the same 30 pounds three times," she said in a recent interview. "There would be a crisis and I'd gain it all back and more."
When she was at her heaviest all-time weight, somewhere around 194, she was diagnosed with asthma, which made exercise programs more complicated -- not that she was exercising much at the time.
"I pretty much hit a bottom point. I felt bad, physically. I just wasn't about to do things like I used to. I'd get out of breath walking up a flight of stairs," she said.
"Every time I'd gain the weight back, I'd think, 'What am I not doing right? Why do I keep gaining weight?'"
A cardiac nurse, she took a hard look at her health. What she saw frightened her.
"It wasn't just my weight. When I hit 50, my cholesterol was the highest it ever was. After a really stressful meeting, my blood pressure was 160 over 90, the highest I'd ever seen it," she said.
"I realized my dad had his heart attack at 55, and I thought, if I don't make some changes, I'm going to be in serious trouble."
Two different health professionals recommended she take part in a stress management program, but she wasn't able to find such a program at the time anywhere in the Kanawha Valley.
Finally, her husband pointed her to some information about the Ornish program offered through Charleston Area Medical Center.
Designed by Dr. Dean Ornish in the late 1970s as a cardiac disease reversal program, it requires a year-long commitment and aims to help patients make healthy, sustainable lifestyle changes through stress management, group support, diet and exercise.
"They never once said, 'Oh, you're going to lose this much weight in this period of time.' They didn't emphasize that. They look at healthy lifestyles."
But the weight did come off, Douglas said.
At 5-foot-6, she dropped from 194 to 130 pounds, and went from clothing so large she's not even sure what size it was to the size 4 she wears today. It took roughly a year, and three years later, she's maintained the weight loss.
"There was nothing left in my closet that I could wear -- I had to get a whole new wardrobe!" she said.
Her husband is proud, but, "More than that, he knows I'm going to be around for a while," she said.
As for advice to others, Douglas says, "Don't give up. So many people think they can't lose the weight because they haven't done it yet. If one thing doesn't work, try something else when you're mentally ready. There's not one thing that works for everybody. Just don't give up."
'Every diet you can imagine'
By the time Stacey Robinson reach the fourth grade, she was tipping the scales at 130 pounds.
"It was really hard," she said. "The other kids at school were always making fun of me. It was tough."
Her parents had both grown up in poverty, she said, so when her father began to earn a good living as a coal miner, her mom and dad filled the house with junk food they'd never been able to have for themselves.
"We would go to the store and pick out candy and chips and whatever. My mom wanted to give us a better life than she'd had," Robinson said.
As her weight ballooned, she began trying to lose weight, "going up and down on every kind of diet you can imagine," including "a starvation thing, where I got down to 90 pounds but then gained it all back and then some. I was miserable," she said.
As a hairdresser, she saw a lot of overweight people who'd had hip replacements, knee replacements and other problems with health and mobility.
In January 2012, at 43 years of age, "I thought, 'I'm going to be one of those people if I don't do something now.'"
She went to Transformations Weight Loss and Skin Clinic, where treatment included weight-loss medications, B-12 injections and diet and exercise counseling. She also set small, achievable goals.
At 5-foot-5, she went from 197 pounds to 154 pounds over the period of one year, and dropped from a size 18 to an 8. She's maintained the weight loss for one year and said today she's going strong.
"I've settled into a normal, healthy lifestyle. I even like to exercise now -- I do it pretty much every day," she said, adding, "I feel like I'm 20 years younger. People tell me I'm an inspiration to them!"
As for advice for others, she said, "Believe in yourself, and keep going. Really, if I could do it anybody could do it, because I was hopeless. I was really hopeless."
'Tired of trying and failing'
Anne Landgrebe knew she had to do something about her weight. At 5-foot-2 and 223 pounds, she said, "I was tired a lot. I didn't feel good inside, and I was very self-conscious."
But what exactly could she do that she hadn't already tried, she wondered.
"Since I was 8 years old I've had a weight problem," Landgrebe said. "I could always lose 20, 25 pounds, but I could never get beyond that, and I could never keep it off. I hated to have people see me out there walking, and I was tired of trying and failing."
Landgrebe turned to a solution some people may view as an easy way out: She opted for lap band surgery, in which her doctor, through a series of small incisions in her stomach, wrapped an adjustable band around the upper part of her stomach to limit the amount of food her stomach can hold. It's a far less invasive technique than some other weight-loss surgeries, although some studies show it's also less effective for many patients. Her insurance through PEIA covered almost the entire procedure.
"It's not an easy way out," she said. "It's a tool that helps you not be as hungry. But you still have to put the work into it. Three weeks after surgery, I was cleared to start exercising and now I exercise every morning before work, whether I have time to do 10 minutes or 30 minutes. I make sure to do something."
That was perhaps the biggest lifestyle change for a woman who admits she never used to exercise. But she's also changed her eating habits. After years of struggling with her weight, a milestone birthday proved to be the motivation she needed.
"I was approaching 40, and there was a whole history of diabetes and high blood pressure in my family. And I was just not going to weigh 223 pounds and turn 40 years old. I was just not going to do it."
Surgery was the one thing she hadn't tried.
"When I first thought about having the surgery, I thought, 'I haven't done it in 32 years of trying, and I don't want to wait another 32 years.'"
She dropped 90 pounds over 15 months, and weighs in today at 133 pounds.
Success is contagious!
If you've lost a significant amount of weight and kept it off for a year or more and would like to share your story, send an email with "successful losers" in the subject line to email@example.com. Include your name, your phone number, where you live and your age.
Tell us about your weight-loss journey: how long you struggled to lose the weight, any particular challenges you faced physically, emotionally, professionally or socially as a result of your extra weight, and how and why you finally got it off. Give us your before and after weight, and send a couple of pictures that clearly show the results.
Finally, tell us the biggest, most exciting changes in your life as a result of the weight loss, and any advice you have for friends and neighbors who'd like to follow in your footsteps. We'll publish some of the most inspirational stories in a future article.
Reach Maria Young at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5115.