Heather is a good friend I’ve known for many years, since around the time we both got married in 2004. A wife, mother of two, and MBA-holding financial analyst (not to mention a sweet spirit with a great sense of humor), she has always had a lot going for her. For many years, however, one piece of her life was did not match up with her many other successes: her weight. Carrying over 200 pounds on her petite frame after her second child was born, she knew she needed to make a change. Starting at the end of 2013, Heather embarked on a journey toward a healthy weight. In a matter of months, she lost 55 pounds and has maintained that loss for over a year now. I’ve been so inspired by her transformation that I asked if she would consider doing an interview for A Love Letter to Food. As I look forward to a career in nutrition, I wanted to know: how did she do it? What makes her story different from so many stories we hear of weight loss attempts that fail to achieve their goals? Heather graciously consented to share her experience with me. I hope you’ll enjoy reading what she had to say about her journey.
P.S. Just a little disclaimer: Heather achieved her weight loss on a program called Take Shape for Life. A Love Letter to Food is not officially giving any endorsement for Take Shape for Life as a program, and Heather’s results are not necessarily typical (though I have lots of respect for her experience with it!).
Interview: Heather’s Story
Sarah: So, to begin at the beginning, what motivated you to start this weight loss journey? Did you have a number of pounds in mind? Were you surprised by how much you ended up losing? You know, what got you started? Was there a turning point or something?
Heather: Yeah. I knew I had been kind of out of control. For me, the number over 2 was a bad thing. So when I started, I had a moment of determination, and I’m like, “I need to lose weight and I don’t care. I’m gonna do whatever it takes.” After C (her son) was born, I knew I kind of wanted to do something. I had been going back to the gym, and trying to eat differently throughout the day. And at the end of that year—that was the end of 2013—I had a really nice pair of dress pants that I sat down and blew out the seam in the crotch because I was too big for those. And I knew that I was probably a size 20-22 and I was stuffing myself in size 18s, because I didn’t want to make that jump. I didn’t want another 2 in my life. I was already over 200 pounds. I didn’t need another indicator marker. So that’s when I told Jason (her husband), “At the beginning of the year after the holidays, I don’t care what it is. I don’t care what we do. But we need to do something.” And I had a friend that I knew had a program that she did. So we called her, and I’m like, “Sign us up.” And so she asked me the question: “What is your ideal weight?” And that was hard for me, because I’m like, “I don’t know. What should it be?” So I thought back to the lowest that I had ever been, which—consciously remembering—was 145. So I said, “Okay, 145.” Not looking at a BMI chart, not knowing anything. And actually, looking back, for my height, that’s still an overweight BMI. But to me, that was just something that I could really do and shoot for. So when I started with absolute determination, my goal in mind was 145. And I was starting out at 205 to 215-ish.
S: Okay. So you ended up losing…about that, right?
H: I actually went further down. I got down to 135-ish. And that’s when I didn’t know what to do. And then some things kind of happened, and life started kind of happening a bit more, and then I panicked and started throwing up the shields again. And then kind of stabilized out. So I’m at about 150 right now.
S: So do you feel like you’re happy there? Do you want to keep going?
H: You know, I would like to get back down. My goal is to be a healthy BMI that isn’t pushing the edge of the scale, so that if I have a holidays or Christmastime and if I gain 5 pounds, then I’m still gonna be a healthy BMI. So I don’t necessarily want to give it a number this time, but I would like to get back down and be able to do that.
S: Had you tried different methods in the past of weight loss, and what was the story with those? What happened then? What didn’t work?
H: Yeah. I was one of those perpetual dieters. I grew up with a mom that was always trying to diet and trying to do something. Talking about this and that. And grew up with a dad who would berate me in the middle of a department store because my butt was getting too big. So that was kind of hard. I even was in some the fat kids’ clubs at school where they would, like, give smoothie recipes and stuff, and I would bring them home…
S: They had fat kids’ clubs?
H: Oh, yes. Yeah.
S: Oh, geez. So weight has been an issue for a long time.
H: It has. For sure. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always felt overweight or out of place. And part of that, honestly, looking back, was that I hit puberty way earlier than a lot of people. I kinda got some curves. And it would have been okay, if, I think, in my head it would have been different. But when we were growing up, nobody really had a focus on a lot of things. Like people that ate well taught their kids to eat well. And people that didn’t were told, “Eat healthier,” but never given a guide. So I had tried random things with my mom all the time.
Also, my parents got divorced in high school, and I kind of went off the deep end after that. And I distinctly remember, like, how much I would eat. It makes me disgusted to think about it now. So those apple pie things that are full of sugar in the green wrappers, I would eat one of those in the morning. Every morning. I think they’re like 55 grams of fat or something like that. I discovered the cookies at school that were for sale, and so I’d have two to three bags of those every day. At lunch I would have a whole tray of French fries, and I would get packets of mayonnaise and I would squeeze the mayonnaise on the French fries and eat them. And it just really got out of control, and I didn’t know. I had no conscious anything to do with it.
S: You just weren’t thinking about how this was going to affect your body?
H: No, nothing. And so there were so many other things going on to worry about that it was just easy to eat and keep eating. So at the end of my junior year, I was kind of close to where I thought was good, because that was good for me. And that in and of itself was like 180 and a size 14, 16. And by the end of my junior year, I weighed 245 pounds and I was a size 24.
S: Was that your highest?
H: That was my highest. I remember that I didn’t have any blue jeans anymore that fit me. We went hiking with some family and I had to wear a skirt because we had gone shopping and I just remember sitting there crying with my mom and being like, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to buy these. Nothing looks good. I feel terrible.” So then I knew I needed to do something, so my mom actually got me started with Weight Watchers. I did that, and then I signed up for aerobics in P.E. for my senior year. So I was doing cardio and strength training and aerobics and eating better-ish. With Weight Watchers, it’s all based on the points, but when you think about it more logically, not all things are created equal. So I would save all my points so I could have a brownie or something. It did help, but it didn’t necessarily teach me to eat better. It just taught me to be a micro-manager of my food. But that’s when I did get to my lowest, was right after that, which was 145. But I was still a size 12.
S: So you lost—wait, 100 pounds?
S: In a year? Oh my gosh.
H: Yeah. But it was stopping eating ridiculous amounts of fat and grossness. And what I realized with Weight Watchers was that I wasn’t actually eating enough on most days. So I would binge. And then I was in college and had night classes, and would go to the fast food line after night class and go home and eat because I didn’t have time and didn’t want to cook, or still didn’t quite know what I should be cooking, or how. Like people would say, “Yeah, eat healthy!” Okay? I can get a salad, but I’m gonna douse it in Ranch. And I don’t think we’re taught well.
S: So tell me about the program that worked for you. Like, what’s that called and what was the process?
H: Yeah. So the program itself is Take Shape for Life. It uses the MediFast meal replacement plan. I’m sure we’ll have to put some type of disclaimer, like “results not typical” so that we don’t get sued by everybody, right? And it broke it down. The thing that I liked best was that it said, “Eat this this often. And when you cook, here’s the list.”
S: Oh, wow. Very specific.
H: So it was very easy for me to follow, and it was very easy for me to deal with with a busy mom schedule, busy work schedule, everything. It utilizes meal replacement plans that are nutritionally supplemented, so you’re getting the good nutrition and proteins that you need through those. And then all you have to do is focus on one meal a day. And for me, that was refreshing. I knew all I needed to do was one meal every day.
S: Wow. And these bars, these meal replacements, get shipped to you?
H: Yes. So we got everything. Jason and I decided to do it together. And it was really nice because it allowed me to also step back, and instead of being neurotic about what I ate, I picked five things. I ate one “meal” every 2-3 hours, and one of the meals that you cook they call the Lean and Green. It’s protein and non-starchy vegetables, and portioned, too. So if it’s XYZ protein, it’s 6 cooked ounces. If you do 6 ounces, you add a healthy fat. And so it tells you very formulaically. And here’s the list of vegetables. Half a cup is a serving. You need 3 servings. Just very formulaic.
It became a habit. And then I just kind of created those habits and my body just got used to “This is when you eat, and you’re not gonna drink alcohol and you’re not gonna have sugary drinks. And drink a lot of water.” I’ve always been kind of a water drinker anyway. It was nice because those habits were created, and now I can easily whip together a healthy dinner with less effort than it would have taken me to make something unhealthy.
S: Did you find yourself hungry? And did you get tired of these limited options? Not so much for dinner, but for the meal replacements?
H: If I cheated, I got hungry. The plan is designed to get you in that state of ketosis, that fat-burn state. The first three days are a bugger. And that’s just getting your body used to everything. So I was hungry, but I was super laser-focused. But once I did, I had more energy. I was eating less, but I felt so much better. So I had more motivation to keep going. Staying in that fat-burn state was amazing, and it was like, magical. That’s when all the weight was just flying, flying, flying. It was very motivating to stay in that.
The meal replacements…at first it was just kind of survival: “I’m gonna do this.” I figured out the ones that I really did not like. But there were points in time that I finally turned that corner where it wasn’t about the food anymore. And I knew that whatever it was that I was putting in my mouth had the nutrition and the energy that I needed for the rest of the day. And if it was something that I really disliked because I was trying to get rid of that box or whatever, that’s what I would say to myself. “I am eating this to energize my body and give me my nutrition.” And then I would dive in.
S: So it sounds like for you, especially having had emotional connection with food, like, would you say that this was a good way of kind of breaking you of that?
H: Yes. And part of what I was encouraged to do was a workbook that goes with it. Because the program itself isn’t set up to be a weight loss program. It’s set up to be an optimal health program. So weight loss is only one of the pieces. But part of the program was also journaling. I distinctly remember a few times, like when I finally got below 200, which was in the first week—I remember writing, and I’ve read it over and over again: “Goodbye to that ‘two’ forever.” And that was fun for me. And in the back of my mind, I was thinking, “Oh, I hope it’s forever.” But the farther down the line I got, the more I realized how sustainable this really would be if I just stayed within my habits and created the habits and that repetition.
S: So this initial phase of the meal replacement is meant to be temporary. What did that look like for you? How did you know when to transition?
H: So when you hit your goal weight, that’s usually when people start transitioning. The transition is actually a very formulaic and laid-out plan as well that takes 6-10 weeks, depending on how much weight you’ve lost.
S: How long did it take you to get to that stage?
H: For me, it took seven months. But there were some ups and downs within that time. But the transition of it keeps you in the same habits, because you’re still eating six meals a day. You’re still portioning it out well.
S: And prior to this program, you feel like you didn’t have that basis [for healthy eating on your own]? In your family of origin, it wasn’t talked out?
H: No. It wasn’t. And I think there was a false perception—two false perceptions. Eating healthy is expensive. And number two, it’s hard and takes a lot of time. And with this, because I was buying more vegetables and figuring something out and just experimenting with how to cook them. I had never really chopped a bell pepper, like, fully. Like most of our vegetables were quick and easy, because most of my parents’ stuff was quick and easy.
S: I wanted to ask you about the social aspect, or even the relationship aspect, the family aspect. I know you had some kind of support network around this. What was that?
H: Yeah. One thing that I really did like about the program, and one of the reasons that I started coaching to help other people, was the connection to that network. They have an amazing network. Every week there’s phone calls on the “Habits to Health.” There’s a nurse call. It’s like a conference call that you can hop on and listen to that’s nationwide. And then there’s a doctor’s call that the medical director or one of the doctors runs. They’re recorded, so I could dial it up and listen on my way to work, and hear everybody be excited about being healthy. And that’s one of the things that I really liked, too, is that the focus was on health. It wasn’t just losing the weight. It was being a healthy person—and being a healthy person mentally and physically and even financially.
One of the things socially that was a motivating factor for me, was I desperately, desperately did not want my kids growing up and looking at me and thinking that’s what normal was. I want my kids to be healthy. I want my kids to be happy. That was definitely something I was able to use to focus. But the support community was nice. Jason did it with me, so he was very supportive.
But socially, then, we kind of hermit-ized for a few months. I didn’t want to be in social situations. I didn’t want to have to explain to people. So then we just kind of didn’t do anything for awhile. But then once we did emerge again, everybody was very encouraging. “Oh, this is great!” But then it flipped, and it became, “You’re so skinny! When are you going to stop? Aren’t you done losing weight?” And then also having people feel like they have to tell you why they can’t lose their own weight was really interesting. Kind of like the pregnant lady syndrome, where if you’re a pregnant lady, everybody has to tell you their horror stories about being pregnant.
S: Do you feel like you have experienced almost like an identity shift, like whereas before you would think of yourself as an overweight person?
H: Yes. It’s been hard for me to realign this new person, because she’s not the same as she was before, and isn’t getting the same results out of her relationships as she was before. And some of those things are changing and are scary.
But I think the other thing is, too, that I’m a little more sure of myself now. I’ve always kind of tried to be confident, but it’s almost like, “Wow, I accomplished this! This is awesome! This is life-changing! What else can I do? Let’s try something else. Let’s change that.” And I’ve shifted the way that I work and what I’m doing, just working on new and better things. I just focus energy on things differently. It’s so psychological. I got a couple of mantras, I guess, that I would just say to myself over and over and over again. As I was walking by the candy bowl, I would say it over and over again. One of them was “lighter and lighter every day.” I’m feeling lighter and lighter every day. So it has nothing to do with weight. You’re not “losing” weight. That’s one thing I like to tell people: I’m not “losing” weight; I’m releasing it. My other one was the AC/DC song: “we took the highway to hell,” but change that to “health.” And so then I was able to sing it. I’ve said it so many times that when I hear that song, that’s what I hear. Like I took a cycling class and I was ready to give up, and her last song was that. I was like, “Yes! I got this!” But just something to shift that focus.
Focusing on that end goal, and knowing that I was super laser-focused on that, when somebody did offer me something, I would say “No, thank you.” But also padding in room for error. So on my birthday, I’m like, “It’s my birthday. I’m going to eat one slice of cake and have a half a glass of milk.” But I decided those things beforehand. So before going into a situation, I would decide what my actions were going to be so that I didn’t go off the deep end. And then if I did go off the deep end, I didn’t berate myself for it. I switched back to my happy mantra, instead of repeating hundred million times about how stupid I was, “How could you do that, why would you do that to yourself? What’s wrong with you?” Those are such nasty things to say, but we say them to ourselves all the time. And that’s what has started this and has helped develop this new person that I discovered was kind of inside me, and she’s kind of cool! I like her and I want to keep her around.
S: To wrap up, is there anything additional that you would say to somebody if they were listening or reading this, maybe somebody who has tried unsuccessfully to lose weight in the past but has the desire? Someone who wants to get started? Any other words of advice?
H: Start talking to yourself differently. And journal. Journal, journal, journal. Stream of consciousness as much as you can. You’d be so surprised. And just do that head work first, because there are so many programs out there and you can lose weight so many different ways, but the focus shouldn’t be on losing weight. It should be on becoming a healthy person. Because that’s what’s going to sustain it. If you’re focused on losing weight the whole time, you’re gonna crash and burn and gain the weight back. So I think the focus on healthy living and healthy eating, and also knowing that it doesn’t have to be perfect. Like, no, I’m not eating 100% organic and this and that, but I know I’m eating better right now, and then down the line I can start exchanging out things. But just work on your head and take that next little step. And focus on the little steps so you can get through the day without getting overwhelmed with it. Take that one little step that’s gonna take you to that really cool vision that you have of a healthy life.
There was another training, maybe it was a book. I wish I could remember. She said, “It’s really easy once you realize it’s not that hard.” And then she talks about how we’re so focused on how hard everything is going to be. If we just let that go, then we can realize that it’s so easy.
S: And it’s just step by step.
H: Yeah. And not going back. Like if you berate yourself for something, then that’s taking back a hundred steps because you’ve just replayed it in your head a hundred times. I know right now what I need is more head work and more discovering what I’m hiding behind and what safe is for me right now. And then I’ll be able to drop the rest of the weight. And I know that’s not going to be a problem. But I’m working really hard on not berating myself about it and not stressing out about it, because I’m still happy and so much healthier than I have been. And I’m feeling really good.