Sunday, February 27, 2005


Thin within

Small changes made slowly added up
to a 137-pound loss after a lifetime
of being overweight

While growing up in a small town in Minnesota, Gail Wilson bore the brunt of endless insults. "I was heavy as long as I can remember," she said. "They made it their job to tell me how fat I was. ... The adults even called me names," she said.

Wilson reached a point when she felt she deserved to be teased because of her size. "They were voicing the truth but it was painful," she said.

Nonverbal reactions were just as painful. "People would always stare."

Wilson comforted herself with food, which only added to the problem. "I've had to physically remove myself from the situation and remind myself not to lose control."

She no longer has to worry about criticism.

In 2002, Wilson started to shed her excess pounds, losing 137 pounds in one year, 11 months. She attributes her success to the support of Weight Watchers, but she did it on her own in a way recommended by health professionals -- working on both mind and body -- without resorting to gastric bypass surgery, even though she considered taking the dramatic step.

The change was so great, she said, "My dad didn't recognize me ... said he couldn't pick me out of a crowd."

Weight Watchers taught Wilson how to alter her eating patterns and provided support as she adopted lifelong dietary changes. "It's all about adjustments, not restrictions," she said.

"I still go to fast-food restaurants. I love french fries, but I throw half of them away before I even sit down at the table."

She said little changes played a big part in her success. "It's not just about the food and exercise, but a person's attitude as well.

"At first the pounds fell off, then it slowed down, but the progress was continuous."

She lost 6 1/2 pounds her first week but knew that would be easy. "That was the kick-start I needed."

Although many dieters get discouraged later, when weight loss slows, Wilson was mentally prepared for the trajectory. "I was doing something better for myself, even if it didn't show (on the scales)."

Weight Watchers also helped her understand the importance of not beating oneself up after temporarily veering off track. "You can't let yourself fall back into those habits," she said.

"Most people say I am half the person I used to be," says Gail Wilson, who lost more than 100 pounds. "Actually, I am double the person in half the body." Above is a picture of Wilson in 2001 with daughters Gabi, left, and Chelsie.

JUST THINKING about her traumatic childhood is enough these days to keep her on track.

"In kindergarten I wore jeans that said 'husky.' I just hated that," she said.

Her situation grew worse as the pounds increased. "Cow" was the most hurtful statement, she remembers.

"It was frustrating because my sisters were very small. I always was wondering, why me?" she said.

By her high school sophomore year, she had reached the medical definition of "morbidly obese," and boys realized "Gail" rhymes with "whale."

Because of poor self-esteem, Wilson made other bad choices as well. "I was trying to fit in, so I started smoking, drinking and having premarital sex."

Wilson could have blamed her eating habits on her home life, but said that is not the case.

"I left the house and continued those bad habits, even after I got married," she said. After marriage she started to stock up on fat-free products but still had no understanding of portion size. "I never changed my eating habits, and would eat the whole package."

Her diet experiences were based on fads she learned from her parents, who were on a liquid diet of shakes and soup. Well intentioned but far from knowledgeable, they made her follow the same regime.

"I had to mix the shakes at school. It was like putting a target on myself. It was just awful."

The restriction led to worse eating patterns. "I hid food, would sneak cookies," she said.

Luckily, her husband was accepting, never telling her to lose some weight or watch what she's eating, which raised her self-esteem.

Gail Wilson, holding up an old photo of herself, says successful weight loss isn't only about food and exercise, but the right attitude as well.

AS MUCH AS has been written about the problems of being overweight, Wilson said most people still don't understand the emotional toll of being obese.

"I was constantly replacing pants because my legs rubbed together and they got holes in them. The elastic in underwear always wore out.

"I didn't ride a bike because I was too big to fit on the seat. I couldn't even bend over to tie my shoe," she said.

At her heaviest, her hips, ankles and feet hurt all the time, she said. "Now I don't have any pain."

She can also enjoy trips to the water park and beach with her kids, places she avoided when she was heavy to protect herself from stares and criticism.

"At amusement parks I had to wedge myself in the seats on rides."

On airplanes she didn't fit in the seat, and at movie theaters "my thighs lost all feeling from being pinched between seats."

Shopping for clothes was an embarrassment. "I would get a 4X men's T-shirt and tuck it under my knees to stretch it out" so it wouldn't "hug every roll on my stomach," she said.

THREE YEARS AGO, fed up with her lifelong battle, Wilson went to a doctor to request gastric bypass surgery. She was denied.

"I was 287 pounds and didn't want to hit 300. I was desperate. I didn't have the willpower it took to lose weight, and wanted to see fast results," she said.

A friend urged her to attending a Weight Watcher's meeting with her teenage daughter.

"It brought back all of the painful memories of being a teen and how much that weight hurts," she said. Wilson decided she would try it for a month.

"I left the appointment feeling angry and rejected. I was not truly inspired ... there was no epiphany," she said. "I went in with the attitude that it was not going to work," she said.

Wilson planned to return to her physician with her failed results in hope of getting her to agree to the surgical procedure. Now she is thankful that she did not undergo the procedure.

After the first week of following the Weight Watchers program, her mind-set shifted. "Following something like that for a week was a huge accomplishment for me," she said. "I felt the success personally. I had thought I was alone ... no one else felt this way.

"I was not starving, and I got to cook and choose what I ate. You can eat real food," she said, noting that she does not cook special meals for herself or her family, although they've all shifted to eating healthy portion sizes -- no more than can fit on the palm of your hand.

"We don't use dinner plates. We use salad plates and cereal bowls that can only hold one cup of milk. I also drink a lot of water, about a gallon a day," Wilson said.

Chocolate was not something she wanted to give up, but she has learned to make healthy alternative choices. "I mix fat-free hot chocolate mix in oatmeal each morning, and that is my breakfast," she said.

ALTHOUGH SHE IS now at a reasonable weight of 150 pounds, Wilson is still haunted by the past. "I'm still self-conscious to go to the gym. I identify myself as fat, and it is hard to lose that image. I exercise at home or go running early in the morning when nobody can see me."

Recently on the Honolulu Community College campus, where she is attending classes, Wilson passed a group of guys sitting at a picnic table.

"I was holding back the tears, thinking, 'Please don't make a fat joke.' They didn't, so I figured that they must not have seen me." This happened after she had lost all the weight.

She also has problems she hadn't expected. "I have excess skin that needs to be removed. I was obese for 30 years, and it is not going to go away. I tone but it is still there," she said.

But she has words of wisdom and encouragement to share with others battling excess weight. "Anyone who wants to lose weight has to make changes they feel comfortable with, and not ones that restrict everything they like, or they may set themselves up to fail," she said. "The small changes became habits and eventually big changes over the course of my three years at Weight Watchers.

"Most people say I am half the person I used to be," she said. "Actually, I am double the person in half the body."


Nutrition campaign advises
paying more attention to food

Common sense tells us that eating right and exercise are the keys to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. But busy people know how the strictest schedules can go awry simply when we are "not paying attention" -- especially when it comes to eating habits, said Lani Nicholson, health educator at HMSA.

On Oahu

Classes are free for members, $35 for nonmembers. Call 948-6398.

» At the HMSA Center in Honolulu: 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Tuesdays, March 8 to 22.

» At Aiea Intermediate School: 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. Saturdays, March 12 to 26

"People aren't always paying attention to what is going down the hatch," she said. Most people don't track their food consumption and are not knowledgeable about the foods they eat. "We are over-fueling all day long. We are actually consuming much more food than we need. The average American is 25 pounds heavier than in 1960."

Nicholson said HMSA doesn't encourage people to weigh and measure their food for their rest of their lives, but said most would benefit from simply learning to gauge correct portions at a glance.

HMSA has launched a new program, "Mission: Nutrition," in hopes of helping people better meet their fitness goals. The program includes "simple, easy-to-grasp concepts and steps," Nicholson said.

Participants receive workbooks covering topics such as how lifestyle choices affect quality of life; why calories still count; how to calculate personal caloric needs; how to identify serving sizes; how to develop a personal fitness plan; and more.

If simple vanity doesn't goad you to act, maybe the temptation of longevity will. Smaller portions have been linked to increased life span, and because people of the 21st century will live longer than in the past, there are quality-of-life issues to consider. "No one wants to be uncomfortable, sick or impaired," Nicholson said.

THE FOOD INDUSTRY certainly doesn't help, whether it's fast-food companies appealing to diners' need for speed and convenience, or so-called diet gurus promoting one-dimensional concepts.

The Atkins or Cabbage Soup diets might produce quick weight loss without producing long-term effects. They do little to change people's attitudes toward food.

"Once the weight comes off, old behaviors come back. We hang up the jogging shoes and start eating again," Nicholson said.

She said studies have shown that individuals who lose weight slowly tend to keep it off permanently as a result. Based on personal experience, Nicholson said she has never found a diet that works. "The pounds come back, and when failure occurs we tend to blame ourselves," she said. The emotional setback often pushes people back toward overeating.

No doubt everyone's familiar with "the grand pity party," she said, when stress or depression leads someone to eat an entire cheesecake in one setting.

LUCKILY, THERE ARE signs that the food industry is beginning to see the light, offering healthier options and portion sizes. "A few years ago, we would not have seen salads," said Chuck Marshall, public information coordinator at HMSA.

Outlets such as Wendy's are allowing people to swap french fries for salads, and McDonald's is allowing people to replace french fries with apple slices.

People need to be "more discriminating shoppers at fast-food places," Marshall said.

"We don't categorize any food as good or bad," Nicholson said. "It all depends on the choices we make throughout the day."

As simple as it seems, most people claim that they "don't have time" to eat healthy.

"Part of that is not understanding how much time is spent at a drive-through," Nicholson said. "Fresh foods may not take as long to prepare as we think. People are overwhelmed when they do not have things ready."

Breakfast is a good place to start.

People tend to change behaviors on their own when they are not starving and out of their mind by 10:30 a.m., Nicholson said. They are also happier by noon and at the end of the day. Healthy food choices help maintain a person's energy and even protect from physical and emotional stress.

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