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‘It took my mother’s death to make me want to lose weight’

Her mum had always been on a diet but when she died because of her obesity, UK-based Jo Egan-Payne, 32, vowed not to make the same mistake

  • Jo before and after her weight loss.Image Credit: Supplied pictures
  • Jo’s mum always struggled with her weight. Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • When she was pregnant for the second time Jo only put on 15kg, left. Looking fit and well with baby Freya. Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • Jo knows her children are proud of her – andher mum would have been too. Image Credit: Supplied picture

Mum was dieting again. I could tell the moment I stepped through the front door. If Mum was having a ‘naughty’ day I’d be hit by the waft of whatever concoction she was cooking in the kitchen, along with the sound of her humming.

If it was a ‘good’ day there’d be a tension crackling through the house, along with the odd swear word.
The dinner table was a battle ground in our house; food the weapon against inner demons.

It had always been this way. Mum was a yo-yo dieter and had been every size from a UK 14 to 30.

She saw food as the enemy and the prize. It was something to deprive herself of when she hated herself and stuff herself with when she’d been ‘good’.

A vicious spiral of splurge and purge

Mum had tried every diet going – slimming clubs, calorie counting, even living on just cabbage soup. But when she’d lost weight and thought she deserved a treat she’d binge on home-made cake, crisps and chocolate bars.

Only then she would realise she’d been ‘naughty’ and spiral into self-loathing, which would trigger comfort-eating. She lived in a vicious circle that revolved around the fridge.

I was the middle of three girls, and we all saw ourselves as chunky.

We’d inherited Mum’s large frame as well as her twisted relationship with food. It wasn’t her fault. She’d serve us pasta, or risotto while she picked at a ready-made slimming club meal.

“Er, this is nice, Mum,” I’d say, playing with a plate of rice with chunks of green mushy vegetables. Mum would smile, but mostly there’d be an uneasy silence during the periods of her tiny portions, followed by wild abandon as she cooked cakes, biscuits, stews and roasts on her eat-what-you-like days.
Then the house would be filled with laughter until the needle on the scales veered too far to the right and Mum couldn’t squeeze into her biggest clothes anymore.

“Diet starts tomorrow,” she’d say, and I’d wince. That meant more bad moods and wordless dinners.

Like mother, like daughter

As if all of that wasn’t bad enough, I was also the chubby girl in class. Aged 11, I was 162cm and a size 12/14 but when I looked in the mirror I saw an awkward girl with chunky thighs who was always picked last for PE.

“I hate my body,” I’d tut, disgusted, and ask to join Mum on one of her diets.

After a while she let me, so we’d crash-diet together, counting calories and obsessing over every kilo we gained or lost.
So I followed Mum’s lead of starving, then binging and soon ballooned. As she plunged into depression, I loathed my bulging body more each day.

Bad day at school? “I’ll feel better if I eat this entire chocolate bar,” I thought. Need to revise for exams... “Two helpings of cake will help me concentrate.”

By the time I was 17 I was a size 18. “I’m never dieting again,” I vowed, refusing to step onto the scales ever again.
I’d watched Mum live like that all my life and all it had done was make her bigger – and depressed. She developed agoraphobia, and would make excuses not to go out. I was sure that was tied up with her size.

“I don’t want to be like that,” I decided and began to dress flamboyantly. If I was big, there was no point trying to hide it.

So I became the funny, fat girl and left home to go to university. And for the first time I was happy. I went out for dinners and discovered new cuisines and dishes that I liked. They were a world away from Mum’s low-calorie meals and I couldn’t get enough of them.

For three years I ate whatever I wanted to and when my clothes became tight I just went up a size, then another.
After I graduated, I met Simon and he fell in love with me, even though I was big. “You’re gorgeous,” he’d say, and my confidence grew.

So we went for meals out, and I’d down man-size portions. Soon, I was a size 22 but I didn’t think it mattered.

When I became pregnant four years later, I ate for two and squeezed into size 24 maternity clothes. I didn’t waste time thinking about my looks. I was too excited about becoming a mum.

I’d gaze at my scan pictures in awe and couldn’t wait to hold my newborn baby in my arms. “Do you think it will be a boy or a girl?” I’d say and Mum would grin.

“It’ll be beautiful whatever it is,” she’d say, hugging me. I was worried about her. Mum had been having panic attacks.

“I’m fine,” she’d say when I tackled her. “I just want to meet my grandchild.” She wanted to help so much and I thought maybe this was the solution to her problems. I thought the baby would give her a new focus.

But when I began having contractions, Mum was groggy and in bed with flu. “I’m so sorry, love,” she said. “I wish I could be there for you.”

Luckily, I had Simon and we were both ecstatic when our son Tommy was born at 5.05am on January 2, 2007. I sat for hours gazing at his little old man’s face, and watching him sleep. He was perfect.

All the next day Simon and I cooed over Tommy, and showed him off to Dad and my sisters. “Shame Mum’s not here,” I said, but it couldn’t be helped.

News that rocked my world

Later that day, Simon went home and the next morning I was moved to a side ward. I thought it was so I could get some rest.
But then Simon arrived, white-faced. “I’m so sorry,” he said, taking my hand. “But your mum passed away in her sleep in the early hours of this morning.”

She’d died of a blood clot in her lungs less than 24 hours after Tommy had been born.

I sobbed until my eyes were puffy, my throat raw. I’d just experienced the most magical moment of my life, having my baby, and now the worst. Mum was gone.

She smoked, was overweight and it had killed her. She was only 53.

It was heartbreaking to know that she would never meet Tommy.

‘“I have to get healthy,” I decided. I needed to be around for Tommy, and to see him have children. So I decided to do the one thing I said I wouldn’t. I was going on a diet. All I could think about was Mum as I joined a dieting club, Slimming World. Her death had devastated me and I missed her so much.

The initial few weeks had been a roller coaster of emotions – from the absolute joy of getting to know my baby, to the intense lows of knowing that my mum would never  see him.

I was shaking as I stepped on the scales. I weighed 95kg and was a size 24. But instead of being overwhelmed by how much I had to do I just took it one day at a time.

I swapped chips for couscous, pies for fish, and creamy pasta sauces for tomato ones.

I was doing it for Mum as well as for me

The first week was hard. I wasn’t hungry but I had a little baby and was used to eating whatever I wanted.

But whenever I thought about giving up I remembered Mum. “I’m doing this for her, too,” I told myself.

I lost just less than 1kg the first week, but the next week I lost nearly 2kg. And after
a few more weeks I forgot I was on a diet. Before, I believed the only way to lose weight was to continually remind myself how much I hated my body, in order to keep depriving myself of food.

But this was about being healthy and not beating myself up mentally when I slipped up. I realised having a bit of chocolate didn’t make me a bad person.

The weight fell off over the next few months. After I lost 19kg, Simon and I set a date for our wedding. I went to look at dresses and fell in love with one that was a size 14 – way too small. I was a size 18 but it was the last one in that style. I loved it so much I bought it, thinking I’d pay to have it altered.

I needn’t have worried though as I lost another 9kg over the next few months, and the dress fitted beautifully.

As I walked up the aisle, all I could see was Simon’s grin. It was good to know that on my day I was a beautiful, and not a bulging, bride.

I kept to the diet after that – even when I discovered I was pregnant again. I only put on 15kg instead of the 25kg I’d piled on the first time.

As soon as I’d had my little girl, Freya, I vowed to get back in shape, and lost all my pregnancy weight slowly over nine months.

I’m now 66kg and a size 12. I feel fantastic, have loads of energy to play with my children and love dressing in fashionable clothes.

I don’t look like the same person and was stunned when I was voted the Top Target member of Slimming World by the
other members.

I’ve lost a total of 29kg and dropped 12 dress sizes. People I went to school with or who knew me growing up walk past as they don’t recognise me.

I’m so happy I’ve lost so much weight. I feel like I didn’t just do it for me – I did it for Mum too. She died because she was obese and unhealthy and I miss her so much.

But I also know she – along with Simon and my kids – are so proud of me.

Other people ask if I’m worried now that I’ve hit my target weight and I laugh. Me get big again? Fat chance!

As told to Karen Pasquali Jones What Jo ate before:

Breakfast – Two slices toast with butter and peanut butter with cup of tea with two sugars.
Snacks – chocolate bar and crisps
Lunch – sandwich with crisps, sausage roll, and chocolate bar. Orange juice.
Dinner – lasagne, or curry, or spaghetti Bolognese with sticky toffee pudding and custard.

What Jo eats now:

Breakfast – two Weetabix with skimmed milk and sweetener. Black tea with no sugar
Lunch – pasta pesto, salad and couscous. Low-fat yogurt
Snacks – carrot sticks and fruit
Dinner – chilli or spaghetti bolognese cooked with no-fat spray cooking spray
After dinner snack – fun size packet of chocolate maltezers.