Faced walking with a cane, I stumbled forward. My right knee creaked and buckled while my back juddered, sending shooting pains through me with every step. I could hardly walk and even though I was at the doctor’s for yet another cortisone injection in my knee, I knew why. I was 41, 173cm tall, and weighed 170kg. The sheer bulk of me was putting so much strain on my back and knee that my GP said if I didn’t lose weight, I’d need surgery.
That’s when I decided I had to do something about my weight for my health. “I’ll diet,” I decided, but I didn’t want to join a slimming club, so I bought low-fat frozen dinners and joined a gym. Every night I’d walk on the treadmill – the most exercise I could do because of my bad knee – and slowly over a year I lost 30kg. I should have been delighted, but my knee became so painful I could hardly move. Sitting around, trying not to put any weight on it, I regained all the kilos I’d lost and more.
At first I felt sorry for myself but then I realised there was no point in that. What good would moping or heading for the biscuit barrel do? One day, in January 2011, I met a client of mine – I’m a dog groomer from Lithia Springs, Georgia, in the US – who was looking great.
“You’ve lost a lot of weight,” I said. “How did you do it?” She told me about a no-carb diet plan that she’d followed. “The weight just dropped off,” she smiled. “I lost 36kg in four months without going to the gym.” My eyes widened. That sounded perfect considering my dodgy knee. So I vowed to give it a go.
I’d always been big, even though everyone else in my family is skinny. Raised by a single mother, with two younger sisters and a little brother, I tucked into chicken and rice, or meatloaf and green vegetables for dinner. For a treat we’d have hot dogs but more often than not I’d try egg salad or fish sticks. So we had a healthy diet but I’d snack between meals.
From the age of eight I had an after-school job helping a local man who rented out his hall for dances. My job involved handing out sodas to patrons. In return he paid me $6 (Dh22) a day and I could have as many fizzy drinks as I wanted. I’d fill up on cola and lemonade, and after work I’d rush to the corner store and buy ice cream and hot sausage rolls.
The moment of truth
I was never bullied and no one commented on my weight until I was 11 – and I realised how much bigger I was than my friends. One day, while with friends, the conversation turned to weight. “I’m 40kg,” a friend said. Another was 42kg, a few were lighter. I shrunk down in my seat, hoping not to be asked next. I was 48kg and shorter than most of them. I mumbled the truth when it was my turn and no one teased me, but they didn’t need to. For the first time I saw myself as fat and hated it. My self-esteem was shot and I loathed looking at my podgy reflection.
A few months later, Mum announced she was putting me on a diet. “I don’t understand why you’re getting so big,” she said. “You eat the same meals as the rest
of the family.”
I also did a lot of exercise. I was a majorette and a cheerleader. I enjoyed gymnastics and loved running so I was always taking part in some race or club activity. But I was secretly gorging on sausage rolls, sweets and sodas after work, and carried on bingeing even after my mum put me on a strict diet.
I would pick at the boiled chicken and salad she gave me, then eat two sausage rolls and three scoops of ice cream behind her back. By the time I was in my early teens I was so big I could only squeeze into loose, elasticated school skirts.
From joy to despair
To deflect thoughts about my weight, I began to focus on using my intelligence and my personality rather than looks to get me everywhere in life.
I didn’t weigh myself but by the age of 18 I wore a US size 26 [UK size 30] trousers. I would try diets and always fail. But I was determined to lose weight. I lost weight eating soup and chicken, and was a US size 12 when I walked down the aisle with Sean. I couldn’t keep the weight off though and the marriage didn’t last. A year after the wedding I was divorced, working as the general manager of a fast food restaurant and piling on the kilos.
I existed on hotdogs – four for breakfast, two for lunch and more for dinner, washed down with litres of fizzy drinks, crisps and cookies. That’s when I’d tipped the scales at 170kg – I could have weighed more, but that was the highest any scales I found went up to – and my knee buckled. I wanted it fixed but no health insurance company would insure me because of my size.
I’d always wanted to donate my body to science when I died, but around the same time I discovered few labs were willing to take a body as heavy as mine. “Scientists don’t even want my dead fat body,” I told myself, shocked.
“I have to change.” But words were easy – action and staying power were harder.
On my birthday, despite all my good intentions, I bought a cake for 104 people.
I planned to eat one slice and freeze the rest. That never happened; I kept on picking at it until all of the cake had gone in just three days.
I went back to the doctor suffering from hypertension and was given a myriad medicines to sort out my blood pressure. On my follow-up visit the doctor warned I’d need surgery if the cortisone shot didn’t work for my bad knee. He also said surgery on a person with my weight carried a big risk, and I knew it was time to change for good.
So I tried my client’s no-carb diet, eating nothing but protein. It was boring eating chicken and fish day after day, but after a month I realised my clothes were looser.
Too big for the scales at home and in the doctor’s office, I didn’t know how much weight I had lost. But a month earlier I could barely squeeze into a size 28, now I was a size 24. I was elated but I knew I wouldn’t stick to such a bland diet for months. I had to make the plan work for me.
Over the next few months I started eating six to seven small meals a day on plates no bigger than a saucer. I ate a lot of green vegetables and lean protein, which I baked or boiled, and added salt and pepper with lemon juice. I avoided fruit, which is sugar, and all processed food.
I was hungry at first, but my knee stopped aching and my back didn’t twinge as much.
“Keep going girl,” I’d tell myself. Because I was eating so often, I didn’t get hunger pangs, and to stave off boredom I decided to go to the gym.
Shrinking by the week
I was the biggest person there by far, but I didn’t care. I was getting smaller by the week, and that was all that mattered. I wanted to look better but I also wanted to feel better. This was about my health as much as my looks.
I couldn’t do much at first, so I just walked on the treadmill for half an hour while watching other people do weights.
A personal trainer was out of my budget but gradually, after watching other people in the gym, I learnt the basics.
I picked up light weights and did repetitions, then I began doing cardio workouts and using the Stairmaster. I focused on different body parts daily for strength, like triceps, biceps, back, legs, abs, glutes and deltoids.
My blood pressure began to fall, and my doctor announced I didn’t need surgery on my knee. It had got better because there was less weight on it. “This is working,” I grinned.
Back at the gym I continued copying what I saw other people doing, adding more and more exercises and repetitions with light weights and my clothes became baggier and baggier.
I went to the gym six days a week and ate six to seven small meals – like protein shakes, baked chicken breast, broccoli and fish – a day. Now that I was smaller I could weigh myself again and saw that within six months I had lost an amazing 45kg.
Of course, I would hit plateaus along the way but I would keep going and have kept losing weight steadily ever since.
I stopped weighing myself in April 2012 because I decided that by stepping on the scales every day, I was setting myself up for trouble.
The scales can be depressing and determine the day. If I got on them and hadn’t lost any weight I was fed up and became tempted to eat.
The last time I weighed myself was when I entered a 12-week challenge competition at my gym. When I stepped on the scales on January 5, 2012, I was 105kg and had a 112cm waist. Twelve weeks later I weighed 74kg and had a 91cm waist. I am now a size 4 and I have lost about 100kg in total.
Today my life is totally different than it was two years ago when I faced walking with a cane. I now exercise six times a week, twice a day. I burn about 10,000 calories a week. I love to exercise. I even lift weights when I’m sitting in front of the television. I also do 50 to 80 sit-ups and push-ups every night before I go to bed.
I’m so committed to exercise that in November 2011 – after a trip to South Africa – my flight landed in Georgia at 6am and I was back in the gym working out two hours later.
I used to run away from the camera. Now I have my own Facebook page and post pictures of myself online to show others how far I’ve come.
I’m not trying to lose weight anymore. I’m trying to get my body as fit and as lean as possible so that I can compete in a bodybuilding competition.
I can’t tell you the last time I had problems with my back and my knee. My cholesterol is normal and I’m no longer on medication. Most of all, my attitude towards food has changed. I no longer celebrate with food. I don’t even buy a birthday cake.
I don’t have a goal weight and I don’t think I’ve ‘arrived’. I’m always going to be a work in progress. The fat girl still lives within.
I want to encourage other obese people not to give up. My message to them is, “I used to be you”. If I can do it, anyone can. These days when I walk down the road, I turn heads and that really makes my day. But I’ve changed inside the most – I love and respect myself, and that’s just as important as my new slimline body.”
● Wiltrina Jones lives in Lithia Springs, Georgia, US