When I was little, my family and I ate out all the time and packed our pantry with junk food. I was the kind of kid who couldn't just have a bite of a candy bar; I had to have the whole thing. Since I was bigger, kids at school would tease me about my weight. I just thought, well, this is me, I'm fat, and there's nothing I can do about it.
When I got a little older, I turned to things like crash dieting to try to lose weight because I thought those were the only things that worked. But, after a few days of not eating much or only eating certain foods, I gave up.
My dad also struggled with his weight. When I was about 12, he went on a two-week long health and fitness retreat called the Pritikin Longevity Center
, where he learned about nutrition and worked out multiple times a day. When he came back, he looked great and tried to keep up his habits, but eventually he gave in to the unhealthy lifestyle the rest of my family lived.
In 2008, my dad died of a heart attack. That was a red flag for me to take charge of my health for good. At the age of 18, I already had high blood pressure, and I wanted to make sure that I would live to see 60, since my dad never did. At the same time, I wanted to feel good about myself. I was sick of what I saw in the mirror and needed a change.
So, I packed my bags and went to the health and fitness retreat my dad went to when I was little. A lot had changed since he attended the Pritikin center, but the basic plan was the same: three weeks of exercising for two to three hours a day (six days a week), cooking classes, and eating healthy meals. When they weighed me at the beginning of the program, I was 205 pounds.
Every morning I woke up at 6:00 a.m. to eat breakfast, which was usually oatmeal with apples, bananas, and raisins. Then I had either weight training or a cardio class for at least an hour. Afterwards, we’d have a more relaxed exercise class like Zumba, water aerobics, or stretching.
Lunch was served buffet style. They had things like black bean burgers, spaghetti squash, and stuffed mushrooms, along with a salad bar and fruit. Lunch was followed by about an hour of cardio with a trainer, and then cooking school.
In the cooking class, I learned how to prep produce, meat, and even pasta without using butter, oil, salt, or other unhealthy ingredients. It was crazy to realize that you actually don't need those things to make food taste good.
After three weeks on the program I lost 13 pounds, and decided to stay for another two weeks. I really enjoyed being surrounded by other people who were dedicated to getting healthy, and I felt so good about the progress I was making.
Transitioning back to home life was a little challenging, though. I was so committed to keeping up my habits and using everything that I learned at the program, but my friends and family weren't about that life.
Some of my friends gave me a hard time for special-ordering food at restaurants (I always ask for my food to be grilled or steamed without salt or oil) or even bringing my own food out to eat (my local restaurants don't seem to mind, so far). I actually lost a friend who used to binge on candy and watch movies with me. Without our candy connection, we didn't have much in common.
Since I didn't love cooking, I started ordering the meals from the program through their delivery system. But I continued to make my own healthy snacks and sides of veggies the way I learned during the retreat.
I also kept up working out six days a week for an hour to two a day. It's so nice to go into a gym and actually know what to do with the equipment. I feel so much better after I exercise, so it's hard for me to skip it.
About a year and a half after setting out to lose weight at Pritikin, I dropped 57 pounds and gained lots of muscle.
Now that it's Halloween time, I love that I can wear the cute little costumes that I would have never felt comfortable putting on before, like a police officer outfit or whatever. It sounds ridiculous, but it's true. Small things like that make me feel so good about how far I've come.
If you eat healthy, you don't have to count calories. Sometimes people ask me if I'm starving myself because I've lost so much weight, but I tell them that I probably eat more than they do in a day. At my retreat I learned that you can fill up on more low-calorie dense foods, like veggies and lean protein, than you could on junk food. Basically, you get more food for less calories. It's pretty much impossible to eat 1,000 calories worth of broccoli—you just can't do it.
Don't make any food off limits. When I came home from my retreat and saw Nutella in our kitchen, I knew that telling myself I could never have foods like that again was going to make me want them more. So, I allow myself to eat things like cupcakes or whatever I'm craving when I really want it.
Don't be afraid of the gym. Before I went to Pritikin, I walked into my gym, looked around, and walked out. I just felt so out of place and overwhelmed that I didn't even want to try anything. But after realizing that the gym doesn't need to be intimidating, I wished that I wasn't so scared of it in the first place.