Healthy Weight, Healthy Mind: Tips from a Couple Who Successfully Lost Weight Together

A couple who has struggled with weight, alcohol, and family issues offers their tips for how to find success at maintaining weight loss.

A couple hand-in-hand on a bridge

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We are pleased to bring you this regular column by Dr. David Creel, a licensed psychologist, certified clinical exercise physiologist and registered dietitian. He is also credentialed as a certified diabetes educator and the author of A Size That Fits: Lose Weight and Keep it off, One Thought at a Time (NorLightsPress, 2017).

Do you have a weight loss question for Dr. Creel? Email him at [email protected]. He may answer your question in a future column.

In the next few articles, patients and colleagues provide their own recipes for weight loss success. The stories and advice are down-to-earth and powerful. I learned a great deal from them, and I believe you will too.

Donny and Paula: The Successful Couple

“They don’t seem like they’ve been married 42 years,” I said to myself as Donny and Paula told me about their weight management journey. They communicated so well; when they recalled things differently they didn’t argue; one of them would just say, “You might be right about that.” As they mentioned the rough times, such as Donny’s past battles with alcohol, it seemed Paula had truly forgiven him and Donny appeared to forgive himself. I found their relationship refreshing—the way a marriage should be, like good friends.

After they began dating Donny and Paula found out they worked at the same place at the same time and lived in the same apartment as children—at different times, of course. Maybe something supernatural connected them after Paula inherited Donny’s old room!

The first time Donny brought Paula home to meet his parents, his mother pulled him aside and told him Paula was overweight—very overweight, as if she thought Donny couldn’t see for himself. Paula and Donny both came from alcoholic homes. Donny and his brother ran around the neighborhood unsupervised and had a free-for-all with food.

Paula, on the other hand, compensated by trying to mediate conflict and act appropriately so Dad wouldn’t become upset and get plastered. She remembers using food as comfort when she was four years old. As an only child, she had no siblings to insulate her from their dysfunctional home. Being left alone for hours after school gave her unsupervised access to unhealthy food, just like Donny.

As a young couple they fueled each other’s dysfunctional relationship with food. They described going to the store to buy pie. They would buy two pies and each of them ate their own in the grocery store parking lot. Donny and Paula realized food was an issue for them, so they began attending Weight Watchers meetings together. Although a step in the right direction, they routinely attended meetings and then headed across the street to an all-you-can-eat buffet where they’d gorge on crab legs with melted butter. “As soon as the meeting was over, our tires were smokin’ to get over to the restaurant as fast as we could,” Donny told me.

Although they had on and off success with Weight Watchers, they weren’t ready to change permanently, yet. However, they were committed to the weekly meeting routine, and observing the success and failure of others planted seeds for their eventual metamorphosis. They continued dipping their toes in the water until ten years before our meeting when Paula had bariatric surgery. Donny followed two years later, and their lives have never been the same.

Paula has maintained a 190-pound weight loss, Donny 154. They continue attending Weight Watchers and several bariatric support groups. Each of them shared events that positively and negatively reinforce their healthy behavior. Paula remembers her childhood nickname, Crisco, and wants to stay away from anything that reminds her of that outgrown identity. Danny is still bothered by the fact that a coworker called him Bluto (a.k.a. Brutus from the Popeye cartoon). Both noticed that people began viewing them as smarter when they lost weight. Although they dislike these assumptions, they feel life is much easier at a healthy weight.

Donny says he remembers a man who attended Weight Watchers meetings many years ago before his own bariatric surgery. “I remember telling Paula he had no neck!” But then they noticed the thick-necked man began to lose weight—a lot of weight. They were intrigued by his success and found out he had had bariatric surgery. The fact that he could change inspired both of them to consider doing the same. But a year or so after his surgery the man began missing a lot of meetings. They noticed he was regaining weight, and then he stopped coming. One day they saw him around town and it was obvious he’d regained a lot more weight. Donny saw the power of bariatric surgery, but he also observed that surgery guaranteed nothing long-term. No-neck man reminded him that surgery won’t do all the work. It’s only a tool and it’s up to him to use it.

Paula and Donny’s success is based on more than the fear of regaining weight. They both love the fact that they can move better and they enjoy challenging their bodies with physical activity. Donny is an avid cyclist, training for and completing a one-day 160-mile ride every year. One year he got off course and actually pedaled 184 miles. Paula likes to walk; she challenges herself at the gym and enjoys setting new fitness goals.

Paula told me that before bariatric surgery she thought about food all the time. “That hasn’t changed much,” she added. But food is no longer what she obsesses about to give her pleasure. Instead, she plans meals to help her live the way she wants. This is a message she tries to relay to others who want to manage their weight.

Giving back to others by helping with their weight management journeys is another motivating factor for this dynamic couple. Attending multiple support groups each month reminds Donny and Paula of their past lifestyle and helps them continue on the right path. Hearing the advice they give others solidifies their commitment to stay on track. Although they agree there’s no magic formula for weight loss and everyone’s success story is slightly different, I can sum up what they told me in the following way:

  • You must be honest with yourself about how you’re doing and where you’re heading. Data such as the frequency of exercise and numbers on the scale don’t lie, so pay attention to that information by weighing daily and planning exercise.
  • Don’t throw yourself down the stairs because you slip on one step. Nobody’s perfect, especially with eating. When you mess up, learn from it and keep pursuing your goals.
  • Know your limits. If there is a food that you cannot eat in moderation, no matter how hard you try, keep it out of the house and be willing to give it up. If it’s destroying your life, view it as a recovering alcoholic sees alcohol. Paula stated that although it may be possible to learn to eat that food in moderation, ask yourself, “Why is it so important to spend that much energy on one food when you may not succeed? Plus, the attempt at moderation may throw you off track.” She advises, “Don’t play with fire, and unless you’re a firefighter or a hibachi grill master, stay away from it altogether.”
  • Learn from others. Watch closely as those around you succeed and stumble, and apply those lessons to your journey. This is different than looking at others’ experiences to confirm your own ideas. We can always find someone who seems to break the rules and gets by okay, but what do you see with the majority of people who are successful and/or struggle?
  • Let go and let God. Some things we can never fix or totally understand. This is especially true when it comes to childhood experiences that leave us scarred, vulnerable, or feeling unlovable. Food is often a convenient, temporary escape from these feelings. Letting go means realizing we are loved and God has a plan for our lives. We all have unique talents and value, no matter our size, our past, or how we
  • Get support and be support. Find a community that will hold you accountable, help you up when you fall, and laugh with you along the way. As you mature in the process, find a way to give back. Not only will this help others, it will help you stay on track as well.
  • Realize the food plan is only a small part of success. Move beyond long lists of food rules and explore your relationship with food.
  • Fearing weight regain is normal and okay to a degree, but don’t be consumed by fear. Keep it at bay by setting goals that are rewarding when you achieve them. Physical activity pursuits are a good place to start.

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