A couple of pounds here, a few more there. Weight gain for Matt Baretich, a biomedical engineer in Loveland, Colo., was insidious but steady. By his early 60s, he weighed 300 pounds.
“As I approached that number, I was aghast and began to stagger back from the brink,” says Baretich, who’s 5 feet 11 inches tall. “I managed to fitfully get myself down to 260 over the next several months, but I lost a lot of muscle along with the fat.”
At 260 pounds, with his body mass still registering as obese, Baretich committed to a yearlong behavior-change program at the University of Colorado Anschutz Health and Wellness Center. The first week was immersion at the center. After that, coaching took place online or on the phone.
Eight months later, Baretich achieved his goal of 180 pounds. His waist measurement went from 50 inches to 38. Ceremoniously, he cut the extra length off his belt before setting out on a backpacking trip.
“It’s difficult to overstate how much more fun backpacking is now that I’m 80 pounds lighter and a lot stronger,” Baretich says. “Along with physical changes, I have regained self-confidence I had lost. I know I can accomplish difficult tasks. I eagerly look for challenges to overcome.”
How’s maintenance going?
“It’s hard, but I know how to do it. Getting older and losing a lot of weight both cause metabolism to slow. The answer is to move away from food as a reward. I still enjoy good food, but it’s fuel, not solace.
“Something the program taught me to say is this: ‘Choose your hard.’ It was hard to lose the weight. It’s hard to keep it off. It’s hard to find the time and willpower for exercise. But it was hard being fat too. In so many ways, the ‘fat old days’ were harder. It’s important to keep that in mind when I’m tempted to snack instead of getting on my bicycle and hitting the road.”
Behavior change like Baretich’s is key to losing weight and maintaining, says Lauren Ott, registered dietitian at the center. Her tips for lasting change:
• Plan ahead. Healthful, low-calorie meals and snacks don’t just magically appear. Plan, buy and prepare before you’re hungry.
• Eat more vegetables. They’re low-calorie and high-fiber.
• Consume protein at each meal. It’s key to feeling full.
• Make your environment conducive to health. Keep fruit on the counter, and vegetables in plain sight.
• Stash athletic shoes at work or in the car; you might find a few minutes to walk.
• Change your route so you don’t drive past favorite fast-food outlets.
• Replace a happy-hour date with friends with a walk in the park.
• Allow the occasional treat, and ditch any guilt. An all-or-nothing mindset can’t last, and guilt pushes you off track.
• Schedule workouts. Knowing when, where and how you’re going to exercise beats a vague promise that you’ll work out sometime this week.
People want a magic diet, but those don’t change behavior, Ott says. Instead of fixating on carbs, as with the currently popular Paleo diet, fixate on behaviors. Think of how you can manage stress without food. Examine the messages you send yourself.
“Our thoughts define our reality,” Ott says. “Telling yourself that you’ve failed before, and therefore will never succeed, is not reality. Instead, try: Yes, I’ve failed in the past, but I’m approaching it in a new way, with a new mindset, so it’s likely I’ll succeed.”
Tammy Waldschmidt had tried and failed. In college she lost 76 pounds, but she gained it back. She started working and lost 35 pounds, but gained it back plus more. At age 34, a borderline diabetic, she lost 110 pounds, but gained most of it back. At one point, she weighed 316 pounds.
A computer engineer in Highlands Ranch, Colo., 5 feet 7 inches tall, now in her early 50s, Waldschmidt weighed 244 when she started at the center. Ten months later she hit 173, and she is working to lose more.
“Before, I really was not feeling alive,” Waldschmidt says. “I felt hopeless about my personal future. My negative self-talk was out of control.”
She says she now feels transformed. “I went zip lining! I went on a roller coaster. You couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. I am full of energy. I can wear cute clothes. I’ve gone from size 24 to size 10. I go hiking, and walk or jog in 5Ks and 10Ks. I went speed dating, had a blast, and went on some dates. I’m excited to go dancing. I’m about to get rid of satellite TV; I don’t have time to watch it. No more hiding on the sidelines and standing in the back row for pictures. … No, I’m now in the front row of life!
“My big thing now is to pay it forward. I want to inspire people to get involved and live the life they want.”
Like Baretich and Waldschmidt, Elaine Brown’s weight loss boosted confidence. A nurse in Denver, Brown weighed 207 pounds when she started a 20-week program at the center. Six months later she was 147. At 5 feet 6 inches tall, she’s kept her weight at 142 pounds for nearly two years.
“My whole life, from high school on, I weighed 180. At 40 years old, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Through chemo, steroids, stress and sadness … eating made me feel better. After treatment, I went to 190 and 200. When I hit 207, I didn’t want to do it anymore.”
The behavior-change program taught her to question whether extra food was worth it. “I learned to recognize boredom or stress, and make better choices. Every day, I have two servings of fruit and three of vegetables. That was a big shift, and I’ve stuck with it.”
Like Waldschmidt, Brown discovered new activities.
“I went spelunking! In my former body, I never would’ve fit through those cave holes,” she said. “I can wear clothes that are fun, such as leggings and high boots.
“It’s given me more confidence.”