“There are lots of ways to lose weight. The hard part is doing it in a way that the weight will stay off,” Natalie Maniscalco, a registered and licensed dietician at Cheaha Nutrition Management in Anniston, explained. “All these commercials and the media telling people they can lose 20 pounds in a week, it’s just garbage.”
But the number of fad diets on the market continues to rise along with the waist lines and health care costs of its audience.
Last month, the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation released F as in Fat, a report on the obesity epidemic in America. With 32.3 percent of the adult population obese, Alabama was named the second fattest state in the nation, earning an F as in Fail along with almost every other state in the Deep-Fried South.
Twenty years ago, Alabama didn’t even make the top 20. Now, the state has the second fastest-growing obesity rate, jumping 16.5 percent since 1995.
It should come as no shock then that Alabama also had the largest rise in both diabetes and hypertension.
Diabetes, which often goes undiagnosed and therefore untreated, can lead to problems such as nerve damage, kidney damage, circulation and heart problems Maniscalco said. She went on to say that breast cancer and many digestive cancers have been linked to obesity as well as countless other conditions.
“I would go so far as to say many of our emotional disorders stem from being overweight,” she added.
Rosemary Blackmon is executive vice president of Scale Back Alabama, a state-wide weight loss competition developed by the Alabama Hospital Association five years ago in response to the state’s plummeting performance in national health reports.
“It was almost a no-brainer,” she said. “The reports were showing that this may be the first generation to not outlive their parents. That’s not a good statistic.”
Last year, 33,000 participants in 64 counties lost a total of 143,309 pounds during the 10-week competition. The method: following safe and simple rules of healthy weight loss.
For those who want to follow their example, the rules are not some big secret. Maniscalco and Blackmon emphasized the same common sense guidelines almost everyone knows by heart: healthy eating, regular exercise, lifestyle changes.
These guidelines are also the heart of two inspiring success stories of locals who took control, cut the fat and lived to tell the tale.
Steady progress quiets the naysayers
Helen Bailey of Gadsden can pinpoint exactly when and why her overeating began. She was in second grade and her dad had just returned home from a tour in Vietnam.
“When he came back he would say, ‘Look how she cleaned her plate,’” Bailey recalled. “I got attention by eating.”
The pattern of emotional eating continued into adulthood. Bailey admitted food was her source of comfort when she was stressed, nervous or even bored.
“Some days I ate everything in the house out of boredom,” she said. Marriage and two children caused more weight to pile on and by the fall of 2008 she had hit 266 pounds.
“You didn’t have to tell me I was obese. I couldn’t walk from my parking spot at work,” she said.
When Bailey heard a Weight Watchers program chapter was starting at her church, she knew she had to give it a try and was there the Sunday it opened in September 2008. She can still be found there every Sunday, rain or shine and even one Christmas Day.
After four years, she can count the meetings she has missed on one hand.
To Bailey, the support she gets from her weekly meeting is crucial to her success.
“You see other people having success and celebrating your success, people in your community, people you go to church with. You know these people.”
Besides the encouragement of fellow members, she said Weight Watchers meetings keep members accountable with weekly weigh-ins, give them a place to share tips and award milestone in their weight loss. Bailey’s group recently helped her celebrate a memorable milestone.
“Every time you lose 25 pounds you get a medal,” she explained. “I got my fourth one in May.”
At 163 pounds, Bailey has lost more than 100 pounds since her first weigh-in. She said she tries to do at least 30 minutes a day on her Wii Fit exercise console.
“It just clicked for me,” she said. “It’s a lifestyle change. It’s something I’m going to have to do for the rest of my life but it’s something I can do for the rest of my life.”
Two years ago, already down 60 pounds, Bailey missed her first meeting when she had to go in for surgery. She remembered many people telling her she would put back on all the weight she’d lost; she was determined to prove them wrong. Just before going into the hospital, she got a source of inspiration that is still with her today.
“My wedding ring had been stuck on my hand for 10 years. I knew I was going to have to figure out a way to get it off before surgery but it just came right off,” she said. “I still have a scar the ring was so tight.”
A diet plan and healthy competition
As a school principal in St. Clair County for more than 30 years, Ronnie McFarling, 58, said years of cafeteria food started to catch up with him around the same time his wife was pregnant with their first child in 1985. She got pregnant again in 1988 and he gained a little more. In 2009, he topped out at 288 pounds.
“A lot of people talk about events. I’m not sure that’s what happened to me. Here is what I think, people who are really overweight think about it all the time.” McFarling, who had his gall bladder removed in December 2008, said, “I didn’t come home from the hospital and say, ‘OK this is it.’ I was just always thinking about it.”
McFarling laughed when he admitted it was an Oprah episode that changed his life. Marie Osmond was sharing her weight loss success on the Nutrisystem diet program. A few weeks later, a fellow principal invited him join some friends at the Pell City tennis courts, a sport he’d excelled at many years and pounds before.
“I called my wife and said I think I’m going to go play tennis and she said, ‘Really?’”
After struggling through a few rounds that first day, McFarling said he was too sore to accept their invitation the next day. They invited him again the following day, and he again declined. The day after that he called and ordered Nutrisystem.
Following the program to the letter, McFarling lost 18 pounds the first month. He kept playing tennis and was soon competing and winning matches against the same guys who had worn him out a few months before.
“In my mind, I wanted to see if I could get to 250,” he recalled. After meeting that goal in just three months he decided to try for 230, then 215. “Then it occurred to me I might actually get under 200 again.”
In less than a year McFarling reached 175 pounds, what he weighed in high school. Today he stays between 185 and 190. He is still on the Nutrisystem plan but now uses it as a supplement to his diet. In June his tennis team won regionals and went to the state competition in Mobile. He and his youngest daughter celebrated Father’s Day by entering the Callaway Gardens Sprint triathlon in Georgia.
“I had tried South Beach, Weight Watchers, Slim Fast,” McFarling recalled. “All of those programs work if you follow them. Everything just came together for me with Nutrisystem.”
‘Keep it simple’
Bailey and McFarling may be extraordinary but they didn’t do anything that couldn’t become ordinary.
The substantial benefits of shaping up and slimming down are pretty much common knowledge. Yet the state with the highest obesity rate 15 years ago would have had the lowest today.
“It doesn’t have to be some complicated, elaborate plan. Keep it simple, just start somewhere,” Maniscalco encouraged. “You have to be patient and work at it but you will be so much happier once you do.”
By the numbers: ‘F as in Fat’
16: States where adult obesity rates rose over the previous year
0: States where adult obesity decreased
12: States where the obesity rate is more than 30 percent. They are Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia.
34.4: Percentage of Mississippi residents who are obese, the highest in the nation
19.8: Percentage of Colorado residents who are obese, the lowest in the nation
19.4: Percentage of Mississippi residents who were obese 15 years ago.
9: Number out of the top 10 most-obese states that are in the South. The sole exception is Michigan.
32.8: Percentage of high school dropouts who are obese.
21.5: Percentage of college or technical school graduates who are obese.
11: Number of states where adult diabetes rates increased over the past year.
10: Number of states where diabetes rates have doubled over the past 15 years.
SOURCE: “Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future 2011,” a report from the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. http://www.healthyamericans.org