April 23, 2009

The word diet first became a part of my vocabulary when I was in eighth grade. At the time, my parents divorced and I was devastated. Instead of talking to someone about my feelings, I ended up eating and turned to food for support. In less than a year, I had gained 30 pounds and became even more unhappy. During the next two years, I continued to overeat and gain weight. By the time I reached 11th grade, my weight had leveled off at 220 pounds and I barely fit into size 24/26 clothing.

In my junior year of high school, I was tired of being so much larger than my peers, so I took a huge step in controlling my weight: I joined a medically supervised weight-loss program, where I followed a healthful eating plan based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Guide Pyramid. I also started walking and biking a few times a week. As a result, I lost 50 pounds in a year and was wearing size-14 clothing. However, the progress didn't last long. I hit a plateau and became so frustrated with the lack of results that I gave up my healthy habits altogether. Not only did I gain back the weight I had lost, but I added another 10 pounds.

I lived like this for the next two years, and when I turned 20 years old, I picked up a copy of Oprah Winfrey's book Make the Connection (Hyperion, 1996). I identified with her weight-loss struggle, and reading the book inspired me to pursue a healthy lifestyle.

Since I already worked at a hospital, I talked to one of the doctors about healthy weight-loss strategies. He suggested I go back to the USDA Food Guide Pyramid and start eating three full meals a day, especially breakfast, which I was skipping. I learned that eating breakfast would stoke my metabolism and help prevent overeating. I omitted high-fat foods like pizza and burgers and began to prepare fruits, vegetables and grains healthfully. Within a month, I saw progress: My face was thinner and I was 5 pounds lighter.

A month into my journey, I started exercising since I knew the food changes alone weren't going to be enough. I began slowly - doing only a mix of walking and weight training twice a week. I felt extremely self-conscious at first since I was so out of shape, but I talked to trainers, who accepted my size and gave me the advice I needed. Once I became confident and saw that exercise accelerated my progress, I started exercising three to five times a week.

Two years later, I had lost 80 pounds, and I now wear a size 12, which is healthy for my body type. My life has completely changed: I'm confident, happy and at my fitness best. I recently completed my first marathon in six and a half hours. I also volunteer each week to help elementary-school-age children battle obesity. I've learned that healthy lifestyle habits begin when you're young - the sooner the better.