It seems that just about everybody wants to lose weight but, sadly, few succeed. Yet experts tell us that, as a nation, we must slim down or suffer all sorts of unpleasant consequences, such as poor health, impaired mobility and even shorter life spans. To be sure, slimming down is not easy, but it’s hardly impossible. Just ask the ladies we talked to for this article. Each one has shed more than 100 pounds. If there is a lesson in their stories, it’s probably that seeking outside help, in whatever form suits you, makes weight loss easier to accomplish. Read and be inspired!

LEARNING ABOUT HEALTHY NUTRITION WAS KEY

As a theater teacher at Earl Warren High School, 31-year-old Mandy Muniz is a very busy person. With six shows a year to produce, she often has days that stretch into the night, what with rehearsals, costumes, set building, performances and a myriad of little things that must be taken care of in mounting a drama production. “I direct all the plays,” says Muniz. “It’s a lot of work, and that’s part of the reason I got fat.” Looking at the slim, blond young woman that she is now, it’s hard to imagine that she’s ever been overweight, let alone fat, but she has pictures to prove it. Focused on work for years, Muniz says she ate “whatever was convenient,” often late at night. Her weight kept creeping up, but she didn’t really know what to do about it. Even when she managed to lose 20 or 30 pounds on a particular diet, she would invariably regain it after returning to her usual ways. “Once I got married, it got worse,” she explains. “My husband liked steaks, tortillas, barbacoa and lots of stuff with starches and fat, so I found myself eating that as well. Gradually I got bigger and bigger.” She was size 18 in 1999. By 2005, the 5-foot-5-inch teacher was tipping the scales at 294 pounds while shopping for sizes 24 or 25. Her back started to bother her, and she could not physically demonstrate to her students the moves she wanted them to do. Without openly criticizing her, her husband would occasionally hint that maybe she had become too big, which would only reduce her to tears. What finally pushed her to look for change was seeing herself on tape in a student’s film project.

It was one of those horrifying moments when you realize that the fat lady in the picture is you. Three of her male colleagues who had slimmed down with the help of bariatric surgery urged her to do the same. But Muniz opted to give lifestyle changes another try. This time, she knew she needed outside help. With trepidation, she called the nearest LA Weight Loss Center. “The first thing they asked was, ‘How much do you want to lose?’ I said 100, even though I really needed to lose more than that,” recalls Muniz. “I thought they would laugh at me and send me to a surgeon, but they didn’t flinch. Instead, they said, ‘Come on in, let’s get started.'”
At the center, counselors taught her about nutrition, healthful grocery shopping and portion control. They also devised a customized food plan that would allow her to lose weight without being hungry. Muniz learned to shop and cook right — whole grains, lean protein, fruits and vegetables. “Convenience” foods and late night binges went out the window. To her delight, four pounds came off that very first week. Then as the weeks and months passed and more pounds melted away — 3.2 a week, on the average — the plan was adjusted to fit her slimmer frame. Now, 18 months later, Muniz weighs a mere 124 pounds. She still visits the center once a week to be weighed and measured and for a little support chat. In terms of inches, her “loss” comes to 71 1/2 inches. “That’s a whole other me!” she exclaims as if still surprised by her transformation. Slim and pretty as she is, Muniz nevertheless catches herself going to the big-sizes side of clothing racks while shopping.

Not long ago, however, she experienced a moment of emotional epiphany while she was trying on a pair of size 6 jeans at The Gap. The pants seemed to swallow her. “I’ll get you a 4,” the salesperson said casually. But there was nothing casual about it for Muniz. She called her mother and cried: “You won’t believe it, I am buying size 4 jeans!” In the last six months, Muniz has also incorporated regular exercise into her health regimen. In the morning, before she heads to school, she spends one hour on her stationary bike, then watches and follows her favorite TV workout gurus. Whenever she can, she also suggests alternative ways to spend leisure time with her nearest and dearest that do not include food — a walk in the park with her hubby, for instance, or a manicure with girl friends. What she wasn’t prepared for are the comments people make. Now that they feel she is out of the woods, friends say things like “I was so worried about your health.” Or “Your skin looks so good now.” “Just because I lost weight shouldn’t give people the right to comment on my life,” she protests.

Still, it’s not a big deal. Life is definitely more fun nowadays. Her remarkable success led to a write-up in People magazine, followed by a trip to New York City to be interviewed on TV. She also went to Florida to shoot a comcommercial for LA Weight Loss Centers. But most importantly, she now knows how to take care of herself. “When you give your car premium gas, it runs smoothly,” she says. “Living my life this healthy way is giving my body premium gasoline.”

SHE FELL IN LOVE WITH JAZZERCISE

It was New Year’s Day 2001 when a cousin talked Roni Stach into attending a Jazzercise class at a studio on Babcock Road. It’s free, the cousin said, and you need to take time for yourself occasionally. Stach was a busy mom of a boy with muscular dystrophy, and she needed strength and agility to lift him and generally help him physically. But, sadly, at 310 pounds, she was hardly able to do much at all. In that first class she couldn’t do much either, but she liked the experience enough to plunk down her Christmas bonus for six months’ worth of future classes. Like her cousin said, it was her own private time, away from food and pressure. So she never stopped.

Today, it’s Stach who is the smartly turned out lady on the

podium, belting out instructions to the perspiring students on the floor while driving music blasts away from the speakers. She can jump, kick and twirl like she’s been doing this her whole life. And she has added another class to her repertoire: Commando Babes, a group weight-training and bodysculpting session. “I was borderline diabetic six years ago, had high cholesterol and blood pressure. Now all of those are normal,” says Stach. “There are women of all sizes in my classes, and what I preach to them is this: Take time for yourself by exercising. You have to find an activity you have fun doing to prevent boredom. If you don’t take care of yourself and keep strong, you won’t be able to take care of others either.” At 44, the 5-foot-8 1/2-inch Stach, who works part time as a school counselor’s assistant, now weighs 165 pounds and looks even slimmer. That’s because of all the muscles that have replaced the fat, she explains. Muscle tissue looks lean. Unlike Muniz, who achieved her big initial weight drop by following a meal plan, Stach watched her first 75 pounds slip away in a year solely because of exercise.

But then she hit that proverbial plateau, which forced her to re-examine her eating habits, as well. Sauces, gravies and white flour were eliminated, portions downsized and dessert became something to share with others. As a child she always ate “more than the norm” she says, but now she eats just enough to maintain her energy. “Strangers treat me differently now,” says Stach. “But it could be that my selfesteem is better, so it seems to me that strangers treat me better. All I know is that I feel good about myself. Before, I didn’t want to get out of the house. Now I am the choir director at my church, in additio to teaching Jazzercise. I like going to the theater, and I can travel without worrying whether I am going to fit into an (airplane) seat. When my son was appointed Texas Goodwill Ambassador by the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Association, I could go with him to Los Angeles.” Her advice to women embarking on a slimming journey is to pay less attention to the scale and more to the clothes. Clothes can talk. As they start to fit better, you’ll know you are on the right track. When they get too big? Bingo! You are winning.

Perhaps the sweetest moment in her own journey came when she realized her jeans were smaller than her husband’s. “I’ve always been bigger than my husband. I was 200 pounds on my wedding day,” says Stach. “One day he was sorting the laundry and tried on a pair of jeans and was surprised that they were too small. ‘Whose pants are these?’ he asked. He was actually confused. And I said, ‘Those are mine!’ That was so cool.”

SOMETIMES SURGERY IS THE ANSWER

As a teen, Terry Hepworth dreamed of learning to fly. Her pilot father had promised to teach her, but after her parents divorced, Dad moved away. Hepworth married young and had a daughter at 18. A self-described chubby kid, she gained a lot of weight in that pregnancy and kept 40 pounds of it after the baby was born. Soon, flying was no longer even a remote possibility. But with determination and discipline even forgotten dreams can come true. On her office wall at the Air Force Services Agency, where she is an administrative assistant to the commander, hangs a framed certificate marking her first solo flight, in October 2006. Though she is keeping her day job, flying has become an incredible thrill and confidence booster. “I was talking to myself during that solo flight: ‘You are flying an airplane all by yourself. How cool is that?'” she recalls with evident pleasure. “You get a rush every time you lift off; it’s a raw emotion, a really good feeling.”

But getting to this point was not easy. Before she could even contemplate flying lessons, Hepworth had to face a huge obstacle — her weight. After a lifetime of turning to food for comfort and consolation, in January 2005 she was sitting in her endocrinologist’s office when the latter made a stern pronouncement: “If you don’t do something drastic, you’ll die within five years.” Ouch! That was a hard blow to absorb. Hepworth was only 49, but she was carrying 297 pounds on her 5-foot-5-inch frame. Even though she knew she was heavy, she would tell herself that “as long as my boobs stick out further than my stomach, I am not too fat.” Still, she had been on insulin for 10 years; she suffered from constant fatigue and sleep apnea; her blood pressure was high; and she had liver problems. Denial went only so far. Reluctantly, Hepworth decided to follow the endocrinologist’s advice and submit to bariatric surgery. Though there are several surgical options, her surgeon, Dr. Mickey Seger of New Dimensions Weight Loss Surgery, decided to perform the gastric bypass, which creates a very small pouch out of a part of the patient’s stomach. This tiny new stomach is then directly linked to the small intestine, bypassing the bulk of the original stomach.

“Terry was very sick, with a number of medical problems that needed to be corrected quickly,” says the doctor. “With the gastric bypass you lose the weight rapidly, and some problems resolve right away before the patient leaves the hospital. Insulin requirements, for instance, drop dramatically. That’s partially because of the initial post-operative diet (very little food), but there are also changes in hormone balances that make the body work better.” The operation is probably the only viable solution for people who just can’t get out of their rut, especially diabetics, says Seger. Medications only control blood sugar, while the surgery removes the problem by drastically impacting food intake. Following the operation, the patient feels full after just a few bites. What’s more, the section of the intestine that the pouch is connected to — the jejunum — doesn’t tolerate sugar or fatty foods, causing the patient to become ill if such foods are consumed. Hepworth has experienced that effect. “I tried to eat sweets twice after the surgery and got very sick, with nausea, palpitations and vomiting, so there’s that negative reinforcement,” she says. “It feels so bad you are not going to do it again. Now, two years after surgery, I can eat part of a brownie but no more than that. My pouch has gotten a little larger over time, and it can hold about 3 to 5 ounces of food. But if I eat too much, it feels like I have a brick under my chest.”

Because the pouch is so small, it’s important not to waste space on junk food. So she begins every meal with solid protein foods and adds others — mostly vegetables — as space permits. Like other bypass patients, Hepworth must take a number of supplements, such as B12 vitamins, calcium, iron and others, for the rest of her life. In addition, she sips water pretty much all day long to stay hydrated. It took 15 months following surgery for the extra pounds to melt down to the present 153. Though not model-svelte, this grandmother of two can now cross her legs like most people. She can also play with her granddaughters and exercise several times a week. Even better, insulin and blood pressure medications are history. There are still some concerns about her liver, but that, too, looks promising. One unpleasant consequence of the weight loss is loose skin on the upper arms, the belly and other places, but, she says, she will worry about that later. More seriously, this past January, an emergency surgery was required to repair an intestinal hernia indirectly caused by the gastric bypass. No matter. “The bypass saved my life,” she says. “But it’s not a magic bullet. If you don’t follow the rules (of how to eat), you can start regaining. You have to be vigilant. I get on the scale every morning. I try to stay within a 5-pound range (of weight change).” Besides, she must stay in good shape to continue flying. A great motivator!

WITH GOD’S HELP

Her name is Kelly, she is 37, good-looking and highly educated, but she doesn’t want us to use her last name or photograph her face. Not that she has anything to hide. She is just following the policy of Overeaters Anonymous (OA), the organization that finally helped her win the battle of the bulge after years of struggling, dieting and being miserable. Although she knew all the facts about nutrition and healthy living, Kelly seemed unable to control her food addiction. Every small weight loss was soon followed by another gain. If she bought a bag of chocolates, she could never stop at one or two. Same with ice cream; she would polish off the container before going to bed. As is often the case, Kelly’s weight problems started in childhood. Having come from modest backgrounds, her parents liked to indulge in food once they could afford it, she says. Upon graduation from high school, the 5-foot-3 1/2-inch Kelly tipped the scale at 190 pounds. Some years later, stressed by the demands of graduate school, work and a troublesome relationship, she ballooned to 287 pounds. “I realized my weight was not going to stop there. It was only going to get worse,” recalls Kelly, now a trim 150 pounds. “I began to feel hopeless. When someone brought up the possibility of surgery, I knew that was not for me. I remember saying to my mother, ‘Mom, it doesn’t matter what I do. Until I fix something between my heart and my head, the weight will come back.'” She credits OA for helping her to do just that. From the first meeting she attended, Kelly knew she had come to the right place. Group members related similar stories of bad habits that they were powerless to change. It sounded all too familiar. Based on its own 12-step program, the OA method works because “it’s not a diet and calorie-counting club,” says Kelly. According to the organization’s Web site, “the OA program offers physical, emotional and spiritual recovery for those who suffer from compulsive overeating.”

As in AA, the first step involves admitting that one has a problem. The second is to recognize that “a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” From there on, the steps require a serious degree of self-examination, followed by transformative action, all with the help of prayer and the support of the group. (No particular religion is endorsed.) Each new member works with “a sponsor” who assists him/her with this process and can be called upon whenever needed. “My sponsor recommended a food plan for me and asked me to write down everything I ate and report to her,” recalls Kelly. “Then she recommended that I pray. That was tricky for me because I was an atheist at the time. But I did it. I figured I would learn how to do this as I went along.” In 10 months, Kelly lost 70 pounds. After 2 1/2 years, she reached her present weight. During that time she also faced some of her inner demons that were responsible for her overeating. One such “demon” was her inability to appreciate what she had. “I always wanted more, but I didn’t know how to go about getting what I wanted,” admits Kelly. “I was neither patient nor disciplined enough to learn. I just wanted those things, including a slimmer body. But I wanted a quick fix.” The thorough self-examination process has given her the discipline, persistence and thought control that she did not have before. “When I finish eating, I always want more,” she explains, “but I say to myself, it was enough yesterday, it will be enough today, too. Invariably, in 10 to 15 minutes I feel fine.” If she needs extra talking to, her sponsor or other group members are only a phone call away.

Today, Kelly avoids not only ice cream but all sugar, flour or processed carbohydrates. Her former mood swings are gone. And best of all, her formerly erratic periods have normalized. To maintain her new figure, she hops on her stationary bike at home for a 30- to 40-minute workout three times a week.

Happily married for a year now, she has no intention of stopping going to OA meetings. “People ask me all the time what is my secret,” she says, smiling. “My secret is that I go to OA and I ask God to help me. I know how deceptive my mind can be when it wants food. I don’t trust myself enough. I enjoy the people at the meetings, and I am on a spiritual journey.”

Author: Jasmina Wellinghoff

Photographer: Liz Garza Williams