Weight-loss lessons learned the hard way

  • Kelly Coffey works out at her home in Northampton.

  • Coffey works out on the rings. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kelly Coffey works out at her home in Northampton, Tuesday. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kelly Coffey works out at her home in Northampton, Tuesday. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • At far left, Kelly Coffey before she was able to get her weight under control.

Staff Writer
Published: 8/16/2016 12:09:50 AM

Nearly every day Kelly Coffey, 36, of Northampton works fast as she lifts the heaviest weights she can handle, not counting the reps until she brings herself to failure — unable to move another weight.

That’s after meeting at 6 a.m. in her home gym each morning with clients she coaches through their workouts.

She is toned, healthy and beams with confidence. You would never know that just over a decade ago, at age 23, she was obese and in despair.

At 5-feet, 7-inches tall, Coffey weighed over 300 pounds and after having tried every diet she could find, she had turned to gastric bypass surgery — a sectioning off of her stomach to restrict her intake of food.

Battling weight had been a life-long struggle; she attended her first Weight Watchers class at age 5. Diabetes had crept up on her and her blood pressure was high for her age. She had to do something.

At first the surgery helped her shed 160 pounds within the first two years. But she learned soon enough that working on the mind is as important as focusing on the body when it comes to weight loss. She hadn’t changed bad eating habits and the weight started creeping back.

“Today I know that I didn’t have a problem with portion size any more than an alcoholic has a problem with glass size,” she said. “I have an addiction. I can’t eat certain foods in moderation.”

Slipping backward

Coffey was eventually back to her old ways, often eating a scone for breakfast, followed by a muffin for a snack. At lunchtime she would often stop in at McDonald’s. The day was punctuated with trips to eat pastries from local coffee shops, until dinner rolled around. For that meal, pizza was a typical choice.

It all came to a head one night. After hours of  non-stop eating she passed out. When she awoke, she was in pain but all she wanted to do was eat more.

“It was the perfect storm of being out of control and miserable.”

It was then, she says, that she finally saw the light.

“I stopped focusing on my weight, and started focusing on what decision I could make in each moment in service to my health — mental and physical. Everything about how I treated myself and my body began to change.”

She started going to a gym every day, where she would work up a sweat weightlifting. She had coffee and water for breakfast. At lunch she swapped fast food for big salads and meats. She focused on eating vegetables and protein.

“It was a huge adjustment … but once I felt the benefit of making the shift, it became such a gift that I would bend over backward not to lose it,” she said.

She found that by eliminating flour and sugar from her diet, she was not hungry between meals. She felt less bloated. 

“I woke up with more energy. I had better energy all day long, I was more alert and sharp. ... The weight I had gained very naturally came off.”

Surgery means change

While it didn’t work for her, the gastric bypass surgery that Coffey had is sometimes the only choice for those whose obesity and inability to lose weight has created life-threatening health conditions such as heart or lung problems. The surgery can help get patients’ diabetes under control and lower blood pressure, said Dr. John Romanelli, medical director of weight-loss surgery at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield.

“At the end of the day I don’t care about how much a patient weighs. It’s not about the cosmetics, it’s about helping them be healthier,” he said.

But it means a lifetime of compensating with significant lifestyle changes.

The surgery decreases the size of the stomach by sectioning off an upper pouch, so that the patient feels full with less food, says Romanelli. But to maintain weight loss, patients must commit to lifelong vigilance.

“The operation doesn’t lose a pound for you, you lose the pound for you and that is done with a healthy diet, with behavioral change, and regular calorie-burning exercise,” Romanelli said.

“Most morbidly obese people don’t know how to burn calories — walking to the end of the driveway is not exercise,” he said.

It is hard to know just how successful weight-loss surgery is because many of the patients do not follow up with their doctors, according to Romanelli. But about a third of the people who have it done will gain a substantial amount of the weight back, he said.

A physical disadvantage?

For obese people, changes in metabolism that come with weight loss may be making it harder to keep the pounds off.

In May, metabolic scientist Kevin Hall of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive Kidney Diseases published the results of a study he did on contestants of NBC’s reality show “The Biggest Loser,” who had lost a large amount of weight, but failed to keep it off after six years. The show is a competition among obese contestants who, under the guidance of trainers, compete to see who can shed the most pounds.

Hall’s study found that most of one season’s 16 contestants had regained much if not all of the weight they lost. One man, who had lost over 200 pounds, put over 100 pounds back on.

After drastic weight loss, a person’s metabolism typically slows down dramatically, Hall said, and that individual must consume hundreds of calories fewer each day than people of a comparable size to stay in good shape. While that was expected, what surprised the researchers was that the metabolism rates did not eventually return to normal, making it less likely that the contestants could keep the weight off.

While the study drew attention, the sample size was small and Romanelli, for one, believes a patient’s metabolism will normalize once he or she has achieved a normal weight. The individual can keep the pounds off, he says, but it takes work.

“Or as I like to tell them, ‘Welcome to my world: you keep weight off with diet and exercise.’”

Romanelli said since the “Biggest Loser” contestants received no help in maintaining a good diet and exercise regimen once the show ended, it is not surprising that many of them failed to keep their weight down.

And then there are psychological components.

About 25 percent of patients who seek help at the Pioneer Valley Weight and Wellness Centers in Springfield have had some form of weight loss surgery and have started to regain the pounds they lost, said Dr. Christopher Keroack, a bariatric specialist and the medical director at the center.

He said he tries to help them identify underlying issues that might be contributing to the problem: “What’s going on with your sleep, what’s going on with your movement, what is going on with your relationships?” Keroack said he asks them.

‘Addictive tendencies’

For Coffey, it was what she calls “addictive tendencies.”

In the days before surgery she said she went on a wild eating binge. “I was going to have to break up with my longest relationship,” she said.  “I was going to get as much in me as I could while I still could.”

But she didn’t break up with those sweets and fast foods once she left the hospital.

Her stomach was now about the size of an egg. “I was told to stop eating before I felt pain. I rarely did that,” she said.

Her addiction to sugary foods was so strong, she said, that even post surgery when those foods made her sick, she continued to eat them.

The sugar would send her into cold sweats and give her stomach spasms but she would eat through the pain — until the night she stuffed herself until she passed out.

“It took a long time to come to terms with the fact that I had addictive tendencies, not just with certain foods, but with just about anything that could quickly change the channel in my head,” she said.

She started cooking more at home and eliminating sugary and processed foods from her diet. And she stopped smoking and drinking alcohol to excess.

Instead, she began heading to the gym. Lifting heavy weights, meditating and creative writing became her new coping tools.

Therapy helped, too, she says, but that was just a small piece of the solution.

Applying lessons

Coffey felt so strongly about what she’d learned about herself that she started a blog, “Reality-Based Wellness,” which aims to help other women struggling the way she did. In 2007, she became a certified personal trainer through the American College of Sports Medicine and she also teaches a free online workshop to coach women on how not to sabotage themselves with food. 

She believes the contestants from “The Biggest Loser” failed to keep weight off simply because they were no longer in a controlled environment and their psychological issues with food were not addressed.

She also has learned that surgery is no easy fix.

“Healthy, sustainable weight loss is the result of much more than just a caloric deficit; it’s the result of a lifetime commitment to make the healthiest, most caring choice we are capable of making, and of honoring that commitment one day, one moment, one bite, and one breath at a time,” she said.

She doesn’t know how much she weighs now because part of her recovery is never getting on the scale.

But where she once wore size 28 she can fit comfortably into size 6 jeans, she says. 

Coffey, who is married and has two daughters, ages 3 and 5, says she continues to work at making the decisions that keep her healthy. Balancing the stresses of work and home life, she is staying in shape with her daily workouts. She doesn’t eat for convenience, doesn’t stay up late, she and makes sure to to spend time with people who also treat themselves kindly, she says.  

“If I tried to coast, or tried to pretend that I’m not who I am, I’d gain the weight back in a matter of months,” she said. “…I’ve spent over 10 years getting genuinely well. I’m still the woman I used to be, but I’ve developed the skill of making stronger, more caring choices.”

Kelly Coffey’s blog can be found at www.strong

Lisa Spear can be reached at lspear@gazettenet.com.

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