Every day—on TV and in magazines, from our friends and coworkers—we’re inundated with conflicting messages about weight loss. If you want to lose a few pounds, it can be difficult to know where to start. Should you take a stab at that juice cleanse your BFF has been raving about, or should you go low-carb like your sister suggests?
To get real answers, we picked the brains of seven real women, all of whom lost substantial amounts of weight through tried-and-true, healthy methods (read: no starvation or gimmicks). Although each woman tackled her weight loss with a slightly different approach, there were some common threads throughout. The best way to lose weight, it seems, is relatively straightforward, a combination of sensible eating, physical activity, and a heckuva lotta willpower.
Need some inspiration to drop those lbs? Steal these women’s no-nonsense secrets for weight loss salvation.
Shannon Cooper, 35, Minneapolis, MN
Weight Loss: 125 pounds
One day shortly after her wedding, Shannon stepped onto her bathroom scale and was shocked by the number staring back at her: 308 pounds. “At that point, it feels like you’re too far gone,” Shannon remembers. “It’s difficult to even think about being at a healthy weight.”
Losing 125 pounds seemed unfathomable, so she started small. “I started with 25 pounds,” she says.
Shannon, who had barely ever stepped foot into a gym, joined her local YMCA and eventually hired a trainer for some guidance. “It was helpful to have someone teach me how to do it,” she says. She lifted weights three hours a week and did cardio two to three hours a week.
In addition to exercising, Shannon logged everything she ate via MyFitnessPal. “I made changes I could stick with,” she says. She focused on consuming whole, nutrient-dense foods and upping her protein intake.
Still, though, she won’t say no to the occasional dessert. “I always have room for treats,” she says. “If you don’t incorporate treats into your eating plan, you’re setting yourself up for failure.”
At the end of the day, the desire to lose weight has to stem from self-love, not hate, she says. “It’s easy to hate your body when you’re overweight,” Shannon says. “But at a certain point, that hate gets in the way of your goals. Your body is not your enemy. It is never going to be perfect. You have to accept the body you have and sculpt it.”
Jennifer Espinosa-Goswami, 36, Minneapolis, MN
Weight Loss: 100 pounds
“I was always a fat kid,” says Jennifer Espinosa-Goswami, a Minneapolis-based consultant. “I was never able to shop for average size clothes. I wore plus sizes.”
When she was a senior in college, Jennifer’s beloved grandmother passed away. “She was the matriarch in our family,” says Jennifer, who weighed 265 pounds at her heaviest. “She was very active. Everyone loved her. She was a very positive person. I realized that if I continued living like I was living, I would not make it to 88. I was not treating myself well.”
Jennifer began keeping a food journal and tried to stay below 2,000 calories. “I wrote down everything I ate for one month to become more conscious of what I was eating,” she says.
Jennifer’s second piece of advice? Don’t drink your calories. Soda and other sweetened beverages can really make a dent in your diet—stick to plain-old water. “Drink a glass of water before and after to eat to fill up,” she suggests.
Recently, Jennifer made the decision to go vegetarian. “It’s been challenging,” she says. “I’ve gone from a girl who told her parents she would never eat vegetables again to eating vegetables at every meal.”
“You have to take time for yourself,” says Jennifer, who chroncicles her weight loss journey on her website, Weightless Chronicles. “Too many people wait until the last minute to take care of themselves. There’s no reason to do that.”
Joan Gunter, 53, Olathe, KS
Weight Loss:42 pounds
When she joined Weight Watchers, Joan Gunter weighed 174 pounds—four pounds lighter than her heaviest weight of 178 pounds. “Everyone loses weight before joining Weight Watchers,” she says. “It’s a typical response.”
Joan’s father died in 1997. For years, she had watched him suffer from a number of weight-related health challenges, including high blood pressure, five bypass surgeries, diabetes and a blocked carotid artery. Joan says that this experience was her wake-up that she needed to change her unhealthy ways before it was too late.
She joined Weight Watchers eight times over an 11-year period. The first seven times, she would never stay for a meeting. “I didn’t want to admit I was out of control,” says Gunter. “I always have everything under control.” The eighth time was the charm.
Weight Watchers focuses on whole foods. “It’s not about will power, it’s about want power,” Joan says. “It’s hard work,” she adds. “That’s why group support really works. Everyone is there to support each other. We all have issues. We’re all in this together.”
Weight loss doesn’t happen immediately, Joan says; it requires serious lifestyle changes. In order to lose weight, you have to eat the right food, exercise and change your behavior. “It’s not going to happen overnight,” said Gunter. “There are ups and downs, and you have to learn to adapt. You have to ask yourself how bad do you really want this. The answer will tell you. You have to have a goal; you can’t just say you want to lose weight.”
Donna Hollars, 49, Mt. Pleasant, SC
Weight Loss: 75 pounds
Donna Hollars was reading the newspaper when her eye caught the name Noah Moore, who had decided to get healthy after his son was born nine years ago. “He was in the paper because his little boy had died,” she said. “It broke me in so many places. I looked at myself in the mirror and thought about what if I lost my nine-year-old daughter.”
At the time, she weighed 212 pounds. “I had never been this size,” Donna says. “I’ve always hovered in the healthier range.” The weight had crept up on her slowly over the years. “It was easy to overlook a pound or two.” After she read Moore’s story, she made the commitment to lose weight.
“My first goal weight was 150 pounds,” Donna remembers. “I didn’t know what 150 pounds looked like.” She started on June 2, 1013 and by December 31 had lost 65 pounds. She now weighs 137 pounds. “It’s still a journey,” she says. “But I don’t worry about the number anymore.”
Donna started running and eating healthier. Running is her sanity. She did her first 5K run to support ending childhood obesity. Noah has been a continual source of inspiration for herself and her child. “I want to meet him and shake his hand.”
She recommends taking front and side pictures of yourself and using a belt or measuring tape to take your measurements and then writing them down. “I weigh myself every day,” she says. “If I notice a fluctuation on the scales, I look back at my food journal and that tells me why. I learned my body’s nuances.”
“You have to find something that works for you and dedicate yourself to it,” adds Donna. “What works for me may not work for someone else. I found something that works.” She eats more protein and consumes her carbs before 2 p.m. and doesn’t count calories.
What motivates her is knowing that what she was doing is having a positive effect on more than just her. “I want to be my daughter’s role model,” Donna says.
Stacy Kresic, 44, Concord, OH
Weight Loss: 80 pounds
Nine years ago, Stacy Kresic was at her heaviest weight: 221 pounds. “I’ve always been heavy,” Stacy says. “I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t overweight. I didn’t feel comfortable with myself.”
There was constant inspiration to change. “It was a constant struggle,” she says. In an attempt to lose weight, she wouldn’t eat anything all day and then would have a candy bar because it was low in calories. “I was always miserable.”
After trying everything in a bid to lose weight, Stacy grew discouraged and ultimately threw in the towel. “It seemed like an unwinnable battle,” she said.
She was eating whatever she wanted and was gaining one pound every two weeks when she heard a commercial about the Atkins diet. “It was completely different. The science was interesting.”
She thought it was worth a try. “I loved it,” said Kresic. “I felt so good. It was such a healthy thing. It was a great feeling once I started.”
She lost five pounds in the first two weeks. Within a year, she had lost 80 pounds. “I always adhere to it,” she said. “It has become a solution in my life. I can enjoy life without thinking about what I’m going to eat next.”
Kresic advises women to find a plan that works within their lifestyle and commit to it.
“I found the right way to eat that is so much healthier,” said Kresic. “It’s been a momentous life change.”
Donna Parry, 59, Arlington, VA
Weight Loss: 53 pounds
When Donna Parry looks back on old photos of herself, she sees she a “chubby girl” as far back as early grade school. “I’m 5’11”. I wasn’t overweight, per se,” she says. “I was just a big kid.”
When she retired from the Air Force in 1999, she weighed between 185 and 190 pounds. She started gaining weight slowly gaining weight every decade. “Every year, I gained five pounds,” she says.
One day, while watching a Sunday morning news show, Donna heard about Duke Diet & Fitness Center. She was immediately intrigued. “It stuck in my mind,” she says.
She attended the program in July 2012 and lost 18 or 19 pounds. “It’s a common-sense approach to weight loss,” Donna says. “It’s slow and achievable.”
While at Duke, Donna learned the importance of counting calories. “You go for a month and you’re immersed in it.” Participants are placed on a 2,000 calorie diet and get to choose what they want to eat. “It’s good food,” she said. “It’s filling. I never felt hungry.”
She stayed on the Duke program and watched what she ate. By January 2013, she was down to 190 pounds.
To this day, Donna still writes down everything she eats and aims to consume between 2,000 and 2,500 calories a day. There is no magic bullet for weight loss, she says. It takes the old fashioned way: calories in, calories out.
“You owe it to yourself,” Donna says. “Don’t give up. There are no quick fixes.”
Legna Ralat, 35, Springfield, IL
Weight Loss: 85 pounds
As a kid, Legna Ralat’s favorite food was salad. “My mom could make any salad taste good,” she says. Throughout high school, she weighed an average of 155 pounds.
It wasn’t until after the birth of her third child that she started gaining weight until she reached 210 pounds. One day her daughter asked her, “Mom, why don’t you look like other moms?” “It really stuck with me,” says Legna, who wanted to find something that would make her daughter proud of her.
She had always wanted to compete in fitness shows. “I would look at these women and think I want to do that someday,” says Legna. After her first daughter was born, she set a goal of competing in her first fitness show before she turned 35. In 2013, she did her first fitness show and earned her pro card. “It was my childhood dream,” she said. “It was a major accomplishment.”
The journey to that end has not been easy. She was diagnosed with hypoglycemia. “My doctor told me I needed to lose weight,” Legna says. “I was tired of being depressed and carrying this weight.” She changed her diet. Because of her hypoglycemia, she was doing needle sticks before every meal. “I would eat every three hours.” She cut out fast food and stopped eating out and starting eating clean. She ate a protein and a vegetable at every meal.
In 2007, a friend told Legna about Gold’s Gym. She started going to the gym three times a day. “I was determined to take off the weight,” says Legna, who had lifted weights and ran track in high school. “I applied the stuff I did in high school.”
It stuck. Now, Legna says, “The gym is my drug.”
“You have to do it for yourself,” she adds. “Your body is the only thing you have control of. You deserve it.”
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