When Losing Weight Feels Insurmountable

Four people found health and emotional reasons to try again.

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on September 17, 2008
From the WebMD Archives

The sacrifice. The endless exercise. Stepping onto a scale with trepidation and fear as each ounce is fought off with anticipation. It’s not easy to lose even 15 pounds.

But for people whose weight pushes the scales 50, 75, or 100 pounds past their healthy weight, losing weight presents stakes much larger than simple vanity. Both physical and mental health can be compromised as a result of obesity. And attempting to remedy this condition presents bigger challenges than skipping a cheeseburger at lunch.

According to the 2008 report, "F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies Are Failing in America," from the Trust for America's Health, obesity rates have doubled in the U.S. -- from 15% to 30% -- since 1980. The resulting health concerns are cause for alarm:

  • Nearly 24 million Americans now have diabetes, and another 57 million have pre-diabetes.
  • One in four Americans has heart disease. One in three has high blood pressure.
  • Obesity and overweight conditions contribute to more than 20 chronic diseases, including various cancers, arthritis, and even Alzheimer's disease.

The report highlights many critical factors that lead to obesity and resulting health issues. These include genetics, metabolism, eating excessively to deal with stress, and working long hours, which often leads to high-calorie meals.

"Food is comforting, entertaining and relieves boredom," says Lee Kern, clinical director at Structure House, a residential weight-loss facility in Durham, N.C. "We don't usually use the word addiction per se, but compulsive eaters make many non-nutritional uses of food that are very psychologically based. It impinges their health, mobility and esteem."

In addition to declining health, obesity often leads people to isolate themselves. They may block the outside world if shame and depression take hold of their psyche. Such an emotional decline only increases the physical risks associated with obesity: high blood pressure, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.

For many people struggling with weight loss that feels insurmountable, a turning point occurs. The following individuals -- who each faced health, emotional or psychological hurdles that made weight loss a necessity -- reconciled their fears. They turned unhealthy, challenging lives into stories that inspire.

Dan Wehr: Losing Weight to Ease Pain

Decades of climbing stairwells as an elevator repairman had decimated Dan Wehr's hip.

Not only had his hip joint worn down, but years of unhealthy eating habits and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle had also wrecked havoc on the rest of his body. At almost 300 pounds, he began suffering from sleep apnea and low energy levels -- which he unsuccessfully attempted to remedy by eating more. Sleeping would take up almost 14 hours of his day. He felt his life was turning into a listless experience.

He was in pain, and his body and health continued to decline. This was not that energetic man who once took pride in his appearance and went dancing several times a week.

"It was too difficult to move," says Wehr, 47, who lives outside of Chicago. "Everyone thinks you're a lazy slug, and you become that. I finally was fed up."

Faced with undergoing surgery for hip resurfacing in July 2007, Wehr saw an opportunity to not only fight off the excess pounds, but to also reclaim his vitality.

While recovering from the surgery and training himself to walk again, Wehr committed himself to a new lifestyle that focused on exercise and eating foods that would help him to thrive. Within four weeks, he was able to walk without any assistance or aid. His focus only sharpened as his recovery continued.

He joined a local gym and began pounding the weights. He started swimming to burn calories. He cut his meal portions and replaced sugar and candy with fruit and oatmeal. Before long, his 46-inch waist began shrinking, and his physique morphed from "a pyramid into a V," he says.

Within a year, Wehr’s nearly 300-pound frame shrank to 245 pounds. His confidence -- and health -- began to soar.

"It's made such a difference in my life," he says. "I feel absolutely terrific about myself."

The sleep apnea has all but disappeared and Wehr is now filled with energy, sleeping only half of what he once did. His new weight of 245 pounds is somewhat deceptive, he says, as he's gone from sporting flab to showcasing slabs of muscle.

"I've lost tons of inches," he says, noting that he can now lift 275 pounds on an incline bench press. "My chest has caught up with my belly, which has gone down considerably. Nothing jiggles any more. I'm as strong as a bull."

Friends and family are astonished at the transformation he has undergone physically and mentally. To add to his accomplishments, his prowess in the pool attracted the attention of the local swim team, which extended an invitation to join.

The transformation has been far more than physical: it's reignited passions he thought had faded. Now, you couldn't tear away his attitude.

"It's given me back a life," Wehr says. "My determination and pride in myself is only going to grow from here. There’s no way I'm going back to the way I was. No way."

Lisa Lewis: Losing Weight for Her Heart

Weight was a psychological tattoo that Lisa Lewis couldn't erase. The mirror reflected a heavy and unhappy person and that visual became her own definition of who she was.

"I’ve pretty much been overweight my entire adult life," says Lewis, 45, of Sausalito, Calif. "I was emotionally distraught, and it took up so much of my energy, beating myself up. I was miserable."

At one point, she tipped the scale at 200 pounds. Yo-yo dieting through the years had shaved off weight here and there but it never seemed to last.

When she began experiencing chest pains, she realized her health was as much at risk as her emotions were.

"I was always a happy person but inside I was cringing and dying," she says. "That was what my life was like. It was really tough."

Her struggle reached a boiling point, and she decided to "get really honest about why I hated my life," she says.

So she had a "frank talk" with herself. "You're fat," Lewis says she bluntly told herself.

That conversation, along with a program focusing on healthy food choices, gave her the courage to reinvent herself, shedding the weight that had forced her down psychologically and physically for so long.

Today, she proudly struts at a lean 135 pounds, boasting a six-dress size and a mountain of confidence.

"I'm loud, boisterous, and full of energy," Lewis says. "I'm an inspiration to people. My heart and spirit came out."

Her efforts began in April 2007. Armed with a program called Isogenics -- which focuses on nutritionally satisfying food sources -- along with a commitment to exercise, the pounds began melting as her esteem rose.

She began walking three to five miles, four to six times a week. Soon, her pace quickened and walking became running. As her weight began to drop, she was able to view with clarity the reasons she overate and the additional damages that resulted.

"Emotional eating was my big thing," she says, noting that her attitude and damaged esteem prevented her from finding successful personal relationships. "Being on the other side of fat is a miserable revelation of being ‘over there.’ It's just not fun."

There were other benefits to Lewis’s weight loss. Her new body and attitude required a new wardrobe. That quest has also become a joy of self-discovery.

"Now I get a small shirt and size six pants, and they consistently fit me," she says. "I'm really tapping into my femininity. When I was fat, I felt gross. Now, I get to go into all my favorite stores and shop like a woman."

When she attended a family wedding following her transformation, jaws dropped at her new appearance, and family and friends sought out the secret of her success. And the evolution continues.

The one-time accountant has now given up bookkeeping to become a nutritionist and is currently working on a book that details the weight loss struggle.

The proverbial cocoon has apparently been shed -- permanently.

"People become complacent, and we begin to lose our desire to make any changes," Lewis says. "I touched into the truth about what I wanted in life. Dig, dig, dig until you find out what you want to be in life."

"Everybody's life can be transformed."

John Barragan: Improving Sleep and Attitude Through Weight Loss

The fragility of life can often result in moments of clarity.

San Diego resident John Barragan felt his world tightening around him. Like so many others, he had been active in his youth but became more sedentary with age. The couch became his respite and food his destructive comfort.

Once an athlete, Barragan weighed nearly 300 pounds, and his health was suffering. First he developed sleep apnea and needed a device to safely rest. Then he required hospitalization for a heart arrhythmia. His family history started to really worry him. His father passed away after a heart attack in 2006, and diabetes was also common in his family.

"As a young man I was into running and boxing. I was in good shape. Then you start going on your own and living life and paying bills. Some people react well; but I let myself go."

"I was heading down a bumpy road. I didn't want to accept that."

Depressed and feeling self conscious, he was looking for an answer, something he could connect with, that could improve his health, self-image, and vitality.

The key came from his cousin, who had taken a kettlebell class and recommended that Barragan give it a shot. Kettlebells are weights best described as bowling balls with handles, made famous decades ago by classic "strongmen." A renewed popularity has taken hold, and kettlebell classes -- which offer strength training and cardiovascular benefit -- have become popular across the country.

It was with trepidation that Barragan entered the Iron Core training facility. He initially stepped on the treadmill but was exhausted after 10 minutes. Undaunted, he hired a trainer and began working out with the weights twice a week. He dropped a few pounds. He was getting stronger.

"At 300 pounds, it's hard to move your body around," he says.

Two years after picking up his first kettlebell, he's shed a whopping 100 pounds. At 200 pounds, he's fit and trim, yet still wants to lose another 50 pounds to feel he's achieved maximum results.

Excess weight, he says, is more than a health risk. It can crush everything you thought you held dear.

"It eventually closes your world," Barragan says. "You don't want to go out. You want to sit on the couch with the remote, watch TV, and eat. Your world gets very small."

Since he began this transformative journey, his world has grown tremendously.

In addition to kettlebell workouts, he's biking, hiking, spending time on the beach, and socializing with friends. It's been many months since he's had an arrhythmia flare-up. The settings have been drastically lowered on his sleep apnea device, which he hopes to abandon by year's end. He’s so passionate about his new lifestyle that he convinced his wife, Leticia, 39, to give kettlebells a try. So far, she's lost 40 pounds.

"Now I see her feeling better about herself," he says. "You can see the change."

Barragan's road to discovery is similar to many others who have shared his struggle: acknowledging the situation, finding tools toward a solution, and discovering passion and happiness throughout the journey.

"When you know that there's a problem, you have to find something that's gets you where you need to go," he says. "Then you start seeing what you're missing. I want to say I enjoyed living."

Lisa Brosch: Losing Weight for Those You Love

People can often lose part of themselves while taking care of someone else's needs.

Lisa Brosch, 43, who lives in Carol Stream, Ill., never had a weight problem as a child. But when she married and began having children, the pounds began creeping on.

When her daughter, Kelly, was born with a heart defect in 1992, Kelly’s care and needs took priority. Kelly required surgery at only three weeks old. At age 10, she received a heart transplant.

Brosch spent countless hours in physicians' offices and hospitals. The family had to juggle the often-chaotic routine of daily life with a challenge that would test anyone's ability to eat healthfully and fit in exercise.

"Kelly’s care was every day, all day," Brosch says. "It changed the lives of all four of us."

For Brosch, the sacrifice was her own health and well being. Countless fast food meals and less-than-ideal eating helped her weight reach 286 pounds. The challenge of family, work, and caring for her daughter were simply far larger priorities than ideal nutrition.

Three years ago, Brosch began to analyze the ways her own health was slipping and how that would ultimately impact her ability to take care of her daughter. She believed change wasn't just an option, it was integral for her entire family.

"That's when I began thinking about my own health and how Kelly was going to need us to be there and support her down the road," Brosch says. "I questioned whether I was healthy enough to be there for her."

She took a simple, yet imperative, step; she joined the local park district health club in February 2005 with no specific goal or grand plan. The treadmill seemed practical, so she began to walk.

"I really liked it," she says.

After examining her nutritional habits, she added more fruits, vegetables, and salads. She started eating breakfast instead of getting so hungry that she devoured large meals later in the day.

"Psychologically, you have to get to a point where you decide this is how you're going to eat for the rest of your life," Brosch says. "The second you start relaxing your focus, your weight will go back up. I realized how bad eating was making me feel, and I realized how not relying on food in the same way wasn't so hard."

The pounds started disappearing. And Brosch persevered despite setbacks that could have easily caused her to slide: Kelly required another surgery and developed diabetes from medication designed to prevent transplant rejection.

Fourteen months later,her weight loss of 100 pounds has transformed her outlook, attitude, and happiness.

"It's like having this new toy," Brosch says. "You can put on clothes, and you can look good in the clothes. And the feedback you get is a great thing too."

And Kelly is following mom's lead.

Both mother and daughter traveled to the U.S. Transplant Games in 2006 and 2008. Kelly participated in table tennis, badminton, and bowling. Mom, meanwhile, took part in the walkathon.

The experience with Kelly and her own transformation has enriched Brosch's life more than she ever imagined.

"We make an effort to find the good in this," she says of the struggles. "The people we've met, the experiences we've had."

Thanks to the support of her "biggest cheerleaders" -- son Tom, 19, and husband, Larry -- she's now prepared with the tools, confidence, and happiness to embrace life while being healthy and fit to provide the support her daughter needs.

It's a makeover she couldn't embrace more.

"It's changed everything," she says. "It's changed how I felt about myself, the activities I became involved in. When I was heavy, I didn’t feel like doing anything. Now on vacation, I’m more willing to try things. It's life-changing."

"I really want to keep that feeling."

Show Sources


"F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies Are Failing in America," Trust for America's Health.

Lee Kern, clinical director, Structure House, Durham, N.C.

American Diabetes Association: “All About Diabetes.”

Dan Wehr, Chicago, Ill.

Lisa Lewis, Sausalito, Calif.

John Barragan, San Diego, Calif.

Lisa Brosch, Carol Stream, Ill.

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