Sal Paradiso can't tell you his starting weight in early 2014, when he began his weight loss journey. Not because he doesn't want to reveal the number, but because no scale could effectively measure his weight.
He estimates it was close to 700 pounds, a weight that made everything difficult, says Paradiso, now 35. “Putting on my shoes was a struggle. Taking a shower every day was a struggle. I was basically under house arrest [since] it was such an ordeal to go out.”
In February 2014, the Tampa, FL, resident hit a turning point. His father died from a massive heart attack at 42, and Paradiso realized he was on the same path unless he made a big change. “I said to myself, 'I need to take a drastic U-turn in my life if I'm going to make it to age 40,'” he recalls.
After attending a seminar about weight loss procedures, he decided to discuss surgery options with a doctor. The doctor told him he needed to lose some weight on his own before surgery and put him on a high-protein, low-carb diet. His new 1,500 to 1,800 calorie per day plan was a drastic change from his previous 7,000 to 9,000 calorie per day diet, packed with soda and juice.
The Journey Begins
On his new diet, Paradiso started losing weight quickly, about 5 to 6 pounds per week. Not that it was easy. “Early on it was a big adjustment,” he says. “My body was so used to eating how I had been eating that it was rebelling at first. It was a rough first few weeks.” He'd crave more food at night, but no matter how miserable he felt, he wouldn't let himself raid the fridge. “I'd tell myself, 'I'm not working this hard to sabotage myself,'” he recalls.
But overall, Paradiso says he didn't feel deprived. Instead of giving into a craving for unhealthy food, he'd look up recipes for lighter, healthier alternatives. “That would be enough to cure my craving without blowing my calorie budget for the day,” he explains. Instead of ordering a pizza, for example, he'd top a low-carb pita with tomato sauce and some cheese.
Working out was a challenge at first, too. Because of the damage done to his knees from the excess weight, he has to do low-impact exercise only. He started by walking back and forth in the pool, first for an hour; then he'd tack on another 30 minutes at night. Although he was worried about being too heavy for exercise equipment, he found that a recumbent bike could hold his weight, so he added that into his routine, as well as strength training with dumbbells at home.
He underwent his first weight loss surgery in November 2015, but it didn't go as hoped. The doctor had to abort it midway because the excess abdominal weight prevented him from completing the surgery. After losing even more weight on his own and getting down to 433 pounds, in July 2016 Paradiso had a successful surgery, called vertical sleeve gastrectomy.
As of March 23, he is down to 309 pounds -- a weight that just 3 years ago, he never thought he would see. “When I started I didn't think I'd ever get to where I am today,” Paradiso says.
Now the only thing in the way of the finish line is his loose skin, which his doctors say adds up to 65 to 80 pounds. Removing it would put Paradiso right in his target weight range, between 200 to 225 pounds. But that process may be the toughest part of his weight loss journey, says Brunilda Nazario, MD, lead medical director at WebMD.
“When you have been overweight for many years, your skin loses elasticity -- it's like a balloon that's been stretched out, and it can't easily regain its original shape,” Nazario explains. People want to remove it for cosmetic reasons, but it's also a medical issue since the skin folds can lead to ulcerations and infections due to sweat and fungus, she says. Plus, it can be risky and expensive to remove, usually requiring multiple complicated surgeries.
Giving Others Hope
Today, Paradiso is proud of his progress -- and for his ability to motivate and inspire others. Since several media outlets have covered his story, he says strangers from around world have reached out on Facebook to tell him how much his incredible weight loss has encouraged them.
“People who have 20 or 30 pounds to lose message me saying how I inspired them to stop complaining and making excuses.” He's trying to write back to every message, because their support motivates him too. “Their comments inspired me on days I don't want to ride the bike or lift weights, he says. “Motivation goes both ways -- they motivate me, I want to motivate them. How can I let them down now?”
Still, all the congratulations and media coverage are “humbling,” Paradiso says. “I'm just a guy trying to get the life back that I once thought was lost.”
For anyone else with 100 or more pounds to lose, here are a few tips he's learned along the way.
1. Find a support system. Sal's friends and family provided plenty of encouragement. He has a few longtime friends whom he'd reach out to on a daily basis for support, as well as a good friend he met in a weight loss group on Facebook. And his mom has been “a rock” in her support from the start, he says.
2. Fight for every pound. Weight loss surgery isn't an easy way out,” Paradiso says. “It's a tool; not a magic pill. You have to work at it, whether you're doing it on your own or through surgery.” Stay strong, make good decisions, track what you eat, and the scale will follow suit, he says.
3. Break up your ultimate goal into small segments. No doubt it's daunting to imagine shedding 400 pounds. What helped Paradiso was breaking it into smaller steps, like losing 50 pounds at a time instead of 400 all at once. “That makes it a lot easier to think, 'I've lost 30 of 50 pounds,' rather than 'I've only lost 30 of 400 pounds,'” Paradiso says.