By: Maria Fleet
Theresa Hopper is a 56-year-old engaging church administrator in Red Deer, Alberta. She’s been married for 36 years and has three grown daughters, but one of the most defining aspects of her life, she says, is that she has spent it in a power struggle with food.
She grew up with two sisters – all three of the girls close in age. She was more heavy-set than her siblings, whom her parents had adopted shortly before becoming pregnant with Theresa. “All three of us are from different genetic backgrounds. We don’t look alike at all,” Theresa says. Physically, she took after her father, whose family was from Eastern Europe. He was big and solid. “You could drop a fifty-cent piece through his wedding ring, and it wouldn’t even touch the edges,” she says. Bathed in the warmth of a loving family, she never felt self-conscious about being bigger than her sisters. That is, until she went to school. In school she immediately noticed a hierarchy of sorts. Her Grade 1 self thought: ‘There are really pretty people and everybody wants to be around them, and I don’t get chosen for things as fast.’
“So that’s kind of when it started,” she sighs. “It” being a lifelong tug-of-war with her weight.
When Theresa was nine, her aunt offered her a dollar for every pound she could lose. Theresa went to bed that night thinking, ‘Wow, if I lost 5 pounds that would be 5 dollars. Just think how much candy I could get!’ What strikes her now is not the irony so much as the child-like innocence of her thinking. “That’s the view of a child, right? It’s just pure thoughts,” she says. She regards it wistfully as one of many experiences that inserted a nagging idea into her head that she had to change herself to please people – an idea that was reinforced by society again and again.
Thinking she needed to watch what she ate also cruelly robbed her of some of the joy around food. As a kid she always associated food with celebration. She delighted in the big family gatherings around holidays. Her family roots – Polish, Ukrainian, Russian – meant that on holidays, as she puts it, “the fiddle comes out, a big, huge crock of wine comes out for the adults, and everyone’s having a great time. There’s food everywhere.” This swirl of fun and flavors was transformed into a minefield. What had been unfettered pleasure was now a battle – with Theresa trying to control how much she ate. Her sisters, she noticed, didn’t seem to have this problem. They ate whatever they wanted with little concern about putting on weight. She, on the other hand, had to be vigilant.
Her mother, having never struggled with her weight, was sympathetic, but couldn’t offer much advice to Theresa. At one annual visit to the doctor, it was suggested Theresa see a dietitian. The dietitian “basically wrote a script of what I should eat,” Theresa remembers. “Half a grapefruit – a completely ridiculous thing for a child. I remember thinking to myself: ‘What’s cottage cheese?’”
None of that seemed practical for a busy kid – but still, reminders of her weight continued to sting. She remembers the utter embarrassment of having to state her weight aloud in front of everyone on a class ski trip in order to rent the right size skis.
The message was settling into her mind. She needed to lose weight – to become one of the “pretty people.” She began a trajectory of yo-yo dieting familiar to those who have struggled with extra pounds, relying solely on willpower.
You name it, Theresa tried it – Medifast, The Diet Center, Weight Watchers, TOPS, Jenny Craig, The Zone Diet. The names read like a hit parade of diets of the past few decades. She says she’s spent thousands on coaches, programs, and products, hoping that something would eventually work. Nothing seemed to.
Theresa found things to take away from each weight loss plan. But with each one she also noted a profound limitation – while they might help her lose weight initially – they couldn’t help her keep it off. She describes the dieting process: “You white knuckle it for so long in this oppressed state and then you just let everything go and forget about it completely.” In 2010 she suffered through one last subscription-based diet, which she describes as a series of “tiny little packets of food” and lost 80 pounds, a triumph – only to gain it all back within two and a half years. “That was the hardest one for me to mentally recover from too, because I really felt like I did all that work for nothing… again,” she recalls. After that, she says, “I just gave up.” She was 45.
Maintaining weight loss is in fact the hardest part in any weight management effort. When we lose weight, our metabolism adjusts to slow the amount of calories we burn and our hormones change to make us hungrier. It’s the body’s self-preservation mechanism kicking into gear. And it explains the plateaus and weight regain that many people experience.
Though Theresa gave up spending money on diet plans – she still perused the internet for information about how to get to a healthier weight. She began finding some key encouraging ideas about weight management through sites like My Weight – What to Know. At first, she was suspicious. Messages about being motivated by self-love rather than self-loathing initially sounded like fantasy – running counter to everything she’d ever absorbed about managing her weight. “I remember thinking to myself: ‘No, it can’t be that easy. You have to be in pain and you have to be deprived!” Theresa remembers. “I just thought, ‘What are they even talking about – that you have to be kind to yourself and you have to love yourself? You’ll never get anywhere like that.’” But the message of loving herself in order to move forward began to resonate, the more she watched some videos of fellow travelers who’d also struggled with their weight, as well as messages from doctors who treated patients like her. She admits it took watching some of the videos online over and over before her thinking began to evolve. “I had to accept that I was doing this for health more than anything – that I should move toward health, instead of [toward] looking a certain way,” she says now.
The shift in Theresa’s motivation coincided with a shift in the practice of medicine in relation to weight management.
Theresa’s had the same doctor for 20 years, who’s witnessed her struggle with weight: losing and gaining, losing and gaining. Her doctor’s advice had always been along the lines of “eat less and move more” – guidance that is far from helpful, as Theresa had found through trial and error.
Recently, researchers have made strides in the understanding of weight loss and the neurohormonal changes that can result from restrictive dieting. In August 2020, Canadian doctors and researchers published a major update to the clinical guidelines for treating obesity. Finally, Theresa’s doctor had much more to work with and offered to partner with Theresa in managing her weight, making use of the latest evidence-based practices suggested by the new guidelines. To find a physician near you who can help you find the right medical solutions, click here.
With her doctor, Theresa considered some of the options available – anti-obesity medications, behavioral therapy, and surgery – and based on the data, decided that bariatric surgery might lead to the best long-term outcome. The waiting list for such surgery is long in Alberta – possibly as much as three years – but Theresa’s doctor urged her to get on it. Meanwhile Theresa has thrown herself into learning more about bariatric surgery, weight management, and what she can do during the waiting period to get ready for surgery.
Looking forward, Theresa is hopeful she is heading into a healthy future. She’s always been healthy – her vital signs are good at every checkup – but she realizes as she heads toward her 60’s, that may not always be the case. As she puts it bluntly, “I’m not unhealthy. Yet.” She did see her health flag during each of her three pregnancies – with one, she had gestational diabetes; with another, high blood pressure. Her own mother died of heart disease at age 73. Theresa’s been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, which can sometimes leave her exhausted at the end of a workday. Most health issues, she realizes, will probably be ameliorated by shedding some pounds. And she’s aware that a sudden major stressor in her life could also trigger emotional eating that could send her weight up higher. She wants to do everything she can now to preserve her health. And having a full partner in her doctor makes a huge difference in her confidence that she can succeed.
Theresa also finds support in our Facebook Group, Personal Health Revolution Weight Management. Click here to join.
To find a physician near you who specializes in weight management, click here.
Cover photo credit: Shekinah Lim Photography