Yes, it’s possible to lose weight and keep it off. Have you ever tried to lose 5 pounds? How about 10? You know how hard it can be. Now imagine trying to lose 10 times that amount. The very idea of shedding 50 to 100 pounds is so daunting it’s enough to send even the most dedicated dieter scurrying for the cookie jar. An alarming 35 percent of women in the United States are now considered obese. Another 32 percent are classified as overweight. That’s more than two-thirds of all women in this country who are putting not only their health, but often also their emotional well-being, at risk. More disheartening is the fact that of those who do manage to lose 10 percent or more of their body weight, about 80 percent will regain it within two years. Yet four Denver-area women beat the odds. Each of them has lost more than 50 pounds and has successfully kept it off for more than two years. Each says with her new body has come a new sense of self. Theirs have been life-changing journeys that are as much about determination and empowerment as they are about diet and exercise. Here are their stories:
Small steps to a big goal
Lupe Reyther is a 34-year-old single mother. Born and raised in Denver, she is a triplet who was always the heaviest in her set of three. Her mother used to joke that since she was the first one born, she snagged all the food. Growing up, she played sports, which helped keep the pounds in check, but as she entered young adulthood, her weight began to creep upward. In her early 20s, at 5 feet, 3 inches tall, she weighed 170 pounds. After her daughter, Melia, was born nine years ago, the scale topped 200. She ate for comfort as her marriage ended. She ate to relieve the stress of a bad day at work. Sometimes at night she would polish off an entire gallon of ice cream after dinner. While she was still married, her husband would gently suggest she try working out. She ignored him, thinking he was being mean. Then one day she and her daughter went to Red Rocks State Park to join her sister. Reyther’s sister sprinted up the steps of the amphitheater for exercise, while Reyther had trouble walking from the parking lot. Halfway there she had to stop and sit down to rest. Her daughter’s words that day changed her forever.
Lupe Reyther “Mommy, I want you to live forever,” the little girl said. “Why can’t you be more like Aunt Fina?”
It hit her hard. She worried about the example she was setting for her daughter. She didn’t like the person she had become. In January 2007 she sat in a meeting room and listened to a presentation about a 12-week weight loss program called Colorado Weigh, which urges consistent small steps towards healthier eating habits and exercise routines. Each week participants check in with a registered dietitian for encouragement and accountability. Still, even as Reyther signed up, she was skeptical. “I was a nonbeliever,” she remembers, “I thought, this is how God made me. I can’t change.”
A few weeks later she noticed her weight began dropping. She was losing about two or three pounds a week. She gave up ice cream. Frozen yogurt, she discovered, tasted just as good. She switched from pop to tea or water. She began reading labels. She vowed not to eat after 7 p.m. She strapped on a pedometer and began to count steps. In the beginning she could walk only 10 minutes. Her goal was to reach 10,000 steps in a single day. As her pants began to loosen, she pinned them rather than buy a smaller size. Still unconvinced, she figured it was just a fluke. But when the first 12 weeks ended, she had gained a new confidence. Maybe she really could do this. She signed up for another 12-week session. Melia could soon wrap her arms around her mother in a hug. Before, they would not reach. Reyther dropped from a size 18 to a size 8 in a little over a year. The scale now hovers at 140 pounds – down 60 pounds from her heaviest weight. She has held steady for more than two years. She has started running in road races. Her goal is to run the Boulder Bolder this year. “I don’t ever want to go back to the way I was,” she says. “I’m so much happier now.” She admits it has not always been a straight path. When she became obsessed with counting calories, she stopped counting. Now good habits are so ingrained she knows what she needs to do. She keeps it all in perspective, which includes the occasional indulgence. It’s part of living life. “We’re all human,” she says, “We all fall down, but then you get back up the next day. Tomorrow’s another day. “
“You are the CEO of you”
Angela Stauffer, 39, of Littleton, remembers her day of despair six years ago when she quite literally had nothing to wear. As she tried to zip the skirt of her baggiest size 14 suit, the zipper would not close. She called in sick that day and spent hours wandering her house crying before going shopping for a larger size. How did she get here? At just 5 feet, 1 inch, her weight had climbed to 175 pounds. “I always had a weight problem. I weigh less now than I did when I was 11,” she says. In a stylish size 4 business suit, Stauffer now weighs 115 pounds. Hers was a hard-fought, two-year odyssey of weight loss and self-discovery. “No one ever loses weight fast enough,” she sighs. Often she would lose just a half-pound per week. Because she was of French and Italian descent, good food and plenty of it had always been an important part of her childhood and family culture. “We would be sitting at breakfast planning lunch, sitting at lunch planning dinner,” she remembers. It was not uncommon at holiday meals to have a choice of four different pies for four people. In grade school her mother had to make her clothes because nothing fit. “They were awful,” she says of her mother’s attempts at fashion. Everyone in her family was heavy.
In high school she was overweight but could compensate. She ran track and was a cheerleader. She called herself a “binge exerciser” who would overeat and then obsessively work off the calories. One night she ran in place in her room for an hour. She moved through her early 20s about 20 to 30 pounds overweight. As her three-decade milestone loomed, her weight had ballooned to 60 pounds overweight. Married and living in New Orleans, she was overwhelmed with a busy travel schedule in her sales career plus night school to earn an M.B.A. She stopped exercising because there seemed to be no time. Sometimes she would eat an entire batch of cookie dough as she studied at night. “I let bad habits take over,” she recalls. She tried Weight Watchers but now realizes she was not ready to make the commitment. “I was taking care of business but not taking care of me.” After her early morning closet epiphany she decided enough was enough. She started running again. At first she could only make it around the block. Soon she was logging three miles five days a week. She cut out all of the junk from her diet, eating more fruits and vegetables. She drank water by the gallons. Twenty pounds came off in three months. Then she stalled. In 2001 Stauffer and her husband moved to Denver. She was still 40 pounds overweight. She rejoined Weight Watchers. It took three different groups before she found the one that clicked. It was led by a man who cut members no slack. She says, “I liked his no-nonsense approach. He said, ‘You can’t keep doing the same thing and expect results.’ It sounded like a strategic planning meeting. I realized I was managing my business very effectively, but why couldn’t I manage my weight?”
From there a new internal mantra was born: “You are the CEO of you.”
The key to the kind of complete physical overhaul she was undertaking was also hugely emotional. The math part was simple: calories in versus calories out through exercise. But she had more work to do. Digging deep within, she began to better understand herself. Learning why she ate was as important as what she ate. “I was an emotional eater,” she now says, “Rejection is a big one for me. And rejection takes many forms.” She would internalize any mistake at work or any slight in her personal life, either real or imagined. Through it all her husband never criticized. Looking back now, though, she wishes he had. Today she is sure if she ever started seriously slipping into old ways, he would speak up. Visiting family was a challenge. They would push food at her and tell her she was skinny enough. Still she pressed on. As the weight began to fall away, she began to see herself differently. She joined a dance class. “I wasn’t used to having a sexy woman’s body, and I wanted to learn how to move,” she says. At her teacher’s urging, in 2007 she tried out for the Denver Broncos’ cheerleading squad. She was cut in the first round, but it was a victory all the same. Stauffer has kept her weight off for six years. Today she is group leader at Weight Watchers. She took on that role to help others find the inner strength and success she has found: “Everyone has their own journey. It is really cool to be a part of someone else’s, too.”
Sometimes surgery is the answer
Colleen Gormley, a single advertising saleswoman, sat in a hotel conference room nearly three years ago, surrounded by 100 morbidly obese people. “I don’t belong here. I’m not like them,” she thought. Then the featured speakers took the microphone. Two women, about her same age, talked about what it had been like to be fat. They spoke of the secret discrimination in the workplace, the look in people’s eyes when they saw you for the first time, the embarrassment of not being able to fit into an airline seat or onto the rides at amusement parks. Suddenly she began to cry. That was her life, too. She did belong there. Gormley, now 37, was born in Colorado but grew up in the heat of the Las Vegas desert. She was a heavy child who got little exercise. She always looked years older than the other girls because of her size. Her parents were divorced and her sisters a decade older than she was. She could overeat in stealth. Her sister once walked in as she was devouring six pieces of buttered toast as an afternoon snack. “Why would you eat so much?” the older girl asked in alarm.
Gormley’s father noticed, too, when she would visit him in Colorado in the summer. In sixth grade he put her on the Herbalife diet and pushed her to swim laps and walk for exercise. She embraced his boot camp approach because she wanted to be popular in school. She lost 34 pounds in 30 days. Through adolescence she mostly kept her weight in check by depriving herself. It set the foundation for a tortured relationship with food and with herself. When she went away to college, she quickly gained 40 pounds her freshman year. She had a steady boyfriend and felt comfortable enough to let herself eat whatever she wanted. At 5 feet, 9 inches, she climbed to 200 pounds and wore a size 18. After college she moved to image-conscious Southern California. She hired a personal trainer and began to work out twice a day. She gave up alcohol and rarely socialized for fear of slipping. She ate plain chicken and oatmeal and drank protein shakes. She lost 75 pounds but also realized it was no way to live.
In the summer of 1999 she moved back to Colorado, and her weight began to rise yet again. She loved being around her mother and her sisters again but had no real life of her own. She was bored. She took a series of jobs and began overeating. “I was unhappy. I ate too much, and I didn’t care,” she recalls. When clothes were too small, she simply bought larger sizes. She continued to work out but could not stop eating. By the time she hit her mid-30s, she was wearing a size 20. Angela StaufferShe watched as her mother’s health deteriorated. The older woman could barely walk and had breathing problems because of her weight-related diabetes.”I was following in her footsteps,” Gormley realized, “Where she was at 70, I was at in my 30s.” Gormley was taking nine medications. Her back, her, knees, her feet were in constant pain. She was at extreme risk of diabetes. Her body mass index was 49. Medical experts class obesity as a BMI of more than 30.
The turning point came that day nearly three years ago in the hotel conference room. She had come out of curiosity about bariatric surgery, or the various surgical ways to treat obesity. She was most intrigued by LAP band surgery, a procedure in which a band is inserted over the top of the stomach to block the amount of food that can be digested. The doctor warned her every bite of food must be no bigger than a pencil eraser. Even then, everything would have to be chewed almost to mush.
In 2007 she took the plunge. The entire procedure lasted 45 minutes. She was up and walking almost immediately and fully recovered in a few days. She lost 27 pounds in the first three weeks. She continued to exercise and completely changed the way she ate. Portion size shrank to a shadow of her former meals. She lost roughly 10 pounds a month until she hit her goal of 100 pounds. Today she won’t say exactly what she weighed before, but her total weight loss was 120 pounds — so far. She has kept it off for more than two years. Today she eats tiny portions very slowly. If she overeats or takes too big a bite, she will throw up. “The important thing to remember is that the LAP band is just a tool. I still have to do the work,” she says of her wholesale reinvention. She credits the unwavering support of her family and friends in her decision to have the surgery for her success.
Shopping these days is fun. On a recent afternoon she wears skinny jeans and kicks up her leg to show off three-inch spiky sling-backs. She has a new job and is dating again. “I’ll never go back,” she vows, “I’m happier than I have ever been in my life.”
One step at a time
Holley VanBenthuysen has a good Colorado metaphor for how she lost 75 pounds in a little more than a year. She likens it to how she shovels the snow from her oversized Castle Pines driveway. The 46-year-old mother of five pulls her parka hood over most of her face so she can see only the little square of snow right in front of her. She concentrates on what she can see before moving to the next patch. It was the same when she launched her weight loss odyssey nine years ago. If in the beginning she had thought about losing the entire 75 pounds, she would have probably given up, declaring it too much. Instead she carved the task into smaller pieces, concentrating on what was in front of her day by day and week by week instead of looking at the entire job. Like countless others waging war with the scale, VanBenthuysen has spent the better part of a lifetime gaining and losing and gaining again. It has been that way since childhood. Kids would call her “Holly Jolly Fatso Folly.” She learned to make fun of herself first to prove she was not hurt. Then she would go home and cry. Growing up in Oklahoma, where she jokes the staple was “fried everything,” she found comfort in food. As she grew plumper, her mother would scold her for taking seconds at the dinner table, but she didn’t care. Her parents divorced when she was 11. By 13, she went on her first diet.
As a young teenager, she turned to over-the-counter protein drinks as substitute meals. She lost 45 pounds in less than a year. In high school she maintained an average weight but quickly gained 35 pounds in college. The freedom of college translated into 2 a.m. pizza and fast food drive-throughs. Determined to lose what she had gained, she enrolled in nutrition courses and exercise classes. She turned again to a high-protein diet. Through sheer willpower and discipline she lost all 35 pounds. She kept it off for the next 15 years as she forged a career as an X-ray technician, first in Oklahoma and then Denver. But life soon turned down a road she never expected. In 1994 she married Dr. Karyl VanBenthuysen, a cardiologist whose wife had died. Suddenly she was an instant mother of three, ages 5, 12 and 15. Her world became consumed with play dates, sports practices and school events. The discipline of eating scheduled meals fell away. She found herself grazing on snacks with the kids, fixing dinners around their erratic schedules and then eating again when her husband came home. She soon gained 20 pounds. Four years later she became pregnant with twins.
It was a difficult pregnancy, requiring six months of bed rest. The babies came early and spent a month in neonatal intensive care. After the twins were home, she was up all night with them and on the go all day with the older kids. She was exhausted and overwhelmed. She had gained 55 pounds during her pregnancy on top of the 20 extra she was already carrying. “I really thought I was going to be 75 pounds overweight for the rest of my life,” she says. Angela StaufferBut then a realization hit her: “I had to take care of me to take care of everyone else.” While others joined groups or regimented programs to chart such a huge weight loss, she did it all on her own. Her schedule as the mother of five was too chaotic to commit to scheduled meetings. She worried if she missed one it would become too easy to miss another and then another. She had to come up with her own plan that fit her busy life. She turned inward and began to understand how her body worked.
She knew she would never have a Barbie doll waist and learned to accept that. She hired a trainer who taught her about free weights. She alternated between weights and cardio fitness three times a week. She modified recipes from the South Beach diet cookbook her husband bought her. For support she joined a women’s group called BellaRock adventures, which sends women on fitness challenges such as snowshoeing in the winter and climbing fourteeners in the summer. “It makes me accountable,” she says. It took six months to lose the first 45 pounds and six more months for the remaining 30. She has kept the weight off for nine years. Rarely does she weigh herself anymore. She thinks obsessive scale gazing can discourage people. She prefers to judge her weight management by how her clothes fit. Soon after reaching her weight loss goal, VanBenthuysen formed her own image consulting business called Pure Panache: You Simply Better. “It grew out of my own hurt,” she says of her past poor self-image. She wants other women to feel the same freedom she now feels to like herself. She can’t imagine letting herself gain the weight back. The stakes are too high, both for her and for those she loves. “Being heavy put me in such a bad emotional place,” she says. “When you don’t like yourself, everyone around you suffers.”
Written by Jenny Deam
Photography by Kit Williams