CHANGEBy Courtney Leach | Photos by Chris Whonsetler
Every 365 days, as dawn breaks on New Year’s Day, thousands step out of their beds with lofty resolutions and the best of intentions to lose weight. The latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that 36.5 percent of Americans are considered obese (BMI of 30 or higher). Research also suggests only a small percentage of the people who set their sights on a healthier lifestyle achieve their resolution.
We live in a world of convenience, distraction and instant gratification. These factors don’t always facilitate long-term change or improvement. Unless a person harbors something greater. Something stronger. Something rooted in determination and watered by faith.
As was the case for Mary DeArmond and Mary Jo Eppink. With a combined 241 pounds lost between them, their stories are a testament to the power of fierce ambition in the hands and heart of a tenacious soul. Here, they share their weight loss journeys — the sparks for change, the ups, and the downs. While their paths were punctuated by somewhat different events, each woman’s motivation mirrors the other’s. Perhaps you’ll see yourself in their stories, perhaps not. Either way, they’ll give you hope.
Mary DeArmond, age 31
Total weight lost: 120 pounds
KIT Was your weight always an issue?
MARY I always struggled with my weight growing up. My family was heavy, and I was, too. I lost some weight in middle school, but then gained it right back.
KIT How would you describe yourself at that time?
MARY I was tired, almost lethargic. I didn’t like to do as much with friends and family because I just didn’t have the energy and I was less motivated in general. … I didn’t think very highly of myself.
KIT What was the turning point?
MARY It actually came in two phases. The first was when my husband and I were thinking of starting a family. For months I went up and down, but overall I lost 60 pounds, half the weight toward my overall goal. After a couple years of trying to get pregnant and an unsuccessful round of in vitro, our fertility doctor said the last thing we could try was significant weight loss. That was when the second round started. It was a last-ditch effort to have biological children.
We saw a physician specializing in nonsurgical weight loss and opted for a low-carb, low-calorie diet. … The motivation was totally different. It was in my mind, if I don’t lose this weight I’m not going to have a family, which wasn’t true. Within 9-10 months, I lost 65 pounds. Nothing had changed, and we decided not to pursue other fertility options.
KIT How did this fertility setbacK affect your weight-loss journey?
MARY It was for the best, really. We decided to adopt. Now I know there was a reason we were being asked to lose this weight. We’ve had our three little boys home for five weeks now, and I am 100 percent confident I’m a better mother because I am healthier. Now I know what was really in my mind was to be better no matter how our children came to us. I’ve lost an additional 10 pounds since deciding this would be our path.
KIT A weight-loss goal of 125 pounds is daunting. How did you avoid feeling overwhelmed?
MARY I started with Weight Watchers. It made me more mindful about what I was eating. Then I started tracking calories with the Lose It! app. I vividly remember telling myself this was going to take a long time. I knew I needed to lose a significant amount of weight. I knew there were going to be days I didn’t eat well and days I didn’t exercise. And that had to be OK. This was about what I wanted long term.
KIT How did goals play a role?
MARY Now I exercise five days a week, but I started with two, then three, then four. Now I drink 100 ounces of water a day, but I started at 50, then 64, then 75. In the past, I would set a goal that was too big, do it for a few weeks and then burn out. Once I got comfortable with small goals, I increased them to bigger ones, and now it’s my lifestyle.
KIT What was the biggest hurdle?
MARY The diet was the hardest part. … Food is such a social thing; it’s awkward to be the one not having the margarita or brownie. It makes you vulnerable and everyone asks about it. Part of the reason I lost the second half of the weight faster was because I was honest and told people we were having trouble conceiving. It got the point across fast. I think, by default, when you say you want to be healthy it makes others feel guilty about their own decisions. I get it.
KIT Looking back, what was the low point? The high point?
MARY They’re actually the same. During that second phase of weight loss, we put so much pressure on ourselves. If I ate poorly, it was like, Oh, you must not want a family. But also, now, knowing God was using that time for us to get healthy because He knew we were going to have three active little boys, makes it a high point. He had bigger plans.
KIT What’s your goal now?
MARY To be healthy. It used to be a certain number on the scale, but now it’s about feeling strong. I can tell when I’ve done harder workouts and when I haven’t. I feel fit when I pick up my boys, and that’s the best motivation. I want to teach them that we need to treat our bodies well to get our heart to pump every day. I’m still trying to get my self image to catch up with the changes because, after being overweight for so long, it takes time for the mental to catch up with the physical.
People ask privately about my weight loss. I take a lot out of that because they’re seeing me as a resource. I can’t help if I’m not healthy. They’re trusting me with their stories, so I need to covet that. I get fulfillment out of cheering them on, through the lows and the highs.
KIT What advice do you give people starting their own journey?
MARY Take it one goal, one day at a time. We all know fit people drink plenty of water, work out five days a week and get eight hours of sleep. That’s great, but you don’t have to do it all at once.
Also, give yourself grace. It’s really easy when you have a bad day, meal, weekend, to give up. We deserve way more grace than we give ourselves. Know it’s going to be a journey. Just get bacK on the wagon. It’s all about what you do after that bad meal, week, month. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. It’s a commitment to ourselves and our health, not just to weight loss. The number on the scale does matter, but it’s not everything. It has to be about something more. Make it bigger than fitting into a dress.
KIT What is your inspiration now?
MARY Even though they were years off, it’s always been for my kids and my husband. It’s never been about thinking I’m more attractive or having others like me more. It’s not sustainable to live for people’s compliments. Doing it for my family carries me.
Mary Jo Eppink, age 53
Total weight lost: 121 pounds
KIT Have you always struggled with your weight?
MARY JO It was gradual. I was very thin all through college and high school. Once I got married, I’d yo-yo, and I was always obsessed with dieting. When we adopted our son Joey, the weight just started piling on. You know, you eat their scraps, you have kid-type food in the house. For 10 years I was very heavy.
I had a lot of inflammation and pain in my joints and tendons. I wanted to exercise and move, but it hurt. I’d console with food, but like so many, I was overfed and undernourished. I was eating the wrong things. … Eventually, I was diagnosed with palindromic rheumatism. Every day a different joint or tendon would swell. They were inflamed and hot to the touch. I was miserable.
KIT What was the turning point?
MARY JO Six years ago, my husband John had a heart attack right in front of us. We were at my son Joey’s racing event and John looked at him and said, “I think I’m going to pass out,” and then he just dropped. The EMS was there within 30 seconds, but he was gone. He was 45.
It was an unbelievable day, week, year. Having children changes your perspective on everything. My son was only 12 at the time. One day, Joey looked up at me and asked, “What happens to me if something happens to you, Mom?” And I said, “It’s not gonna happen, buddy.” I weighed out all the options and decided on gastric bypass. … The doctor, David Diaz of St. Vincent Bariatric Center of Excellence, said he’d move heaven and earth to make it happen for me. I celebrated my five-year anniversary in July.
KIT What were your thoughts during the year following the surgery?
MARY JO Having surgery at such a difficult time in my life ended up working well. It was the worst time in my life, but also the best time for such a big change because I was numb. I went through the motions like a little robot. I just followed orders and I don’t remember some of the early parts at all. I never missed an appointment, I journaled, I weighed out my food. The system just worked.
Joey gave me purpose to get out of bed every day. I’d wake up and run to the scale, and see consistent loss. It was so motivating. At the end of that first year, I’d lost 116 pounds.
KIT How did you feel?
MARY JO The pain started going away. I felt so free. I remember I used to tell people I felt trapped in a body that was failing me, but through diet and healthy habits, I realized that I’d had it all wrong. My body hadn’t been failing me, I had been failing my body. It was an Aha! moment.
KIT How did exercise play a role?
MARY JO As the weight came off, my energy level got higher, and I hurt less. I joined St. Vincent’s physical activity study, I wore a pedometer and started tracking my steps and movements. I remember thinking, I can move! After one year, I got a trainer. I had a freaking trainer! In the past, I had so many gym memberships, and they lasted a week. Now, almost four years later, I still have the same trainer and I never miss. … We do weight training and resistance training, and then I do aerobics on my own. I love the elliptical, too. That’s my comfort zone.
KIT What are some of the changes you’ve made to your diet?
MARY JO When people ask how I’m eating differently, other than quantity, I tell them the quality has gone up. I eat closer to the ground. Everything is fresh and raw and clean and organic and not processed. The sooner you can yank it from the ground and eat it, the better it is for you. Because of the procedure, I can’t eat a lot, so the things I do eat have to be nutritional powerhouses.
KIT What are some tricks to being a healthy mom?
MARY JO Through Joey’s formative years, 12-18, he has seen a real change in the way we eat and exercise. We haven’t had soda or fast food in five years. Sure, there are probably healthy choices at those places, but we just don’t need to go there. Joey has a really broad palate. He eats a lot of foods most kids turn up their noses at. I’m a self-proclaimed foodie and I love revamping recipes. I’ll substitute yogurt for sour cream, applesauce for sugar. You can still make it taste good.
KIT How do you stay motivated to maintain your success?
MARY JO I have a bucket list now and there are 20 things on it. It’s funny, but most of those things involve movement. I hope in the next 10 years I can retire and start checking them off — hike the Grand Canyon, run the Indy Mini. When I go on vacation, all I can think about is walking and biking. I don’t want to be a beached whale. I want to move because I can.
Another thing that motivates me is education. I see myself like a big block of ice. The surgery and the first year were like hacking off the big pieces and now we’re fine-tuning and working out the details. I’m learning what foods and supplements and movements make my body hum. I keep wanting to learn more.
KIT What would you tell someone starting their own journey?
MARY JO A lot of people look at bariatric surgery as an easy way out, but I’m here to tell you, there’s nothing easy about it. If you’re up to the challenge and other options haven’t worked, it’s a wonderful tool. Go to an orientation and see if it’s for you. Get a plan and follow it.
KIT Do you have a personal mantra?
MARY JO Throughout my weight loss journey the word “hope” was very special to me. I think hope motivated me more than anything. The hope of feeling better, the hope of getting the weight completely off and the hope of what life would be like after. The hope of getting my life back in order. I just love that word. Someone once told me hope was a word of inaction, and I looked at him, and said, “I have to respectfully disagree. Hope got me through many difficult times. And I’m very grateful.”