He weighed 460 pounds. What confronting his size taught him about obesity in America
For as long as he can remember, Tommy Tomlinson has understood his identity as inseparable from his body.
"I weigh 460 pounds," Tomlinson begins in an essay published this month in The Atlantic, and adapted from his upcoming book, The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man's Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America.
"Those are the hardest words I've ever had to write. Nobody knows that number — not my wife, not my doctor, not my closest friends. It feels like confessing a crime. The average American male weighs about 195 pounds; I'm two of those guys, with a 10-year-old left over. I'm the biggest human being most people who know me have ever met, or ever will."
That was Tomlinson four years ago.
Today, for the first time in 50 years, he's been able to lose weight and successfully keep it off. Getting there wasn't easy. He knew how to drop the pounds. He would eat fewer calories and burn more. But Tomlinson didn't find long-term success until he worked to understand why he had strayed so far from a healthy body in the first place.
To do so, he researched the science and psychology of weight gain and reflected on the obstacles stacked against him — and the roughly 93 million other obese adults in America — and where he held power to overcome his barriers.
Tomlinson discussed his journey in an interview with NPR's Melissa Block. He spoke about how he studied his family history to better understand his relationship with food. Tomlinson grew up poor in the Deep South, with parents who picked cotton as kids and moved into factory work by the time he was born.
"Every workday their whole lives they burned off thousands and thousands of calories just at work," he said. "I led sort of a soft life thanks to all the work they did to get us there."
The Southern values stuck, but unlike his parents, Tomlinson mostly worked desk jobs during his long career in journalism. That made it harder to burn off the calories from the fried chicken, biscuits and pecan pie that stayed on the table, he said, as "a tremendous symbol of love and wealth."
Food carried that same symbolic weight when relatives and friends piled up dishes in the wake of deaths in the family. As he writes in his essay: "The thing that soothes the pain prolongs it. The thing that brings me back to life pushes me closer to the grave."
As his weight grew, so did the stresses of everyday life. On subway rides, he said, he would fear losing his grip on the pole for fear of crushing a passenger. When going to unfamiliar destinations, he would Google the interior or arrive early to scout out a safe place to sit.
But losing weight was more than just a matter of eating less and exercising more, said Tomlinson. Research shows that losing weight can set off a lifelong battle against regaining it. Some estimates show that as many as 90 percent of dieters who lose weight eventually gain it back.
"What happens on almost all of these diets — not just for me but for other people — is that they're really effective in the short-term, but then once you've gone through the crash period, there's the rebound, what they call yo-yo dieting," Tomlinson said.
That's because the body is wired to respond to calorie restriction as a symptom of starvation, and kicks into survival mode — the appetite increases and metabolism slows, making it harder to lose weight.
Tomlinson said he has flirted with diet pills, low-calorie meals, unprocessed foods. But the event that drove Tomlinson to make a serious effort was the death of his sister on Christmas Eve of 2014.
Brenda Williams, who "weighed well north of 200 pounds" as he wrote, was 13 years older than Tomlinson.
"She died of an infection that was basically caused by her size," he said. "I went to her funeral and I could see my future: I was 50 years old when she died, and guys like me don't make it to 60. I knew then, in a way that I never really felt as deeply and emotionally, that I had to change."
Since his sister's death, he's found success in what he called a three-step program: His Fitbit tells him how many calories he's burned walking and exercising. He then meticulously calculates his calorie intake.
"If I burn more than I bring in, eventually I'm bound to lose weight," he said. "It's not a plan that's going to transform me overnight. It's very slow and steady and, you know, I'm still a big guy."
But, he said, it's a plan he can live with.
"I think that's the key to any long-term success. Losing weight is figuring out something you can live with."
As Tomlinson's grappled with his weight loss, he said a part of him was worried about how it might change his personality.
"I've always been overweight, and so a little part of me, irrationally probably, worries ... about a baby-in-the-bathwater situation," he said. "As I lose all this weight and transform myself physically, do I also become a different person? Am I going to become a jerk because of what I've had to do to lose all that weight?"
Tomlinson said his wife tells him that his weight loss plan has had the opposite effect.
"She said since I've started losing weight and getting in better shape, that I'm much more lighthearted than I used to be," he said.
"I'm sure there used to be that sort of cloud following me around all the time that I didn't even really know or think about all that much, but other people could see it. And now I walk a little taller in the world because I feel much more confident in my ability to become, not just a more healthy person, but I feel like a better person."
NPR's Dustin DeSoto produced this story for broadcast. Janaya Williams edited.
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