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Changing habits is key to having better health
Lynda Buffington exercises on a treadmill at the J.A. Walters YMCA Friday afternoon. In the past year Buffington has lost 95 pounds.

For many people who are overweight or obese, the motivation to lose weight doesn’t always come from a desire to look better but to feel better.

“Of course they’re definitely concerned with their physical appearance and their self-esteem, but what’s more important is they’re sick,” said Sheenagh King, registered dietitian and bariatric program manager of The Longstreet Clinic Center for Bariatric Surgery. “They don’t feel good. They’re taking multiple medications, pharmaceuticals to treat their signs and symptoms.”

Being obese, which is defined as having a body mass index of 30 or more, puts people at a higher risk for developing often life-threatening conditions like diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and sleep apnea.

For several years, Mark Spence’s doctors urged him to lose weight in order to improve his hypertension. He said his doctor had to increase his blood pressure medications at every visit, but he didn’t do anything about his weight until he had a serious problem.

Two days before Christmas, the Pendergrass resident woke up and realized the right side of his face was “all sideways.”

“I was pretty scared by that,” Spence said. “I went to the doctor and they told me I’d had a light stroke.”

Part of his treatment after the stroke was to work with a dietitian and get his weight down to a healthy level.

Before his stroke, Spence weighed 290 pounds. Since January, he’s lost 57 pounds and his blood pressure is down. He’s been able to stop taking his medications.

“I feel so much better now that I’ve lost the weight,” Spence said.

Dr. Heather Westmoreland, a cardiologist at Northeast Georgia Heart Center, said the prevalence of obesity and hypertension correlate to the South’s nickname: the stroke belt.

In her practice, she said it’s becoming less common to see patients who are underweight or at a healthy weight. BMI is considered a vital sign, and every patient’s index is measured to determine their risk for heart disease.

She said when explaining how excess weight puts patients at risk or is causing their heart conditions, patients always seem to take her advice seriously but many don’t know how to change or that they can.

“I think a lot of these people became obese as children or adolescents and they’ve been fat their entire lives,” Westmoreland said. “They think they’ll always be fat, that’s just who they are and there’s nothing they can do to change it. I know it frightens people to know they are at risk for heart attacks and strokes, and they want to change, but they almost feel trapped.”

But, she said, people are able to change, and most of the time they already know what to do; they just need a little reinforcement.

The principle is simple enough: eat less and exercise more. But it’s often easier said than done.

King said every person’s weight loss experience and health conditions are unique, but making healthy choices at meal times is the most successful weight loss approach.

“We eat too much,” King said. “We do not need the amount of food we eat daily. Skipping meals is something that can be bad, too. You need nutrition. Your brain needs glucose all day long. When you don’t fuel your body at regular intervals, breakfast, lunch and dinner, you force your body to use alternate energy pathways.”

King said she typically advises people who are not diabetic to just eat three meals a day with no snacking, to drink water and eat smaller portions.

“People know what they’re not supposed to eat,” Westmoreland said. “It’s just portion sizes. They think ‘I don’t eat that much’ or ‘I’m eating healthy,’ but if you look at restaurant portion sizes — that is two or three times more than you should be eating.”

After a lifetime of trying different diets and reverting to her former habits, Lynda Buffington of Gainesville decided it was time to start losing weight after having minor knee surgery last June. That August, at 275 pounds, she started to see a dietitian with the Northeast Georgia Physicians Group.

Since then she lost 95 pounds and is still working to lose another 30.

“I liked having someone to talk to for the accountability,” Buffington said. “It just worked. I guess it was just my time to actually do it.”

Buffington said the biggest challenge was adjusting to eating less. To help her stay on track she brings her meals to work with her and records everything she eats on a calorie counting app on her smart phone.

Before her surgery, she said she couldn’t walk from the parking lot at work without needing to rest afterward.

In addition to healthy foods, Buffington usually works out for about an hour after work and will participate in her fourth 5-kilometer road race this weekend.

Buffington said she believes her success came from both exercising and eating right.

“You’ve got to exercise every single day,” Westmoreland said. “People say well ‘I can’t jog.’ Well, that’s fine, walk. Even if it’s just 15 minutes every day. If you do that every day you’re going to build up some stamina. You’re going to get to walk longer.”

Dr. Chandra Miller, a pediatrician with The Longstreet Clinic, said people tend to have more success when they have a support system. Families who work together show the most improvement, even if it’s only for one member.

Miller said she tries to stress to families that if everyone eats healthy foods and exercises they’ll all be healthier and reduce their risks of developing other health conditions.

“If they don’t lose the weight, they start to have high blood pressure, depression issues,” Miller said. “Getting the whole family together is just motivation. If you can do something with somebody else rather than doing it all by yourself, it’s more likely you’re going to do it.”

Spence said his family has been a major encouragement to his weight loss. His children have become the “food police” and remind him to chose his foods carefully.

Spence said in looking back he realizes he was “trading time” with his children and family for food. He said he’s promised his family he won’t put the weight back on and calls his stroke a “blessing in disguise.”

“I’m not going to say I would have ever had the will power or whatever it takes to lose the weight if I hadn’t had the stroke,” Spence said. “Having that thing scared me so badly that I’m going to do whatever it takes so that I don’t go through that again.”