Adrienne is a funny, articulate, self-aware 17-year-old with an engaging smile and a close group of friends. She lives with her mother, Michele, and Michele’s boyfriend, Ken, in a remote area of British Columbia*. Like many Canadians, Adrienne had a nasty junk food habit and rarely exercised. At 5’6” she weighed 224 pounds. In 2009 Adrienne was so frustrated with the extra pounds she was carrying around that she secretly applied to appear on X-Weighted: Families. The show, which airs on the cable channel Slice, matches Canadian families who want to lose weight with a team of experts who teach them how to take better care of themselves.
Adrienne was a regular viewer of X-Weighted: Families
. “I filled out a questionnaire on the show’s website and didn’t tell anyone – not even my mother – until she and I were called to go to an interview,” says Adrienne. “I wasn’t interested in acting; it was purely about finding a way to help me lose weight.”
After several interviews with the show’s executive team, Adrienne and Michele were chosen to be featured in one of the 13 episodes during the fifth season, a process that would require a five-month commitment to eating properly and being more active. The long process took place in 2009.
In the episode, Adrienne faces the camera and says bluntly, “I’m fat. I don’t like to beat around the bush. Every time I overeat, there’s a huge consequence. But it’s a vicious cycle – I feel uncomfortable about my body, so I eat more. I know that if I continue like this, I’m killing myself.”
Michele, 50, had struggled with her own weight from the age of seven to 17, carrying about 75 extra pounds during those years. At the start of filming she was 5’3” and 155 pounds, so she was ready to make some healthy changes too.
A team approach
Enter Dr. David Macklin, the show’s obesity physician, and fitness expert Paul Plakas. Macklin weighed Adrienne and Michele at the beginning, middle and end of the five months and gave them information about health and nutrition.
Plakas led the pair through the first and final fitness tests, threw out the unhealthy food in their kitchen and set them up on a training schedule to help them achieve their fitness goal: to swim two kilometres across a lake, in spite of Adrienne’s fear of fish in the water. Adrienne chose the lake swim as her fitness challenge because she wanted to conquer a fear as well.
After a few months of swimming 20 laps at a pool three times a week, going for walks with their dog, Shadie, and working out at a gym, the day came for Adrienne and Michele to tackle the lake. Michele had injured her right arm and had to swim on her back using just her left arm; at the halfway point, she was in too much pain to continue and had to climb into the rescue boat, tears of disappointment trickling down her cheeks.
In spite of Adrienne’s fear of fish and the cold water – and the fact that her mother was no longer a few strokes behind her – she crossed the lake in a respectable one hour and 10 minutes. “I didn’t want to give up,” she says. “I had been practising for months, and I knew there were people on the other shore waiting for me. It was a huge accomplishment.”
Plakas, who had kayaked alongside Adrienne and urged her on when she got discouraged, wasn’t surprised she made it. “I could see that her swim strokes were decent and that she wasn’t tired at all,” he says. “My biggest concern was that her fear of the fish would cause her to stop.”
At their final weigh-in with Macklin, Adrienne had lost 30 pounds and Michele had dropped 18. Both were thrilled with their leaner, healthier selves. At the end of the episode, a confident Adrienne says, “I know the last 30 pounds were possible, so I know the next 30 pounds are possible.”
It’s one thing to lose weight when you have a team of professionals supporting your efforts, along with a television crew to be accountable to week after week. But what happens when filming stops?
“When the show ended and the pressure was off, I realized that I was going to struggle with my weight my entire life,” says Adrienne. She regained a few pounds after spending a summer in Quebec on a student-exchange program, where her work placement was at a shop that made poutine. When she was interviewed for this story in November 2010, about a year after the five-month program, she was trying to exercise more regularly but still finding eating properly a challenge.
As for Michele, when the cameras stopped rolling she put the scale away – and regained five pounds by eating too many treats. But she quickly got back on track. “I love to go to the bakery, so I decided that the only time I can go is if I walk there, and it’s a 10-kilometre walk,” she says. “That balances out the indulgence of a few doughnuts once in a while.”
Since Michele’s erratic schedule in advertising sales makes it difficult to fit in a long workout, she started doing five minutes of exercise on the hour, 10 times a day, which she’s planning to increase to 10 minutes. “I do a variety of exercises, and it really works well,” she says.
Both Michele and Adrienne agree the experience of being on the show was overwhelmingly positive. They got full support when the show aired in early 2010, from Adrienne’s teachers, classmates, friends and family to Michele’s friends and colleagues.
“For me, the best part was seeing Adrienne overcome her fears and become more self-motivated to take care of herself,” says Michele. And Adrienne discovered more than just the importance of counting calories and working out: “The most important thing I learned is that I can do anything I set my mind to.”
The obesity doctor weighs in
Dr. David Macklin is one of Canada’s leading obesity experts and the founder of the Weightcare clinic in Toronto. He implores parents to take an active role in their children’s health.
“Parents need to know that every time they feed their children fat and sugar, they increase the likelihood that their children will carry those eating habits and obesity into adulthood,” says Dr. Macklin. “That’s especially true if their own family history suggests that their kids might be highly sensitive to sugar and fat.”
Macklin stresses that children shouldn’t be exposed repeatedly to foods containing high amounts of sugar and fat; rather, those foods should be occasional treats. His advice to Adrienne when filming started was that she stop eating big, high-fat dinners and instead eat healthy snacks throughout the day leading up to dinnertime and establish a rule of not eating more than 500 calories at dinner.
“When I met Adrienne at the end of the show, she told me she attributed
much of her weight loss to reining in her big dinner habit,” says Dr.
Macklin. ”Now, even though the pressure, support and accountability of
the show is over, her dinner rule needs to be for good.”
The fitness expert weighs in
Paul Plakas has been a personal trainer for almost 20 years. His advice
to anyone trying to get fit is to do activities that are enjoyable so
you’ll keep doing them. In Adrienne’s case, it was swimming.
earlier people adopt healthy lifestyles, the better, he says. “It’s
vital for young people to make a habit and passion of exercise and
proper nutrition early in their life and stick to it. Parents have to
support their children on this path as much as possible.”
says part of the problem is that many parents don’t feel their children
are as overweight as they actually are until they step on a scale or a
family doctor tells them. “Emotional eating” is often a contributing
factor to weight gain, so it’s important for those who overeat to figure
out why and when they do so; for example, Adrienne often turns to food
after arguing with her mother.
“Most people overeat because they’re
stressed or bored,” says Plakas. “They need to find a healthier way to
deal with those situations.”
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, March 2011.
Jane Doucet is a Halifax-based freelance writer specializing in medical reporting.