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Saturday, January 27, 2007

Surgery paves way for career switch

Originally published Jan. 27 in Our Town for the Tracy Press.

Six years ago, Susan Maria Leach was pushing 40 and tipping the scale at 278 pounds. She felt
imprisoned in her body but didn’t know what to do about her misery. She had tried every diet on the market, with marginal success, and she was tired of it. Then Carnie Wilson’s gastric-bypass surgery success story graced the cover of People Magazine, introducing Leach to a permanent solution to her obesity.

Today, she is feeling fit and fabulous. She’s a published author with a second book on the way, proprietor of an online store — — that features bariatric-friendly foods and has also started her own nutrition company.

“I am at the perfect place in my life with my health, marriage and business,” she declared during a recent e-mail interview.

Her book, “Before and After: Living & Eating Well After Weight Loss Surgery,” is part diary,
part cookbook and considered one of the best bariatric books on the market. Some surgeons
even carry copies to sell to their patients. The book’s success paved the way for Leach’s Web site and online message board, which is motivating an army of bariatric patients to follow her path.

“It never ceases to amaze me that I have influenced so many people,” Leach said. “I tear up at least once a day while reading an email or letter or post on our message board and love seeing that I help so many find their own inner strength to be successful.”

Leach’s path began simply enough. After surgery, she was determined to find ways to continue
her passion for cooking. She focused her attention on creating delicious high-protein, low-carbohydrate meals and desserts that helped her stay on track. She tested her creations on friends, family and support group members. It didn’t take long for her to build a reputation as a bariatric gourmet, which is how she got her book deal.

“Working with HarperCollins has been an incredible experience,” she said. “I happened to be in the right place at the right time with a positive, no-nonsense attitude.”

She created her online store three years ago in an effort to make compliance convenient for post-ops.

“Rather than everyone having to buy (products) from 10 different sources, we gathered all the good proteins and vitamins in one store, so bariatric patients could shop with ease, knowing that everything was the proper nutrition and … actually tasted good,” she said.

She opened a storefront in Pompano Beach, Fla., last year and is now expanding the space for the fifth time.

The other anticipated highlight of this year is the release of her second book, which is in its first round of edits. It’s an update of her first book — complete with newer, easier recipes and new information she’s found since the original printing.

“Even though I wrote the material in the first 18 months after my surgery,” Leach said, “the
basics I outlined are still very solid right now.”

Leach knows about the value of the basics. She’s maintained a loss of 143 pounds over the past six years, despite a discouraging setback about 18 months ago.

“I had a weight gain over the course of a couple of months that put me right out of my new wardrobe,” Leach revealed. “I knew that I ate properly and had not strayed from the path but didn’t know what to make of the situation.”

Leach admits that she panicked, resorting to denial. She didn’t connect her unexplained weight gain with having had thyroid cancer two years before weight-loss surgery. The cancer required removal of the butterfly-shaped gland in her neck along with a large tumor that was choking her. Her doctors stopped prescribing synthetic thyroid hormones after her bariatric surgery, which is what led to her drastic weight gain.

“I dropped almost all of the weight gain in the first month (after resuming hormone therapy),
and I am now back to maintaining,” Leach said.

But it’s taken a long time for her to go public with her struggle.

“I was embarrassed, even though there was a plausible reason, because ‘thyroid problems’ is the
catchphrase excuse for a lot of people who are fat,” she said. “Lately, I’ve talked about it in public a little, knowing there are probably other bariatric post-ops who have undiagnosed thyroid conditions.”

Leach believes the secret to her success is as simple as consuming 80 to 100 grams of high-quality protein per day and limiting her simple carbohydrates.

“If I eat half a slice of whole-grain bread or even a few pretzels, in a half-hour I’m starving and
looking for more food,” she said. “Even if they are whole-grain carbohydrates, or fruits and vegetables that are healthy but higher in carbs, I find that I can create hunger for myself.”

Leach has no patience for those who say they can’t follow her lead because of kids or family members. There are no Doritos or Little Debbie snacks in her cupboard. She cooks for her husband much the same as she cooks for herself.

“I never think of my lifestyle as a diet and do in theory give myself permission to have a taste of whatever I want,” she said. “However, I find that I don’t want to eat bad foods. It’s amazing what happens when you remove the diet stigma and just make it part of your lifestyle.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Living life

Originally published Jan. 13, 2007, in Our Town for the Tracy Press.

It’s been almost two years since I had gastric-bypass surgery. And it’s been about six months since I’ve written a column for print. So much has happened in that time. It’s almost too much to detail. But when I think about it, I realize that’s the point.

I had weight-loss surgery so I could live life instead of observe it. And now that I’ve gotten more comfortable in my new body, living it has taken center stage. I’m hardly ever home anymore. When I am, I’m trying to catch my breath from whatever I’ve been doing.

Here’s a brief rundown of what I’ve been doing:

Being a big kid
My husband and I took a trip with his family in December to the “Happiest Place on Earth.” I hadn’t been to Disneyland since Grad Night in high school. Back then, I was 210 pounds — far from my heaviest weight of 335 — but the difference was still amazing.
I was able to enter the park by walking straight through the turnstiles — no need to shuffle sideways to get my hips through the tight space. My rear end fit comfortably in all rides, and I had no trouble lowering the safety bars on my lap.

My husband and I worked our way through all of the rides in Disneyland in a single day. We ran back and forth across the park and stood in line, all without any problem. The only time we took a breather was for meals. And even then, it was just to munch on a protein bar or some beef jerky — no time for a sit-down meal.

We had a blast at California Adventure, riding grown-up rides such as Soaring over California, Mulholland Madness, Tower of Terror, Grizzly River Run and others. I have never laughed so hard in my life. I felt half my age the entire time.

The bonus was my ability to bond with my niece and nephew like never before. Jennavieve, who is 4, doesn’t remember the plus-size Auntie Tonya very well, but she’s never known me as one to play much. When she was an infant and toddler, I was the cuddly one; my husband was the human jungle gym.

At Disneyland, I was able to take her on rides and chase her around. Her brother, Gavin, who turns 2 in March, seemed to get the biggest kick out of me being silly with him. It’s nice to no longer be a bystander in their lives.

Enjoying fresh air
My husband and I spent most of the summer hiking in Mount Diablo State Park. The scenery was incredible at Mount Diablo, and I loved being able to hike for a few hours without needing to stop to catch my breath or rest my joints.

The only break we took was when we realized we had hiked through lunchtime. We sat on some rocks on the edge of the mountain to enjoy a relaxing meal of protein bars and trail mix.
Even my husband commented on the experience, adding that such activities would never have been an option before my surgery.

Knights Ferry is another favorite hiking spot of ours. We take advantage of the park picnic grounds and barbecue lunch in the shade before heading out to explore the golden hills. The trails can be a little dicey. I often choose to descend hills on my hind end, rather than risk tumbling head over hiney.

Meeting inspiring people
I attended various conferences over the summer that addressed issues of morbid obesity and surgical weight loss. I met my bariatric-world hero, Susan Maria Leach, at a surgical conference in San Francisco. She’s the author of “Before and After” and the owner of Before and After Nutrition. Look for a column profiling her in the coming weeks. I saw Carnie Wilson — looking fit and happy — at the same conference. I spoke with surgeons and others whom I never would have had the courage to meet before I had lost weight.

At patient-focused conferences in Tulare and Fairfield, I met other inspiring post-ops and experts in the field. I learned about advances in bariatrics and new developments in the study of side effects. I made some incredible friends and contacts, many of whom have graciously agreed to be sources for upcoming columns and offer different perspectives on the challenges and successes of post-op life.

As you can see, 2006 was a busy year for me. This one shows no signs of being any different, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Sweet Drinks Put Kids' Health at Risk

According to a WebMD article, drinking lots of soda and juice sets the stage for health problems later in life for children.

The article, which cites a recent study published in the December issue of "Pediatrics," says children who consume large amounts of surgery drinks may suffer from diabetes and obesity as early as the age of 13.

One nutritionist quoted in the article was quick to say the study doesn't mean that all soda is bad — it's just that kids get too much soda too often.

"There is no kid-sized soda bottle, and few 6-ounce glasses at home," said Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "So kids get used to drinking soda in whatever size glass they have at home, whatever size bottle or can -- and that is not a single serving, it's a tureen.

"And no child needs to be consuming a tureen of soda," she says.

She also said that soda and juice is calorie-dense but doesn't fill kids up.

"Nobody drinks half of a 20-ounce bottle of soda and says, 'Whoa, I'm stuffed!'" Bonci says. "The kids consume a lot of calories and are not feeling full. So every other aspect of food intake may stay the same."