Eight-year-old Jill Graham heard too many cruel jabs from schoolmates about her weight.
So without telling her family, she tried to go on a diet, an attempt to deprive herself of food and stop schoolyard bullies from calling her "fat."
"One of the things I remember is somebody saying that I was the fattest kid in Grade 3 -- besides this other girl," recalls Graham, who is now 36. "At that point, I would try to not eat food very much, but for someone like me, that's never going to happen. You overeat. Then you don't eat. And then you continue to overeat," she says.
And so began Graham's troubled relationship with food and her constantly ballooning weight.
For decades, the Winnipegger had tried all kinds of fad diets, ranging from low-carb regimens to soup diets. At one time, she even ingested daily shots of cayenne pepper she believed would quicken her metabolism.
She didn't exercise. She ate vast amounts. And she admittedly knew very little about what food was good for her body.
"(I ate) just garbage," she says, noting white bread, sugar and salt were mealtime staples.
Meanwhile, she seemed to always stay 265 pounds, losing 10 pounds at the most before regaining them. For her 5-6 frame, the weight strained her joints to the point doctors offered her knee surgery at age 31.
She was also convinced she would eventually go into cardiac arrest, perhaps even in her 30s. "(I thought) if I have a heart attack, I'll just deal with it then," she says.
Friends and family would gently nudge her to get healthy, but since she was able to function at work and make it up a set of stairs (though not without panting), she thought she was getting by adequately.
Today, it's hard to believe Graham -- an energetic blond -- is the same person she describes.
The lab technician -- who works for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency -- has lost 105 pounds. At size 12, she looks fit and happy. She smiles often, proof she is excited about her new body and her new lifestyle.
"Now I can fly up the stairs no problem," she says during an interview at an Ellice Avenue coffee shop.
What instigated her health journey? A photograph she saw of herself taken in December 2007.
Even though Graham knew she was seriously overweight, something about seeing herself in the forefront of the picture shocked her.
"I was like, 'Holy crap, that's awful,' which isn't really great to say about yourself, but it wasn't a great picture," she says, calling the snapshot her "rock bottom."
She knew she had to make some drastic changes in her life.
Graham, who lives in Westwood, found out her mother-in-law regularly attended a Take Off Pounds Sensibly weight-loss support group, so in January 2008 she reluctantly found a chapter in her own neighbourhood.
Graham credits her weight loss to TOPS. The not-for-profit organization, based in Milwaukee, was established in 1948 and has chapters -- essentially support groups -- across North America, including here in Winnipeg. (For more information, see www.tops.org).
The cost of joining the group is minimal. Meetings are held weekly, and members weigh in and share their struggles and successes.
Graham's first meeting, which consisted of about eight people, was nerve-racking.
"It was all a huge blur. (They) had a program. (They) talked about healthy eating," she says, noting the welcoming atmosphere calmed her down.
It took a couple of months for her to start making changes to her diet -- mainly just cutting down portion sizes without changing what she was eating.
"At that point, I still ate whatever I wanted. Maybe instead of a whole chocolate bar, I would maybe split the chocolate bar with my husband. I would still have exactly what I wanted.
"(I was) just trying it out, seeing if I was going to starve to death."
Graham lost 37 pounds and went from size 22 to size 18 in 2008--just by eating less. Exercise wasn't working for her. She tried boot camps, but dropped out because she couldn't get through the drills and ended up feeling nauseous and listless.
During the second year of her newfound way of eating, the scale didn't move much, so she started researching nutrition by reading newspaper articles and surfing the web.
She discovered that whole grains, salads and heart-healthy fats were part of successful weight loss.
She also joined a Zumba class with some friends from TOPS.
For the next two years, she continued to lose weight.
Her 100-pound loss has given Graham a sense of confidence she's never had before.
Her CFIA lab co-workers (she works with infectious diseases that affect the food supply) helped by showing their support when she went from wearing 2XL-size scrubs to medium.
"Everytime I went down a scrub size, they would say, 'Those actually fit you properly instead of looking like pajamas.' That was nice."
Today, she's sure she will stay at her current weight -- and maybe even drop a few more pounds.
Her daily routine consists of waking up, walking her dog, eating a bowl of oatmeal and going to work. She packs her lunches herself -- usually salad and soup. She eats a couple of snacks a day -- perhaps fruit and cheese. The sandwiches she eats for dinner are always on grainy bread.
And she goes to Zumba classes nearly every night. (Lately she has been filling in for her Zumba teacher.)
She also supplements her cardio-heavy Zumba dancing with a group weight-training class.
She admits she's come across a roadblock or two, particularly the temptation of too much ice cream and barbecued food in the summer. Holiday season used to also be a problem, but she's learned to deal with festive gatherings by focusing on family and friends, rather than food.
She also makes sure she doesn't skip workouts during this time of year when she's more apt to indulge in sweets.
Graham says she's held on to two items of clothing from the old days -- a good reminder of everything she's achieved.
But her real accomplishment? A sense of self-worth -- something she gets from mentoring others in her weight-loss group.
"Supporting other people -- it makes you feel better about yourself that you can contribute to somebody else's well-being," she says. "If you're telling someone else they're worth it, then you're worth it too."
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