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Path to wellness

Jennifer King before and after. Photos courtesy of Jennifer King.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Jennifer Moser King struggled with weight and eating disorders her whole life.

The 36-year-old energetic mother of two, who topped out at 358 pounds three years ago, has lost 200 pounds with the help of gastric bypass surgery and wears a size 8 or 10, after years of special ordering 5X shirts.

She teaches two or three classes most days as a fitness coordinator at the YMCA and as a group fitness instructor at Defined Fitness and trains for marathons.

Last October, she says, she ran the Duke City Marathon in four hours and 20 minutes.

King happily shares her story because “if I can help one young girl with an eating disorder, I want people to know.”

Three years ago, after evaluating her options for weight loss, King opted for gastric bypass surgery. Her joints and back ached and she was developing pre-diabetes. Her mobility was so limited that when her then-3-year-old drew a picture of his mommy, his stick figure was lying down with a huge tummy.

“I thought, ‘OK, I have to do something. I have two young children and they deserve to have their mommy around,”‘ she says of her two boys.

King says she began dieting and exercising as much as she could, but at the rate of losing one or two pounds a week, it would be three years before she could reach her goals. She says that was years of her young children’s lives she didn’t want to miss lying on the couch.

Unlike many believe, gastric bypass surgery isn’t a weight-loss panacea, she says. “I’m not proud of it, but it was a tool available to me because I was morbidly obese. You lose weight, but you reach a plateau and then you can regain the weight if you don’t change your eating habits and exercise. It was a tool that gave me a chance, an 18-month window to lose 80 percent of my excess weight.”

Risks and benefits

According to the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery, surgeries such as King’s reduce the size of the stomach and reroute the small intestine to limit food and nutrient absorption.

Although patients lose weight rapidly at first, weight tends to stabilize after 18 months. The stomach fullness that kept patients from eating much early on can change as the surgically created opening from the stomach to the small intestine enlarges and food passes through it more quickly.

Additionally, patients can sabotage their success by eating high-fat, high-carbohydrate snacks too frequently.

Overall outcomes for weight loss and protection from fat-related diseases, such as diabetes and hypertension, were superior to those without the surgery and offered a greater health benefit in the long term than the risks and complications from the surgery, according to studies linked to the society’s website.

“It was a risk I was willing to take,” King says. “I was on a mission. I was not going to waste my opportunity.”

Sometimes in the early days after the surgery, when she was in pain and unable to eat anything beyond a spoonful of yogurt or a small protein shake, King says she questioned her decision.

Little by little, though, she found how she could enjoy some of the food she loved. Then when her physician allowed, she began to increase her activity, somedays by only a few steps. “Six months later, I was on a walk and I thought, ‘Maybe I can run,'” she says.

Through running she was able to work out some of her emotional issues and reconcile her life as she knew it now.

“I was so angry. I think everyone uses something to numb out. I used food, and when I didn’t have it, all the anger came out,” she says. “Some people smoke, some people shop, some people drink, I ate.”

These days, King eats smaller, healthier portions — fresh vegetables, whole grains. She consumes yogurt, oatmeal, spinach, almonds and 150 grams of protein every day. She says she splurges occasionally if she goes out with her family.

“I believe in eating clean. I subscribe to the idea that calories in should equal calories burned. But I’m not going to sit here and be a hypocrite and tell someone what they should eat. It’s a struggle for me. I love food — the taste and texture of it,” she says.

Bulimia and depression

King says her issues with food and her body image began in grade school.

She says she was labeled fat in the fourth grade, although photos of her then show a fairly normal-size little girl.

She remembers being dropped off for weight reduction meetings designed for adults, where she says she felt humiliated and betrayed by her body.

As a teenager she taught herself to vomit after every meal she ate, using the blunt end of a kitchen knife that she stored in the bathroom.

“I would spend hours in there,” she says. As she became thinner, she developed a new body with hours of daily exercise as a fitness instructor.

In seven years, the bulimia took its toll. King says she became so depressed and felt so unworthy that she didn’t want to continue living.

Her mother and her sisters rallied around her and she entered a treatment program.

After King married, had children and became a stay-at-home mom, the pounds started creeping on again.

“You know, I was basically happy,” she says. “I was fat and happy, but there were the health issues and then there was that drawing” that her son made.

Although in her treatment program for bulimia she learned to let go of her obsession with the scale, she now sees a scale as a necessary evil.

“That’s how the weight crept up on me,” she says. “You have to get on the scale once a week or once every two weeks. I have a friend that gets on the scale three times a day. Now, that’s unhealthy.”

YMCA co-worker Stephanie Browne, the organization’s community development director who has been with King through thick and thin, says she recommends a chat with King to anyone considering weight-loss surgery: “She’s an inspiring fitness leader. Her story is inspirational for anyone facing a weight-loss challenge. She understands. She knows. She can help them embrace who they are.”

Jen Coté, who has been King’s supervisor at Defined Fitness for several months, says, “She’s the type that flipped a switch with food and activities and there’s no going back for her. She knows she can and she thinks that way for her students. She has confidence in their abilities for them, even if they don’t believe it yet. She knows for other people that they can make a change because she did.”