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Losing Weight Involves New Behavior, Image

Weight loss is a multibillion-dollar industry. It includes programs--the good, the bad, the ugly--that worsen a weight problem, promise to change it overnight or, in the rare cases, promote healthy lifelong change. It is especially important now. A federal panel has just concluded that weight loss is as serious a national problem as smoking. In a three-part series, The Times takes a look at the impact of weight loss programs on people in San Diego County--from diet to exercise programs, from snake-oil remedies to the traumas of morbid obesity. Today's segment takes a look at commercial diet programs.

April 09, 1985|MIKE GRANBERRY | Times Staff Writer

CHULA VISTA — Most of all, she remembers the pain. She remembers the cold looks, the stares, the cruel jokes. She remembers the shame on her children's faces, the doubt in her husband's eyes.

"I've been that heavy person at parties that people pull away from," Sheron Silva said. "It's so rarely a 'glandular problem,' which we all like to say. I've been that person in the supermarket with the extra ice cream, everyone wondering why she's so unhappy."

For Silva, 36, obesity was the product of change. When her husband left the Air Force, "it was a real shock," she said. "I don't mean moving--I mean the adjustment. I was unhappy losing the security of the service. Wherever we'd go, friends were always there. The service is a close-knit society. Very protective. You're always taken care of. For a long time, I was terribly unhappy."

In moving from an air base in Merced to Chula Vista, Silva went from 120 pounds to 200 in 18 months. She became sullen, withdrawn, a wallflower. She stopped playing softball with her daughter, one of the bad things. One of the good things--she thought--was using obesity as a shield.

"Being heavy," she said with a wan smile, "wow . . . you can hide behind all sorts of things. You can divorce yourself from the human race. You become a pariah, an alien."

For William Johnson, 44, obesity played a different role. He had spent a lifetime fighting the image of the fat kid and later the fat dad.

"My children were ashamed of me," he said. "And I can't blame them."

Obesity plagued Phyllis, now a leader in Overeaters Anonymous (OA), much the same way. (Phyllis, 53, explained that OA members use only their first names in print.) She was an overweight child, then a woman who added guilt and desperation to a nightmare that wouldn't go away.

"I abused my children," she said. "I had a violent temper. I was an angry lady, partly for all the pain. My first husband was killed at a railroad crossing. I spent a lifetime alienating people, beating up on them. I went through a scary blackout period. I overdosed on pills, tranquilizers, booze. And food. Always food!"

Haltingly, sometimes fearfully, Phyllis, Silva and Johnson now command a measure of control. They've controlled, Phyllis said, by "letting go," by making themselves "powerless, which all fat people have to do." Each has lost and kept off more than 100 pounds. Each used different methods in getting there.

The joys each feels are as real as the summer wardrobes that fit, the bellies that don't jiggle, the children who look at parents with pride.

"The wonderful thing is that it can be maintained," Phyllis said.

Along the way, first-time pleasures have cropped up repeatedly. Johnson is a tall, raw-boned man with a slow drawl and a kind, effacing manner. He's noticed a mildly alarming trend recently.

"Losing that weight has had a huge effect on social life, confidence, everything," he said. "Lately, some women are makin' outright passes at me."

He lost 100 pounds in 22 weeks, from a "personal worst" of 318. Phyllis came down from 225. And Silva's 105 is up from a low of 92.

For her, a different woe set in.

"I became clinically anorexic," she said, alluding to a crisis that experts say isn't uncommon for thin people who once were "morbidly" obese. "We often trade one extreme for the other."

The Silva who used to strain in walking around the block found herself running 60 miles a week, a regimen started five years ago. She learned to relax--to live and eat--in moderation.

"Now maybe I run five to six days a week," she said. "I might run for 30 minutes or an hour. If I feel like 40, I do 40 and not a minute more."

A small woman with curly hair and a soft Georgia accent, Silva has undergone an image change the likes of which Madison Avenue can't match.

"Obese people give so much time to negative images," she said. "You have to do a lot of rewriting in the mind. You're constantly saying, 'I'm fat, I'm ugly, people don't like me.' You have to change all that."

Silva lost her weight through the program she now heads at Community Hospital of Chula Vista. Be Trim costs $145 for a five-week session, is sponsored by the National Center for Health Promotion, and is also offered at Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa. Silva likes it for the cost (one of the lowest in the county), its low-pressure approach, and its focus on changing behavior.

"We get to the cause rather than the effects," she said. "We use self-awareness, getting into feelings--anger, exhaustion, boredom--how to give ourselves options other than food. If you're mad at the kids, rather than start grazing in the kitchen, try to recognize the anger--do something else. Eating is always an option. But so is walking or reading a book."

Be Trim is, Silva explained, "no diets, no pills, no shots, no hypnosis, no weigh-ins." That alone makes it different from most weight-loss programs in America. It teaches portion control and reading ingredients.

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