Healing and recovery are tough for someone at a healthy weight, but for someone who is close to 300 pounds, it's even more difficult. Karen discovered this in the fall of 2010, when she was in an accident that left her in a wheelchair with two broken legs.
Her "a-ha" moment came in the doctor's office shortly after the accident, when her physician looked at Karen's chart, looked her in the eye and said, "You do know that you are obese, right? That means your recovery won't be easy."
She was determined to prove him wrong.
Over the next year, Karen underwent several surgeries to repair her damaged leg and foot. Following that were two years of physical therapy to regain her strength. In 2011, during the recovery process, she started using SparkPeople (under STEEPERSLOUNGE) to track her weight-loss journey.
"At first, I blamed my weight increase on being in a wheelchair, walker, crutches or cane—but that was just an excuse I was telling myself," she says. "I needed to learn how to eat to nourish my body and how to track macronutrients."
Given that she was still recovering, Karen's exercise program started slowly, walking both in the pool and outside. That simple action—the ability to walk—seemed like a gift. As she grew stronger, she started cycling on the bike paths and gardening, and also continued with her physical therapy exercises to avoid injury.
As Karen's weight started to come off, her confidence began to grow. She surprised herself by participating in some local 5K and 8K races as a speed walker. "In the 8K, I came in last place to cross the finish line," she recalls. "For many, that would have been devastating, but not for me—I was just so grateful to walk. To my surprise, many of the seasoned runners waited for me to cross the finish line to cheer me on. And all of this unfolded right here on SparkPeople, through my blogs."
Initial Success, Then Setbacks
After losing more than 100 pounds, Karen's weight fluctuated for several years as she faced other personal challenges. In caring for her husband, who was a heart disease patient, and her aging parents, it was all too easy to put her own health on the back burner.
"After years of fluctuating and regaining, I knew I needed to buckle down and educate myself through SparkPeople on how to nourish my body and exercise correctly—but most importantly, I needed to learn how to balance a busy family life and rid myself of the excess baggage that would trigger me to eat," Karen says.
To help her deal with the stressors in her life, Karen began blogging on SparkPeople. The journaling helped her to understand what triggered her overeating—it wasn't just stress, but also social pressures and the mindset that she could indulge in an excess of unhealthy foods just because she had worked out. Through blogging, Karen also learned how to put herself first, instead of always trying to care for others and neglecting her own needs.
Then, in May 2015, Karen's father passed away suddenly. Meanwhile, she was battling migraines with seizures, which led to additional medications that caused Karen to again regain weight—more than 30 pounds.
"I was at a low point in my life, embarrassed to admit that I was human and had regained weight," she remembers. "So I quit SparkPeople. At the time, I was a SparkPeople motivator, but how could I motivate anyone when I could not motivate myself?"
Little did Karen know that this setback in her journey would actually make her stronger.
After undergoing numerous genetic tests for multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's and a few other devastating diseases—all of which fortunately came back negative—Karen learned that her body produces too much copper, a condition that can cause seizures. She eliminated processed food, soda and unhealthy snacks from her diet, balancing her PH levels by consuming high-alkaline vegetables and fruits.
In 2017, Karen rejoined SparkPeople at 216 pounds, with the goal of tracking her copper intake through food. "I tracked every morsel of food consumed with nutrients," she says. "It was a real eye-opener as to how much sugar I was consuming daily."
It was then that Karen made the decision that would ultimately change her life: to say goodbye to sugar.
Karen's Journey to Sugar-Free Living
Karen's first step in giving up sugar was joining the Sugar-Free Challenge on SparkPeople, and then reading (and re-reading) all of the resource articles on the site. She examined every label of every food product she purchased, and entered everything she ate into the Nutrition Tracker.
Karen also cut out low-fat foods, realizing that most of them had hidden sugar. As an example, instead of coffee creamer, Karen now uses pre-portioned half-and-half, and only drinks two cups of decaf in the morning. She also stopped buying sugar-filled juices, switching instead to hot and iced tea.
Next, Karen started making all of her own condiments with a food processor and canning them for later use. She also prepares her own salad dressings, and has increased her (portion-controlled) intake of "good" fats, such as avocado oil, olive oil, coconut oil, real butter and real heavy cream.
Other foods on Karen's "avoid" list include pasta, rice, potatoes and wheat bread. Instead, she bakes gluten-free bread, tortillas and pizza crust using coconut flour or almond meal/flour. Some of her other go-to foods include cauliflower and broccoli rice, zucchini noodles and hash browns with riced cauliflower. She concentrates on healthy food combinations, such as a lean protein served over a bed of steamed alkaline greens, vegetables or on a salad. She still enjoys desserts, but has learned how to prepare them without the added sugar, such as a crustless lemon cheesecake topped with fruit.
In total, Karen's natural daily sugar intake from high-alkaline fruits and vegetables is no more than 28 grams. Now that she is eating a diet of high-alkaline fruits and vegetables, portioned good fats and the right amount of protein, she stays full and no longer has energy crashes.
"Good fat keeps me fuller longer," she notes. "I noticed that when I ate processed foods that were high in sugar, my energy would tank, and then I would need to replenish it. It was a vicious cycle."
"Many of the recipes on SparkPeople can be prepared sugar-free to meet my nutritional needs," Karen points out. "I adjust the macronutrients to meet my personal health needs. I really enjoy the SparkPeople recipe builder and recipe section."
More than 130 days into her sugar-free lifestyle, Karen has lost 32 more pounds. Although she hasn’t yet reached her goal, she sees herself as a work in progress, headed down the right path.
To successfully ditch sugar, Karen suggests not focusing on what you'll be missing, but rather what you'll be gaining. And weight loss is just one of many benefits: Since she began balancing her PH and eliminating sugar, Karen has gone from 14 medications to zero, her thyroid now functions normally, her blood pressure is 80/60 and her bloodwork is in a normal, healthy range.
"Some people can go cold turkey without sugar—it took me years wean off my bad food choices," she says. "For me, the research was the key to finding the right food combinations for my personal health needs. The less sugar I ate, the less I craved."
Looking Ahead to Bigger Goals
Today, at 56 years old, Karen leads a healthy, active lifestyle. Each morning, she gets up early to stretch and walk on the treadmill, then does a quick session on the rowing machine or with resistance bands if she's traveling. She also joined a competitive rowing team and enjoys fencing and cycling. In her free time, Karen volunteers at the Chicago Botanic Gardens in the horticulture department and with the Veterans in Hospice care.
After starting back at SparkPeople at 216 pounds, Karen is only 25 pounds from her goal weight of 160. Now that she has conquered her sugar addiction, she's working on a new goal of cross-training to strengthen her triceps, biceps and shoulders with SparkPeople's Premium workouts. Karen's long-term future goal is to be on a sailboat crew for the Mackinaw Island Race on Lake Michigan.
"I am realistic that this new goal will take time, but it will happen by doing research on SparkPeople, staying committed to my goal and asking the SparkCoaches for advice," she says.
Karen's advice to those just starting their health journey is to be confident in their pursuit of their goals. "Don't worry about feeling awkward when you begin a workout program—everyone is self-conscious," she says. "Start with small changes, one at a time. Journal and learn to recognize your eating trigger(s)—we all have them."
As a first step, Karen recommends reading the articles on SparkPeople. For nutrition, she says the most important thing is to focus first on calorie and water intake, then to start tracking macronutrients to meet your personal health needs. "But most importantly, if you do fail—as I did many times over the years—pick yourself back up and keep going until you find what works for you. Remember, Thomas Edison failed his way to success."
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