Surprising Lessons Learned at 'Fat Camp'

By , SparkPeople Blogger
If you would have asked Joe Panarella a year ago if he would ever consider attending a weight loss camp, he probably would have laughed. Although he weighed more than 400 pounds, he had no interest in making a change, and was perfectly content with continuing along the same unhealthy path he'd followed since adolescence. But his friends and family refused to give up. Today, Joe is the first to admit that his three-week stay at the Pritikin Longevity Center could very well have saved his life. This is his story.

Eating His Way through Depression

Born in Staten Island, New York, Joe was an active and athletic child—until two unfortunate events threw him for a loop. First, his mother passed away when he was 19 years old. Then, at 22, he was diagnosed with a heart condition that required him to use a pacemaker. Suddenly unable to play sports, Joe sank into a deep depression. Growing up in an Italian-American family, he'd been raised to view food as comfort and reward, so it seemed natural to use snacking and binging as a balm for his sadness. So began an unhealthy pattern that would last for decades.

As an adult and business owner in Howell, New Jersey, Joe had long ago accepted his fate as "the fat guy"—but his childhood friend, Richie, and his wife had other ideas. "They tried interventions, they tried scaring me with talk about diabetes and high blood pressure, but I refused to listen," Joe recalls. "I thought everyone was crazy." The turning point came when Joe overheard his friend on the verge of tears, talking about his fear that Joe might die. "I was very touched by that, by how my choices were impacting the people I loved. So I told my friend, okay, I'll do it for you."
When Joe first started his journey, he had three goals:
  1. "I wanted to be able to bend down and tie my shoe without kneeling."
  2. "I wanted to go to a store that wasn't a Big & Tall. I was tired of elastic jeans. I just wanted to walk into a regular store and buy regular pants."
  3. "I wanted to lose 100 pounds."
Joe started exercising and watching what he ate. In the first month, he lost five or six pounds. The second month he only lost three, the third month he didn't lose any weight at all and the fourth month he actually gained weight. That was when Joe's friend, Rich, took over. He called Pritikin and paid in full for Joe's stay.

"I thought, 'there's no way I'm going to a fat farm,'" Joe recalls. "I assumed it would be like “The Biggest Loser,” where they yell at you all day and only feed you apples and egg whites." He called Pritikin and tried to cancel five or six times, but they were prepared. Coached by Rich, they told Joe they didn't give refunds. Unwilling to waste his friend's money, Joe reluctantly packed his bags.

A Rocky Start

With a large measure of reluctance, Joe arrived at Pritikin the day after Easter. A day late for the session, he missed orientation. Already feeling behind, he hated the place at first sight.

"My first thought was, 'Where are all the fat people like me?'" he remembers. "I didn't see anyone who was over 400 pounds, or anyone my age. I was panicked and angry." When one of the staff members offered Joe a water bottle, he threw it at the wall. "I was convinced I didn't belong there. I thought there was no way I'd last the whole three weeks."

The staffer sat with Joe and calmed him down, encouraging him to give the place a try. "The guy told me I was going to lose weight while eating as much as I wanted," Joe says. "He showed me the buffet with all of this delicious food, and said, go ahead, eat. So I grabbed a plate and fork and started eating. 'I'll show them,' I thought. Nobody stopped me."

For the first couple of days, Joe didn't talk to anyone. Typically a very outgoing and jovial person, he had no desire to make friends at Pritikin. His wife visited and joined Joe for his group therapy sessions, where they learned that his desire to overeat stemmed from depression. "I found out that people who eat too much are often depressed—they just get caught in a downward spiral and can't stop," Joe says. "Food seems like the solution. But I also found out that it's not a life sentence. It's completely reversible."

As the days passed, Joe's emotions fluctuated between hope and despair. He took comfort in a letter from his wife, which encouraged him to continue on his journey not for anyone else, but for himself. It was her pride and support that compelled Joe to give Pritikin a chance.

No Pain, No Gain

During the first week, Joe's biggest adversary was his own body. His muscles were achy and swollen after each workout, protesting after 20 years of inactivity. "I'll be honest, everything hurt in the beginning," he says. On the second day, he was so sore that he could barely get out of bed. Even walking was painful. When it was time to get on the treadmill, Joe snapped at the trainer, angered by his pain and weakness. "The trainer said, ‘Okay, forget the treadmill.’ Instead, he had me soak in a hot Jacuzzi and then a cool bathtub to soothe my muscles," Joe says.

The pain gradually abated, and every day Joe did a little bit more. He found that he enjoyed swimming laps in the pool—he started with 10, then 12, then 14, and then all the way up to 40 or 50 laps without stopping. It wasn't long before he was addicted to how great exercise made him feel. Competitive by nature, Joe felt compelled to do more, to find his own limits and then push past them. When everyone else did 40 minutes on the treadmill, he did an hour.

"I went from the guy who didn't even want to be there, to the guy who was doing more than everyone else," he says. As his weight dropped, his confidence and strength soared.

A New Attitude toward Food

For 20 years, Joe's relationship with food had been the epitome of unhealthy. He describes a man who would wake up in the middle of the night to raid the pantry and fridge, devouring Oreos, peanut butter, ice cream—anything he could find. He also had a habit of hoarding food. "I stashed junk food in every room of the house, and even at work," he says. "I would binge-eat when I was alone, without anyone knowing."

With the help of Pritikin's instructors, Joe had to rewire his brain to think about food in an entirely new way. "I was shocked by what I learned," he says. "They told me about the health ramifications of all the oil, salt, sugars and other stuff I'd been eating. They told me what I should be eating instead, and how much."

After never glancing at a single food label in more than 20 years, Joe learned how to read them. On a trip to the grocery store, the Pritikin nutritionists showed him how to choose the right foods and avoid the wrong ones. Now, Joe always looks at the label before putting an item in his grocery cart—and if it doesn't fit with his new eating plan, back on the shelf it goes. "I went from the guy eating the bag of Doritos, to the guy who sees someone eating them and asks, 'Do you know how bad those are for you?'"

Today, Joe eats more than ever, but he eats better. His biggest success strategy is to front-load on healthy fare before the main course. Before eating a piece of fish or chicken, Joe starts with a fruit or vegetable, or soup or salad with veggies in it. That way, he's not starving and eats less of the higher-calorie foods. Joe also limits his consumption of bread, carbs, oil, salt and sugar. He still has a sweet tooth, but he curbs it with fruit instead of cakes and cookies. "Ultimately, once you're educated on smart eating, you'll get what your body needs and you won't crave the bad things anymore," he says.

Oh, and Joe now eats all of his meals in the kitchen, without one single food hidden anywhere.

Tips for Keeping off the Weight
  • Have a support system at home. "This was crucial. My support has been my wife, kids and friends," Joe says. "When my son says 'I'm so proud of you,' that keeps me going, keeps me inspired." Joe also gets a motivational boost when people tell him how much better he looks—and not just because of his slimmer physique. "They tell me my skin looks healthier, my eyes are brighter—and they don't have bags under them anymore."
  • Schedule exercise like you would any appointment. Since leaving Pritikin, Joe has worked out at the gym five or six times every week, and sees a personal trainer three times a week. His workouts are a combination of cardio and strength training.
  • Don't stop seeking guidance. Joe still speaks to his Pritikin nutritionist, Kimberly, once a week. When he starts to feel bored with his meals plans, she gives him new ideas.
  • Be smart about eating out. Kimberly provided Joe with a card that outlines his dietary restrictions; when he eats out at restaurants, he simply shows the card to his server to ensure that he only gets healthy choices.
So far, Joe has shed more than 70 pounds, has lost 10 inches in his waist and is down to a 3X clothing size (from 5X). Even more inspiring than the numbers is Joe's transformation in attitude and lifestyle.

What would Joe say to someone who's sitting on the couch right now, feeling hopeless and helpless? "The first step is to be willing to make the change, to realize you've hit rock bottom and that you can't help yourself."

To those considering a weight loss camp, Joe says the hardest step is picking up the phone and making the reservation. "As long as you stick with the program, you won't fail," he says. "The only way you can fail is if you walk out of the place. If you do their formula, you'll succeed. There is hope; you've just got to believe."

What do you think about Joe's story? Would you ever consider attending a weight loss camp? Why or why not?

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DLDMIL 11/25/2018
Congratulations Joe Report
SHOAPIE 11/25/2018
Thanks Joe. Report
TOMORROW-C 11/24/2018
Well done Joe! Report
ALLENJOSEPH 11/24/2018
I so enjoyed Joe's story. What an inspiring story for so many that struggle with weight.
Thank you, Joe for putting your story out here for us to read and be inspired. Report
TINYYONI 11/24/2018
How inspiring! Wonderful journey and success! I love these stories because they help me so much!
Thanks Joe and keep up the good work! Report
KAREN_EDMONDS 11/24/2018
Way to go Joe! Such an inspiration! Report
REJ7777 11/24/2018
Congratulations on your success. Thank God for supportive friends and family, and that you now know the "secrets" that will enable you to stay slim and healthy for the rest of your life. Report
MCBETH 10/4/2018
Fantastic!! Report
KHALIA2 9/15/2018
Great Job, Joe! Report
KATRENIAH 9/6/2018
This was an inspiring story - the fact that Joe fought against it rings true to me, and I love how his family and friends fought FOR him. Report
DJ4HEALTH 8/20/2018
Great job and congrats! Report
KHALIA2 8/7/2018
Congrats, Joe! WAY TO GO! Report
YBBHAPPY 7/28/2018
Congratulations! What an inspiring story. Joe you have overcome a lot of obstacles & give me hope I can do the same! Report
MARLIEME1 7/21/2018
He's gone through an incredible journey... I’ve tried the breathing method for raising my metabolic rate and keeping off the extra weight and I can honestly say that it really does work. I’ve implemented triangular breathing -3 seconds in, holding the breath for another 3 seconds and 6 seconds out. I’ve looked into other ways to better my body such as detoxification as well, and recently came across “rooibos” as an alternative to green tea.
m/2018/07/16/the-journey-begins/ I think more people should delve into this type of therapy so there are less occasions of unhealthy binging. Report
HAPPYDAZ1 7/19/2018
What an inspiring article. Never thought about making an appointment to work out. Seems I just fit it iin my day be it early or late rushed or not. I'm going to change this part of my plan. Report
Incredible healthy journey Joe. Thank you for sharing and inspiring many. Report
KHALIA2 7/2/2018
Congrats, Joe on a job well done! Report
MNABOY 6/17/2018
Thanks for sharing! Report
Well done Joe! Report
KATHYJO56 5/24/2018
Great job Joe-Congratulations!!! Report
MDROBBIE 4/18/2018
For the lonely person I found support at Weight Watchers. I actually made friends as I lost for the first time. I had to quit because of financial reasons. Otherwise I would like try it again Report
MDROBBIE 4/18/2018
For the lonely person I found support at Weight Watchers. I actually made friends as I lost for the first time. I had to quit because of financial reasons. Otherwise I would like try it again Report
I-AM-TITANIUM 4/14/2018
Me.. I cried my eyes out in fits of self-pity .. I have no support with my weight loss. I do this alone. Don't get me wrong.. I do this for me, but I am so alone in this journey and I have no one at home to work out with me nor encourage me to persevere..
(cue the record.. Bobby Vinton "Mr Lonely")

I am inspired by the story and I am glad he 'made it'! Report
NANCYANNE55 4/8/2018
Very inspiring story- He's doing great and should be very proud for putting in the work. I don't have nearly as much to lose as Joe- about 25 pounds- and would LOVE to go to Pritikin. The lessons I'd learn would, I believe, help me be healthier for life. Report
FITGIGI0102 3/29/2018
You are SO blessed in your support system! Report
DJ4HEALTH 3/10/2018
Way to go!! Report
KATHYJO56 3/4/2018
I hope you are proud of your accomplishments, because I certainly am. You totally rock! Report
I'm glad it all worked out. I'll admit I rolled my eyes at the temper tantrums since I would have been so appreciative for the support and the experience but I am glad that it ultimately worked out and I hope that it inspires someone else to make a life change as well. Report
MOONDRAGON29 2/6/2018
Great job. Report
DIROB57 1/11/2018
Inspiring story! Report
MIYAMO 1/3/2018
Great going Joe. Keep it up. Report
a great story thanks for sharing Report
Thank you for taking us on your journey. You have inspired me. Report
Great story, very motivating! Report
I am proud of you. You have a marvelous friend. I wish someone would care enough about me pay for me to learn how to eat right! Report
Thanks, Joe. Report
Wow! What an amazing story of perseverance! Your story is so encouraging to me thank you for sharing Report
Beautiful - thanks for sharing Report
WOW!! This is a remarkable story!! I notice this is an older post. I hope you are still doing well. You are so inspirational! Report
Touching. Report
Joe's story brings tears to my eyes. Very powerful. Congratulations. Keep at it Joe! Way to go. Report
thank you for your story. I liked it so much i sent it on to my friend, of whom I am very worried. Your blog sounded just like her in the "I don't want this, I won't do this, and just leave me alone". I hope she reads it and is inspired by it. Thanks! Report
Thank you for being honest about the struggle of your journey. None of your progress was easy. Instead, it was hard-won and well-earned. Cheers to you! Report
Thanks for telling us your story. It must of been the most difficult things you did in your life. So happy that you stuck with it and you have the support of your family and friends. You did a complete 180 and you will make your goal of wearing regular size clothing for sure. You are living your life to the fullest now and you do not want to be the old Joe any longer with your new found nutritional knowledge and ability to hit the gym. congratulations!! Report
Great job Joe, thanks for posting your story!
You are such an inspiration, keep up the good work!
CONGRATS Joe in the job VERY WELL DONE ! Keep up the hard, but rewarding work ! Soon you will be shopping in a regular store in the "regular" sizes !!

I just don't want to spend the $$ on a camp type thing when i can do it on my own,,, with the support system I have. It's strong, but not many have that. If I felt well,, I'd be traveling more, and YES i stay in my calorie range (well one meal I may out of it) and get outside as much as I can.

Fantastic job Joe! I wish you all the success on your new lifestyle. What I loved is that the camp focused on the cause (binging due to depression) and didn't just try to tackle the symptoms (weight gain).

Just getting access to the nutritionist, fitness trainer and people with similar goals would make me want to go to this camp but I wouldn't be able to afford it I think. Which is why I am happy I have SparkPeople. Report
Wow, this is very inspiring. I'm only 5'2" and 200lbs, and desperately need to lose weight. I can see that depression may be at the root of it. Congratulations Joe, and thank you so much for sharing and helping others.
Congratulations on your weight loss, Joe! Your story is very inspirational!

Would you ever consider attending a weight loss camp? Why or why not?

I wouldn't normally think about that, because of the money. But if I had the funds and I was assured that I could eat vegetarian food the whole time, I might go. It's probably nice to meet other people struggling with the same thing as you. I've really never thought of this before, though.

I have thought of going to a yoga retreat. Those look like a lot of fun. They have yoga sessions and talks on yoga philosophy, and all the healthy vegetarian food that you could want. You could even lose weight there! They usually have hiking trails you can get on and go hiking with your new friends. Report