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:
"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
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."