A Big Fat Essay

Losing 100 pounds is tough, but it can be done as a true Clevelander would: without giving up the foods you love.
A bag full of loose pants, stretched-out sweaters and bed-sheet-sized T-shirts sulks in the corner of my closet.

Now and then I neatly fold another piece of clothing to serve its time in the bag. Some day I’ll drag it to the Salvation Army or Unique Thrift, but for now it’s a safety net. Just in case I don’t make it.

In April, I stood on a scale for the first time since Bill Clinton was president. I knew it would be a big number. I feared it’d be even worse than it was. Not that 282 pounds piled on a 6-foot frame is svelte, even by Midwestern standards.

My XXL T-shirts had grown tight. I didn’t need a belt anymore to hold up my 44-inch-waist pants. Another visit to Sterle’s Slovenian Country House, and I’d have to forsake department stores for catalogs and Big and Tall shops.

I was 100 pounds overweight.

I didn’t know what I’d done to get there. It seemed like I ate the way most Clevelanders do.

Growing up here means you’re raised on pierogies slathered with sour cream at Marta’s on East 222nd Street and pork by the pound at the Sausage Shoppe in Old Brooklyn. It means a good helping of stuffed cabbage at Sokolowski’s University Inn in Tremont. It means always cleaning your plate at grandma’s house.

Today, how can a Clevelander pass up a gourmet meal cooked by Iron Chef Michael Symon or skip the Parmageddon, Melt’s massive grilled cheese sandwich that audaciously uses pierogies as condiments?

I couldn’t give up all these things. They’re part of what I love about my hometown.

I was going to lose weight — but I was going to do it without giving up any single food, including my mom’s homemade dinner rolls.

Growing up, I remember looking at a fat person and thinking, How could you let that happen to yourself? It’s not like you woke up one day and realized you were huge.

But that’s kind of what happened to me.

I never stopped eating like the cross-country runner I was at Mentor High School even though I stopped running double-digit miles every day.

I bought a new mattress when achy backs left me grunting like an old man in the morning. On a cross-country flight, I wedged myself into my seat and saw looks of irritation and disgust from the people in my row. I decided I should drive more often than fly.

An ex-girlfriend heard my labored breathing as we sat in a movie theater and said she was worried about me.

It was time for a change.

I started my new life by climbing onto my bicycle. It was hard to pedal.

I set out from my home in Tremont and looped around downtown. I almost had to get off the bike and walk it up the Detroit-Superior Bridge. I was gasping for air.

I signed up for Weight Watchers Online. The first day, I followed the program perfectly, eating a filling dinner. Then I got a phone call from a buddy: It was steak night at the Rowley Inn, a Tremont bar with good food and company. I calculated I had room left for a couple of beers.

But how do you pass up steak for less than $8? So on the first day of my diet, I ate two dinners.

That night, I stared at the ceiling and asked myself what I was doing.

For the next two months, I did not stray from my daily allotment of food. I wrote down every single piece I put in my mouth. I planned out meals ahead of time. I ate if I was hungry — I just made good choices.

The weight melted off.

I ate bacon and sausage, but in moderation. I drank beer and good Scotch.

I couldn’t believe how easy it was. I could see the difference in the mirror, but it wasn’t until I dropped 30 pounds that anyone said anything.

Seeing how fast it came off was irritating. Why had I put up with being overweight? I know why: It was so much easier than doing something different.

Michael Symon — Iron Chef, pig aficionado and local skinny guy — had my old situation pegged.

“My philosophy on the fight against obesity in America: I 100 percent blame processed food,” says Symon. “I eat a lot of calories. I eat a significant amount of fat. Now, I do eat a lot of vegetables, too, but I eat zero processed food. I don’t eat anything from a can, bag or box. And I’m fit.”

By the time I called Dr. Toby Cosgrove, the Cleveland Clinic’s chief executive, I was wearing size 38 pants and had lost 60 pounds.

Cosgrove had made some controversial comments to The New York Times, saying that if it were legal, he’d prefer not to hire obese workers, much like the Clinic has stopped hiring smokers.

He swears he didn’t intend to produce a headline. He just muttered some comments off-the-cuff as part of a bigger conversation. But he doesn’t regret them. He thinks this is a conversation America needs to have.

“Obesity is pretty close to where smoking was 50 years ago,” he says. “Fifty years ago, people thought it was a personal right. You could do it if you wanted, and no one should be telling you what to do.”

I’ve never been a smoker, so it’s easy for me to point out that smokers are killing themselves. But obesity is a key factor in nasty maladies such as diabetes and colorectal cancer.

“People need to understand what they’re doing to themselves,” Cosgrove says. “There is going to be a whole generation of children who do not have grandparents.”

If we continue as we do now, studies show, half of all Americans will be obese by 2030. Not just overweight, but obese.

Biking is so much easier now.

First, I rode from Tremont to West Park, the neighborhood I was born in. Two weeks later, I headed out on the Towpath and got to Sagamore Hills and back. Not long after, I rode 50 miles out east to Delightful, Ohio (it’s near Warren). After a long, long rest, I rode 65 miles back. (I got a bit lost — I found a giant hill.) I couldn’t walk very well the next day, and I’ll probably never ride that far in a day again, but I did it.

I refuse to just see food as fuel, as some dieters do. I enjoy every last calorie. When my willpower is sapped, and I make a bad decision about eating, I write it down and go back to my plan the next day.

Women who ignored me a few months ago now return smiles and requests for phone numbers. I crave fresh fruits and vegetables instead of Little Debbie snacks.

My struggles with weight loss aren’t over. At 217 pounds, I still have another 38 pounds to lose before I’m technically at a healthy weight. And then I need to keep it off the rest of my life.

I’m likely to fail. Research shows most people who have lost weight do not keep it off long-term.

That’s OK. I don’t mind being the underdog. What Clevelander can mind? Embracing this city means striving to succeed despite expectations.

Besides, if I can lose weight while accepting a nice helping of Salisbury steak at grandma’s house, what’s going to stop me?

No excuses. Pass me a pierogi.
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