The Sister-in-Law Diet

Ellen's calm, scientific way of thinking was strangely comforting. Whenever I slipped, she was there to pick me up.

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- Posted on Feb 18, 2015

Ellen (left) helped set Roberta on a healthier path.

“Do you maybe have anything spiffier?” I asked the salesman at the medical-supply store. I was staring at a motorized scooter in a color so dismal I didn’t know what to call it...greige?

He showed me one in a cheery cherry red. Better. If I had to spend the rest of my life in a chair, it might as well match my nails and pocketbook.

“Your scooter will arrive in a month,” he said, writing up my order. “Right at your doorstep.”

Great. That meant I’d have it in time for Thanksgiving. In time for everyone to see, especially my sister-in-law, Ellen. I sighed, limping out of the store. What choice did I have? I was only 56 years old, but this scooter had been a long time coming. So this is it, Lord. More of a complaint than a prayer.

I had been battling health problems since I was teenager, when I was diagnosed with a condition that caused benign tumors to grow on my nerves. There were tumors in my brain, in my mouth, even on my spine and legs, which made it excruciatingly difficult to walk. I had undergone 32 surgeries over the years.

As if that wasn’t enough, the antiseizure medications I’d been prescribed contributed to weight gain. I’m not going to lie, though. I had a sweet tooth, big time. I weighed nearly 300 pounds by the time I was 40. Nowadays, I could barely complete my rounds as a nurse without panting, then collapsing into a chair in the patient waiting room.

“The best thing you can do, Roberta, is lose some of that weight,” my longtime physician, Dr. Brownfield, had told me at my last appointment. “Might even keep you out of a scooter.”

It was a nice idea in theory. I’d tried every diet there was, from Atkins to Weight Watchers, and never lost more than five pounds. My health problems had taken so much from me already. Now they were about to take my freedom.

To add insult to injury, Thanksgiving came and the scooter never arrived. There was some kind of mix-up. Typical. They probably ran out of red. At least I saved face in front of my family when we all gathered for dinner.

Ellen eyed me when I arrived. I always felt as though Ellen—and everyone, really—judged me because of my weight. In the 40-plus years she’d been married to my brother, the two of us had never really connected.

She’d always been good to my brother, and we had a polite relationship. But we were hardly close. What did we have to talk about? Ellen was a math teacher and athlete, the kind of person who exercised regularly and cut the fat out of everything. She was six years older than I was, but had the energy of a high school cheerleading squad.

Meanwhile, I was easily 100 pounds overweight and about to be relegated to a motorized scooter, a fact I left out when she asked how I was doing. I don’t think she would have been impressed that the scooter came in red.

Ellen had cooked up an elaborate feast. She sent me home with a dozen different containers of leftovers. I phoned her the week after to thank her. Despite ingredients like broccoli and low-fat sour cream, her dishes had been surprisingly tasty.

“What in the world do you do to that food?” I asked. I’d actually lost a pound from eating her meals all week.

“Just a few cuts here and there,” she said, then paused. “You know, Roberta, if you want to lose weight...I mean, if you really want to try, I could coach you.”

Ellen? Coach me? How would that work, exactly? We could barely make small talk. How was I going to discuss something as personal as my diet with her? Just the thought of disclosing my candy-bar-a-day habit made me cringe. And did she think I hadn’t tried during all my other futile dieting attempts? That I was some kind of diet slacker?

I almost told her no on the spot. But Dr. Brownfield’s words popped into my head. “Maybe we could keep you out of that scooter....” I had a choice. It was a long shot, but anything was better than a future on wheels. Even if that meant opening up to my perfect sister-in-law.

“You can think about it,” Ellen said.

“I don’t have to think about it,” I said. “I’m up for it.”

I had no idea what i was getting myself into. To get started, Ellen asked me to keep a food journal. I tried to be completely honest, even about my sweet tooth. She called and I read her my entries for the week. She didn’t say anything.

“That bad?” I muttered.

“You don’t really eat that much, Roberta, but your meals come too late in the day,” she said. “That’s the first thing we can change. Easy. No more eating after six p.m.”

Easy for Ellen, maybe. Who wants to eat celery and boiled carrots no matter what time of day it is? Still, I was in no position to argue. So I followed her instructions and began eating dinner before six p.m. A real challenge with my hectic nursing schedule.

When I made my rounds, I’d stare longingly at the vending machine, desperate for just a little snack. Two long, torturous weeks later, I stepped on the scale at work and couldn’t believe the number staring back at me—I’d lost two pounds!

My feeling of victory was short-lived. When I got back to the nurses’ station, one of the other nurses talked about a diet she’d lost five pounds on in the first week. I called Ellen, ready to quit.

“Wait a minute, let’s look at the math here,” Ellen said in that matter-of-fact teacher’s voice of hers. “If you dropped a pound a week for the rest of the year, that’s about fifty pounds all together. That’s a big deal, Roberta.”

Hmm. Fifty pounds was at least five dress sizes. That’d mean I could fit into the jeans at a store like Chico’s, where I’d always dreamed of shopping. I longed for Chico’s jeans!

Once I was back on board, Ellen was ready to move me to phase two of her master plan—more seemingly insignificant changes. Substituting water for regular soda and cutting out the bread in my dinner. She insisted I would see results.

So I resisted the urge to reach for a can of soda in the afternoon and had my grilled chicken sandwiches with one slice of bread instead of two. By the end of one week, I’d lost a pound.

Then another. And another. My blood pressure dropped by 20 points and I was down a dress size by the end of the month. My joints weren’t so sore. Best of all, I could make my rounds without taking so many breaks. Coworkers took notice. The hospital cafeteria even named a special low-calorie, low-carb sandwich after me.

I called Ellen faithfully every Monday with a status update on my weight. And to get a pep talk. Her calm, scientific way of thinking was strangely comforting. Sooner or later, she said, the weight would come off, because I was consuming fewer calories, eating the right things and moving around more. It was simple science.

One morning, we got to talking about some new recipes, and before I knew it, we’d been on the phone for half an hour!

“You’re going to need new clothes,” Ellen said. “I saw some lovely things at the mall the other day.”

I went shopping after work and stopped by Ellen’s house with my finds. She had me model every outfit. Ellen wasn’t really into girly activities, but we still had a blast. We barely talked about calories or carbs. When I left, she hugged me goodbye. Like friends. Sisters, even.

After that, I didn’t wait until Mondays to call Ellen. She was the first person I called when I needed advice buying a new car. We even prayed about my decision together.

The weight came off too, just as she promised. Every month, another three or four pounds. I lost 45 pounds that first year. And Ellen wasn’t finished with me. She introduced a new goal every month, taught me how to make smart choices when eating out.

I started to crave vegetables. Whenever I slipped, she was there to pick me up. “This diet isn’t about just one day,” she told me. “It’s about a lifetime. Hour after hour of making the right choices.”

Thanks to Ellen’s coaching, I lost 94 pounds over two years and have kept the weight off. My health problems haven’t disappeared, but I no longer search for the nearest chair when entering a room.

And the red scooter? I never bothered straightening out the mix-up. I booked my first vacation in over a decade, confident I’d be able to walk long distances without pain.

I even buy my jeans at Chico’s. The saleswoman has gotten to know me.

“Losing weight slowly is the way to go,” she said recently. “Your sister had the right idea.”

I smiled at her use of the word sister to describe Ellen, but didn’t bother correcting her. I couldn’t have said it better myself. 

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