The family that loses together stays together.
- Posted on Nov 1, 2008
A November evening and my family, as usual, was eating. All of us, my five siblings and I, plus spouses and kids, were at Mom and Dad’s for Mom’s birthday. We were plowing through a typical Dean spread—chips, dip, cupcakes, cake and ice cream.
Mom and Dad were on the sofa, where they sat so often the cushions had permanent indents. None of us was what you’d call skinny. But watching everyone, myself included, polish off slabs of cake, I suddenly realized “not skinny” was the understatement of the year.
The real word for us was "fat." Not fatter than most people we knew—65 percent of Nebraskans are overweight—but fat nonetheless. Out of shape. Nowhere near the vigorous people God created us to be.
We’d tried to lose weight. But something was missing. Something I was still feeling my way toward that evening when, on impulse, I blurted, “Hey, listen up! We need to have a family meeting.”
Conversation stopped and everyone turned to look at me, their eyes puzzled.
“Um,” I said, “I’m sorry to interrupt, guys, but, well, I think we need to talk—about our weight.” The room got quiet. “Look, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. We’re the closest family anyone could ask for. We talk about everything—except this one issue.
"Look at us. I’m at least 30 pounds overweight. Jeremy’s more than twice that. And the girls are always yo-yo dieting. Dad’s diabetic, and he and Mom can hardly get on the floor to play with their grandkids. But we never talk about it.
"I can’t believe I’m bringing it up now. If it wasn’t for a TV show I’ve been watching, I’d probably still keep quiet.”
“TV show?” someone asked tentatively.
“Yeah, The Biggest Loser. You guys have seen it. You probably remember me making fun of it, all those personal trainers and tailored diets. But I realized something. The show does have the key to losing weight. It’s just not what they say it is.” Everyone leaned forward.
“It’s accountability,” I went on. “The reason people on that show lose weight is because they know that if they sneak downstairs to gorge on brownies at midnight, the whole world will know. They don’t want to let the audience down.
"Here’s what I think. What if we became each other’s audience? Dieted together? Held each other accountable? We talk every day. Why can’t we use our closeness to lose weight? I’m sick of being fat. I want to be healthy. Don’t you think we could do it if we all did it together?”
There was a moment of stunned silence. I knew what everyone was thinking. Dieting for the Deans would mean unlearning eating habits formed way back when Mom, feeding a big family on a small income, had fallen back on a fattening diet of fried chicken, pizza, ice cream and snacks.
We liked eating that way. Heck, most people we knew liked eating that way. Giving it up would be painful.
I sketched out a plan I’d been concocting, all about daily exercise and monitoring each other’s calories and nutrition. Before I finished, excited voices began drowning out my words. “Of course!” cried my sister Julie. “Why didn’t we think of it before?” “I love it,” said Jeremy.
Suddenly, Dad’s voice cut in. “That sounds nice, Tony. But the holidays are coming up. Don’t you think we should wait till after? I don’t want to miss my cherry pie.” Dad loved his cherry pie.
Instantly, the room deflated. “Dad’s got a point.” “Yeah, maybe we should wait.” It was late. Soon everyone was heading for the door.
Thanksgiving came. Weirdly, while we polished off turkey, rolls, stuffing and pie, everyone talked about my diet plan. What was going on? An answer seemed to come from someplace outside myself. They want to do it. They just don’t know how.
The next day I sat at my computer. I’d found a website maintained by the Harvard School of Public Health called “The Nutrition Source,” an easy-to-read guide to eating right. Using its recommendations, I put the finishing touches on a chart that set out the amount of calories, fat, carbs protein and fiber each of us should consume daily.
I wrote out a few ground rules. Everyone had to exercise at least 30 minutes a day, burning at least one more calorie than they had the day before. No foods were off limits. As long as we met our nutritional targets, we could eat what we wanted—even cherry pie.
Everyone had to check in with a partner daily and report what they ate. Most important, partners had to call each other whenever temptation struck.
When the plan was finished, I sent an e-mail out to everyone: “Guys, no more procrastinating. If we’re going to do this diet, we have to do it now. Everyone meet at my house tomorrow morning for a weigh-in. I’m serious.”
The next morning I lugged a scale into the kitchen. Everyone filed in, Mom, Dad, Tracy, Tina, Jamie, Jeremy and Julie. Their faces were nervous but hopeful. Dad stepped on first. “Two hundred seventy-one,” he said, as if he couldn’t believe he’d let himself go so far.
Mom was next. She stepped up and gasped. “Two-hundred-sixty-five,” she whispered. “I had no idea.” For a moment the room was silent. Mom stepped down, tears in her eyes. Suddenly Jeremy put an arm around her shoulder, “It’s okay, Mom,” he said. “You’re going to lose it.”
“Yeah!” echoed Jamie. “We’re here for you!” Soon, everyone was cheering.
That night at 10, when we knew no one would be there, we trooped to a local gym, which had agreed to give us a two-week free trial membership. We were a sorry-looking bunch, most of us wearing big shirts to hide our un-gym-like bodies.
“Let’s start with the treadmill,” I said. Mom and Dad had trouble getting balanced, so I set their machines to the slowest setting. Even so, pretty soon we had to help them off. Dad was wheezing. The rest of us weren’t doing any better.
The next night, though, we were back. Even Dad was amazed at how much easier it was. And we kept on improving.
Tracy, who had about 30 pounds to lose, bought a second-hand treadmill to use at home, since her schedule sometimes kept her from making it to the gym. She ran up and down her basement stairs for a little more exercise.
Jeremy started playing basketball every night. I took up swimming. E-mails flew. “Guys, I found a great bagel—whole wheat, 19 grams of fiber, only 150 calories.” “You’ll never believe this. There’s a chocolate cream-filled cupcake, only 100 calories a pack, five grams of fiber.”
The night before our next weigh-in I lay awake. What if no one lost an ounce? What if this fails? Didn’t losing weight come down to willpower anyway? If it did, we were sunk. God, I don’t want to let everyone down. Please make this work.
Just like at Thanksgiving, I seemed to sense an answer: It has to be more than just about you. I didn’t quite understand.
Until suddenly I realized what the missing ingredient had been in our other dieting efforts. Accountability, to each other and to God. If we could be true to each other this time, we’d be true to God and the plan would work.
He wanted us to be healthy, made us to be. God was with us. I felt myself relax.
Saturday morning, everyone showed up in my kitchen. Everyone cheered. Jamie got on. She was 13 pounds lighter! Everyone else lost weight too, an average of seven pounds apiece. We all looked at each other. Without another word, we fell into a giant bear hug.
Two and a half years later, our bear hugs take up a lot less room. Our family lost a combined total of 500 pounds on the diet we call F.A.S.T.—Families Always Succeed Together. We’ve kept it off. Dad’s diabetes is gone. Mom lost 72 pounds. Tina runs half-marathons.
We’ve been on TV, written a book, and this year we’re organizing people all over the country to try our diet.
It’s been a heady ride. None of it, though, beats what happened just the other weekend. The family got together at Mom and Dad’s. We sat around talking—and eating—while the kids played on the floor.
Well, not just the kids. Mom and Dad were down there too. I don’t think they sat on that old sofa once.