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NNY dieters discover strength in numbers to avoid holiday weight gain

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Before this Thanksgiving, Gouverneur resident Jessica M. Ames had never run more than a mile in her life.

But there she was on Thanksgiving Day, running through the outskirts of Watertown, dodging icy patches and braving below-freezing temperatures, during the annual Watertown Family YMCA 5K Turkey Day Run.

Miss Ames, 25, ran all the way and finished with a time of 35:37, coming in 477nd out of 633 participants.

Now, when Miss Ames faces the seasonal holiday caloric blizzard of cookies, cakes and all other things sweet and tasty, she has a different approach than she did a few years ago. She has found strength in numbers by joining a weight-loss support group.

That strategy is also working for a group of civilian workers at Fort Drum who call themselves the Tape Worms. The group’s members also have made adjustments to their lifestyles as they work toward their weight-loss goals.

Cathy Moore, a dietitian and an agent at Cornell Cooperative Extension, Watertown, calls the period between Halloween and shortly after the new year “the holiday zone”: a place where “time, space, light, food and even friends and family seem to converge to force fat to gather.”

Mrs. Moore said people typically gain a pound or two this time of year. But the problem, she said, is that the gain is cumulative.

“Most of us don’t lose it,” she said. “It’s important to prevent the gain rather than trying to lose it after the new year.”

But with determination and support, the kind demonstrated by Miss Ames and the Tape Worms, we can come out of “the holiday zone” lighter on our feet.

Miss Ames can’t wait to sign up for another run.

“It made me feel like I could become a runner,” she said of her experience. “I’m thinking of starting to run outside a few days a week so I will be even better prepared for my next 5K.”

This would have been unthinkable for Miss Ames in January 2012, when she weighed 325 pounds. A month earlier, in December 2011, Miss Ames’s mother, Christine Bristol, asked her when she was going to join her at the Take Off Pounds Sensibly chapter that meets Mondays at the Fowler Town Hall.

Miss Ames had been thinking about joining TOPS for months, but that January she finally did. The organization has 315 chapters and 5,764 members across the state and charges members a $28 annual fee.

She now weighs 178 pounds.

“I never thought it would lead to this,” Miss Ames said.

The 2007 Canton High School graduate said the weight came off slowly at first.

“Then I started to exercise and just kind of got into that,” she said.

She rediscovered the elliptical machine in the basement that her father, Michael Ames, got her for Christmas about five years ago. In August, she began walking on her treadmill, which had been in her basement “forever.”

She now exercises six days a week, including walks outside when the weather is nice.

But her weight loss is about more than exercising.

“It’s the support you get from everybody at the TOPS meetings,” Miss Ames said. “Everybody is either in that situation or has been in that situation, if they’ve reached their goal” for weight loss.

At the weekly TOPS weigh-ins, group members share more than the scale.

“It’s accountability,” Miss Ames said. “Say, if you go somewhere for the weekend to a party or something, you think before you over-indulge. You think, ‘I have to weigh in on Monday.’ You don’t want to ruin all your hard work.”

Her diet, Miss Ames said, largely involves cutting down on portions.

“You don’t need as much as you think to be full,” she said.

She also cut down on carbohydrates like pasta. “You cut out certain things like that and potatoes,” she said.

Technology also has assisted her through a smartphone app called MyFitnessPal. It allows users to set a daily calorie goal and record daily food intake and calculate calories expended by exercise to make sure they stay on track.

Friends whom Miss Ames has not seen in years often don’t recognize her slimmed-down self.

“I get that a lot,” she said. “People don’t recognize me or they may think they know me, so they’ll ask.”

But there’s one thing she enjoys more than surprising people with her weight loss.

“I love to go clothes shopping now,” Miss Ames, said, giggling. “I can go to any store now and find something, where before it was very limited.”

Her advice for others considering a weight-loss plan? “There’s no secret,” she said. “A lot of it is in your mind. You have to have the mindset of you want to change. It’s hard, but it helps if you have that support system to back you up.”

tale of the tape worms

Dennis C. Smith, who works at the Central Issue Facility, part of Fort Drum’s Supply and Services Division, which issues “organizational clothing and individual equipment” to soldiers, found that support system with a weight-loss challenge he and 10 other CIF workers accepted. The challenge, designed to offer support during the holidays, began Nov. 1 and runs through Feb. 1. Members weigh in every Friday and offer fellowship to one another to encourage exercise.

“I’ve been overweight for a while, to the point where I was worried that it was pushing up into my chest,” said Mr. Smith, a Felts Mills resident. “I want to live long enough to see my grandkids graduate college, at least.”

Mr. Smith weighed 320 pounds this past spring and is now around 273 pounds.

“It’s a big difference from last year, when I ate pretty much what I wanted, as much as I wanted and when I wanted,” Mr. Smith said. “Now, I’m watching what I eat, cut way down on my portions and I find myself eating more vegetables.”

The holiday weight-loss challenge at CIF was suggested by Sherri L. Stiles, one of Mr. Smith’s co-workers. Ms. Stiles serves on the wellness committee board at Jefferson Rehabilitation Center, which began a walking challenge this past spring that included the distribution of pedometers to track participants’ daily steps.

“As the weeks went on, it almost became like a family-oriented thing out here with people from all different aspects of life pulling together to encourage one another,” Ms. Stiles said.

When the walking program concluded in September, Ms. Stiles noticed the CIF participants in the program were “kind of downhearted.” With the help of CIF co-worker and former Watertown High School football coach Kevin Woods, she initiated the weight-loss challenge.

“They are all still going strong,” Ms. Stiles said of the 11 participants. “We call ourselves the Tape Worms. We’re hoping that by February 1st, some of the people will have lost so much weight that you’re going to think they have a tapeworm.”

At their weekly weigh-ins, the Tape Worms hope to have lost at least a tenth of a pound. If not, members have to pay a dollar.

“At the end of the challenge, with the money we collected, we plan to buy a blood pressure machine for the CIF so all the employees will be able to use it, not just the Tape Worm team,” Ms. Stiles said.

About $20 has been collected so far.

Members in the group encourage one another to go to one of the gyms on post or to go for daily walks.

“It’s a great morale booster,” Ms. Stiles said. “Every day, everybody is talking about what they eat, what they’ve learned and the exercises they’re doing. Some of the people had never been to the gym. We’re helping each other out.”

Co-workers involved in the challenge don’t have to look far for other inspiration.

“One of our biggest incentives is the soldiers,” Ms. Stiles said. “We work with them from when we open our doors until we close them at the end of the day. We know what they’re going through as far as mentally, physically and their determination. And I think they appreciate that we’re trying to take care of ourselves.”

Ms. Stiles anticipates the weight-loss program will continue beyond Feb. 1.

“This is all about baby steps. People are changing their way of life,” she said. “This was a little flicker in the dark. It’s becoming a big flame.”

Weight-loss tips for the holidays and beyond
Holiday-season eating habits can easily be modified to prevent weight gain, according to Cathy Moore, a dietitian and an agent at Cornell Cooperative Extension, Watertown.
For example, she crumbled a seasonal belief about Christmas cookies.
“Everybody wants to bake Christmas cookies,” she said. “But in fact, most of us really don’t want Christmas cookies.”
But Mrs. Moore said people feel guilty about throwing them away, so they feel “obligated” to eat them.
It’s also possible to avoid overeating at holiday parties, she said.
“Everybody brings a dish,” she said. “But bring a healthy dish. You can bring carrots and celery sticks with hummus, low-fat dip and fruit platters.”
Mrs. Moore said she’s found that when people bring such healthy choices to parties, those are the items that go the fastest.
“People are health conscious and aware,” she said.
Smaller changes in party-food ingredients can also make a big difference, Mrs. Moore said.
“If you’re making a dip, and if you use light sour cream rather than heavy sour cream, nobody is going to notice the difference and you’re going to save a lot of calories,” she said.
Mrs. Moore is not a Grinch when it comes to holiday food. Some recipes, she said, should not be modified. For example, she has a treasured holiday cheesecake recipe from her mother.
“I would rather make the absolute real cheesecake and have everybody enjoy one small piece of it than to modify it and have something that’s not as enjoyed and authentic as the tradition,” she said. “That’s the type of decisions that families and their traditions have to come together on.”
And while they are at it, families could start at new tradition, she said.
“Throughout the holiday season, we would all feel better and do better if we don’t forget to exercise,” she said. “Start a holiday tradition to be active as a family.”
• n n
Some suggestions to prevent weight gain during the holidays and beyond, provided by Take Off Pounds Sensibly:
• Practice portion control. Don’t pile food on your plate.
• At dinner, use a 10-inch salad plate instead of a 12-inch dinner plate.
• Drink a glass of milk before a meal or going to a party.
• At a party, sit as far away from the food as you can. The buffet table isn’t quite as tempting if you have to make a conscious effort to get up and walk to it.
• Don’t gulp your food — eat slowly and savor each bite.
• Wait 15 to 20 minutes before going back for a second helping.
• Choose lots of green salad, vegetables and fresh fruit.
• For dessert, pick one item and ask for a half portion. Or eat half and take the other half home to eat later in the week.
• Choose fruit-based desserts over cream and custard sweets.
• Skip desserts with a double crust.
• Be mindful of alcohol. Some drinks are loaded with calories.
• Exercise — take a walk after a meal.
• Remember: If you burn more calories than you consume, you will lose weight.
• When you’re shopping, don’t go to the grocery story when you’re hungry.
• Keep a journal of what you eat.
• Join a support group.
• Set a goal.
• Don’t start out the new year with a resolution to lose weight. This is the most frequently broken resolution — often by Valentine’s Day.
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