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A bio image of Jason Schanta

In 2016 I was 31 years old and working hard to get back to a healthy weight after peaking at nearly 325 pounds. By “working hard,” I mean I was struggling through grueling workouts that left me feeling like I could reward myself by eating whatever I wanted. This was not what Marcus, my personal trainer, had in mind.

After two months, he looked me right in the eye and said, “I can’t be your trainer anymore. If you’re not going to care about yourself, I’m not going to either.”

I doubted anyone cared about me at all, and it must have shown on my face. So Marcus held up his phone to show me the text messages he’d exchanged with my general manager at the LifeCafe where I worked in Schaumburg, Ill. They both knew I had yet to reach my potential and that the best version of Jason was still inside me.

I realized I didn’t want to let them — or myself — down anymore. That was the moment I started caring about myself, too.

Eating My Feelings

I was a pretty active kid, playing soccer throughout my childhood and into high school. In my junior year, I stopped playing competitively so I could focus on my grades. That was also when I began driving — and eating dinner from the drive-thru window. That added 15 pounds to my 5-foot-8-inch frame. Running and working out helped me lose that weight before my senior year, but I didn’t drop the fast food.

The focus on academics paid off, and I left for Wayne State University as a premed major. But the pressure of so many advanced classes led to stress eating, which caused more weight gain. Before the year was over, I transferred to a local community college. I brought my grades up, but my weight climbed, too: I was now carrying 225 pounds.

In 2006 I enrolled at Central Michigan University and worked as a manager at a pizzeria. That’s where I ate most of my meals, too. I gradually added another 25 pounds.

Then in October 2011, my world was sent into a tailspin when my younger sister died of a drug overdose. I’d always been a stress eater, and I began relying on food to soothe my sadness and anger over her death. Before she died, she’d pointed out that I was gaining weight, in that blunt way only siblings can. “Yeah, someday I’m going to lose it,” I always told her.

But now she wasn’t around to keep me accountable.

Small Steps

By the time I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 2012, I was pushing 280 pounds. A friend encouraged me to apply to work with him at the LifeCafé in Troy, Mich. He said if I was working there, it would be easier for me to get healthy. So to get my foot in the door, I sought a job as a prep chef and was hired in early 2014.

I wasn’t sure I’d made the right choice. I felt uncomfortable around people who were working out and eating well when I wasn’t. I felt judged and embarrassed all the time.

When I interviewed for the manager position at the Schaumburg café in 2015, I brought up my personal goal: getting back to a healthy weight. The club’s general manager hired me — and I hired a trainer, but we didn’t click. The café was short-staffed, I was working long hours, and my stress eating gradually returned. At work, I would eat a salad or sip a smoothie because I felt pressure to seem healthy. After my shift, I’d hit the drive-thru.

A year later, a new general manager at the club sat me down: “I want you to worry about you,” he said. “Take care of yourself and everything else will fall into place.” I had no idea what he meant. How could my losing weight benefit a business? It didn’t make any sense.

In the days that followed, while I was still scratching my head, I met Marcus for the first time when he walked up to me in the café. “Are you Jason?” he asked. “I need to take your weight.” Someone — I still don’t know who — had signed me up for the 60day program.

Marcus and I discussed my goals (mainly, to get my weight below 200 pounds) and mapped out a nutrition plan. Then he led me through a half-hour workout. I was so out of shape, I felt discouraged — but also motivated. There was a time when I’d been able to work out harder than that.

I kept up with my training sessions, but I didn’t comply with the diet. By the end of the challenge, I had lost only 12 pounds, and Marcus saw right through me. That’s when we had our reckoning, and I started being honest with myself.

Big Strides

Marcus helped me get real about my emotional-eating habit and how it was an obstacle on my journey. To get healthy, I didn’t just need to remove the fast food from my diet; I also needed to remove the negativity from my life. I resolved to stop sabotaging myself.

I stopped hitting the drive-thru after work. I drank a gallon of water a day and started taking vitamins and supplements. I began to see changes when I looked in the mirror; eventually, I felt changed, too.

That’s when I realized that everything else was falling into place as I was taking care of myself. Within seven months, I lost 40 pounds, which brought me below 300 — a really exciting milestone. I added a third training session each week to maintain the momentum.

When I got down to 250 pounds in September 2017, I was still holding on to some harmful eating habits, so I experimented with a detox program. Removing alcohol, dairy, and bread was no problem. Caffeine was another story. It took a second round in the program before I could kick that. Once I did, I was surprised to discover I didn’t need coffee to get though my day.

The detox process helped me understand which foods no longer served me. I learned that my body responded best to small portions of protein and vegetables. I started eating five mini-meals throughout the day and stopped eating after 6 p.m. Every pound I lost reduced the stress on my joints. I was even sleeping better, which meant I had more energy.

When Marcus asked me about my goals, I told him about my sister. I wanted to take that pain and use it for something positive. Although my journey wasn’t easy, I overcame obstacles because I wanted to prove to her that I could. And I did. My weight is now steady at 190 pounds.

Plenty of people told me that losing weight wasn’t just for me, and that other people would also benefit from that change. They were right. I hung before-and-after photos in the café, which have become a conversation starter for people who need inspiration.

I’m much stronger, both mentally and physically, than I ever thought I could be. I know that everything I’ve gone through had to happen the way it did. That’s what taught me to be resilient.

Jason’s Top 3 Success Strategies

1) Make it a process. Jason had to make gradual shifts in his habits to see results. “Don’t expect to change everything at once and be able to stick with it,” he advises.

2) Find your why. Even on tough days, Jason is able to stay motivated because he knows his sister would want him to be the best possible version of himself.

3) Examine daily actions. Before he’s tempted to skip a workout or eat fast food, Jason takes a moment to ask himself: Is this the best decision for my health?

This originally appeared as “Savoring Good Health” in the May 2019 print issue of Experience Life.

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