As long as he can remember, Tommy Tomlinson has understood his identity as inseparable from his body.
"I weigh 460 pounds," Tomlinson begins in an essay published this month The Atlantic Oceanand adapted from his upcoming book, The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man & # 39; s Quest to become smaller in a growing America. "Those are the hardest words I've ever had to write: Nobody knows that number – not my wife, not my doctor, not my best friends, it feels like I'm confessing a crime. The average American man weighs about 195 pounds, I & # 39; m two of those guests, with a remaining 10-year-old, I am the greatest person who knows most people I have ever met or will ever find. & # 39;
That was Tomlinson four years ago.
Today, for the first time in 50 years, he has been able to lose weight and successfully hold off. Getting there was not easy. He knew how to drop the kilos. He would eat fewer calories and burn more. But Tomlinson only found success in the long term when he understood it why in the first place he had strayed so far from a healthy body.
To do this, he researched the science and psychology of weight gain and reflected on the obstacles that had been stacked against him – and about 93 million other obese adults in America – and where he had the power to overcome his barriers.
Tomlinson discussed his trip in an interview with Melissa Block from NPR. He explained how he studied his family history to better understand his relationship with food. Tomlinson grew up in the deep south with parents who bought cotton as a child and started working at the factory by the time he was born.
"Every working day they burned thousands and thousands of calories at work," he said. "I have led a kind of soft life thanks to all the work they have done to get us there."
The southern values remained stuck, but unlike his parents, Tomlinson worked mainly on chores during his long career in journalism. That made it harder to burn the calories from the fried chicken, cookies and pecan that lingered on the table, he said, as "a great symbol of love and wealth."
Food carried the same symbolic weight as family members and friends prepared dishes in the aftermath of deaths in the family. As he writes in his essay, "The thing that eases pain prolongs it, and the thing that brings me back to life pushes me closer to the grave."
As his weight grew, the stress of daily life also increased. During rides on the metro, he said, he would be afraid to lose his grip on the pole for fear of crushing a passenger. When he goes to unknown destinations, he will enter the interior Google or arrive early to explore a safe place to sit.
But losing weight was more than just a matter of eating less and exercising more, Tomlinson said. Research shows that weight loss can cause a life-long struggle against recovery. Some estimates show that as many as 90 percent of the dieters who lose weight eventually recover it.
"What happens to almost all of these diets – not just for me but for other people – is that they are really effective in the short term, but once you've experienced the crash period, there's the rebound, what they call yo-yo- diet, "said Tomlinson.
That is because the body is wired to respond to calorie restriction as a symptom of starvation, and in survival mode begins – the appetite increases and the metabolism slows down, making it more difficult to lose weight.
Tomlinson said he flirted diet pills, low-calorie meals, unprocessed foods. But the event that led Tomlinson to make serious efforts was the death of his sister on Christmas Eve of 2014.
Brenda Williams, who weighed well north of 200 pounds & # 39; as he wrote, was 13 years older than Tomlinson. "She died of an infection that was actually caused by her size," he said in his interview. "And you know, I went to her funeral and I could see my future: I was 50 years old when she died, and boys like me do not make it to 60. I knew then, in a way that I was never really that deep and emotionally felt that I had to change. "
Since his sister's death, he has found success in what he called a three-step program: his Fitbit tells him how many calories he has burned by walking and exercising. He then accurately calculates his caloric intake. "If I burn more than I put in, I will eventually lose weight," he said. "It is not a plan that will change me from one day to the next, it is very slow and stable and I know that I am still a big guy."
But, he said, it is a plan with which he can live. "I think that's the key to long-term success, and losing weight is figuring out where you can live with."
While Tomlinson struggled with his weight loss, he said that part of him worried about how it might change his personality.
"I've always been overweight, so a small part of me, probably, is worried about a baby-in-the-water situation," he said. "If I lose all this weight and physically transform myself, will I become another person? Will I be a jerk because of what I have had to do to lose all that weight?"
Tomlinson said his wife tells him that his weight loss plan had the opposite effect. "She said since I started losing weight and getting better shape, that I am much lighter than before," he said.
"I'm sure there was always such a kind of cloud behind me that I did not even really know or at all, but that other people could see it, and now I walk a bit bigger in the world because I have a lot more confidence in my ability to become, not only a healthier person, but I also feel a better person. "
NPR & # 39; s Dustin DeSoto produced this story for broadcast. Janaya Williams edited.