COLUMBIA — Melinda Bobbitt thought she would always be morbidly obese.
On a slim hope, she sent an audition tape to "The Biggest Loser," a television show that chronicles the weight-loss efforts of people who are at least 100 pounds overweight.
Bobbitt didn't make the cut — perhaps she did not weigh enough — but in January 2010, she began meeting with three friends once a week to cook healthy meals and watch the show.
Through their commitment to lifestyle changes, the friends collectively have lost 133.9 pounds. Bobbitt accounted for 54 of those pounds.
The women's success was consistent with weight-loss studies showing people stay more committed to weight-loss programs when they have support.
"It is well acknowledged that both formal and informal social networks have been shown to be a very powerful tool in encouraging positive health behaviour," a study by the Centre for Ethics in Medicine in Society at Monash University, Australia, reported (Nutrition Journal 2008).
People usually get a lot of advice on how to lose weight, according to the research, "but very few are given appropriate long term guidance or support."
On a recent Tuesday night, Bobbitt's friends gathered at her house to eat barley beef skillet and low-fat, mini raspberry mousse parfaits. Instead of wine, they drank peach-melba-flavored fizzy water.
“I’m 57, and my blood pressure’s the lowest it’s ever been,” said one of the women, Cindy Garcia, who was sporting purple cowboy boots.
The women spoke in a rush when they talked about how the quality of their lives had improved with losing weight. Garcia said she sleeps better. Pat Edelen, 53, has more energy. She and Bobbitt, also 53, feel less knee pain.
“Now I can unload all my hay instead of four bales and sit down,” Michelle Sorensen, 49, said. She used to have to rest while doing strenuous jobs tending her horses.
“It was a strain to get out of that chair,” Bobbitt said, gesturing toward an upholstered armchair. She re-enacted how she used to have to muscle herself out of it. “Now I don’t even think about it. I just pop up.”
The key to their success was accountability, the women said. In the first phase of their weight-loss program, they weighed themselves every week. It became an obsession to see the numbers drop — even 4 ounces.
They also drank lots of water and planned their meals ahead. They prioritized fruits, vegetables and proteins.
Now that the first phase has ended, they maintain the lifestyle. Bobbitt freezes meals to keep at work, and Edelen buys cans of low-calorie soup for lunch. Sorensen keeps boiled eggs and cheese in the fridge and shops around the outside edge of the grocery store.
They resist temptation, most of the time.
At work, Edelen’s desk faces the kitchenette at the Boone County Courthouse, and she endures the sight of her coworkers eating cookies or chocolate cake almost every day.
“When they start digging into the stuff, I’ll eat yogurt or grapefruit,” Edelen said.
As for exercise, the women began slowly. Now, three of them work out four or five times a week at FIT, a women’s gym at Wilson’s Fitness. They text each other if someone doesn’t show up for scheduled exercise at the fitness club.
How it all began
The four friends shared a bond through their love of drinking wine and riding horses. They compete in cowboy mounted shooting, an event which involves shooting balloons from horseback with black-powder blanks.
They had each struggled for years to lose weight but couldn't stick with it.
“You make it until the next birthday cake,” Sorensen said.
Bobbitt used to snack on chips and drink wine while she watched "The Biggest Loser." Last year, she took the success stories to heart.
Her youngest daughter had moved out of the house, and Bobbitt was able to start cooking more and give up fast food and frozen pizza.
“We have time to exercise and time to put ourselves first,” Bobbitt said.
Sorensen joined the group with more urgency. She weighed less than the others, but her doctor had told her she must lose weight because of her dangerously high cholesterol.
Though Bobbitt went to the same doctor, she said he had never told her to lose weight because her numbers were good.
The women met and worked out together, each following a patchwork of diet rules based on various teachings but following similar principles, such as avoiding white bread and sugar.
Sorensen, who lost 17.7 pounds, said she now saves wine for special occasions. Bobbitt and Edelen nodded.
Garcia raised her eyebrows and shook her head. “I’m not going to lie. I didn’t give it up.”
As district manager for Maurices clothing store, Garcia does not have time to join the others in exercising. She said while traveling she chooses the healthy continental breakfast options, protein and fruit. Dining out, she avoids bread, tortilla chips and hors d’oeuvres.
She lost 30.8 pounds.
The other women have begun to like their workouts.
"I actually enjoy exercise now," Bobbitt said. "I don’t look at it as a hardship."
She said that she did not know before watching "The Biggest Loser" that it was OK for non-athletes to work themselves into a sweat. Watching the people on the show sweating and straining inspired her to push her limits.
Sorensen said, “It gets to be fun.” She finds stress relief in running.
The women still strive to lose weight. Each would like to shed about 30 more pounds.
Edelen, who lost 31.4 pounds, enjoys taking body jive fitness classes and said she doesn’t crave unhealthy foods as much as she used to.
"I don't eat preservatives any more," she said. "I try to eat fish in the pan with olive oil — the less the better — and fresh meats, no breading but lots of spices. I put fresh spinach in my salads. Anything as fresh as possible I try to do."
Garcia has joined FIT and began exercising this week. Time, she said, is her “biggest hurdle.”
Bobbitt has made a habit of asking herself, “What’s the healthiest choice I can make?”
While she has trimmed down nearer to her goal, Bobbitt has to think about eating and exercise every day. She still harbors hope of getting into "The Biggest Loser."
She hasn’t heard back yet on her second audition tape.