At 26, Samantha Talbot was already worried about her health.
Continued stomach problems led her to seek medical help, with one doctor diagnosing her with irritable bowel syndrome and another with fatty liver disease. She had high cholesterol and markers for prediabetes.
There was also concern about Talbot’s weight: Standing 5 feet, 4 inches tall, she weighed 250 pounds, a body mass index that put her firmly in the obese category.
She kept thinking about her grandfather, who passed away from alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency — an inherited disorder that can cause liver disease.
“That was the big moment that I said I didn't want to live like this,” Talbot, who lives in Conway, South Carolina, told TODAY.
“I needed to do everything I could to get myself healthy. So I didn't even have the weight loss in the front of my mind. It was: I need to get healthy, I need to fix my liver, I need to fix myself.”
Talbot, who works as a therapist for children with autism, sought help from Emily Rubin, director of clinical dietetics at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, where Talbot lived at the time.
It was winter of 2019 when they came up with an eating and exercise plan, and Talbot started following it in January of 2020. Then, the coronavirus pandemic hit. Could she reach her health goals when gyms closed, stress eating reached new heights and quarantine weight gain was the norm?
Today, almost two years later, Talbot is happy to answer “yes.” She’s about 70 pounds lighter, the fatty tissue from her liver is gone and her cholesterol is normal, she said. Her body fat percentage dropped from 40% to 30%. After getting engaged this spring, she’s had an easy time wedding dress shopping because she’s dropped from a size 18-20 to a size 8.
“With this weight loss, I'm not the same person I was two years ago,” Talbot noted. “The confidence, positivity and respect that I have for myself is so much more noticeable. It comes through in my job, my relationships and everything now.”
Here’s how she slimmed down and became healthier — even as the world changed during the COVID-19 crisis:
Focus on portion control
Talbot estimated she ate more than 2,000 calories a day before her weight loss, so her first step was cutting her daily calorie intake to 1,500. She credited Rubin for showing her what normal food portions should look like, and for focusing on proteins and vegetables instead of carbs to feel fuller.
Rubin’s tips to eat less also include using a salad plate rather than a dinner plate and drinking 8 ounces of water 15-30 minutes before a meal.
Now that she’s regularly lifting weights, Talbot is eating about 1,800 calories a day.
Figure out what eating regimen work best for you
Talbot admitted she didn't have a good understanding of nutrition when she was younger. She also has a nut allergy, which limits her choices, and a wheat intolerance, so she doesn’t eat regular pasta “because it just makes me feel horrible” and stays away from many breads.
What finally worked for her is eating more protein, but still enjoying fruits, vegetables and some carbs. Talbot also discovered new favorites like chickpea pasta: “I could eat that every day of the week and be thrilled,” she said. “I just I love it, it doesn't hurt my stomach and I feel so full after.”
Talbot eliminated sugar during the first year of her weight-loss plan. “My absolute favorite snack in the world was Oreos and I just wouldn’t eat them because… all self-control goes out the window with Oreos,” she said.
Meal prep is key
Talbot stopped buying dressings and sauces, and made them from scratch to avoid processed foods. She’s always loved to cook so she decided to meal prep on the weekends to create nutrient-rich menus with fresh ingredients.
In fact, planning meals ahead and creating a daily routine can help with weight loss, Rubin noted.
Use a weight-loss app
By tracking calories, these apps promote weight loss by increasing awareness of a person’s habits and progress, Rubin said. Talbot ended up using MyFitnessPal. A virtual visit with a registered dietitian may also help — many are now covered by insurance, Rubin added.
Learn to love exercise
Talbot’s gym closed in the spring of 2020 for the coronavirus lockdown, but she was determined to keep her weight-loss momentum going and started making up her own daily workouts. She and a friend exercised outside twice a day near their apartment complex to motivate each other.
Since gyms reopened, she’s been going most days of the week, preferring a strength training routine with some cardio mixed in. She also likes to run and bike.
“My stress relief and my joy is at the gym,” Talbot said. “I'm doing that just for myself, for fun. It's been life-changing.”
For people who want to get started, take a walking break — even if it’s for five minutes, Rubin advised.
It’s OK to occasionally give in to cravings
Talbot was initially terrified of indulging once in a while, worried she’d gain all the weight back. But now, she usually gives in to the craving.
“Because 95% of my week, I'm eating the way I need to do, I'm fueling my body the right way, I feel good when I wake up in the morning, I feel good throughout my day,” she noted. “So a six-pack of Oreos isn't going to ruin my whole diet. I'm not going to throw away my whole week.”
Don’t forget you’re doing this for yourself
In a way, the life changes forced by the pandemic helped with the weight loss, Talbot said. Before the crisis, her job meant irregular, rushed meal times and long days at work. But working from home changed that.
“I got to focus more on myself, something I probably haven't done in years,” she said. “I'm thrilled with my body.”