After playing with her children, Jessica Zuniga-Thompson struggled to get off the floor. Just “chasing them around the house” or walking up the stairs caused her to feel winded. She knew she had gained weight during the COVID-19 pandemic when she turned to food to soothe her feelings.
“There was all this extra stress and lack of output and a way to be social,” the 34-year-old stay-at-home mom from East Bay, California, told TODAY. “I found myself eating more and I went from what I would call comfortably overweight to … very uncomfortable in a short frame of time.”
Grappling with the uncertainty of the pandemic meant that she often chose “a lot of easy options that weren’t necessarily healthy options.” Not leaving her house also meant that she had moved less. But that made moving harder for her.
“My day-to-day activity and just the way I was able to interact with my kids was the tipping point for me,” she said.Zuniga-Thompson felt bad that her weight was preventing her from enjoying her family. She found the weight loss app, Lose It! and signed up. It allowed her to track what she ate and adjust it based on her weight-loss goals.
“My motivation needs to be something that I can maintain long term, that needs to be a lifestyle shift,” Zuniga-Thompson said. “It has to be sustainable or I knew I would put the weight back on.”
She started by logging one day on the app without changing how she ate. She wondered how many calories she was eating and thought that by understanding that she could make smarter changes.
“I couldn’t pinpoint one specific thing that I was doing wrong. I knew that there was something I was doing that wasn’t working for my body,” she said. “I would say, ‘Well I don’t eat that bad. I don’t snack a lot.’”
But the log opened her eyes to what she was eating.
“When I realized how many calories were in that one meal that wasn’t incredibly filling that left me hungry a couple hours later, it was pretty eye opening,” she said. “I was, in fact, taking quite a bit more calories than I needed every day.”
Zuniga-Thompson started making “small changes.” She first began measuring her food.
“My portions were out of whack with what a serving size was,” she said. “(I decided) I’m going to watch my portions. I’m going to maybe stray away from seconds.”
Using a food scale and measuring cups helped her know how much she actually ate. Next, she added in nutrient-dense foods to replace calorie-dense foods. So instead of eating white rice, she would enjoy cauliflower rice, for example. She also cut soda completely from her diet.
“I found that I just couldn’t justify the added sugar,” she said.
Zuniga-Thompson also pre-planned what she ate, logging the information at the start of the day so she could adjust as needed.
“I could see in real time what I was about to consume and if I realized that the proportion of my calories was incredibly high for a meal … then I would just adjust the portion,” she explained.
She started in April 2021 at 268 pounds and lost 75 pounds in eight months. She did not reach her goal weight because she found out she was pregnant with her third child and needed to switch how she ate at the advice of her doctor. Adding more movement into her daily routine also helps her maintain a healthy weight. She walks, hikes with her family on weekends and cycles using a desk cycling machine while she’s reading or watching TV.
“I found that just really walking has helped quite a bit,” she said. “It’s good exercise for the whole family.”
Still, she feels pleased by what she has accomplished and believes it’s helping her feel better.
“This has probably been my easiest pregnancy so far,” she said. “The change in stress level for myself along with the healthy eating has been a contributing factor.”
Zuniga-Thompson hopes she's helping her children build a good relationship with food.
“I was really proud of finding a way to send a healthier message to my children, to lead by example, to show them that healthy eating is important,” she said. “It can be enjoyable and the meals we have are great. I don’t feel I’m withholding myself from enjoying food — I just found a new way to enjoy it.”
She shares advice to others hoping to make changes.
1. ‘Start with something simple’
By making small modifications, such as eating smaller portions or not drinking soda, Zuniga-Thompson was able to lose the weight and keep it off.
“Give up one thing. Maybe you have a propensity to eat really froofy Starbucks drinks,” she said. “Maybe you have that twice a week instead of five days a week.”
2. Don’t focus on being perfect
Everyone makes mistakes. They might miss a few days of exercising or eat fast food for a meal. That’s why it’s important for people to pick a plan that allows for grace.
“No one’s perfect,” she said. “Every day we’re going to slip up a little bit and some days we might slip up a lot, but knowing that weight loss is attainable for everyone and there’s a program that works for every lifestyle.'
3. ‘Take that gamble on yourself’
“It’s about finding your niche,” she said. “Take that gamble on yourself and understand that you can be successful if you just start.”