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Pandemic weight gain made student feel 'like I had no control': How he lost 190 pounds

Zachary Johnson has lost more than half of his body weight.
Zachary Johnson reached 364 pounds in 2020, left, but lost more than 190 pounds with diet and exercise.
Zachary Johnson reached 364 pounds in 2020, left, but lost more than 190 pounds with diet and exercise.Courtesy Zachary Johnson
/ Source: TODAY

Zachary Johnson remembers always being the “bigger kid” among his friends, but his weight gain really accelerated in young adulthood, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

Johnson, now a third-year civil engineering student at Penn State University, struggled through the stress and isolation of coronavirus lockdowns, reaching 364 pounds in the fall of 2020 — the most he’d ever weighed.

“My mental health declined pretty badly — not just from putting on weight, but just because of no social interaction,” Johnson, 20, told TODAY.

“The numbers on the scale didn’t really make me feel anything. It was just more looking at myself and seeing how far I declined. Not only physically, looking in the mirror, but also mentally.”

Standing 5 feet, 10 inches tall, Johnson’s BMI was firmly in the obese category, and he would get winded going up stairs. He recalled feeling lethargic and tired all the time.

Part of the weight problem was snacking at night: “I was a very, very, very bad night eater,” Johnson said. “I was eating normally throughout the day and then eating a lot at night. … Whatever I could find, I ate.”

Chronic snacking at night was one of the factors in Johnson's weight gain.
Chronic snacking at night was one of the factors in Johnson's weight gain.Courtesy Zachary Johnson

He also never thought about nutrition, eating fast food and consuming lots of soda and other sugary drinks. As a coffee lover, Johnson would order a latte with so much extra cream and sugar that it wasn’t even coffee at that point, he recalled. As his weight rose, so did his frustration.

“I was disappointed in myself for letting myself go that far and not having any discipline or willpower to keep myself from getting there. It made me feel like I had no control,” Johnson said.

“I thought to myself, I can keep going down this path of being miserable and keeping the weight, or I could try and change things to become better and healthier. So that’s what happened.”

Johnson's determination to lose weight led to quite a transformation.
Johnson's determination to lose weight led to quite a transformation. Courtesy Zachary Johnson

About a year after he started to make changes, the student now weighs 173 pounds — less than half his maximum weight. Here's how he lost the pounds.

His weight-loss journey

In the fall of 2021, Johnson decided the first step was to clean up his nutrition, limit the night snacking and eat in a healthier way. Instead of buying fast food, he cooked his own food at home — preparing simple dishes like chicken and broccoli, for example. He ate everything in moderation and started to pay attention to portion sizes.

These new habits helped him lose about 60 pounds. But as the spring semester began, he was frustrated that his weight wouldn’t drop below 300 pounds for a few weeks.

That’s when Johnson asked a friend to come to the gym with him to help keep him on track as he began an exercise routine. He also met an athletics coach who helped him figure out a fitness program.

Using a Peloton treadmill, Johnson and his friend started out doing a regular walk-plus-run routine, then worked up to running a 5K every day.

The regular cardio helped him break through the weight-loss plateau, but there were mistakes along the way.

To lose more pounds, Johnson also started eating mostly protein, while cutting out everything else, which he called unhealthy, and consumed only about 1,200 calories a day. But the student said these mistakes ultimately helped him find the right path: “In realizing that I was doing things wrong, I became better at what I was doing,” he said.

Johnson said he transitioned into getting the proper nutrition this summer and has been consulting with a dietitian at Penn State. His main exercise now is weight lifting since he wants to regain some of the mass he lost, but as muscle instead of fat. While weight training, he aims to eat 2,600 calories a day, including 150 grams of protein.

Johnson's main exercise now is weight lifting.
Johnson's main exercise now is weight lifting.Courtesy Zachary Johnson

He still cooks at home and limits his beverages to black coffee and water. As for cravings, Johnson found that if he made it a month without eating a certain food, he stopped craving it. He said he hasn’t had candy, ice cream or junk food in more than a year.

He’s also found plenty of motivation on days he’s less than eager to hit the gym.

“I just think back to where I’ve come from and how far I’ve been,” Johnson said.

“But also one of the biggest motivators for me is I really want to help people. … I can show the person who is in my shoes what’s possible and that you can do it if you take the right steps. I want to motivate people to see that they can do so much more than what they think they can do.”