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'Reality hit me': Losing wife to cancer motivated this father to lose 115 pounds

Jacob Anselmo knew he needed to take control of his health so he could take care of his two children.
Anselmo's weight-loss journey started with one small change: replacing soda with water.
Anselmo's weight-loss journey started with one small change: replacing soda with water.Courtesy Jacob Anselmo

Jacob Anselmo was a fit, active, athletic child who never thought he would have to worry about his weight. Then he hit his 20s, got married, and ate and drank whatever he wanted. “I couldn’t handle it like I could in my youth,” he told TODAY.

His sales job meant he started work late, so he would stay up past midnight eating chips and drinking soda. “I had no regard for my health at all,” he said. “I always thought, ‘Someday I’ll lose the weight.’”

Knowing he would be a single dad tasked with raising his two kids alone motivated Anselmo to make his health a priority.
Knowing he would be a single dad tasked with raising his two kids alone motivated Anselmo to make his health a priority. Courtesy Jacob Anselmo

A devastating diagnosis sparked change

In 2016, Anselmo and his wife, Rachel, were happy together, living in Tiverton, RI, with their two young children, Sophia and Henry. But one day they got devastating news — Rachel was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Doctors tried different treatments, but the bad news kept coming. Finally, the doctor told them that it was time to take the kids on that Disney trip they had been postponing — Rachel only had months left to live.

“That’s when reality hit me. I was going to be a dad running my house and taking care of two young children by myself,” he said. “Cancer was tearing my wife’s body apart, and I was tearing my own body apart by eating processed foods and junk. I had a huge uphill battle to face for the rest of my life, and I wanted to deal with it as a healthy man, not as an obese man.”

His journey began with one small swap

Anselmo started down his weight-loss path with a baby step: he stopped drinking soda and drank water instead. Without changing anything else, he lost 20 pounds in one month. “Because I lost the weight so fast, a switch went off in my brain. I said, ‘I’m going to do this.’”

He looked for a second diet swap. On the road, he would stop for coffee with cream and sugar two or three times a day, so he switched to black coffee, and saw 20 more pounds drop off. “The weight was melting off of me, just getting rid of those sugary drinks,” he said.

Rachel’s brother, Kevin, started using MyFitnessPal to monitor what he was eating, and Anselmo noticed that Kevin was losing weight. So he decided to try it himself. Tracking his calories helped him learn about what he was putting into his body. “I learned how horribly I was eating,” he said. “There were days I was eating more calories before noon than I should eat in a whole day.”

Sadly, Rachel passed away in 2017. But instead of drinking alcohol or eating more in his grief, Anselmo occupied his mind with research about nutrition.

“I learned so much about what I was putting into my body,” he said. “I thought I was going to have to give up all the things I loved. But I didn’t. I gave up processed carbohydrates and added sugars. I learned I can still enjoy food without having a lot of calories. And I learned that I liked vegetables.”

Anselmo used exercise as a way to work off stress and anxiety.
Anselmo used exercise as a way to work off stress and anxiety.Courtesy Jacob Anselmo

After mastering the diet changes, he focused on fitness

Anselmo dropped 60 pounds by changing his diet. And then one day, he had a cancellation at work that left him with three hours to fill. Instead of going to a restaurant, bar or movie theater like he had in the past, he joined a gym.

“I needed a healthy hobby going forward,” he said. “It was a great way for me to work off stress and anxiety.” He kept a gym bag in his car, and when he had down time during the workday he exercised. He started lifting weights and seeing muscle tone, and he built a gym in his basement so he could work out at night when his children were asleep — that came in handy during the pandemic when gyms were closed. “It became addictive because I started to see results even faster,” he said.

For nine months, Anselmo ate 1,600 calories a day. “I was really strict and I never went over the calorie line,” he said. He didn’t eat any bread, candy bars or added sugar. And he lost 115 pounds.

Now he eats 2,000 to 2,500 calories a day and he’s been able to maintain his weight for more than three years. “I do have cheat days now. I’ll have a couple of slices of pizza here and there,” he said. But he still steers clear of soda and fast food.

What a day of eating typically looks like:

Breakfast: Greek yogurt with berries and almonds

Lunch: A salad with a lot of veggies, topped with grilled chicken, salmon or steak

Dinner: Salmon and green beans or steak and broccoli

Snacks: Bananas, nuts, cheese sticks, beef jerky, hard-boiled eggs or protein bars

“When I was eating a bag of Doritos and drinking a bottle of Coke at night, I felt like crap. I would wake up in the morning with heart palpitations. I was lethargic all the time. Now I have so much energy. I’m almost 37 and honestly, I feel better than I did in my early 20s,” he said.