Tracy Helmer still remembers the despair and loss of control he felt when his weight started to reach 300 pounds.
As a registered nurse, Helmer knew the health consequences of being so heavy and felt them: high blood pressure, back problems, neck issues and joint pain. His achy knees wouldn’t allow him to bend down.
The weight gain “just kind of creeped up” on him when he became a father, he said.
“I think oftentimes, husbands kind of sympathy-eat with their wives,” Helmer, 48, who has four children and lives in Las Vegas, told TODAY.
“My family’s always been a large family centered around eating as a social event. We find happiness when we eat … but it became a point where it turned from just eating being a social event to eating being the solution to our problems.”
His diet included lots of simple-carbohydrate-rich foods like white bread, sugar, processed foods and chips. He tried to exercise, but didn’t have the confidence to work hard at it and just physically wasn’t able to finish workouts.
Helmer reached his maximum weight of about 300 pounds in 2017.
“You step on a scale and see a number like that, and you think, ‘How did I get here? What have I possibly done to allow myself to get here?’” he recalled.
“As nurses, we put in 100%-plus every day that we come to work — and I would still try to do that every day. But then I would come home, and my eating would be out of control because I tried to eat away the stresses of the day or losing a patient. … At home is when I really had the worst feelings about myself.”
When his older brother suffered a severe heart attack, Helmer’s parents started to fear one of their children would die before them, he said.
A new, smaller stomach
So Helmer tried “everything in (his) own power” to try to lose the weight, but he couldn’t. That’s when he decided to undergo bariatric surgery in 2018.
The procedure he chose, a sleeve gastrectomy, involved removing about 80% of his stomach, including the portion that produces most of the “hunger hormone,” according to the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery.
The remaining new stomach was the size and shape of a banana, allowing him to eat less and feel fuller.
Helmer lost 120 pounds within 14 months and now maintains a weight of about 180 pounds. Like other bariatric surgery patients, he emphasized it takes continuous vigilance and sticking to the correct diet to stay on track.
“The biggest thing about this surgery that people take for granted is the psychological preparation,” Helmer said.
“After surgery like this, you can still get back to an unhealthy weight if you don’t maintain a level of self-control. … You can still enjoy the foods that you like, but you don’t need to eat 25 bites of it — you need to eat one or two.”
He now eats much smaller meals, making protein and vegetables his priority so that he gets the calories and nutrients he needs without “wasting valuable stomach space on things that aren’t going to do you any good,” like too many carbs, Helmer said.
He’s had to give up beer because carbonated drinks can cause painful bloating for bariatric surgery patients. On days when Helmer craves unhealthy foods, he reminds himself they’re not good for his overall health and will make him feel worse.
But there’s much to feel good about: Helmer no longer has joint or back pain and feels much better mentally.
“I have energy all the time. I’m up early every day. I’m happy when I get up. I’m happy when I go to bed,” he said. “The biggest emotional thing that I have is just joy. I just feel very, very blessed.”
'Don’t accept excuses from yourself'
One source of joy is his transformation into an endurance athlete.
Helmer said that before his weight loss, he couldn’t even run one-tenth of a mile without feeling like he was going to have a heart attack.
But as he became slimmer and fitter, he saw a meme about Tough Mudder — a mud run and obstacle race — and impulsively signed up for it in late 2020.
“From that point on, it just became a fire that was just burning,” he said. “I just committed to myself I was going to do it and then I had to make the plan to get there.”
The obstacle course requires grip, core and leg strength, as well as overall fitness. Helmer began running, building up to 30 miles per week. He threw sandbags, did burpees and climbed rocks.
Helmer’s father was his biggest fan and was set to watch him compete at his first Tough Mudder in Laughlin, Nevada, in the fall of 2021. But when he died that February of a lung disease, Helmer decided to run in his honor, wearing a band with his dad’s name, Johnny, around his arm.
He has three more races scheduled this year, which he said his old self would never believe. A motivational sign that now hangs on his door announces, “I’m not a human being, I’m a human doing.”
“We’re the worst offenders of creating barriers for ourselves,” Helmer said. “Don’t accept excuses from yourself. … If there’s something inside of you that says you want to try to do something, make the plan to do it and then find a way to get there.”