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Getting sober led to weight gain. These small steps helped this woman shed 90 pounds

Rehab helped Erin Laraia get sober, but it also increased her weight. Short walks and swapping water for soda got her started on the path to her goal.
Her slow-and-steady approach worked. She lost 90 pounds and is maintaining her current healthy weight.
Her slow-and-steady approach worked. She lost 90 pounds and is maintaining her current healthy weight.Courtesy Erin Laraia

For Erin Laraia, 28, weight-loss struggles and battles with addiction have gone hand in hand.

Her substance abuse problems started in 2013 when she moved to Buffalo, N.Y., for college.

Homesickness and a demanding course load made the life transition difficult, and her doctors prescribed a stimulant. Over time she started to abuse the medication. In 2015 she moved to Las Vegas, where it was harder for her to obtain the stimulant she craved. There, she became addicted to methamphetamine.

Her best friend’s wedding was her catalyst for change. She wanted to attend, but she was so heavily addicted she couldn’t figure out how to manage the trip. That was the motivation she needed to seek help.

Rehab helped her get sober, but it also increased her weight. “In rehab I wasn’t taking any stimulants. I put on 40 pounds and it felt like it happened overnight,” she told TODAY. By her 26th birthday, after two months of sobriety, she weighed 208 pounds.

She started with small steps

Laraia discovered a way to add a little exercise to her days. She worked for a medical transport company, and when she had free time between patients, she started walking.

Within two months she noticed a difference. Her mom sent a photo from her birthday, and Laraia could see that she was losing weight.

She appreciated the mental health benefits she got from her walks, too: “Exercise is a natural antidepressant. Cardio is a mood elevator. It’s wonderful.” She started walking longer distances, challenging herself to beat her stats on her Fitbit.

Walking outside during her first year of sobriety also gave her a sense of control. She saw her weight as something she could improve. “In the beginning sobriety is really hard. I was feeling all these emotions and learning how to process them. There are so many things outside of my control — this was a positive thing I could focus my attention on,” she said.

She overhauled what she was eating

To ramp up her weight-loss progress, Laraia looked at her diet. She didn’t exactly have a history of healthy eating. When she was a child both of her parents worked full-time, and they didn’t cook much at home. “It was a lot of on-the-go eating,” Laraia said. “Once you start out that way as a kid it’s hard to get away from it as an adult.” And when she was struggling with addiction, nutrition wasn’t a priority.

To start, she gave up soda and replaced it with water. “I was a soda junkie. That was a big thing for me,” she said.

Now she’s intrigued by superfoods and she tries to get as much nutrition as she can with the least number of calories. “I’ve tried to change my mindset. I try not to look at food as delicious, as something I can’t wait to eat in an addictive way, but as a way of nourishing myself,” she said.

Her go-to foods are fruit, veggies and hummus, peanut butter and nuts. “I look at it almost as if I’m taking vitamins, not just filling myself,” she said.

She found ways to face changes

In January 2019 Laraia got a desk job, and she didn’t want her weight-loss progress to slow down. She started waking up at 4 a.m. to go to the gym, and she added short jogging stints to her treadmill walks.

“I was so excited to be able to jog for six minutes. I kept challenging myself,” she said. She would check her Fitbit stats and add a minute of jogging. Within a couple of months, she was jogging four or five miles a day, four or five times a week.

She mixes in a little weight training as well, and had been doing a circuit workout at Planet Fitness before the COVID-19 pandemic. For now, she’s not comfortable going back to the gym so she’s toning with resistance bands and making time for her daily walks.

She found an activity she loves

Laraia discovered a love of hiking. “In early 2017 I remember huffing and puffing to get to one spot — I told my friends I would just stop and watch the dogs. Now I have no problem doing a bunch of stuff. It’s much easier. I have the physical strength to do a lot of things,” she said. “I try all different trails. It’s opened up a whole new world for me.”

She was patient with herself

Laraia didn’t step on a scale for nine months. “It’s just a number. I kept my head down and kept doing what I had to do. I added one little thing at a time,” she said. Her slow-and-steady approach worked. She lost 90 pounds and is maintaining her current healthy weight. “Sobriety doesn’t happen overnight, and neither does weight loss,” she said.