In the past year, Alli Neff has lost 100 pounds, an accomplishment she says came about because of lots of small behavioral changes she worked on along the way.
Neff, 30, weighed nearly 250 pounds in 2015, when she was asked to be a bridesmaid in a friend's wedding. Not wanting to stand as part of the wedding party at that weight, Neff enlisted the help of Hilton Head Health, a residential health and weight management program located in South Carolina.
"I have always been overweight," Neff told TODAY Health. "I've always been the fat friend and after going to Hilton Head Health in 2015, I did end up losing 50 pounds before that wedding, but my why was all wrong and how I did it was all wrong."
"I was really only externally motivated by being in that one wedding," Neff added. "And being at my heaviest weight, even losing 50 pounds I still hated the way I looked. I saw the photos (from the wedding) and quickly entered 'f--- it' mode and started eating everything again and going back to all my old habits."
Over the next several years, Neff took more trips to Hilton Head Health. But, while she recalls knowing she didn't want to continue living her life on the path she was walking, Neff said she struggled to get motivated enough to make real changes, despite having knowledge from the programs she'd attended.
"There were a lot of really hard behavioral changes that needed to happen," said Neff. "If I'm being honest with myself, I just don’t think I was in a mental place where I was ready to make those changes."
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Neff gained an additional 15 pounds. Knowing the pandemic was far from over and looking toward turning 30 in September 2020, she decided to give losing weight another go.
"I was done being the fat kid and I just wanted to lose weight by my birthday," said Neff. "I wanted to be thriving in my 30s."
Neff began posting to TikTok as @coopersmom_. She found accountability on the social media platform and, combined with her years of learning and studying at Hilton Head Health, Neff found the motivation to make changes in her behavior.
Neff focused on behavioral changes that would leave her in a calorie deficit: burning more calories with walks and strength training and focusing on foods high in protein and vegetables.
And, a mantra learned at Hilton Head Health guided her every step of the way.
"Unwise, better, best," said Neff. "It's basically looking at the options in front of you — maybe it’s a salad, a grilled chicken sandwich and a pizza — and you look at your choices and pick what’s maybe not the best option, but is at least a better option."
Bob Wright is the health educator at Hilton Head Health, and said he teaches the "unwise, better, best" technique to help people understand that while they may not always be surrounded by the healthiest food choices, they can make a step in the right direction.
"If I asked you to look at meals and generally categorize them into 'unwise, better, best' using what you generally know about nutrition, you could do it," said Wright. "So now, it’s not about making the best choice, it’s about raising the bar and asking how you could shift things a little bit into a better direction."
Along with "unwise, better, best," Wright said he teaches the importance of understanding quantity and frequency. For example, Wright said, eating lobster dipped in butter twice a year isn't a big deal, but people who consume white bread with butter daily for breakfast may find their weight increasing.
"The things that we eat the most are the things that make the biggest difference," said Wright. "So we encourage people to make sure the things they are eating most of the time are making a positive contribution to their health."
Neff said another secret to her success gained at Hilton Head Health has to do with car tires.
"There’s this one quote they said that really stuck with me," she said. "If you get a flat tire, what do you do? Do you slash your other three tires? Or do you fix your one tire and keep moving? In those 'flat tire' moments, when you've eaten something that's not great for you or you've gained a few pounds, do you just slash your other tires and eat pizza and have dessert after? Or do you get back to it, fix that tire and get back on the road?"
For those just starting the engine on their own weight-loss journey, Neff offers some advice.
“You are not stuck in your own body," she said. "You have the power to make the change, you just have to choose to do it."