In 2011, Rafael Zuniga was in bad shape. He hadn’t left his house in months because of his weight, which was about 600 pounds. Then his health started failing: He was hospitalized and learned he had lymphedema (where excess fluid collects in tissues causing swelling), hypertension and cellulitis (a bacterial skin infection), among other illnesses. He also discovered that he actually weighed 831 pounds.
“I had been gaining weight without realizing how much,” the 47-year-old public insurance adjuster from Chicago told TODAY, via email. “I was borderline diabetic, had high blood pressure and was suffering from sleep apnea. It was clear to me that I had no choice but to do something drastic in order to improve my health.”
After leaving the hospital, he started making small changes, ditching the fast food and booze, and doing sit ups and curls on the edge of his bed. These modest adjustments helped him lose 50 pounds in a year. While friends and family applauded him, Zuniga knew he needed to drop more weight.
“I wasn’t happy with my rate of progress and wanted to increase it,” he explained.
He found the app Lose It! and started tracking what he ate and how much he moved his body. Within the first year of joining, he shed 200 pounds.
“I could clearly see what was preventing me from losing weight more quickly: My caloric intake was higher than what I was burning. Tracking and tweaking what I ate made a huge difference,” Zuniga said.
While he used to eat a bowl of oatmeal or a sandwich for breakfast, he now sticks to hard-boiled eggs to start his day. He enjoys salads with lean protein, such as chicken or fish, and eats carbs on days when he does cardio exercise. Cooking at home and skipping his favorite fast food joints helps him keep his calories reasonable and he doesn’t add mayo or butter to his food any more.
“I also stopped drinking alcohol for a couple of years, and even now I will only drink it occasionally. When I allow myself a cheat meal (every three weeks) it is a cheat meal, rather than a cheat day,” he said.
Since 2011, Zuniga lost a whopping 616 pounds. It wasn’t easy.
“The first 400 pounds were a piece of cake to lose compared to the next 200 pounds. I overcame these plateaus by committing to a healthier lifestyle through cutting out foods that were not doing me any favors,” he said.
Being consistent with smart eating and exercise habits really helped with his success. Yet what keeps him motivated is being able to do new things, such as travel.
“I stay motivated through all the new activities I’ve been able to accomplish, from normal every day acts, like walking to the grocery store, to rarer opportunities, like travel,” he said. “I just have to look in the mirror to motivate myself and remember not to give up.”
Zuniga’s goal weight is between 180 and 200 pounds so he's still working toward it. His health has improved dramatically, though he did have both of his knees replaced. His weight made him bow-legged and it ruined those joints.
He has had two skin removal surgeries, where doctors cut off 25 pounds of skin. While he appreciates his improved health, he also enjoys life now that he can move more easily.
“I’m able to do things that most people take for granted but that are really special to me,” he said. “My dad always told me, ‘If you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything,’ and while I didn’t believe it before I definitely do now.”
He shares tips for others hoping to lose weight.
1. Think about what you drink.
Drinking lots of water helps Zuniga stay hydrated and it keeps him away from high-calorie drinks, such as soda and alcohol.
“You’re cheating yourself if you try to maintain heavy drinking habits while trying to lose weight. Try to avoid it all together for a month or two and see what happens,” he said.
2. Keep a record.
Being able to see what he eats helps Zuniga make healthy choices.
“Use a food tracking app … to keep track of what you’re eating and to better understand your diet and calorie intake. It is important to stay on track,” he said.
3. Do it for you.
So often people are afraid to go to the gym because they'll get made fun of, or look stupid. People also tend to listen to negative talk from others. Zuniga says it’s important to ignore all of that.
“Don’t let other people’s judgments stop you. Don’t be embarrassed to go to the gym or allow someone else to keep you from reaching your goal. Whatever bothers you, turn it around and channel it into your workouts,” he said.