Taylor LeBaron is half the teen he used to be — and that’s a very good thing for both his health and self-esteem. An always-big boy who grew into a severely obese teen, the Georgia native dealt with schoolroom taunts and his own shrinking self-image even as he continued put on the pounds.
Finally, LeBaron took control of his life by turning to the thing that helped make him fat in the first place: video games. Based on the games he loved to play while he sat sedentary and stuffed himself, LeBaron created the “Ultimate Fitness Game” — not an actual video game but one that employs the same principles and strategy used to become a top gamesman.
“It has the same aspects of a video game,” the 17-year-old LeBaron told Meredith Vieira live on TODAY Thursday. “You have enemies, you have allies, and you have money. You have to play smart; otherwise, you run out of your money. Your score needs to be high at the end of the day.”
LeBaron noted that “money” in this case means calories, and as he sought to lose weight he found making money rather than calories made it “easier to keep track of and more fun and engaging.”
The fruits of LeBaron’s weight-loss labor are chronicled in his new book, “Cutting Myself in Half: 150 Pounds Lost One Byte at a Time,” in which he outlines the mechanics of his Ultimate Fitness Game while relating the story of how he went from a nearly 300-pound 14-year-old to the slim and trim 145-pounder he is today.
He told Vieira the teasing he received in school while an obese pre-pubescent still sticks with him, several years and many pounds later.
“When I was in the sixth grade, I dropped a book in class, and when I bent over to pick it up, one of my classmates pointed at me and said, ‘Look, Taylor has a double chin!’ “ he said. “I just wanted to disappear; I still feel what I felt that day, the embarrassment of that moment.”
But it took a couple of more years and even more weight gain to make him see the light. “I stepped on the scale one day, and the numbers flew up to 297 pounds,” he told Vieiera. “I had no idea — I was expecting something like 230. I knew I had to do something. It was a struggle for me to walk to my mailbox and back.”
In devising his Ultimate Fitness Game, LeBaron calculated how many calories — converted to money — he had to spend each day. He set about going through a maze of rooms without running out of dough; for example, eating a cookie would cost him 200 points. Exercising upped his cash reserves.
Over the course of three years, LeBaron literally halved himself to his current weight through playing the game. And he told Vieira it’s just that slow, steady approach — with the fun of a game thrown in — that did the trick for him.
“If you say, ‘I’m going to lose 100 pounds in the next three months,’ well that’s not going to happen,” he said. “You have to set it in bite sizes that are achievable. Then when you can achieve that, you feel great; you’ve met a goal.”
While LeBaron targets his book toward overweight teens, he notes his Ultimate Fitness Game can work for adults as well, and he has positive proof at home. His mother lost 75 pounds playing the game, and his grandmother shed 45.
Excerpt: “Cutting Myself in Half”
The more I thought about my weight problem, the more I knew I couldn’t totally blame my binary code. Binary code could be rewritten. I could retrain myself and rewrite my future. A really old comic strip character, Pogo, once said: “I saw the enemy, and he is us.” That sure fit me as I started looking for reasons I was overweight. I could do a lot to counteract the build I had inherited instead of giving up. The first thing I did was identify what was putting on the pounds. Since I love video games, I approached my weight issue the same way I learn a new game. When I get a new video game, one of the first things I do is check out the opponents to see what I’m up against. When I know the enemies, I can create a plan of attack.
Enemy #1: Still life
My first problem was inactivity. I put calories in, but I expended very little energy to burn them. So I decided to exercise. I rode my bike once around our cul-de-sac, and I was exhausted. When I didn’t see a difference right away, I gave up. I wasn’t ready to face the activity issue yet.
Enemy #2: Tricky taste buds
On to the next challenge: food choices. For my whole life, I’d let my taste buds lead me instead of my brain. And I was coming to the realization that my taste buds were not my friends. They were out for themselves, regardless of what they did to me. They told me that flavored whole milk drinks, nougat candy bars, tortilla chips, packaged dessert cakes, and regular soft drinks had a place in my life. But when I started checking out the makeup of these foods, I realized they shouldn’t even be classified as foods. They were pleasure for my mouth but torture for my body.
So I told myself: I’ll lose weight this week. I’ll cut out all the junk. And to hurry the process, I’ll even skip lunch.
But the junk cravings didn’t go away. In fact, they got stronger. And when I skipped lunch, I was so hungry by supper that I had double servings.
Enemy #3: Sneaky servings
My last hope: food volume. When I first investigated what I put into my mouth, I realized I had no idea what a serving size was. After a few days of measuring, I realized that my soup bowl of cereal held four or five servings and, depending on the type of cereal, could be as much as 1,000 calories, not counting milk.
Enemy #4: Big little things
I soon learned that I could easily consume my day’s calories in liquids. Liquid calories are more likely to make you gain weight because after you drink them, even if you feel full, your mind tells you that you haven’t had a meal. I knew I had to give up flavored milk drinks and regular soft drinks. I figured if that was the only change I made, I’d lose a little weight.
I realized that condiments were a big calorie waste for me, too. I loved a giant cheeseburger with mayonnaise and ketchup oozing down the sides. I could save a couple of hundred calories just by vetoing the mayo (180 calories for 2 tablespoons) and ketchup (30 calories for 2 tablespoons).
Enemy #5: Stress in all sizes
I had more to consider than exercise, food choices, and serving sizes. I had to realize why I overate, and the reason became clear when I thought back to when I was 12. In a little over two years, I’d experienced some unbelievable stressors that skyrocketed me from chubby kid to obese teen. I’ll tell you more about these in Chapter 5, but trust me, these were major stressors.
But stress is stress, and even minor, everyday stressors can cause overeating. Stress of all types caused me to eat mindlessly until my stomach shouted, “We’re full down here!” and not another bite would fit. I called it “whatever” eating, and I knew I had to avoid whatever eating at whatever cost.
Toward the end of this major stress time, my granddad bought me my first laptop. I loved surfing the Internet, and one day I found a health site with a huge headline that read: how do you know if you’re overweight?
I keyed in my height and a weight estimate, which I knew was probably lower than my actual weight. The calculation came back: morbidly obese. The label hurt and panicked me. The image of Taylor LeBaron as morbidly obese was getting too clear to deny.
I knew why I was obese.
- I was eating too much of the wrong foods.
- I was spending too many hours in front of the TV and computer — in other words, not getting enough exercise.
Once I figured out what I was doing wrong, you’d think I’d start doing what I knew was right. But it wasn’t that easy. The decision to shape up was a slow process for me. But I began by paying a little more attention to what I ate, and I eliminated flavored milk drinks and regular soft drinks from my diet.
The Christmas just after I turned 14, my grandparents gave my family a membership to our local YMCA. Even though I was a little more health conscious, I remember thinking it was a lame gift, and I wanted no part of it. Mom was excited, though, and early in January, she took Elliott and me to check out the YMCA and to get our ID cards.
To be honest, when I looked at all those people grunting and sweating and working hard — running on treadmills and going nowhere — I thought it was a joke. Exercise couldn’t possibly make that much difference. Our Y membership sat for two months.
Then, in March, Mom suggested that we all set fitness goals. I was not a fan of the idea and didn’t want to go back to the Y. I felt self-conscious. All the people there seemed so fit and healthy, and I doubted my physical ability. I figured there would be very little I could do. But at Mom’s insistence, we made our second trip to the Y.
The Y assigned me a personal trainer, a fit and trim lady named Dyan. She started out with a physical assessment, and I was pleased that my weight was down to 282. (Those little changes in my diet had made a difference.) Dyan didn’t make me feel bad about myself. We just sat for a while talking about my weight, what I ate, and what my goals were. I didn’t tell her my mom had pretty much dragged me there or that I was self-conscious and embarrassed to be discussing my weight, activity level, and eating habits with such a lean and fit person.
Dyan seemed so different from me. And as I looked around, I realized how different I was from all the people working out, running track, and swimming. I didn’t think I belonged in their world. My lifestyle was too different. But then Dyan showed me pictures of her that had been taken a couple of years earlier. She was my size! She told me how she’d exercised and watched her diet and eventually saw huge changes. I listened politely, but I found it hard to believe her. She must have had liposuction or taken diet pills to have lost that much weight, I thought.
Dyan went on to say that a fitness program would be a life-changing experience, but I couldn’t see how that was possible. I was ready to give up before I started. She said that 90 percent of people who make New Year’s resolutions to lose weight give up within eight weeks, but that I didn’t have to be one of them. (Secretly, I figured my odds were worse because Mom had made the resolution for me.)
Dyan went over what exercises would be safe for me. She started me out on a few of the weight machines, a stationary bike, and a treadmill. Within 10 minutes on the stationary bike, my pulse was up to 190, and I had to stop. I was too big to run and could crack my kneecaps, so I was only able to walk slowly on the treadmill.
Dyan and I met weekly to talk about my fitness strategy. She taught me how to read and understand food labels. She taught me about calorie values, about fat, saturated fat, and trans fats, and how muscles are built and how they deteriorate. She explained body mass index (BMI), which is a measurement of your body fat based on height and weight. She also explained basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is the amount of calories you’d burn if you stayed in bed all day. All this information just made me realize how out of shape I was.
I’d gone far enough that I didn’t want to back out. But I felt like all the healthy, thin people would be staring at me. I didn’t want them to see the size of my legs. I didn’t want them to see me at all. So I showed up the first time wearing sunglasses, jeans, and boots. These clothes became my workout gear for the next several months. I didn’t realize at the time that my clothing made me even more noticeable.
I started out slow, but I stuck with it. I didn’t notice a weight loss right away, but after just a week, I started feeling that natural high people talk about. Exercise exhilarated me. I felt like I’d found something I was always meant to do. I felt my muscles getting stronger every day. I began going to the Y four, five, or even six days a week. I began feeling like a character in one of my video games: facing enemies, maneuvering around obstacles, moving to a higher level each time I mastered the current one. I began feeling powerful.
It wasn’t long before I had to go to the Y, and I became upset if, for some reason, I wasn’t able to go. Exercise quickly became a part of what I did each day, and I found simpler ways to exercise on days I couldn’t go to the Y. Exercise became my replacement for snacking and my remedy for stress. I felt happy if I was sweating and grunting like the people I once thought were foolish.
After a couple of months, Dyan could tell a difference, but she was the only one. The weight didn’t come off fast, but I was changing my lifestyle. And my diet began to naturally change. After working out for an hour, brownies and snack cakes didn’t sound as good as a bottle of cold energy water. And I knew I needed the whole fitness program if I wanted to see results, so I started changing what I ate.
At first I thought that I could just count fat and that as long as my diet had less than 65 grams of fat a day, I’d lose weight. I soon realized that those fat grams couldn’t come in the form of candy bars and snack cakes because they were packed with calories. Those calories were empty, and I knew I needed protein for my workouts.
I spent a lot of time searching the Internet and visiting Web sites. I typed in questions like “How many calories does a beef burrito have?” and “What is a serving size for steak?” I visited fast-food sites and identified the healthiest foods on every menu so I’d have a good alternative for the high-calorie, high-fat, high-sugar items I’d ordered in the past. For a while, I used an online site to plan my meals and keep track of what I ate. (You can find a great online meal planner at this Microsoft HealthVault site.) Eventually, I developed a healthy diet and exercise plan that worked for me, and I no longer needed the site.
I tackled fitness with three strategies:
1. Increased physical activity
2. Decreased food volume
3. Healthy food choices
The YMCA provided computerized exercise plans, so I could watch my progress. They used an incentive program called the Coach Approach that helped me chart my progress as I reached different color levels, much like karate belts. I even earned prizes like wristbands, T-shirts, and gym bags.
By the time summer arrived, I was driven to exercise. I was starting a new school in the fall, and I wanted to be in shape. I worked out two to three hours at a time. I knew I couldn’t keep up that pace after school started, but I wanted a jumpstart. I’d finish the workout Dyan designed for me, walk a mile or two around the track, and repeat my workout plan. I felt myself getting stronger from the inside out. I was still a big guy, but I was starting to feel and act like the person I’d always known I was.
It was easier to control food volume when I paid attention to what I ate. I started noticing everything I put in my mouth — the nutritional value and the serving size. I realized I didn’t need a big bowl of anything to get the necessary vitamins and minerals, but I was still so large that I needed a lot of calories. I reduced my daily calories slowly because I didn’t want to lose weight so fast that my skin sagged.
The hardest thing about food choices was dealing with cravings. I decided that cravings were sort of like dinosaurs. If they lost their food supply, they’d die. So I stopped feeding my cravings. I knew a lot of people learned to satisfy their cravings with a bite of cake instead of a wedge, and I did that sometimes, too. But my cravings were pushy. If I fed them too often, even tiny bites, they tried to take over.
Every time I felt a craving, I’d work out or jump into an activity I enjoyed. Mom bought me some 20-pound barbells to use for quick workouts at home. I decided it was better for me to lift weights while I watched television than to snack.
Eventually, the cravings started to die, and I’d wake up in the morning and want salmon or other protein. I’d feel hungry for whole-grain bread instead of a muffin. Finally, I was stronger than my cravings.
I approached my diet like I tackled a major school research project. I learned about every food ingredient. I researched what I needed to be healthy, and I compared what I needed with what was on food labels. I started going to the store with Mom so I could read labels and choose the healthiest foods. As I developed my own system, I became more focused on carrying out the plan than on feeding my taste buds.
I started liking healthy foods, and after a while, rich foods made me queasy. I was truly changing my inner codes. I was now controlling my taste buds instead of letting them control me. That powerful feeling felt better than any food could ever taste!
Excerpted with permission from “Cutting Myself in Half: 150 Pounds Lost One Byte at a Time” by Taylor LeBaron and Jack and Mary Branson (HCI Teens, 2010).
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