Tahoe man sheds 235 pounds, isn’t done yet
Sun News Service
LAKE TAHOE ” As millions of men 50 and older pack on the pounds, Jim Fanzone has vowed to take them off as though his life depended on it.
It does, and he has.
The South Lake Tahoe man has shed, so far, about 235 pounds over four-plus years, nearly 170 of those in two years. He won’t stop, he says, until he reaches the ideal weight for a man his age and size: 185 pounds.
In an age when obesity has become the No. 1 health problem in America, Fanzone wants to go public with his story to let others with obesity problems know that it not only can be done, but especially as people age ” it is never too late.
The self-described “old hippie who’s lived a hard life,” Fanzone, 54, ballooned to 475 pounds at his heaviest before suffering two heart attacks in three months.
“If you think about carrying four or five 50-pound sacks of dog food on your back every day, and every day it gets harder to carry, that’s where I was,” Fanzone said. “There came a point where I was going to die and it came down to a choice.”
Fanzone made the right choice, and he’s never felt better. His wife thinks so too, and his doctor couldn’t agree more.
“Once you figure what your triggers are, then you can fight the real battle,” said Dr. Kevin Hoffarth of Tahoe Family Physicians in South Lake Tahoe. “Jim’s figured out the triggers.”
When you look at the patterns of obesity, some of it can be genetic, but much of it, doctors say, can be psychological. And from early on as a teen, Fanzone said that food became a means to relax, even medicate from the pressures he faced growing up. He was an athlete, but not a very good one; big and clumsy as a teenager, he says.
“I was an outsider. I was a big guy and so nobody really messed with me, but people would want to tangle and try to push my buttons,” he said. “I was known ‘lard ass’ and ‘Fat Fanzone.’ There was a point where I just came to accept it and lived what people thought of me.”
And for a fat young man who loved food, it was only in a twisted logical way that Fanzone chose a career in the food service industry. While in his 20s, he worked as a cook and a sous-chef, never having to worry about paying for groceries that could have amounted to hundreds of dollars a month. That happened later in life.
While he enjoyed cooking, he wasn’t motivated by it as a career. Instead it became an easy way to feed his food addiction. The more he was surrounded by food, the more he consumed.
“I’d tell people that in the restaurant business, never trust a skinny cook,” Fanzone said. “I guess I was the proof of that. Living up to my words.”
Toll on the body
As he grew heavier, physical ailments began to plague him. Before he was 300 pounds, Fanzone’s knees began to hurt. The cushioned rubber mats on the kitchen floor no longer withstood his weight. His joints felt wobbly and his feet began to swell. He developed gout.
Moving around in a fast-paced kitchen atmosphere began to get him easily winded. Yet he didn’t connect the dots between his weight and a lethargy that settled into his routines. Cooking and eating restaurant food at the same time required a bounce. Into his 30s and weighing around 325 pounds, he grew sluggish. Cigarette smoking went from a pack to two packs a day.
“I was looking at it back then as I loved food, I was fat, and I didn’t have to pay for it,” he said. “There was a lot of denial going on then.”
As his appetite for food grew, so did his alcohol consumption. Into his 40s, where he was more than 350 pounds, he could take down a six pack before a meal and a six pack while eating.
Finally his knees gave out. The cause: too much weight for his knees to support. He went on disability and that’s when he soon found out that the free restaurant food that he cooked for others and consumed for himself had ended.
To occupy himself and pay the bills, he worked on mainframe computer systems and ate out between jobs. He was close to 400 pounds by the time he was 40.
Growing sick and tired of being sick and tired, Fanzone thought a change of lifestyle would do him good. He moved to Lake Tahoe in 1998, thinking that mountain life would breath fresh air into his otherwise rapidly deteriorating body.
But like many who come to Tahoe with big hopes and promises, reality came to be. He needed consistent work, not only to pay for the day-to-day living expenses, but to support his food habit, which was about $500 a month.
And twisted logic would have it again that he would wind up in the restaurant and bar business.
When Fanzone wasn’t slinging pizzas at South Shore restaurants, he was flinging belligerent patrons out of Tahoe bars. The two went hand-in-hand, hand-to-mouth, he said.
“That’s the thing about working in restaurants: There’s always food and there’s always beer,” he said. “There would be nights bouncing where I’d eat a large pizza during a shift, and then when the shift ended, I’d eat another one.”
When he wasn’t working, he’d sleep in, wake up and the first thing on his mind was to find more food. By his late 40s, he was around 450 pounds. He’d eat five to seven times a day and rarely cooked for himself.
He’d instead either go to restaurants, which became increasingly more of a personal embarrassment, or he’d have food delivered, paying the $30 minimum for Chinese.
“I’d hear things from children, which are so innocent, and they wouldn’t know any better, I’d hear: ‘Mommy, that’s the biggest man I’ve ever seen’ or ‘he’s so fat.'”
When it came to food, it was about taste and quantity. He’d go to restaurants and eat two steaks at one sitting; he’d go to the supermarket and pick up two whole rotisserie chickens, which he’d bring them home devour. For breakfast he’d order two Grand Slams from Denny’s and even after he finished he wasn’t satisfied. He’d drink two-liter bottles of soda like he was drinking water.
While he says that he accepted being a fat man, it didn’t necessarily mean that he wasn’t ashamed by it. The bigger he grew the more grouchy, distant and insular he became.
“I was a lonely guy,” he said.
At a peak of 475 pounds and the age of 49, Fanzone had a heart attack. When the medics arrived out at his home, it took six to carry him out of his house to the hospital. Too much stress on the heart is what the doctors told him. He would have to change his lifestyle.
But his brush with death didn’t seem to sink in. He lost about 30 pounds, but neither his heart or his head was in it, he said.
Three months later he had a second heart attack.
That life-and-death moment of clarity hit him on the hospital bed, looking at his heart rate bounce.
“I thought of my mom. I kept telling myself, ‘if I get out of this with my life, then I’ve got to change.'” After a week in the ICU, Fanzone returned home. He asked his doctors for some advice. They told him he would need a radical lifestyle change.
And that’s what he did.
He quit smoking, cold turkey. He got himself a bicycle. Done were the days of bingeing on slabs of barbecued pork ribs, pizzas, steaks and potatoes, candy and soda. From the moment he returned home, everything became an experiment in restraint.
“If I try this and do this, and measure this, and think of portions, what will be the outcome, is what I kept telling myself,” he said.
Whole chickens, two at a sitting, turned into one single broiled chicken breast. French fries became tossed green salad or cottage cheese. No pizza. No beer. Exercise actually kept his mind off of food. And he was determined.
“It’s not to say that I’d get discouraged. There would be times where I’d lose a lot of weight and work out just as hard and only lose a few pounds,” he said.
But those plateaus were to be expected, and his doctor, Kevin Hoffarth of Tahoe Family Physicians, credits Fanzone for not getting discouraged. The doctor has watched Fanzone shed nearly 200 pounds under his care.
“I’m telling my patents all the time to lose weight. And so I asked him what the trigger was. He said he didn’t want to die and that he wanted to feel better,” Hoffarth said. “He’s still overweight, but you can see the change in him. He feels really good about himself and what’s ahead of him. He’s excited now to be able to run around with his grandkids.”
Faced with death, Fanzone made a conscious decision to change. He found the motivator in his own life, Hoffarth said.
“It is unbelievable how simple he made it. And when I say simple, I mean he took the concept of eating less, made up his mind and did it,” Hoffarth said. “As simple as it always seems to lose weight, we complicate it through our own psychological manifestations ” stress, depression and excuses ” that we place on ourselves.”
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