Through Thick and Thin: How One Couple Lost Over 300 Pounds
Over the past three years, Andrew and Dani McLane shed a combined 300-plus pounds. Exercise and eating right were paramount, but it was their relationship-even as it grew more complicated-that kept them going.
The first thing you notice about Andrew McLane is the tattoo on his left bicep. It’s densely inked, like the designs on partially shrunken balloons. The tattoo is half the size it used to be, because his arm dropped eight inches in circumference in a year.
Andrew, a 28-year-old realtor, stands six foot one. He’s wearing a T-shirt that reveals a pantherish physique. Next to him in the restaurant booth here in sleepy Parksville, on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, sits his wife, Dani, a beguiling 29-year-old brunette who teaches elementary school in nearby Port Alberni.
Three years ago, the couple vowed to make 2011 their “Year of Health.” They weren’t kidding. Together they shed more than 300 pounds in 12 months. Dani lost 75. Andrew lost 240.
Sounds like a simple story, but it’s not. Partly because weight issues are never simple-they are a tricky brew of self-image anxieties, cultural cues and the vagaries of human physiology. And partly because couple issues are never simple either.
Andrew doesn’t really know why his weight issues began, only when. It was around age 15, about the time he unexpectedly got cut from the baseball team. Absorbing that sting, and with time suddenly on his hands, he took a part-time job at Parksville’s Japanese restaurant, working in the kitchen amid the tempting smell of tempura and sushi. By 18, he was approaching 280 pounds.
The local men’s store had a Big and Tall section, and the next year, Andrew bought his first suit there to launch his career. (He would become, at 19, Canada’s youngest realtor.) He looked sharp and had a swaggering confidence. That’s what caught Dani’s attention when Andrew’s profile popped up on an Internet dating site, in response to her own ad. His profile was cryptic. “If you like Will Ferrell movies, we’ll probably get along,” it read. Dani drew him out in subsequent correspondences, and the two felt a certain comfort when they finally arranged a face-to-face date.
“I wasn’t shocked when I met him,” Dani says, even though Andrew had posted mostly head-and-shoulders photos, which concealed his 350-pound girth. “I didn’t feel like he’d misrepresented himself.” She saw great eyes, a great smile. An easy energy came off of him, the kind endemic to people who go places and get stuff done. Andrew took her to the restaurant at the swanky Tigh-Na-Mara resort on the oceanfront. She was too nervous to touch her pasta. The next day she called her grandmother and said, “Grandma, I met him. I met him.”
Andrew called his sister and told her the same thing. “I’ve met the future Mrs.McLane,” he said. Six and a half months later they were engaged; a year after that, they were married. They were both 23.
Drinks and dinner were Andrew’s idea of quality time. Whatever restaurant served the most scrumptious food-best pint, best burger, best steak-that’s where he was headed. Back then, “full” was not the nirvana Andrew was looking for. “Stuffed” was. “The feeling of being so full that you can’t move,” he says, “that was bliss.”
Dani, who had been a sporty kid like Andrew, battled some of the same temptations, though she didn’t indulge herself to the same degree. She’d actually been starting to turn her health habits around when she met Andrew. But at this stage, food issues were a conflict they didn’t need. They were a team. And for a while, they just raised the white flag and had fun.
They honeymooned in Vegas, land of limitless choices and supersized portions. Back home in Parksville, downtime revolved around meals out and parties in. They lived large, within a growing circle of friends. In the local Christmas parade, they were the guests of honour: Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus. “I didn’t need a pillow,” Andrew says.
They loved each other for who they were right then, not for who they might become. When they looked at each other, they didn’t see potential, the way realtors sometimes tout an undervalued property with “good bones.” They each were invested in the person in front of their eyes. Still, they had to wonder. Was this who they were destined to be? Dani never thought so; she imagined they’d one day reclaim their sporty youthful ways and live a different kind of life, one less constrained by gravity.
Andrew wasn’t so sure. Within two years of their wedding, he had packed on another 100 pounds. He was now nearing 450. Even the Big and Tall section had nothing for him now. He had to order his size 60 jackets online.
“When we held hands, we weren’t totally together,” recalls Dani. “It was like holding marshmallows.” When she hugged him, it was like hugging a tree. She couldn’t get her arms all the way around.
At the end of a day of showing two-storey homes, Andrew felt as if he’d run a marathon. Once, he and Dani went to Vancouver to treat themselves to a Canucks game, which he describes as “over 60 minutes of pain.” The cupholders carved into his hips. He thought, Forget playing sports-I can’t even sit in stands and watch sports.
One night he came into the living room while Dani was watching The Biggest Loser-a reality show about people who compete to drop the most weight. “Do I look like that?” he asked.
Dani shook her head. “Because to me, he didn’t,” she says. “Love is blind, I guess.”
But Andrew knew. He wasn’t as big as those folks on TV. He was bigger. “I weighed more than any person on that show,” he says.
In the fall of 2010, Andrew started on diet shakes and dropped a few pounds, but then around Dani’s birthday in October he fell off the wagon. “I went back to my old habits,” he says. “I thought, I’m dragging her down.”
“Sizeism,” it’s sometimes said, is the last acceptable form of prejudice. It seemed, for Andrew, that public humiliation lurked around every corner. When you’re that large, it’s not just little kids who stare. Dani, feeling for him, started absorbing his worries-about whether the stairs on this walk-up, or the chairs in this restaurant, would hold him. “I didn’t want to travel, knowing how anxious it made him,” she says.
Things came to a head around Christmas of 2010. “We’re really worried about Andrew,” Dani’s friends told her. Some kind of intervention seemed necessary. It didn’t help that Dani was feeling discouraged about her own weight-240 pounds on a five-foot-four-inch frame. About a month earlier, as she cheered the kids from the sidelines at her school’s daily Run for Fun, a man walking by said, “You might think about joining them.”
Enough was enough. The issue of children had been coming up-Andrew wanted them-and somehow it was the springboard for everything she now needed to say. She sat ?Andrew down. “I don’t want to have kids with someone who’s going to die before he’s 40,” she said. “I don’t want to be a single mom.”
She upped the ante. “You’re ruining us,” she told him.
“It was a day I wouldn’t wish upon anybody,” Andrew says now. “I realized, My wife’s going to leave me, and I’m going to be sitting there feeling sorry for myself.”
Beth Alden, a no-nonsense and almost evangelically inspiring trainer, runs a boot-camp-style weight-loss class based on close support and accountability.
On May 5, 2011, Dani found Alden online and urged her to take the two of them on as clients. Alden remembered running into Andrew in Parksville years before. He was a big personality, she recalled, so headstrong she wasn’t sure he was coachable. But this time when she met him, something had changed. “He wasn’t the same person,” Alden says. “I looked in his eyes and I saw desperation. This was rock bottom.” Plus, what she learned of his family made her hopeful. His sister was a ballet dancer. His dad was not a heavy man. “I told him, ‘You’re not a big-boned guy,’” Alden says. “‘You shouldn’t be this size.’”
Dani signed up for Alden’s 13-week-long Biggest Loser Oceanside program. But “at 460 pounds, you don’t want to work out around anybody,” Andrew says. He opted for personal training twice a week.
And so Dani and Andrew began their journey at the gym on parallel paths. They started slowly-a tactic guaranteed to produce “small wins” that would leave them feeling good about themselves-and then ramped things up. Alden believes in high-impact interval training-revving the heart and resting it, over and over. The idea is to throw as much productive confusion at the body as possible, with a variety of resistance training and straight cardio and stretching routines. Counting his gym work with free weights, and his cardio sessions in the garage on an elliptical machine he and Dani had purchased, Andrew was soon working out six or seven days a week.
Alden would have him haul sandbags equivalent to the weight he’d lost so far so he’d understand what he had been carrying and feel the joy of sudden freedom when he dropped it to the floor. She prepared him the way a Jedi master might prepare an apprentice-coaxing him to anticipate challenges he might face. “Friends are going to call and say, ‘Hey, you look great-just come out for a drink with us,’” she’d tell Andrew. “What are you going do? You’re going to have to say goodbye to some of those people, who don’t want you to be skinny because they’re not.”
Failure, Alden told Andrew, was not an option: “Here it is. You were a successful athlete in high school. You’re a successful realtor. And you have bombed with health and fitness. We’re gonna succeed here.”
Five months in, Dani was already paring down. She’d lost more than 40 pounds since the day of the ultimatum. She was taking three fitness classes a week, plus the Biggest Loser sessions on Wednesdays, when Alden sometimes led the group on field trips to do cardio in the woods or on the beach.
Alden took them both grocery shopping to get them in the habit of buying from the perimeter of the store and avoiding the inner aisles, where the processed products lurk. She encouraged them to carefully read labels. (“Do you understand what those ingredients are? If not, put that back.”) They made a pact to purge junk food from the house.
The experiment was working-for both of them. But it was obvious that something different was happening to Andrew. Something profound.
“The only way I can explain it,” says Dani, “is you know how when you’re taxiing in a plane and the pilot suddenly hits the throttle? It was like, Hold on.”
That first month, Andrew dropped about 35 pounds and began tweaking his routine. He figured out that he lost more weight if he trained at night. He vowed no eating past 6 p.m. He packed healthy bag lunches every day.
After the second month, he’d lost another 30 pounds. A kind of upheaval was taking place inside his body as it adjusted to the different fuel, the different activity levels. He listened to what Alden said, and he internalized it. As management gurus say, he had committed not only to a goal but also to a system.
At the end of each month, his clothes no longer fit. “At first I took them in to get altered, thinking, Maybe it’s cheaper,” he says. “But by the time they finished the hemming, I’d shrunk so much that they were too big again, so I’d just end up donating them to the Salvation Army.”
By summer he’d lost roughly 100 pounds. Fat was melting away. It felt amazing. The same brain reward circuits that used to light up when he gorged on pizza were now being activated by exercise. “I traded a food addiction for an endorphin high,” Andrew says.
The 150-pound mark happened by the end of August. But Andrew kept it quiet. “Even losing 150 pounds, I still weighed 310-it wasn’t enough,” he says. He stayed undercover-minimal photos on Facebook, no clues of the transformation in progress. He pledged to be totally metamorphosed before the big reveal. “I didn’t want to disappoint people.”
By New Year’s Eve 2011, he was down by around 200 pounds. “People wanted me to celebrate. But I could not turn it off.” Like a nerd at a high-school bush party, he drank water out of a beer bottle.
Identity-wise, “it was a very confusing time,” Andrew says. Occasionally, he’d prop up a picture of his old, enormous self next to a mirror, and then look back and forth between the two. “You don’t know which you are.”
Indeed, it’s hard to believe Andrew 1.0 and Andrew 2.0 are the same person, when you diagram the differences before and after.
From 460 pounds to as little as 193. From size XXXXXXL to size medium. From no chance at a push-up to handstand push-ups.
He came down five hat sizes. His thick fingers are now as slender as votive tapers. He can wear his wedding ring again. His hands feel totally different now, Dani says, when she holds them. When she gives him a hug now, she can feel his bones and muscles.
He lost 3 pounds of flesh. Belly-reduction surgery involved gathering and shearing off a great drapery of skin, then replacing his navel in the new right spot. Effectively, he was being tailored like a suit.
His feet, he has noticed, are incongruously flat. They got squashed, the arches fallen, from carrying all that weight, and they remain compressed, even though they no longer have that load to bear.
As his miraculous transformation unfolded, Dani’s pride in her husband was tempered by the reactions of everybody around them. She and Andrew had left the starting line together, but the difference in their pace of progress was lost on no one.
At the gym, “I was making friends, feeling great about it all,” she says. “But then it was like, ‘Oh, are you still working out?’ And I’d think, Yes! Yes, I am! I’m trying so hard! But now there was a different standard. People were measuring me against him.”
In May 2012, on the one-year anniversary of their project, Andrew ran the BMO half-marathon in ?Vancouver, crossing the line in around two hours. “The thing is, that was Dani’s one-year anniversary, too,” Andrew says. She had dropped 65 pounds. But no one mentioned it.
“I cried the whole day,” she says softly.
As her husband was riding his runaway weight-loss train, Dani’s weight was fluctuating. She decided to go after something that could be hers alone: a master’s degree in education. “She was studying till three or four in the morning and then going to work, day after day,” Andrew says. “People don’t see that. But there’s 200 pounds less of me, and that’s hard to miss.”
There is a phrase you sometimes hear coaches and teachers preach: “Results, not excuses.” It’s a tough law to follow, especially when legitimate excuses are dangling low on the tree.
The fact is, women have a harder time shedding weight than men do. A 2004 Syracuse University study had both male and female test subjects walk and then run 1.5 kilometres on a treadmill at the same speed; doing the same work, the men burned 16 per cent more calories than the women-chiefly because men tend to have greater muscle mass, and muscle tissue revs the metabolic engine more than fat does. Which means that those rich meals Andrew and Dani so loved to eat may have cost her disproportionately more.
But Dani would not take that easy out. “I think that’s BS, mister!” she replied, when Andrew blamed physiology for the difference in their results. “The bottom line is, you were more committed.”
Working on her master’s degree “deflected attention” from her weight-loss goals, Dani admits, and the pounds she had so painstakingly whittled away started creeping back. Her heroic efforts in the gym were being sabotaged by equally committed eating binges. If she stopped exercising for even a few days, a kind of vicious circle emerged. She lost exercise’s stress-busting effects. Awash in anxiety, she would “self-medicate” with food.
Dani began seeing a counsellor, who helped her put this wild ride in perspective. “Imagine the two of you are in a dark cave,” the counsellor told her. “There is a path out of the cave. Your path. It’s right there. But you can’t see it because instead of looking down, you’re looking up into Andrew’s light.” Trying to navigate by her husband’s light, instead of her own, would always spell trouble, she decided. They share a lot, yes, but they are different people.
For instance, Dani realized, she just doesn’t like exercising as much as her husband-probably never will. She doesn’t get the same payoff from it. “I wanted to love running, but I don’t,” she says, “not the way Andrew does.” And while she needed a community around her to motivate her to exercise, needed it to be fun, Andrew preferred to grind it out in his private bubble.
And the baby question-the issue that set this whole experiment in motion “Once we started taking off the weight, the rush to have children was replaced by a rush to explore the world,” Dani says. “We’re looking forward to being parents one day. But now we just want to enjoy the new us.”
No matter what the world may see, fundamentally Andrew has not changed. Nor has Dani, she believes. “What has changed is the dynamic of the relationship-learning how to be together in a new way.” Bottom line: they need each other for balance, for perspective, for inspiration. “You have to be a team,” says Dani. “You have no choice. You can’t do it yourself.”
For Andrew, the Year of Health was “a selfish-or self-first-time.” It had to be, both agree. He was utterly focused on saving his own life. But now he’s done it. He is hovering around an ideal weight of 195 pounds. The simple plan now is to stay the course. It won’t be easy. People who lose that much weight that quickly are often saddled with a side effect called “metabolic adaptation” (effectively, the body thinks a famine has struck, and the metabolism slows to hoard every precious calorie). But he has several things on his side, including his youth, his love of weight training and the blazing support of his wife-which it may now be his turn to reciprocate.
Last November, Andrew went for a final round of surgery: a small eave of flesh that hung beneath his chest was excised. After that, “there was a five-week recovery period where I wasn’t allowed to work out,” he says.
Dani looked forward to it. The last time a similar procedure was done-on his stomach-the couple had gone for strolls every day during his rehab. Just walking, like in the old days, when a slow walk was all they could manage