Rochester, N.Y. - For patients of weight loss surgery, the surest path to failure is to rely entirely on the surgery and not on a lifestyle change. One in five weight loss surgery patients never loses a pound. Doctors say that's because they continue to eat poorly without exercising.
Joe LaLonde was determined not to be in that category.
We met Joe one year ago, when he was heading in for weight loss surgery at Highland Hospital. In college, Joe was around 165 pounds. One year ago, at age 56, he had seen his weight top out at 330. The excess pounds were crushing his knees, making exercise nearly impossible.
"I'm trying to get my life back," he told us. "Doctors asked me if I wanted to live, and I said yes. I have to make this work. And who knows; right now I'm a 50-inch waist, and maybe I'll end up with a 29-inch waist, which is the size of my inseam."
When Joe opened the door to greet us one year after surgery, we didn't recognize him at first.
"I can go up and down steps without losing my breath again," he said, smiling.
Joe now weighs 165 pounds, having cut his weight in half and returned to his college size. It's a remarkable success story; Dr. Joe Johnson at Highland Hospital points out that Joe has made progress much more quickly than most. The average weight loss patient can lose 75 percent of their excess weight over two years. Joe needed just one year to lose nearly 100 percent of his excess weight.
"This operation requires you to change your lifestyle," Dr. Johnson explained. "It requires you to use good judgment when it comes to nutrition, and Joe has done all of that. He looks really healthy, and we're extremely proud of him."
For Dr. Johnson, Joe is the perfect example that this surgery can work -- if patients follow their doctors' guidelines. Joe agrees.
"It was a little scary, going through an operation," Joe told us. "It's a major lifestyle change. You either gotta do it or -- why do it?"
Joe's first step was to cut out fast food. He used to put away as much as 3,000 calories in a single visit to McDonald's. These days, he cooks normal meals at home, but eats about a third of what he used to consume. That means two ounces of meat or fish, and he's satisfied.
"I don't need more than that small portion," Joe said as he showed off his freezer. Packed away are dozens of leftovers, frozen meals in small portions that will keep him healthy for weeks and months to come.
His new body is paying off in many ways. Joe has stopped taking daily medication for high blood pressure. He can happily walk longer distances and keeps his energy throughout the day. He expects to avoid more expensive medications that tend to accompany weight problems. And Dr. Johnson told him that he's added ten years to his life, at least.
We wanted to know: What is the hardest part? Joe is fortunate not to have loose skin that many weight loss surgery patients end up with after dropping a lot of weight. "For me, it was probably the occasional vomiting," Joe said. "Your body will try to warn you if you over-do it."
To over-compensate, Joe occasionally ate too little, and he would experience hunger pangs. "But it wasn't hard to handle," he said. "You might wake up in the middle of the night with a stomach ache, but you grab a peach or a slice of grapefruit, and it's all better."
The biggest lesson, Joe says, is that portions are out of control. From home cooking to restaurant dining, Joe is now acutely aware of just how much food many people think they need. "As kids, we're told to eat everything on your plate. That's great if you're going to eat all the vegetables, the salads. But the breads, the meats, you have to be careful with it."
That's the wisdom of a man whose body -- and life -- have changed.