Sean O’Neill has always been a big guy. At six feet, two inches and 265 pounds, he’s hard to ignore. But he used to be much bigger.
“I was in Grade 10 in 2002 when I got my school picture. I still have the ID from that year in my wallet. My face is super fat in it and I don’t even look like me in it,” he said, remembering.
He weighed 310 pounds. O’Neill asked his father if he really looked like he weighed so much. The answer was yes.
“I lost a lot of weight the next year and it’s something I look at every now and then as a reminder of what I used to look like.”
A recent study from the New England Journal of Medicine published earlier this month aimed to debunk obesity myths that persist despite lack of scientific support. Many people have no idea how to get started or even where to turn for information when they want to lose weight.
O’Neill was a teenager when he started his journey and knew very little about how to shed pounds.
“I didn’t know about any of the information out there and I was completely uneducated on this stuff,” he said.
He put his trust in a trainer at the gym who helped him tweak his exercise regime.
According to the article, “Myths, Presumptions, and Facts about Obesity,” there is no factual evidence to support the commonly held belief that small changes lead to big results. But for O’Neill, it worked.
“I’ve always been active. I gained weight because my diet was horrendous. I’d eat poutine every day. No vegetables, no portion control. I didn’t know anything, I just ate and ate and ate until I couldn’t eat anymore. That’s how I got so big,” he said.
By cutting out the poutine and watching his portions, O’Neill dropped down to 225 pounds by the end of high school.
Holly Heartz is a registered dietitian in Fredericton and knows the importance of food intake and portion control.
She’s also seen fad diets come and go. Some people come into her office, having sworn off gluten or fruit, or eating after 6 p.m. These people need to be careful of where they’re getting their information, she said.
“Everybody gravitates to anything new or in the media, right? High protein or low carb, or whatever it is. But that’s not getting at the root of the problem, really. Sometimes people have to make a big change in their intake,” she said.
O’Neill changed his caloric intake and followed through. He also worked out most days, and followed the advice of his trainer at the gym. Misinformation is rampant in the nutrition world, but it persists in exercise, too.
“All my buddies were going to the gym to get big because they were skinny and I was going for the opposite reason.
They’d bench press as much as they could and look like idiots and puff their chest out. They wouldn’t work their legs and wouldn’t do cardio, which is bad for your body when you’re young,” said O’Neill.
Instead of following his friends’ lead, O’Neill’s trainer taught him to lift lighter weights with more repetitions. He learned to do cardio after his weight workout instead of before, in order to keep the muscle and shed fat.
“It made no sense to me at the time,” he said. But then he started losing weight, so he kept it up.
Weight loss wasn’t just about looks for O’Neill – though a slimmer figure did motivate him. The year before he started his weight loss journey, he tried out for his high school’s basketball team.
“I knew the head coach, and I thought I had a chance here. I went to the tryout and I was terrible, lazy, out of shape, couldn’t get up and down the court, and I didn’t make it.”
Aside from his athletic goals, O’Neill knew he needed to get healthy. After several bouts of tonsillitis, he realized he needed to change.
After he amped up his exercise, controlled his portions and lost the weight, he felt better – and made the team.
Now around 265 pounds, O’Neill struggles to keep his weight down but feels better than before because of his healthier lifestyle.
He could be onto something. The New England Journal of Medicine study also stressed the importance of exercise, no matter your weight. It stated exercise can lessen the health effects of obesity.
“It’s better to be even a little overweight and exercise regularly than be really thin and not exercise,” said Holly Heartz, echoing the study. She says many people who look fit and thin are actually malnourished or less healthy than they appear.
“By no means do I have the body of a god but now I rarely get sick or have a cold. The only days when I feel bad are the days I eat poorly and feel sick to my stomach but other than that I feel healthy all the time,” he said.
After university, O’Neill stepped on the scale again and saw 245. He plugged his weight and height into a body mass index calculator and it categorized him as obese. While this hurt, O’Neill had done enough research to realize it was irrelevant.
“I just said this is bullshit, how can this be true? I’m healthier than I’ve ever been, I feel like a million bucks, and how am I obese? I play basketball and I don’t get winded!”
Some people do take BMI calculations – or a flippant comment – to heart. It’s a problem many studies, like the “Myths and Presumptions” article, don’t take into consideration. With so much information and few ways to sift through, weight loss can be discouraging – even depressing.
“People need to have their diet analyzed, and it’s a behaviour thing, their relationship with food,” said Heartz.
“There’s a psychological component people aren’t taking into account, maybe a hormonal component.”
Despite his confidence and success in meeting goals, O’Neill still has beef with society’s idea of health.
“Come to grips with what kind of body you have. Some people are not supposed to look like that skinny guy from Maroon Five.”
For some, knowledge can be power, but false knowledge can lead to disaster. When it comes to a subject as sensitive as weight, it’s magnified.
The sensitivity comes in waves with O’Neill, but it’s clear he cares about his health deeply, and wants to improve.
Like many others struggling to make sense of the information thrown at them, he sometimes lags behind his workout schedule. But he plans to continue.
“It’s the struggle of my life,” he said, “and it will be until the day I die.”