Before: 436 pounds
After: 143 pounds
Jennifer Leonard, 37, and her family struggled with being overweight. She grew up on a Southern diet of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, and corn bread. And her parent's vocations didn't help matters much—her mom was a caterer and her dad worked as a distributor for Hostess and then for a local potato chip manufacturer.
"We basically had a truck that sat in our driveway full of Twinkies and cupcakes we could get whenever we wanted—and we took advantage of it," she says. (Search: What are the worst foods for your diet?)
By the time she graduated from high school, Jennifer weighed more than 200 pounds and gained another 100 pounds during her college years at Belmont University in Nashville.
"I continued to gain weight all through my adult life until I reached a peak of 436 pounds at the age of 35," she says.
The Turning Point
At her father's birthday party in 2009, Jennifer realized that she didn't have enough energy to keep up with her newly adopted daughter. "I sat on the side watching my daughter play and was unable to join her because I was tired, hot, and out of breath. I felt completely hopeless," she says.
Though she was discouraged from prior dieting failures, Jennifer wanted to live to see her daughter grow up. Her body weight had already started taking a toll on her health: Just a few months before, Jennifer went to the emergency room because of swelling and pain in her legs, and she feared it was a blood clot. "I knew I was headed for a heart attack or stroke, but more than that, I couldn't give my daughter the quality of life she deserved," says Jennifer.
Video: At-Home Fat Blaster
Two weeks after the birthday party, Jennifer joined Weight Watchers. She started slowly. In the first week, she cut out only Dr. Pepper and began tracking everything she ate. Those two small changes alone yielded her a loss of 6.4 pounds in 7 days.
"It was difficult at first to think more about what I ate, but tracking my food helped me be real about what I put into my mouth," she says.
Over time, Jennifer cut out fried foods and most desserts, and began incorporating more fruits and vegetables into her diet.
A month into her lifestyle change, she started exercising at home, beginning with only 15 minutes at a time. She followed workout DVDs from The Biggest Loser, Jillian Michaels, and Billy Blanks, and later joined a gym and got a personal trainer. Now, Jennifer exercises for 1 hour, 6 days a week.
"I get so excited when I exercise. I'm the one smiling all the way through class because I get so much joy out of it. I look in the mirror and think, Two years ago I couldn't have done this. It's such a blessing to be able to do it," she says.
Now it's the little things that motivate Jennifer. In the past, she had to sit on the sidelines and watch as the other parents joined in with their kids at an annual walk-a-thon. This year, she and her fourth-grade daughter ran around the track side by side.
What's more, her whole family has been inspired to lose weight and live a happier, healthier lifestyle. Her dad lost more than 100 pounds with her, and both her sisters and mother shed significant weight. To celebrate, the Leonard family participated in an American Cancer Society walk for breast cancer, and they completed 5 miles together as a family.
"My mom says now she goes to bed with such peace knowing that we're all going to wake up in the morning," she says.
For the first time in her life, Jennifer is able to shop wherever she wants. "It's a great feeling going into a department store and shopping in the 'normal size' clothing section and realizing that nothing in the plus-size section would even fit me if I tried," she says.
Also, this was the first year in more than 20 years that Jennifer was able to ride an amusement park ride. "Nothing holds me back any more. I can do all the things I want to do with my daughter, and more," she says.
If you put it into your mouth, write it down. "You really do lose track of all the little things you eat during the day, especially if you're a mom. When you're fixing your child's dinner or lunch you're nibbling and don't even realize it. When you track it, you become in control of what's going into your body."