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How this woman lost 170 pounds: Hearing these words 'flipped a switch'

At the age of 40, Jamie Burton dropped the negative thinking that had plagued her since childhood and found the time, money and energy to put herself first.
Image: Weight Loss Success
Once Jamie got into a rhythm at the gym, she says "you feel the energy and the positivity. It just kind of changes you."Adrian Lam / NBC News

Name: Jamie Burton

Age: 42

Residence: Grand Haven, MI

Job: Program manager

Family status: Married with three children, ages 15, 17, and 19

Peak weight: 350+

Current weight: 180

Height: 5 feet 5 inches

Jamie Burton can’t remember ever being at a healthy weight. “In kindergarten I probably weighed 80 or 90 pounds,” she says.

Growing up, her mother tried to help her improve her health. “She put me in sports and dance classes — I was very active. She sent me to a dietitian and to Weight Watchers. I could lose 20 or 30 pounds then gain 40. That was the cycle I had from the time I was a young child into my 30s,” she says.

By her late 30s, Burton weighed more than 350 pounds and worried about the toll her weight would take on her health. Her doctor said she could expect a future with diabetes if she didn’t make changes. Burton’s overweight grandmother was diagnosed with diabetes at age 40. “I didn’t want to become her, but I was definitely on that path,” Burton says.

And Burton wanted to change for her three kids. “My plan was that my kids were not going to be like me. I was going to have food under control, and they would be active. But they were turning into me,” she says. She also volunteers as a softball coach and didn’t feel like she was a good role model for her middle- and high-school players.

Burton had always been active, and in March 2014 a friend encouraged her to try Fit Body Boot Camp. The cost and the time commitment worried her — her husband, a truck driver, is often on the road, so she was juggling her job and the busy schedules of her then 10-, 12-, and 14-year-old children.

“We spend a lot of time lying to ourselves about little things and making up excuses — ‘I can’t do it because I don’t have enough money, or I don’t have enough time.’ I realized I had to throw away all those excuses,” she says.

The next thing you know I’m 40 years old and I’m working out next to people in their 20s and I’m killing it.

Jamie Burton

She finds time early in the morning

With a three-week trial offer, Burton figured she would give boot camp a chance. She woke up early and went to the gym at 5 a.m., while her kids were still sleeping. Every weekday morning, she spent 30 minutes in a high-intensity interval training class (HIIT) that blends cardio and strength training.

She loved it. “Once you get in there you feel the energy and the positivity. It just kind of changes you. You could do it on your own, but you can only push yourself so far. When you work out with people who push you a little harder you realize you can do things you never could do — pushups on your toes, pull ups, jump squats, burpees.”

Curious about HIIT workouts? Try this 30-day plan

Her motivation got another boost about two weeks into the trial. “The trainer said, ‘There’s something special in you, and I can’t wait to see it.’ That was kind of the turning point. I understood someone believed in me before I believed in myself. That flipped my switch. I thought, ‘If you see something in me, I want to see it.’”

Burton, who takes college courses, was able to get a discounted student membership at the gym. “The next thing you know I’m 40 years old and I’m working out next to people in their 20s and I’m killing it,” she says.

She balances her nutrients

Along with her workout routine, Burton made changes to her diet. She now balances protein, fat, and carbs at all her meals. For fats, she leans toward olive oil and coconut oil, and her carbs come from fruits, veggies, and whole grains like real oatmeal. She’s also careful to control her portion sizes.

When she eats out, she chooses places where she can order, say, a boneless skinless chicken breast with vegetables or a salad on the side, or a bunless burger on top of a salad. “I still feel like it’s normal — I’m having a burger—but I take the stuff that’s not good for me and I get rid of it,” she says.

Burton struggled to give up ice cream. For two or three years, she treated herself to a cup of McDonald’s soft serve once a week. “That was my treat,” she says. “But I got to the point where I just don’t need it. It used to be satisfying, but it doesn’t make me feel good anymore.”

Slowly, the pounds came off. “We don’t change overnight. This is a process that takes time. If we can worry about today before thinking about tomorrow, we have a much better chance at success,” she says. She’s been maintaining a steady weight of around 180 pounds for three years

She still struggles with how she perceives herself

Burton says she’s still getting accustomed to her new size. “You don’t lose half your body weight and not see the change,” she says. “I’m out of those size 28s and I love the new me. But it is a huge struggle for me to understand who I am and what I look like. Being overweight my entire life, I still see myself as that heavy girl. Sometimes I walk by a mirror and I do a double take: ‘Oh, Jamie, that’s you.’ In my head I’m still this fat girl who is scared to get on a chair because I’m afraid it’s going to break. I’m afraid to get on a roller coaster because I’m not sure I’m going to fit in the seat. Even though I lost all this weight, my brain hasn’t changed completely.”

She sees her children learning from her example

Burton has spotted signs that her focus on her health is influencing her children. “They pick up pieces of what I teach them. I see that they understand things that took me 40 years to understand,” she says.

She concedes that they are still working on making good food choices and exercising. “Slowly it’s coming together, and I can see one day at a time they are making better decisions. One of my biggest fears was that they would end up like me and I would not able to stop it. But I only had to change myself for them to see how I got healthy and took control. That’s huge for me—to make sure I taught them that,” she says.

They pick up pieces of what I teach them. I see that they understand things that took me 40 years to understand.

Jamie Burton

A dietitian’s take

Samantha Cassetty, R.D., nutrition columnist for NBC News BETTER, finds a lot to like in Burton’s story:

  • She ditched her excuses. “How we frame things can make such a powerful impact. It’s very common and normal to rationalize why you can’t do something, but if you can reframe your internal conversation to create a window of possibility, it can be extremely helpful,” Cassetty says.
  • She finds the value in exercise. “Exercise isn’t a tremendous factor in weight loss, but it is a big piece of the maintenance puzzle and I think this mindset is also really impactful. With exercise, you can really see progress, as Jamie points out. It’s really empowering to look back and recognize that you’re able to do a pushup or burpee,” she says.
  • She looks for easy ways to eat well. “Eating well doesn’t have to be rocket science,” Cassetty says. “Eating balanced meals primarily made from real food ingredients can make a big difference.”
  • She sets herself up to succeed. “A big part of maintaining healthy habits is being strategic,” Cassetty says. “Jamie is planning ahead and being strategic with restaurant meals. It enables her to participate in all of the experiences and enjoy restaurant meals without overdoing it.”
  • She created an eating plan that’s satisfying and mindful. “This is everything! When people become too restrictive, it’s not sustainable. An eating plan has to be both physically and emotionally satisfying. By incorporating her favorite foods, Jamie created a plan that was sustainable for her. But she also recognized when a treat wasn’t necessary for her anymore. Together, mindfulness and planning are a very powerful duo,” Cassetty says.
  • She recognizes that her children are making progress. “The important thing is that Jamie is modeling great behavior for them and providing access to healthful foods. This is a top way to raise healthy eaters,” Cassetty says.

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Burton’s typical meals

Early breakfast: An egg white omelet topped with feta cheese with a sweet potato on the side; black coffee

Late breakfast: A small bowl of oatmeal with raisins and sunflower seeds and two hard-boiled eggs

Lunch: A spinach salad with chicken breast, hard-boiled egg, and lots of veggies like carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower, dressed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar

Dinner: Chicken and vegetables

“This is a really simple and clean menu and Jamie is doing a great job! One thing that stands out is how she’s including protein at each eating occasion. Protein is especially helpful when trying to lose weight because it provides a slight metabolic advantage while also helping to keep you fuller, longer,” Cassetty says. “Jamie is also doing a good job with her starch choices, choosing whole grains or starchy veggies, and eating them when she’s going to use the energy they provide.”

Cassetty thinks Burton could add fruit with nut butter or cottage cheese to her diet, and she’d like to see her add a serving of plant-based fats like avocado, olives, or nuts. “They help provide protective compounds and can also make a meal more delicious and satisfying,” she says.


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