Name: Karla Pankow
Residence: Bruno, Minnesota
Job: Emergency medical technician
Home Life: Lives with her partner, Elizabeth Millard, on a 28-acre hobby farm
Peak Weight: 300-plus pounds (She stopped weighing herself at that point.)
Current Weight: 200 pounds
Goal Weight: Under 185 pounds, to reach a powerlifting weight class
Height: 5 feet 9 inches
Karla Pankow’s struggle with her weight gain began in college, when she gained what she calls the “freshman 30.” In her 20s she battled hypothyroidism, which sapped her energy and endurance. That plus her poor diet led to even more excess pounds.
She worked in the pharmaceutical industry, and as her career progressed her travel schedule and stress levels increased. “I tried every diet, shake, pill and pyramid program to lose the weight, but it never worked,” she says.
Her eating habits weren’t helping. “I could easily drink a 12-pack of Mountain Dew a day on the road. Even though I was holding down a professional job and presenting myself in a professional way, I was living on Mountain Dew to get from point A to point B. I was relying on takeout and fast food. I made all the wrong choices. I was like a 5-year-old in a candy store,” she says.
“The highest weight I know of was 300. At a certain point you get so sad about that, you don’t check in. It’s a matter of denial. You’re so used to seeing yourself being heavy — I didn’t realize how big I was,” she adds.
By her 30s her weight played a factor in a range of health problems: fatty liver, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, hypothyroidism, arthritis, hernias, prediabetes, connective tissue disease, inflammation, joint problems, and migraines. A slew of doctors treated her, but she says none of them ever mentioned that her weight was part of the problem.
You’re so used to seeing yourself being heavy — I didn’t realize how big I was.
“I was in and out of doctors’ offices constantly, but I never had a physician talk to me about my weight,” she says. “I think for 25 years I kept waiting for doctors to tell me I was too fat. Because I never heard it I thought I was fine — I got used to my own skin. When I look back it’s alarming. Just being diagnosed with problems was not enough. Being told I was super-fat might have had a different impact.”
As her 40th birthday approach, Pankow wanted to make a change. “I didn’t want to have another year this fat, where I couldn’t tie my shoes and I was always out of breath,” she says.
HEALTH PROBLEMS PUSH HER TO MAKE CHANGES
In late September 2015 Pankow needed physical therapy to treat her joint problems — and she discovered that she enjoyed the sessions. “Physical therapy taught me that, even though I was depressed and sad about hurting, movement felt good,” she says.
Encouraged, the next month she decided to try one small change in her diet — she replaced Mountain Dew with water. Quitting caffeine made her “crazy sick,” she says, slammed with migraines. “It’s like overcoming any kind of addiction. But I stayed hydrated and kept plugging on.” She saw her weight drop 10 to 15 pounds just from that tweak.
When quitting soda led to weight loss she looked for other changes she could make. To break her sugar habit, she switched to a paleo diet. “For the first time in 20-some years I didn’t count calories or weigh food. I just decided to take out the crap and eat real food and see what happened. Once I did that consistently the weight came off. It’s really simple — it’s not easy, but it’s simple,” she says. When Pankow got rid of processed, fast, and sugar-based foods her migraines, joint problems, and bloating all disappeared.
At one point, Pankow transitioned to an anti-inflammatory diet, which some people with joint problems find helpful. But cutting out foods like tomatoes and peppers felt too restrictive. She moved to a keto/low-carb diet. “Healthy fats, moderate protein, and low carbs felt natural to me,” she says.
She acknowledges that sometimes she gets off track. “I’ll eat cupcakes — those things happen. But if I veer off track the bloat comes back, my skin gets itchy, and I get migraines. I don’t need to go down this track.”
At one point she tested herself, reverting to her old diet, but soon found out that was a mistake. “I really have to stay away from sugar. You don’t reach 300 pounds without having a binge problem. It was alarming how quickly I started putting on weight, she says.” She recognizes that while sweet or carby foods might fit into her eating plan, they trigger cravings.
COMMITTING TO EXERCISE
As Pankow drove home from her last physical therapy appointment, in early January 2016, she decided she needed to maintain her new habit of movement. She stopped at a local gym, Anytime Fitness, where personal trainer Heather Clark showed her around.
Pankow says, “It was hard being a big, overweight girl walking in with this perky blonde trainer. It was a little intimidating. But I took the plunge.”
Clark built a workout program for Pankow where they worked together for two days a week and Pankow exercised on her own on three or four more times weekly. Clark says, “At first we just did teeny things, like a half of a squat or trying to do pushups on her knees. We started with little baby steps. There were a lot of areas where she was weak, but she gained strength.”
Pankow started with a lot of cardio and high-intensity interval training, and got more interested in weight-lifting as she shed pounds. “As the weight came off it built my confidence. I felt capable of more. I started researching and learning things I could do instead of just being on the treadmill,” she says. “I switched to weights and got into powerlifting and it changed my whole life.” She documents her progress on Instagram.
Clark credits Pankow’s attitude with her weight-loss success. “She was fed up with her lifestyle and fed up with being overweight. She was so ready for a change. Not everybody who walks in the door is ready — some people say they are ready but it’s too much work. But she was so goal-oriented, she saw results almost immediately,” she says.
Pankow now judges her health more on how she feels and what she is able to do rather than her weight. In the past, she couldn’t walk a 5K. Now she challenges herself to run one monthly. “That first year I participated in a 5K every month whether I was 280 pounds or 200 pounds. It kept me accountable and kept my cardio training on board. That first year I could do things I was never able to do, taking those baby steps.”
BETTER HEALTH, BETTER LIFE
In 2016, Pankow dropped 100 pounds and saw her health improve drastically. “In physical exams all my markers are in good shape. My fatty liver is reversed, and I no longer have prediabetes. My life has done a 180. I feel well and have endurance and strength.”
Pankow’s improved health inspired her to pursue a lifelong dream — becoming a firefighter. To pass the physical test, she would go to the gym and practice with an air tank on, so she could master the breathing techniques she would need in a fire. Of all the people tested, she had the lowest percentage of body fat and the best lung capacity. “That felt really good. It was validating to know I was able to do something I never thought possible from a health standpoint,” she says.
She liked being a firefighter so much she became an EMT. She now works on an ambulance service and is studying to be a paramedic. She says, “It took me 20 years to find the sweet spot, but I feel good at 42. It’s the life I always wanted, but I never imagined it was possible.”
“I’m able to achieve things that at 300 pounds I could not have imagined,” she says. “When I say my life changed, it literally changed. It went from corporate life, hating everything I was doing, to resetting entirely and doing much more physical work. Now I’m following my passions, not my paychecks.”
KARLA’S TYPICAL MEALS:
Breakfast: Duck or chicken eggs from her farm, avocado, lots of water
Lunch: A big salad loaded with protein, healthy fats, and lots of veggies for volume
Supper: Salmon, tuna, or halibut, or chicken burgers with lettuce wraps and sweet potato fries
Pankow keeps her eating to a six- to eight-hour window most days. “It’s natural and easy when you’re eating good fat, moderate protein, and a lot of volume and diversity in vegetables to keep the eating window smaller and maintain calories. I don’t feel the need to graze all day,” she says.
MORE WEIGHT-LOSS SUCCESS STORIES (AND TIPS TO BORROW)
Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.