When Shay Sorrells was selected for season 8 of “The Biggest Loser” in May 2009, she was 5’8,” 476 pounds and, as she now says, “knocking on death’s door.”
The 31-year-old Orange County, Calif., social worker, the heaviest contestant in the show’s history at that time, was suffering from high blood pressure and at risk of diabetes. Doctors said weight-loss surgery was her only option for recovery. That was then.
By the season finale last December, Sorrells had lost an astounding 172 pounds, more than one-third of her initial body weight. She wasn’t crowned “The Biggest Loser,” but her dramatic weight loss and back story — she was born to a heroin-addicted mother, and lived in foster care from ages 5 to 18 — did win her a big incentive to lose another 100 pounds. The Subway restaurant chain, one of the show’s sponsors, agreed to pay her $1,000 for every pound she continued to lose. On May 25, Sorrells is expected to return for the show’s finale to reveal her ever-shrinking physique and, hopefully, collect her winnings.
Even if she succeeds in collecting big bucks for losing extra pounds, Sorrells is realistic about what's ahead of her. “I don’t expect to ever be skinny,” she says.
Few keep it off
While Sorrells has continued to shed pounds, other “Biggest Loser” contestants — such as season 1 winner Ryan Benson and season 3 winner Erik Chopin — have regained much, if not all, of the weight they lost during the show. Although few long-term evaluations of weight loss methods and programs exist, studies suggest that weight regain is common, especially for those with higher initial weight losses. Only about 20 percent of obese or overweight people who lose at least 10 percent of their initial body weight can keep it off for at least a year.
In Sorrells' case, a $1,000 a pound is a great incentive to shed weight, but what happens when the cameras are gone? She admits keeping the weight off is a struggle every day.
“I know that it wasn’t the spotlight, the prizes, or even the money that lost the weight — it was me who lost each and every pound because I wanted a new life," she says. "I try to focus on how I feel and all the amazing things I’m now able to do that I couldn’t before,” like simply riding a bike or jogging for miles.
No longer the ‘eating out friend’
Sorells is now healthier than she's ever been. Her blood pressure is under control and she feels like a new person. A key to her success is maintaining the changes in the eating and exercise habits she learned on the show, like making exercise out a high priority and limiting how often she eats out.
For Sorrells or anyone trying to maintain weight loss, eating breakfast, regular weigh-ins, less TV time, and exercising for at least 60 minutes a day are vital, according to the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR), a database of more than 5,000 people who have lost significant amounts of weight and kept it off for a long time.
Sorrells' weight loss and new food habits have had an impact on her marriage and relationships with friends and co-workers.
“I’m no longer the “eating out” friend,” she says. “Some friends have also lost weight … even my co-workers started eating better; we even turned an empty office into a small workout room.”
For date nights with her husband — she's stepmom to his two young sons — instead of doing a typical dinner and a movie as a date night with her husband, the two of them now jog or bike for coffee.
The food she keeps at home and serves at holiday celebrations is no longer the sugary, high-fat fare it it used to be. Instead, she's learned to pare down portion sizes and create new food traditions.
Those are techniques others who want to lose weight, but don't have the benefit of "Biggest Loser" experts, can adapt for themselves. Sorrells shares her other key strategies, as well as what she keeps in her fridge, to help her stay on the weight-loss track:
What's in her refrigerator: Lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, especially green apples and oranges, avocado, asparagus and fuji apples; greek yogurt, egg whites, and organic eggs; low-sodium chicken and turkey breast and almond butter. Condiments include salsa, avocado, hummus, and dijon mustard; sparkling mineral water and a pitcher of green tea.
In her pantry: High-fiber cereals, and steel cut oats; brown rice; air-popped chips, fruit and nut bars, plain popcorn and unsalted nuts.
"All the snacks we keep in the house have no more than 400-500 calories for the whole package," she says. "We call these 'damage control portions.'”
Controlling portions: "When I do eat out, I either order a child-sized entree or split a regular portion with someone," says Sorrells. "I’ve also asked for half of my entrée to be put into a to-go box before served."
Overcoming holiday indulgences: "Holidays and celebrations are challenging, especially since so many of our family traditions and gatherings have revolved around food," she says.
"To deal with this, I’ve created new traditions. For Christmas, we made baked apples and peaches. For New Year's Day, we made low-sugar, chocolate-covered strawberries. I’ve also realized that just because you’re eating differently than you’re used to doesn’t mean you’ll be ostracized by family or friends. They may even enjoy the same foods with you."
"I stay motivated because I want live," she says. "There are days when I’m tired and sore and feel like sleeping for a week, but I know that when I take a mile-long bike ride, I’ll want to keep going."
Elisa Zied, R.D., is a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. She is author of “Nutrition at your Fingertips” and co-author of “Feed Your Family Right!”