When some families get together, they compete in touch football; others like to battle it out over politics or Scrabble. But the Sheltons of Belleville, Ill.--mom Kim, dad Chet and stepsiblings Michael, Loretta and Breanna--may be the only family in America ever to gather in the living room and throw down over . . . who has the nicest-looking gastric surgery scar. "I've got the smallest and prettiest of all," says Kim, lifting up her shirt to reveal a flat tummy accented with a belly button ring. "Yours is skinniest," Breanna agrees, "but mine's prettier." As the family continues to tease and joke on this June morning, Michael turns to a visitor and admits, with a shrug, "We pretty much bask in the glory that is us."

It's hard to blame them. Only 2 1/2 years ago, each of the Sheltons was extremely--and, in Michael's case, morbidly--overweight. Back then, mealtimes were what helped bring this blended family together, and there was one rule: Clean your plate. "We socialized with food, did everything with food," says Kim, who married Chet in 1999. (Breanna is her daughter; Michael and Loretta are Chet's kids.) "You have a death in the family and food shows up."

Not surprisingly, so did the pounds. By March 2004, the 5'10" Michael, 38, tipped the scales at 453 lbs., and the other Sheltons weren't far behind, with Chet, 55, weighing in at 299 lbs., Loretta, 34, at 290 lbs., Breanna, 20, at 235 lbs., and Kim, 47, at 211 lbs.

That's when the family that got fat together decided to take drastic action to lose it together too: With Chet and Kim footing the bills, over the past 28 months each of the Sheltons has undergone vertical banded gastroplasty, at a cost of $11,000 a pop. Although celebs like Randy Jackson and Carnie Wilson have opted instead for gastric bypass--in which surgeons reroute the digestive tract, limiting the small intestine's ability to absorb calories--gastric banding is less invasive than traditional gastric bypass and, for most patients, comes with fewer risks (see box).

So far the family has lost a combined total of 479 lbs., with Michael down 235 lbs., Breanna and Loretta each down about 70 lbs., Kim down nearly 60 lbs. and Chet down 50 lbs. "The benefits to their health and lifestyle have been good," says Dr. Russell Hanan, who performed each of the surgeries at St. Anthony Hospital in Oklahoma City, adding, "I'm sure their family meals are pretty different now."

He's not kidding. Whereas the Sheltons once filled their plates with heaping portions of barbecue and mashed potatoes, since their surgeries none of them has been able to consume a meal larger than a golf ball (see chart). Former food favorites like pizza (too greasy to digest) and turkey (too stringy) are now actually painful to eat. But when they speak of their new lifestyles, it is without a hint of regret. "Everything has changed for us," says Michael, who was the first of the Sheltons to have the surgery. "And I don't want to go back."

It's easy to see why. Today, Michael, a plumber who lives in Oklahoma City with his wife of nearly two years, Sarah, has evolved from barely handling a stroll through the local Wal-Mart to running 20 miles a week. Sarah, 21, marvels, "Just filling up the car with gas used to really tax his body."

Yet despite his physical difficulties, Michael spent years in denial. "I'd always assumed that one of these days I would buck up and get this under control," he explains. It wasn't until he saw a photo of himself that he knew he needed medical intervention. "I'm looking at [the picture] going, 'That's a really fat guy'--and it was me," he says. "I wanted to light it on fire."

Within four months of going under the knife, Michael had lost 120 lbs.--inspiring Kim and Chet, both of whom had yo-yoed on fad diets for years. (She had even had a tummy tuck and liposuction in 1994, only to see the weight creep back on.) Although neither of them was as heavy as Michael, both Kim and Chet were considered at serious risk for developing weight-related illnesses, according to the body mass index, a statistical measure of body fat.

Kim, who runs a day care center out of her home, went first, in August 2004, and within three months was down from a size 18 to an 8; Chet, a construction company owner, followed in November and saw his waist shrink from 44 to 40 in. in only two months. The couple were so thrilled with their results that they decided to recommend the surgery to their daughters. But when Kim approached Breanna, the conversation didn't go so well. "It hurt my feelings," says Breanna, who works for her mother. "I didn't think I needed it. Then I went home and got on the scale." Since her November 2005 operation, she has gone from a size 20 to a 10. "It doesn't take me nearly as long to get ready to go out," she notes. "I'll be washing my hair and think, 'I'd like to wear that.' And I know it's going to fit."

That's a feeling Chet desperately wanted Loretta, a divorced single mom, to experience too. "Dad started harassing me to have it," she recalls. "He'd say, 'You're just too pretty to be fat.'" In March 2006, Loretta, a nurse, became the final family member to submit to the knife. (Though Dr. Hanan did give a small discount for the last two surgeries, Loretta jokes, "I'm sure the hospital has a new wing just from our surgeries alone. It should be called Sheltons'.") Even before she left the hospital, Loretta was down 15 lbs., and recently was able to go horseback riding for the first time with her daughter Marisa, 10. "Being able to ride with my daughter is one of the reasons I did this," says Loretta, adding that there's another benefit. "I went shopping two days ago and I didn't have to go to the plus-size side! This is absolutely great."

Of course, there were some downsides to surgery. Everyone had a lot of soreness, and Michael developed a hernia. Still, the most difficult adjustment was to the new food restrictions. Loretta says her daughter helps her resist temptation by "muting the TV and covering my eyes when fast food commercials come on." Chet could use that kind of help: Recently he brought home a bag of Popeyes Chicken "and sat at the table and ate it real fast," Kim recalls. But he couldn't outrun his stomach and within a few bites was racing for the bathroom in pain. Chet also refuses to give up beer, which is why he hasn't lost as much weight as Breanna or Loretta, each of whom had the surgery after he did. "He's our failure," teases Loretta, giving her dad the once-over. But Chet is content with his progress. "I didn't take it as seriously as the rest of my family," he admits. "But [the surgery] still made such a difference in my life. "

The rest of the family, however, want the numbers on the scale to continue to drop. Although Dr. Hanan cautions that "with time, the plateaus get longer and the weight-loss increments get smaller," Loretta hopes to lose another 70 lbs., Breanna another 20 lbs. and Kim another 13 lbs. Michael, who has hit his original weight goal, would be happy to shed an additional 20 lbs.

Whether or not that happens, Loretta is confident of one thing: "The weight won't come back." The family has replaced time spent hanging around the kitchen and dinner table with activities like boating and knocking golf balls around the backyard. Even Chet, the most reluctant patient, has a new attitude. "We will go out to eat and see this big platter of food come out and we're like, 'How in the world could anyone eat that?'" he says. "Then you remember, 'Oh yeah, I used to eat that.' And you wonder why you needed all that food in the first place."

HOW ONE FAMILY LOST NEARLY 500 lbs.!

KIM, THE MOM
BEFORE 211 lbs.
AFTER 153 lbs.
KIM SHELTON LOST 58 LBS.

CHET, THE DAD
BEFORE 299 lbs.
AFTER 249 lbs.
CHET SHELTON LOST 50 LBS.

BREANNA, THE SISTER
BEFORE 235 lbs.
AFTER 165 lbs.
BREANNA SHELTON LOST 70 LBS.

MICHAEL, THE BROTHER
BEFORE 453 lbs.
AFTER 218 lbs.
MICHAEL SHELTON LOST 235 LBS.

LORETTA, THE SISTER
BEFORE 290 lbs.
AFTER 224 lbs.
LORETTA LILLY LOST 66 LBS.

  • Contributors:
  • Darla Atlas in Belleville.