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Lisa and Tim Thompson

Then: Lisa: 282 lbs. Tim: 275 lbs.
Now: Lisa: 155 lbs. Tim: 180 lbs.
How: TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly)
The Payoff: No more cow jokes

When Lisa Thompson was 20, she worked at a diner in Eau Claire, Wis. Each time Thompson, then 260 lbs., went to place an order, she says, one of the cooks made fun of her, saying things like, "Oh, here's a cow at the trough!"

As a 265-lb. factory worker, her husband, Tim, had also been the butt of jokes. "One guy I used to work with," he says, "would moo and oink when I walked by."

Weight didn't stop the two, who met in February 1990, from finding love. "She had a pretty face and a kind heart," says Tim. Lisa felt the same way. "He was kind and courteous," she says. "I couldn't help but fall in love." When they wed in September 1995, he was 217 lbs. and she was down to 190. But after five years Lisa had added 92 lbs. to her 5'6" frame, and Tim, 6'2" with a 44-in. waist, weighed 275 lbs. "When you're overweight," she says, "you're always on a diet. But you never keep the weight off."

In the fall of 2000 they took action. Says Lisa, 31, a computer programmer: "I knew I couldn't do it alone, so Tim said he'd go along." Lisa found a local chapter of TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly), which follows the USDA food pyramid. "We eat a lot of chicken breasts and steamed vegetables now," she says. They also walk, bicycle and go to the gym. In one year Lisa lost 127 lbs.; now, at 155, she wears a size 8. Tim, now 35, is 180 lbs. and has a 32-in. waist. One other plus: At a party in 2001, Lisa spotted the cook who had taunted her. "When he saw me, his jaw fell to the ground," she says. "Best of all, his girlfriend was fatter than me."

Aaron Dubois

Then: 270 lbs.
Now: 142 lbs.
How: Lindora weight-loss program
Motivation: Lowering his high risk of heart disease

A drummer at the University of Arizona, Aaron Dubois was a popular guy, even at 5'8" and 270 lbs. But a 2001 postgrad trip to Europe made him feel self-conscious for the first time. "There were a few looks and comments," says Dubois, 24, now an advertising executive in Santa Monica, Calif. There was also the strain of biking around Florence. "I came home wanting to do something."

His parents had each lost 40 lbs. on Lindora, a nurse-guided weight-loss program. (Founded in 1971 by Marshall Stamper, a Costa Mesa, Calif., doctor, Lindora once was known for using injections of a hormone from pregnant women's urine as a diet aid. That's no longer part of the program.) His parents offered to pay the $1,200 fee provided Aaron stuck with it. He agreed: "I was 23 and at high risk for heart disease."

The first three days were easy: Lindora participants begin by eating favorite foods to get those cravings out of their system. For Dubois, that meant pasta—he could put away a pound at dinner. Then he switched to a high-protein, low-carbohydrate, low-fat menu: a cup of cereal with nonfat milk and raisins for breakfast; 6 oz. of skinless chicken, applesauce and nonfat cheese for lunch; a Lindora protein bar for a snack. Dubois often skipped dinner, though it is allowed. Two nurses monitored his progress daily. "That encouraged him to go," says his mom, Peggy. "He's a real flirt."

Working out with a trainer, Dubois met his goal of 160 lbs. in nine months—and kept going. Now 142 lbs., he has only one wish: "To go back and go through school as a thin drummer," he says. "That would be cool."

Loretta Begg

Then: 189 lbs.
Now: 139 lbs.
How: Nutritionist-supervised diet
What keeps it off: 6-8 hours of dancing a week

In November Loretta Begg glided through the Ohio Star Ball amateur dance competition in a backless dress that hugged her 5'6", 139-lb. figure. "Loretta," says Begg's ballroom partner, Corey Ginkle, 32, "looks good on the floor."

It was different in 1998, when Begg weighed 189 lbs. and wore a size-20 gown to her wedding. Unhappy, she consulted a nutritionist, who helped her shed 50 lbs. "My body," says Begg, 35, now a size 8, "is better than it ever was."

Begg was 9 when, told by a doctor that she was at risk for obesity, she became anorectic. When the condition worsened in her late teens, a psychiatrist diagnosed manic depression and put her on Lithium. The pills slowed her metabolism, and soon, she says, "I was eating way too much."

Begg tried fen-phen, the diet pill combination, and had liposuction on her stomach, thighs and rear in 1997. But for her wedding to Realtor Jim Begg, 45, she says, "I didn't even try to lose weight. I didn't think I could do it." After seeing her wedding photos, Begg met with dietitian Katherine Tallmadge, who cut her daily intake to 1,200 calories—oatmeal and nuts for breakfast; a banana for mid-morning snack; turkey on pita bread (no mayo) and fruit for lunch; and 4 oz. of spaghetti marinara for dinner.

Begg, of Bethesda, Md., began walking several miles a day and took dance lessons, beginning competition in 2001. Now her reflection in a mirror catches her by surprise. Pointing to her collarbones, she says, "I never thought I would see those—ever."

Lindsey Williams

Then: 400 lbs.
Now: 165 lbs.
How: Overeaters support group
Turning point: The demise of his marriage and his business

New Year's Day 1998, says Lindsey Williams, was the day he hit rock bottom. His wife of six years—frustrated that his weight had spiraled to 400 lbs.—left him, and a financial backer for a new music label Williams was launching pulled out, leaving him virtually broke. "Being left with nothing," he says, "forced me to finally concentrate on my weight problem."

By the end of January 1998, Williams had taken control, joining an overeaters support group and working out six days a week. The result? He shed 235 lbs. from his 5'5" frame and whittled his waist from 62 in. to 32. "When I tried on size-32 pants and they fit, it was like a dream," he says. "I couldn't believe it was my behind in those pants."

Obesity was a problem Williams, 36, battled since childhood, when he would eat a box of Frosted Flakes while watching TV. At 13, he was 250 lbs. "I never wanted to take my shirt off," he says. "Kids would say, 'What size bra do you wear?' " His mother, Bedelia, an owner of Sylvia's, the famous Harlem restaurant, repeatedly sought help for her son, but he always gained back the weight he lost. "Food," says Bedelia, 53, "was always his first thought."

Too out of shape to climb the train station stairs, Williams, a vice president at EMI records, couldn't ride the subway; on planes he had to wear a seat belt extension. "I couldn't have a normal life," he says.

After joining the overeaters support group, Williams became convinced he is a sugar and flour addict ("Once you eat one bagel," he says, "you're going to eat two bagels") and deleted those foods from his diet. Now he eats three portion-controlled meals a day: a cup of oatmeal with fruit for breakfast; salad with a turkey burger (hold the bun) for lunch; and grilled chicken with sautéed vegetables for dinner. "I use fruit as my dessert," he says.

Williams also takes 45-minute spinning classes and uses weights to define his arms, chest and shoulders. In December 2001 he hit 165 lbs., his target weight. Today Williams, a Westchester County, N.Y., resident who is single, runs a catering business. He isn't worried about temptation. "I have to live with the fact that I cannot eat like a normal person," he says. "As long as I focus on that, I'm okay."

Annmarie Santillan

Then: 247 lbs.
Now: 120 lbs.
How: Weight Watchers
Drawbacks: "The only thing I miss is Taco Bell"

Recalling the pain of being called "big as a barn" by her father, Sonia Santillan vowed not to raise a fat child. But when a 1986 car accident killed her husband, Sonia, a program analyst, became an overburdened mom to Annmarie, then 2. "We lived on junk food alley," recalls Sonia, 48.

By the time she was in 11th grade, Annmarie weighed 247 lbs. "I felt bad about myself, and I would show it when I came home," she says. "I had tantrums." At more than 300 lbs. herself, Sonia knew they both needed a change. When a friend mentioned Weight Watchers, Sonia brought the idea up with Annmarie. The only meeting they could make was 6 a.m. on Saturdays, and at first Annmarie was reluctant. "I wanted to sleep in," she says. "My mom said, 'Just come to support me.' "

After a final fast-food fling (tacos, fries and shakes), mother and daughter began Weight Watchers' program of assigning points to food and not eating beyond their daily limit. Sonia lost 11 lbs. the first week; Annmarie shed 9. They stocked the pantry of their Sacramento condo with low-calorie foods. In restaurants they ordered plain fish and sprayed it with I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! ("We keep it in our purses," says Annmarie. "People look at us, but who cares?") An avid softball and volleyball player, Annmarie continued playing sports, and Sonia joined a gym. By her senior year, Annmarie had shed 105 lbs. from her 5'7" frame. People noticed—but not the way she expected.

"One of the counselors said, 'We think she's sick,' " Sonia says. "I said, 'Have you talked to Annmarie? She's the happiest she's been in years! Why didn't you call me when she really wasn't happy, when she weighed 247 lbs.?' "

Currently a 120-lb., size-6 freshman at American River College in Sacramento, Annmarie, now 19, is delighted with her new look. Recently, she says, "this guy walked by and said, 'I just want to tell you, you're a beautiful girl.' It made my day." Sonia, who has a goal weight of 160, is thrilled for her—and hopeful for herself. "Annmarie hung in there," she says. "She's an inspiration."

Julie Rovetti

Then: 300 lbs.
Now: 135 lbs.
How: Modified Atkins diet
Turning Point: Starting psychotherapy helped her understand why she overate

Last Thanksgiving Julie Rovetti went to a party and bumped into an old friend. When she said hello, "he just looked at me for a minute and then said, 'What's your name?' " she recalls. "When I told him, he couldn't believe it."

The confusion was understandable, and to Rovetti, delightful. Four and a half years ago, at 5'1", she weighed 300 lbs. and wore size-24 jeans. Now she's 135 lbs. and shops for size 6. Her transformation began after her father, Arthur, an engineer, suffered a series of strokes and Rovetti started going to therapy to sort out their complicated relationship. She wound up concluding, she says, that she had been using food to help cope with his alcoholism. "Instead of thinking about his illness," she says, "it was easier to eat a lot."

For Rovetti, 23, identifying the cause of her problem put an end to late-night binges on fries, chips and bagels. In two months she lost 40 lbs. Then she went on the Atkins diet, which restricts carbohydrates, and dropped another 40 lbs. "But I was missing my bagels," she says, "so I gave that up."

Rovetti was so motivated that not even the 1999 death of her father or the subsequent deaths of her godmother and a cousin derailed her. "She didn't run back to food," says her mother, Pat, 57. "I'm so proud of her for that." She concentrated on eating smaller portions of healthy foods, like yogurt for breakfast, soups and salads for lunch and chicken with stir-fried vegetables for dinner. On weekends Rovetti, who lives in Somerville, Mass., and is finishing a two-year associate's degree program in general studies, allows herself old favorites like pizza and ice cream. "If I eat a cookie, I tell myself it's okay so long as I don't have 10 the way I used to," she says. "It's all about moderation."

And working out. In 1999 she joined a gym and in just over three years lost another 90 lbs. by doing 30 to 45 minutes on an elliptical machine, followed by 15 minutes with weights and 150 sit-ups thrice a week. "It's quite an adjustment," she says, "to get used to the new me."

Not to mention her new social life. "Guys hitting on her is hard for her to accept," says Rovetti's best friend, Beverly Nicolo, 23. "She can't believe the guy is staring at her because she's beautiful, not because she's heavy."

Onalee Braley

Then: 200 lbs.
Now: 100 lbs.
How: Low-fat diet and smaller portions
Turning Point: Leaving her emotionally abusive first husband

Whenever strangers compliment Onalee Braley on her trim size-2 figure, she thanks them—and then reveals that she used to weigh almost 200 lbs., offering an old snapshot as proof. "I need that picture," Braley says. "Otherwise people don't believe me."

Why would they? At 5'1" and 100 lbs., Braley, 37, a medical assistant in Otis, Maine, hardly looks like the woman who devoured Dairy Queen burgers and entire Boston cream pies during an emotionally abusive marriage. When she walked out in 1989, she says, "I left everything behind and started over again."

Part of that involved learning to eat properly. "My mom cooked things like molasses cookies and doughnuts," says Braley. "It was wonderful but not healthy." As her weight rose, Braley's self-esteem plummeted, making her more vulnerable to the man she married in 1987. "He started controlling me," says Braley. "Every time I put something in my mouth, he would say, 'Are you going to eat that?' "

The taunts drove Braley to eat more. When she hit size 14, she knew her health was in jeopardy. Just weeks after she left, "the weight started to come off. I didn't need to eat comfort food," says Braley, who began eating smaller portions and "moving around a lot more."

Within 18 months she had dropped 60 lbs., and after meeting second husband Gary Braley, 42, a construction worker and fitness trainer she married in 1991, Braley joined a gym. Not only did her body change—she lost another 30 lbs.—so did her personality. "She used to have a huge wall up," Gary says, "but she's completely different now."

Braley allows herself one indulgence: On Saturday nights she has fried food or a pizza with pineapple and ham. But if she's ever tempted to return to her old ways, all she has to do is pull out that photo. Looking at her old self, "I feel proud," Braley says. "I've come so far."

  • Contributors:
  • Michelle Bowers,
  • Heather Cabot,
  • Walter Dawkins,
  • Kathy Ehrich,
  • Phyllis Karas,
  • Melissa Schorr,
  • John Slania.