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'Even Long Dresses Couldn’t Hide the Truth': Former Mennonite Reveals How She Went From 410 to 135 Pounds

Jennifer Butters

Jennifer Butters, 51, of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, is a mom of five and a weight-loss coach. She appeared on the TODAY show's Joy Fit Club with Joy Bauer to share how she went from weighing 410 pounds to 135. Butters kindly elaborated on her story for FirstforWomen.com.

My weight didn't become a problem until after I was married. With each pregnancy, I gained a staggering amount of weight: 75 pounds with my first, around 45 with my second, and a crazy 100 pounds with my third pregnancy! I never seemed able to completely lose it afterward, and like many women, I was still calling it "baby weight" long after the babies had grown into teens. Plus, I had an undiagnosed thyroid problem, and that helped make it more difficult to lose weight each time I tried.

Still, my weight didn't get out of control until I experienced several life-changing events in a span of four months: I lost both of my parents and my father-in-law, which left a hole in my heart and my life. But instead of feeling the grief, I fed it.

On top of that, my husband and I decided to make the radical decision to leave our community and move to southeastern Pennsylvania to join an ultra-conservative Mennonite group. This decision created a barrier between us and our extended family and friends. To cope, I turned to food and immersed myself deeper into learning how to follow the strict religious rules and traditions of our new community.

As a way to fit into the Mennonite community, my new passion became learning how to make rich, fattening "comfort foods." I became such an expert at cooking traditional Pennsylvania Dutch foods that my family began hosting Sunday dinners for 20 to 30 people. A typical meal included a huge plate of homemade chicken and noodles, with mashed potatoes piled high, peas smothered in browned butter, pickles, olives, deviled eggs, several homemade biscuits or slices of homemade bread with butter and jam, and sweet tea or whole milk. That was followed by rich desserts like a huge slice of homemade cheesecake, or big bowls of ice cream covered in chocolate sauce.

While I wouldn't eat huge quantities in front of others, I was eating large portions in private. Home-baked bread, noodles, and rich desserts were everyday staples.

As my weight increased, hiding under the traditional Mennonite clothing of long dresses, dark stockings, bonnets, and shawls made it easier to deny what I was doing to myself. But soon enough, even long dresses couldn’t hide the truth: My weight was causing serious health problems.

I realized just how bad my weight was affecting my life after my husband and I adopted two baby girls from Liberia in 2003. I wasn’t able to do all the things for them that I had done with my oldest three children — I couldn't be as active and I was too embarrassed to be seen in public for fear of being mocked in front of my children and husband.

But it wasn't until the week before Christmas 2009 that my tipping point finally came. My husband had taken us out to eat at a restaurant, and I couldn't fit into the chairs around the table because I weighed 410 pounds. I had to wait in the restroom while the manager and the wait staff found another chair. I remember walking by some of them when I went back to the table, knowing they were laughing and smirking at me. I cried through the entire meal, adding to an already humiliating experience. That's when I knew I needed to do something about my weight.

Even though I feared change, I knew that staying the same was going to be more painful than the changes I needed to make to save my life. I'd always been attracted to the balanced approach of Weight Watchers, and I knew to lose that tremendous amount of weight I needed structured support and a plan.

I went to my first meeting the day after Christmas. I was scared of what people might think when they saw a morbidly obese Mennonite woman walk through the door. Instead, I was greeted with warmth, compassion, friendship, and understanding.

That first week, I lost 13 pounds. And my husband — who's always been loving and supportive throughout our entire marriage and who has never said an unkind thing about my weight — became my biggest cheerleader. So did my kids.

I attended weekly meetings and followed the Weight Watchers plan, carefully tracking what I ate and weighing and measuring my foods. I ate more fruits and vegetables. In the first seven months, I lost 100 pounds. Over the course of the next two years, I lost the following 175. I've kept the weight off for six years.

Now, I eat chicken and fish and lean meats, plenty of salads, veggies, and fruits. For dessert, I might have a baked apple with sugar-free maple syrup and apple-pie spices poured over a cored apple that's been microwaved for three minutes. I allow myself the occasional cake or sweet treat for special occasions like holidays or birthdays.

I also use smaller plates — and pretty ones, too. The smaller plate tricks your brain into thinking you are eating more than you really are; the prettiness makes you remember that you are taking care of someone important — yourself.

While I don't really exercise, I am active. I buy a yearly membership to a local zoo, and my oldest daughter and I go there to walk through the entire place twice. We bought bikes and rode, we went bowling as a family — just ordinary activities that kept me moving instead of always sitting as before. I also read lots of success stories to keep me motivated.

Now I view food as fuel for my bod and not as a way to cope with my feelings! My family and I also left the Mennonite group we had been a part of for nearly a dozen years… so with my dramatic weight loss and lifestyle changes I feel completely transformed. For the first time ever, I actually feel like I am free to be the person I was always meant to be!

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