For as long as he can remember, Tommy Tomlinson has understood his identity as inseparable from his body.
"I weigh 460 pounds," Tomlinson begins in an essay published this month in The Atlantic, and adapted from his upcoming book, The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man's Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America. "Those are the hardest words I've ever had to write. Nobody knows that number — not my wife, not my doctor, not my closest friends. It feels like confessing a crime. The average American male weighs about 195 pounds; I'm two of those guys, with a 10-year-old left over. I'm the biggest human being most people who know me have ever met, or ever will."
That was Tomlinson four years ago.
Today, for the first time in 50 years, he's been able to lose weight and successfully keep it off. Getting there wasn't easy. He knew how to drop the pounds. He would eat fewer calories and burn more. But Tomlinson didn't find long-term success until he worked to understand why he had strayed so far from a healthy body in the first place.
To do so, he researched the science and psychology of weight gain and reflected on the obstacles stacked against him — and the roughly 93 million other obese adults in America — and where he held power to overcome his barriers.
Tomlinson discussed his journey in an interview with NPR's Melissa Block. He spoke about how he studied his family history to better understand his relationship with food. Tomlinson grew up poor in the Deep South, with parents who picked cotton as kids and moved into factory work by the time he was born.
"Every workday their whole lives they burned off thousands and thousands of calories just at work," he said. "I led sort of a soft life thanks to all the work they did to get us there."
The Southern values stuck, but unlike his parents, Tomlinson mostly worked desk jobs during his long career in journalism. That made it harder to burn off the calories from the fried chicken, biscuits and pecan pie that stayed on the table, he said, as "a tremendous symbol of love and wealth."
Food carried that same symbolic weight when relatives and friends piled up dishes in the wake of deaths in the family. As he writes in his essay: "The thing that soothes the pain prolongs it. The thing that brings me back to life pushes me closer to the grave."
As his weight grew, so did the stresses of everyday life. On subway rides, he said, he would fear losing his grip on the pole for fear of crushing a passenger. When going to unfamiliar destinations, he would Google the interior or arrive early to scout out a safe place to sit.
But losing weight was more than just a matter of eating less and exercising more, said Tomlinson. Research shows that losing weight can set off a lifelong battle against regaining it. Some estimates show that as many as 90 percent of dieters who lose weight eventually gain it back.
"What happens on almost all of these diets — not just for me but for other people — is that they're really effective in the short-term, but then once you've gone through the crash period, there's the rebound, what they call yo-yo dieting," Tomlinson said.
That's because the body is wired to respond to calorie restriction as a symptom of starvation, and kicks into survival mode — the appetite increases and metabolism slows, making it harder to lose weight.
Tomlinson said he has flirted with diet pills, low-calorie meals, unprocessed foods. But the event that drove Tomlinson to make a serious effort was the death of his sister on Christmas Eve of 2014.
Brenda Williams, who "weighed well north of 200 pounds" as he wrote, was 13 years older than Tomlinson. "She died of an infection that was basically caused by her size," he said in his interview. "And, you know, I went to her funeral and I could see my future: I was 50 years old when she died, and guys like me don't make it to 60. I knew then, in a way that I never really felt as deeply and emotionally, that I had to change."
Since his sister's death, he's found success in what he called a three-step program: His Fitbit tells him how many calories he's burned walking and exercising. He then meticulously calculates his calorie intake. "If I burn more than I bring in, eventually I'm bound to lose weight," he said. "It's not a plan that's going to transform me overnight. It's very slow and steady and, you know, I'm still a big guy."
But, he said, it's a plan he can live with. "I think that's the key to any long-term success. Losing weight is figuring out something you can live with."
As Tomlinson's grappled with his weight loss, he said a part of him was worried about how it might change his personality.
"I've always been overweight, and so a little part of me, irrationally probably, worries ... about a baby-in-the-bathwater situation," he said. "As I lose all this weight and transform myself physically, do I also become a different person? Am I going to become a jerk because of what I've had to do to lose all that weight?"
Tomlinson said his wife tells him that his weight loss plan has had the opposite effect. "She said since I've started losing weight and getting in better shape, that I'm much more lighthearted than I used to be," he said.
"I'm sure there used to be that sort of cloud following me around all the time that I didn't even really know or think about all that much, but other people could see it. And now I walk a little taller in the world because I feel much more confident in my ability to become, not just a more healthy person, but I feel like a better person."
NPR's Dustin DeSoto produced this story for broadcast. Janaya Williams edited.
TOMMY TOMLINSON: (Reading) I weigh 460 pounds. Those are the hardest words I've ever had to write. Nobody knows that number, not my wife, not my doctor, not my closest friends. It feels like confessing a crime. The average American male weighs 195 pounds. I'm two of those guys with a 10-year-old left over. I'm the biggest human being most people who know me have ever met or ever will.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
That's Tommy Tomlinson reading from his book "The Elephant In The Room: One Fat Man's Quest To Get Smaller In A Growing America." His body mass index was 60.7, twice the government's threshold for obesity; his waist, 60 inches around; his body, he says, crumbling under its own gravity. At least that was Tommy Tomlinson four years ago. He's with us to talk about his life then and since. Tommy, welcome to the program.
TOMLINSON: Oh, thank you so much for having me.
BLOCK: I'm picturing you sitting down to type out that first line, I weigh 460 pounds, and how hard that must have been for you to do.
TOMLINSON: It took even longer than you might think because I was afraid. I was afraid to reveal myself in such a intimate way. And I was afraid to just say that number out loud because that had been one of the closely held secrets of my life, you know? Anybody who saw me could see I was a massive guy. But to see that number in concrete I think might shock some of my friends and people who care about me. And, to be honest, it was shocking to me, too.
BLOCK: We should explain, Tommy, that your voice, which is raspy and thin - and you describe in the book how it will wear out pretty quickly. You had throat cancer in 1993, and there was part of you that thought it was punishment for being fat.
TOMLINSON: Yeah. It's totally unrelated to my weight. But, yeah, I thought that maybe this was some sort of karma, you know, some sort of divine punishment for the way I had treated my body all those years.
BLOCK: Let's go back a bit and talk about your family because you write about your parents growing up poor during the Depression. They were families of sharecroppers. And food, for them, was vital. It was sustenance. There was never enough of it - really changed for you, as a kid growing up in Georgia, when food became equated with love, that this was something that they could provide for you, that they could give you enough to eat. And you did.
TOMLINSON: Yeah. I grew up in a Deep South family. My mom and dad always worked with their hands and their backs. They burned off thousands and thousands of calories just at work. And my generation - by the time I came around, I led sort of a soft life thanks to all the work they did to get us there. And so I basically have had desk jobs my whole life. I've always - almost always been a journalist.
But the Southern meals - those big fried chicken and collard greens and biscuits and cornbread and pecan pie, all those sort of things - those never went away because those became not just fuel for the generations that came before me. By the time I came around, it was a tremendous symbol of love and wealth, you know? In a poor Southern family - this, of course, is true in many cultures - food is the richest thing they have. It is - in my family was - the one thing where we felt wealthy is when we sat down at the table.
And that was also an expression and still is in my family of love. Look at this thing we made for you to show you how much we loved you. And so when those things are all sort of tied in, it's not just a meal. It's - carries all this symbolic weight to it. It made it even harder to turn down and curtail.
BLOCK: One of the things you write about is how many times you have tried dieting in the past. You have a line. (Reading) I've gone through diets like Gene Simmons through groupies - Gene Simmons...
BLOCK: ...The lead singer from Kiss.
BLOCK: And, ultimately, you settle on something that you think will actually work. What tipped you to try to try what you call the three-step diet?
TOMLINSON: Well, because I'd failed at all the others, you know? I - as I said, I've tried pretty much every plan there is out there. I have a very simple plan. I'm not going to make any money off this diet plan. But it's, you know, just very simple. I have a Fitbit that tells me every day how many calories I've burned by walking or other exercise. I calculate very precisely, as precisely as I can, what my intake is in calories. And if I burn more than I bring in, eventually, I'm bound to lose weight. And it's not a plan that's going to transform me overnight. It's very slow and steady. And, you know, I'm still a big guy, you know, several years into this plan. But I do think it will be one - it's something that I can live with.
BLOCK: One of the things you write is that you have never not been fat. What are some of the things that you've missed out on because of your weight, the things that you haven't been able to do and maybe the ways that your marriage has been diminished?
TOMLINSON: When I was a kid, I never wanted to ride a bike because my legs were basically too big. They bumped on the handlebars, and I couldn't keep my feet on the pedals. I never learned to swim. I can keep myself afloat pretty well. I can dog paddle, but I can't really swim. When I was in my 20s, you know, I never had the experience of you know going to a bar, let's say, or a dance or meeting somebody and going home with them, those kinds of things that are sort of rites of passage for so many people.
And as I got older and, as you said, I got married to my wife, Alix Felsing - we've been married 20 years - I've put limits on her life because of the limits on mine, you know? When we first got married, she was a big runner and hiker, did all these active things. And I think I have had an effect on her, where she doesn't do those things as often as she used to because a lot of them, I can't do. And so it is limited, our relationship, in many ways that I'm profoundly ashamed of. And I credit her in a lot of with - just sticking with me for this long because I feel sure a lot of other people wouldn't have.
BLOCK: So you've been on the - wait, you call the three-step diet now for I guess - what? - about four years?
TOMLINSON: Yeah, yeah.
BLOCK: How's it going?
TOMLINSON: It's going well. I don't mean to be coy about the numbers, but I'll just say that I've lost a substantial amount of weight and been able to keep it off for the first time in my life. And that's a joy to me. And I'm sure there used to be that sort of cloud following me around all the time that I didn't even really know or think about all that much, but other people could see it. And now, I walk a little taller in the world because I feel much more confident in my ability to become, not just a more healthy person but I feel like a better person.
BLOCK: That's Tommy Tomlinson. His book is "The Elephant In The Room: One Fat Man's Quest To Get Smaller In A Growing America." Tommy, thanks so much for talking with us.
TOMLINSON: Thank you, Melissa. I really appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.