"My personality was being swallowed by the fat just like the rest of me," says Lindsey Friedberg, a 23-year-old graduate student at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Friedberg, who grew up in Ocean City, New Jersey, surrounded by "slender and tan" girls, has battled her weight all her life. In high school she tried counting calories, eating raw food, drinking 12 bottles of water a day and writing down everything she ate, including the gum she chewed and number of mints. But nothing worked.
Weight-Loss Surgery at Age 22: New Body, New Self
Then, during sophomore year, Friedberg's mother – who'd also struggled with lifelong weight issues – had bariatric surgery, and Friedberg was inspired. "I watched her transform in front of me," Friedberg recalls. "So when I moved to San Francisco for graduate school, I knew I wanted to start over. I wanted a fresh outlook and started looking into bariatric surgery at age 21."
A year later, in April 2011, Friedberg underwent bariatric surgery at UCSF.
Have you always been overweight?
All through elementary school, I was very active. I did gymnastics every day and I danced three times a week. I went to summer camp and had lots of time to play outside. As I got older, I started to slow down, and that's when the pounds started to pile on.
What challenges did you face as a severely overweight teenager?
I was teased a lot. I grew up in a beach town and I didn't look like everyone else. I was bigger, not slender and tan. It was tough knowing that no matter how hard I tried to be like everyone else and fit in, I was in such a different boat than they were.
How much did you weigh at your heaviest and when was that?
At my heaviest, I was 275 pounds. That was right around the time of my surgery. I felt like there was no hope. It was really sad for someone my age (I was 22 at the time) to think that there would never be a way out, that no one would like me the way I was, and that I couldn't be happy again.
How much do you weigh now?
I am currently 190 pounds and still losing. It's a battle every day, but the better I feel, the easier the battle.
Some research has found that overeating is a genetic addiction. Do you agree?
When I was growing up, my whole family was big. It wasn't a single person teaching me bad ways, or a single person buying the food for the family. My mom never bought us sugary snacks. I never had Lucky Charms or Twinkies as a kid. Both of my parents cooked meals, and I often ate school lunches. While I agree that fat is a family affair, I also believe that being fat has something to do with genetics.
My dad had two heart attacks before he turned 50. That prompted him to lose weight and exercise every day. My brother and I probably weighed the same at our heaviest (he's an inch or two taller), but he found that he loves to run and has lost 70 pounds doing so.
I don't see my family very often because we're so spread out, but now when we are together, instead of going out for big restaurant meals, we cook at home and go walk around the art museum or go bowling.
Did you and your mother try to lose weight together?
In my youth, I tried every diet I could think of. Some of them I did with my mom, and others I tried on my own. I thought one of them had to work and some of them did for a little while. But even when I stuck to them, they started failing me, and that was a really depressing thing.
Nothing helped me, and I felt like I was slipping away from the person that everyone knew me as. These were all things I internalized. I didn't need the entire school knowing my business, but at the same time, I just wished someone would notice how much I was struggling. Though health class taught us the basics of nutrition, there was no one I could talk to about the things I was going through.
What advice would you give to other severely overweight young adults?
My mom used to tell me that no matter how many different diets I was on or how many days I went to the gym, I would only lose the weight when I was completely ready. I give that advice to people my age who aren't sure about their future. I've been there, even if I don't look like it as much anymore. It's a long road to walk when you get out of breath so easily.
What's been the hardest part of life after the surgery?
The hardest part for me was learning how to "re-eat." It's tough at first because you aren't hungry, but then, once you do feel like eating again, it's equally hard. I had to learn to eat smaller amounts of food. For me, "re-eating" meant that just because I thought I was hungry didn't mean I was.
At first, all I could have were liquids and Jell-O. Part of me wanted to test myself and try different foods, but I told myself no. After my surgery in April, I was on liquids for three weeks. After three weeks, I had lost 22 pounds. It was such a weird thing for me.
Part of me wasn't hungry, and part of me was just bored, so I had to really sit and think before I ate (or slurped) my soup and my protein shakes. It's still somewhat of a "sit and think" time for me before I eat. I always think of what's best for me and what will make me regret my decisions.
What has been the best part of life after surgery?
I think the best part by far was my pants. They fell off, more than once. It's frustrating, but such a wonderful feeling, knowing that they used to fit and to some extent, these are the pants I thought I would be in forever. It was empowering to be able to throw them away.
What are your eating habits like now compared with before surgery?
Since the surgery, I have to be careful and make sure I eat nutritious foods. I do have a special diet that consists mainly of protein-rich foods to make sure my body has enough of that particular nutrient to function. Most bariatric surgery patients are on high- or higher-protein diets. What makes it difficult for me is that I don't eat red meat or pork products. That's my own choice. I stick to eggs, beans, chicken, fish and other protein-rich foods. There are many things I steer clear of, just to be safe, such as candy, chocolate and ice cream.
Sugar makes me super sick. For me, this side effect is interesting because it helps keep me in line. I feel bad after eating just about any amount of sugar. That isn't to say I can't have a cookie when I want one, but I can't have my old usual of five or six cookies. I'll end up sick. While I knew sugar might affect me like this, I also knew that it doesn't affect everyone that way, so I tested myself. I spent a good deal of time paying for it (in the bathroom), but I learned valuable lessons about my body and my limits.
How has your relationship to food changed?
I see food completely differently now. I know I'm partly responsible for my weight issues, but I believe I'm not entirely to blame. I never used to read labels. I never really cared what was good for me or not. Now I choose my foods very carefully. I make sure I know exactly what's going into my body to give me the optimum results for my health and well-being.
How has the surgery changed your life?
I can shop with my friends now and not at the "special stores." I can go out in a tight dress and feel confident instead of wearing a big cover-up. For someone my age, these things are all important. But also, as a growing professional, I like knowing that people won't look at me and prejudge me just by the way I look.
I've also learned how important it is to listen to your body. It means so little to some, but I don't think I'd be where I am now – almost 100 pounds lighter – if I didn't learn to listen to my body and what it has to tell me.
How has your outlook on the future changed?
I feel like I can start over. I decide who I want to be now, not society. I feel very positive about the future.
My goals include editing for television and major motion pictures. I'm currently in graduate school for my master's in television editing.