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Las Vegan’s secret to shedding 59 pounds in a year: ‘No secret at all’

Ellie Thomas has spent most of her life trying to lose weight.

The 62-year-old Las Vegan figures that she has sampled just about every fad diet, weight-loss program and body-slimming regimen introduced over the past several decades, but none of them ever brought lasting results.

So, losing 59 pounds in a year, an achievement that earned her the title of 2021 Nevada Queen from TOPS Club — a weight-loss education and support organization whose acronym stands for Take Off Pounds Sensibly — is an impressive feat for Thomas.

Even more impressive: Almost a year later, not a single ounce of those 59 pounds has returned.

The secret, Thomas found, is no secret at all: eating better; engaging in physical activity; getting support from others who are fighting the same battle; and, most of all, changing her mindset about food.

“I look back now at how stupid I was,” Thomas says. “I’d diet the wrong way, with all of these fad diets, because that’s what they are. You’re not programming yourself to eat right.”

Thomas’ slimming success was honored at a TOPS event last June in Las Vegas. Also honored was 2021 Nevada King Ronnie Heidle, a Pahrump man who lost 19 pounds to attain his own goal weight.

Each year’s TOPS Kings and Queens are members who have lost the most weight and reached their goal weight as set by their physicians. TOPS is scheduled to honor its 2022 royalty June 23 and 24 at the Suncoast.

A diet roller coaster

Thomas, 62, was surprised to receive the 2021 honor. But receiving any honor involving success at weight loss would have been surprising to Thomas for most of her life.

“It was when I was, like, 12 or 13 years old that I got chunky. That was when the whole diet roller coaster started,” says Thomas, who moved from Chicago to Las Vegas in 1962, two days before her second birthday, after her uncle opened an air conditioning business here and offered her father a job.

A doctor prescribed diet pills for Thomas when she was 12 — she lost 30 pounds in three months before quitting. By her 20s, “I was always looking for a way to lose weight,” Thomas says, even though “I didn’t get really heavy until marriage, kids, all that stuff.”

Thomas would try any weight-loss method — any fad diet, any new treatment — that came out. She lost a few pounds with some of them but, eventually, “I’d regain the weight because I didn’t know how to eat.”

“I did WeightWatchers. That was good, but I never kept it off,” says Thomas, who even flirted with fen-phen, an appetite-suppressing drug combination popular in the 1990s that later was found to be potentially dangerous.

‘I was going to die’

Her highest weight during those years was 315, the 5-foot-3-inch Thomas says. Being overweight led to depression — “I just felt trapped (in) a big body,” she adds.

It also brought other health issues, including high blood pressure, arthritis, back and spine problems and the need for a knee replacement.

“It took a long time for me to realize that if I didn’t lose weight I was going to die,” Thomas says.

In 2006, she underwent gastric bypass surgery. Because her husband’s insurance didn’t cover the procedure, the couple took out a $25,000 loan to pay for it. A year later, Thomas weighed 185, having lost 130 pounds and dropping from a size 28 to 14.

“I kept weight off pretty good until about 2012, and then just started eating,” says Thomas, who eventually returned to 235 pounds.

‘Change for the better’

In 2014, Thomas and a group of friends joined TOPS, where Thomas began to focus on the emotional side of weight loss. She now realizes, though, that she wasn’t fully committed to the program. She drifted away from TOPS and began to regain weight. She rejoined the group in 2018 but still wasn’t ready to commit.

Then came the pandemic. Obesity is considered a risk factor for serious COVID complications, and Thomas was medically unable to receive COVID vaccinations. So, in April 2020, being “in the midst of COVID made me realize that I had to change for the better and I needed to get serious about living a healthier lifestyle,” she says.

TOPS offers an “individual approach to weight loss and overall wellness,” according to the organization, providing members with a variety of tools and strategies that include group support, health education and recognition.

“We talk a lot about support and accountability,” says TOPS President Rick Danforth, who has maintained his own 100-pound weight loss for more than 15 years. “Weight loss is so challenging; it should never be done alone. That’s why (TOPS) provides that supportive atmosphere.”

That’s been key for Thomas: “Going every week to that support group and knowing you are accountable to that scale,” she says.

“You weigh in every week and have meetings,” she adds. “I felt like it was down to earth. Everybody was doing the same battle.”

Thomas has learned the importance of thinking about and tracking what she eats and making sound choices. In her case, that means reducing carbohydrates and increasing whole grains and vegetables in her diet. And she incorporates daily physical activity, mostly in the form of walking a couple of miles with her dogs, Willow and Caliblue.

‘A day at a time’

Her weight now holds steady at 160 to 165 pounds. Her goal is 155.

“I now eat to live rather than live to eat,” Thomas says. “My daughter, she’s like, ‘Mom, you don’t eat.’ I’m like, ‘I just don’t eat the way I used to.’ ”

Thomas also is working to heal the emotional scars that can come with a lifetime of being overweight. She recalls a “defining moment” while visiting friends in San Diego and being unable, at 315 pounds, to fit into a roller coaster car.

“That’s when I said I was going to have the gastric bypass,” she says. “I thought it was a magic potion. It wasn’t.”

Even now, “I look at myself and I know I still feel heavy,” Thomas says. Regardless of what others say, “you hold that. You’re mentally scarred, but you try to put it aside.”

Her advice for others: “Take it a day at a time. If you can’t do that, take it a minute or a meal at a time. Don’t look for the easy way out.”

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