The heat at the poolside was stifling, but I kept the smile on my face for my daughter Mia’s sake, waving and grinning each time she glanced over.
When she’d been invited to a kids’ pool party, my heart had sunk, knowing I’d be standing there on the sidelines. I wasn’t a dad who’d happily pull on his trunks and dive in to splash about with the kids, and at over 20st I felt too self-conscious to get undressed in front of so many people.
As Mia got out of the water, I had her towel waiting and wrapped it around her with a hug. ‘Did you have a nice time, Dad?’ she asked. I grinned, saying: ‘Of course I did, I always love seeing you enjoying yourself.’ Inside, though, it hurt that I wasn’t having fun alongside her.
My time with Mia, then six, had always been precious, and after her mum and I split up it became even more so, as I didn’t want to waste a single moment. Back then, though my weight sometimes got in the way of me doing activities with her, it was just something I put up with. I’d gradually got bigger over the years, and told myself I was who I was. I didn’t seem likely to ever change, so most of the time I put it to the back of my mind.
There were moments that should have served as a warning, though. Like the family party where I had frightening heart palpitations and saw Mia looking at me in horror. Mia stayed with her grandparents while I was driven to hospital, grey and sweating, wondering whether I was about to have a heart attack. It was a false alarm, but I felt as though I’d come close.
Then, one day, I was visiting Ethelene, the mum of one of my close childhood friends, who was like a second mum to me. It was winter 2016 and as I walked towards her front door where she stood waiting, the welcoming smile froze on her face.
‘Kid, you are a heart attack waiting to happen,’ she said.
Bruised, I replied with a quip: ‘Don’t mince your words, Eth!’ She smiled and ushered me inside, sitting me down and putting a reassuring hand on my arm. ‘Seriously, you are the biggest I’ve ever seen you and I’m really worried about you,’ she said. ‘Please listen to me.’ There was something about the anxious tone in her voice that got through to me – then she dropped the bombshell. ‘I know I keep banging on about Slimming World, but it’s working for me,’ she said. ‘So, from now on you’re coming to group with me.’ I knew there was no arguing with her and, a bit in shock, I nodded my agreement.
Later that night, her words circled in my mind. There I was, aged 35, separated, overweight and starting to have worrying heart palpitations. Back living with my mum while I looked for a place of my own, I definitely wasn’t where I’d expected to be at this time in my life. And the worst thought, the one that haunted me, was what would Mia do if she lost her dad? What if Ethelene was right and I was heading for a heart attack?
In good company
So, on 24th January 2018, I was pulled by the hand into my first Slimming World group. Ethelene was having none of my nonsense, as I objected and protested. ‘But I don’t want to get on a set of scales and prove how overweight I am in a room full of women I don’t even know!’ I said, as she tugged me through the doors and let go.
There I was, feeling completely exposed for about two seconds… until I saw two other guys in the room. As I took a seat and soaked up the friendly banter around me, I realised I was OK being here. The Consultant, Laurel, explained the plan for me in the new-member talk, and the weigh-in was discreet and not at all scary. And when the other members were sharing their experiences and advice in IMAGE Therapy, something struck me for the first time: they were just like me – just there to lose some weight.
Suddenly, I knew I wasn’t alone in this.
What didn’t strike a chord with me was all the talk about cooking. To me, cooking meant putting on some toast or heating up a ready meal – I didn’t know where to start. Reassured by Laurel that most Slimming World recipes were easy enough for a complete beginner, I bought a Slimming World cookbook and entered the unknown. I started with a simple roast chicken dinner with lots of vegetables, including some of the Speed Food veg Laurel had mentioned. I stuck to the same thing a few days in a row, then later in the week I tried a slightly more ambitious spaghetti bolognese.
I’d eaten until I was full every night and I’d been pretty pleased with the results of my attempts at cooking – but I was dubious about what the scales would say when I stood on them the following week. When I saw I’d lost 5½lbs, I was amazed – this might actually work! One doubt still nagged away at me, though. How was I going to cope at work when so much of the daily routine revolved around food?
Levelling with the lads
As the manager at a large plumbing merchant, I was lucky to be surrounded by a great team of lads who all got on very well. The thing was, lots of our bonding was done over food. Like the morning breakfast run – rolls piled with sausage, bacon, fried eggs and tomatoes, all cooked in oil (and that was on top of the packet of biscuits I’d have eaten on the way in). Lunch was fish and chips, or maybe a pizza from one of the takeaways, then when I got home, it was generally another takeaway, this time Indian or Chinese, with a bottle of wine or cans of beer. Every couple of weeks, me and the guys from work would go out drinking, and I’d usually top it off with a kebab on the way home. I had no idea how they would take to me eating something healthy instead.
I started making enough of every night’s dinner to have leftovers for lunch the next day. And it was the assistant manager, Colin, who first took an interest, peering at my spag bol and asking: ‘What’s in that, then?’ He seemed satisfied with my answer as I explained how I’d cooked it, and I was surprised it had pretty much gone by without comment.
Very quickly, my weight loss started to become noticeable, and Colin and two other workmates, Tom and Ben, began asking me for my recipes. As my cooking skills improved and I picked up new meal ideas from group, I made diet cola chicken, cheese-topped pasta bakes and campfire stew, each one going down a storm with the lads at work when they tried the recipes for themselves at home. They even brought in some scales so they could see if they were starting to lose weight, too!
Within three weeks of starting Slimming World, I’d lost a stone.
I felt so much better all round, I decided I wanted to do more activity. But what? The answer was right across the road from home – the local swimming pool. Imagining one day being a relaxed, body-confident dad, splashing around at a pool party with Mia, I decided to go along. It opened early, so at 6.30am I took the plunge and swam a few lengths, enjoying the peace of the morning swim.
My weight was going down week after week, and my friend Jake was so impressed he joined my group. It felt so good to be inspiring others already. I could feel my body shape changing as the pounds came off, and I was getting stronger and leaner as I increased my swimming distance to half a mile a day, five days a week. Soon, even that wasn’t enough and I challenged myself to walk four miles a day, too, tracking my progress on my smart watch.
It felt incredible to feel so fit and mobile, but it wasn’t me I was doing it for, and Mia’s reactions meant the world to me. She loved seeing the change in me and the pride shone on her face as ‘Dad who just watched movies’ became this active, energetic figure who was up for any kind of fun activity.
In July 2019, I hit my target of 14st 4lbs – a loss of 6st 7½lbs that changed me dramatically. Jake had done brilliantly, too, losing 6st! Already, I knew I didn’t want to stop there. For the next few months I stuck to plan, kept going to my Slimming World group for support, and upped my exercise with daily swims and gym sessions, achieving my Platinum Body Magic award for making regular activity a way of life. Then, in March 2020, I moved to a Slimming World group on Saturday mornings, which fitted much better around work. With my new Consultant Kirsty’s encouragement, I carried on Food Optimising, kept up my exercise and continued to lose weight.
Making an impression
These days I’m over 7st lighter and wearing 32in-waist trousers – quite a change from the 50in waist I used to need! In fact, I’ve recently bought a pair of 30in jeans that fit me really well. Even though I’ve seen Ethelene pretty much every week since starting my weight loss journey, she still can’t get over how different I look. And Mum, who’s been by my side every step of the way, is amused by the way I now take an interest in what I’m wearing. ‘Is that another set of new clothes you’ve got on?’ she teases, giving me a wink. I laugh it off, telling her: ‘You know I’ve never had the option of buying fashionable stuff before – so yes, I’m a bit of a shopaholic, but I feel like I’ve earned it!’
I’ve bought a new house for Mia and me, and it’s when she’s here with me that it really feels like home. I’m proud of myself for turning my life around for her, and I want her to feel the same way, too. Recently, one of my friends rang me, asking: ‘Have you seen what Mia has put on TikTok?’ Like most kids, she’s obsessed with the social media app, but I had no idea I’d become the star of one of her videos. I blinked back tears as I watched the 20-second clip she’d posted – a montage of pictures, set to music, of me and her together, showing my weight loss journey. The caption read: ‘So proud of my Dad’. It hadn’t occurred to me until that moment how much my transformation had meant to her – and there are no words to express how much knowing she’s proud means to me.
*Weight loss will vary according to your individual circumstances and how much weight you have to lose.