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In one life-changing year, Colorado Springs native drops 100 pounds

March 14, 2017 Updated: March 15, 2017 at 6:10 am
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Michael O'Neil, the class clown, the funny guy in the office, the consummate jokester, gets serious when he talks about the past year.

On March 16, 2016, the 30-year-old defense contract project manager and business developer stared at the scale.

For the first time in his life, the number "300" stared back.

"After being fat for so long, you start to accept yourself as big," O'Neil said. "But I always told friends that if I ever see that number, I'm going to have to do something."

He didn't know if he could, though. "I didn't believe I was going to be able to actually commit to getting healthy and making that life change."

But the day marked a turning point for O'Neil.

He was struggling with energy levels, could barely keep up with his children, ages 4 and 2, was bulging out of XXL shirts and squeezing into size 44 pants.

O'Neil decided that he didn't want that life anymore.

"There is a stigma about being fat," he said. "Even if they're not mean to you, people treat you differently. The kind of looks you'd get, especially in a bathing suit. It was very uncomfortable."

Like breaking any bad habit, mind over matter is a big part of weight loss.

"You don't realize how programmed your brain is to eating unhealthy foods and overeating," O'Neil said.

Even though he didn't set a goal, O'Neil has dropped 100 pounds in less than a year and says he is happier, has more self-confidence, can hang in there for playtime and, much to his surprise, has become an inspiration to others trying to shed excess pounds.

"My focus was just to get my life back on track, but now, it's starting to affect change in other people. They tell us how inspiring we are, which is odd for me. I never thought that would happen."

Michael O'Neil, 30, works his triceps Tuesday, March 7, 2017, during a boot camp class at the Vault Fitness Center in downtown Colorado Springs. O'Neil weighed in at 198 pounds earlier that morning, 202 pounds less than the 300 pounds he weighed a year ago. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

Old habits die hard

O'Neil, a Colorado Springs native, was overweight in elementary school and became obese in college, after his Pine Creek High School sweetheart called it quits.

"There's 40 grams of sugar in every soda, and it adds up," he said. "My mom banned soda at our house when I was in seventh grade, but I just bought it at school. I had a stash that I sold to my younger sister."

Family and friends would sometimes ask him what he was going to do about his weight.

"I couldn't fix it. I didn't know how. Nothing worked," he said. "It's painful when someone points out a major flaw but you don't have anything to go back on."

Part of O'Neil's motivation was seeing three close family members go through gastric sleeve surgery to shrink their stomachs so they could lose weight.

"I was about to turn 30, and the last thing I wanted to do was to have a gastric sleeve put in," he said. "I wanted to see if I could do it myself."

O'Neil's wife, Bree, also had been wanting to lose weight she had gained during the pregnancies, so the couple embarked on their own "Biggest Loser" journey.

"Without that team effort, there was no way for us to get there," O'Neil said.

Bree agrees.

"We're supportive of each other," she said. "Without somebody to keep you accountable, it makes much it much harder. It's also more fun when you're in it together."

The O'Neils started working with body transformation coach Joe Ramirez, who has won six Gazette "Best Of the Springs" awards for his health and fitness work.

Ramirez has created a nutritional detoxification program to improve health. A side effect is weight loss.

"Decreasing inflammation and the toxic load on your body is the key to lasting, long-term weight loss," Ramirez said. "The quick fixes - restricting calories, counting points - a lot of times don't last because you're not giving your body the right nutrients to turn on your metabolism and keep it turned on."

The composition and quality of foods eaten "put your body in either a fat-burning mode or a fat-storing mode," Ramirez said.

O'Neil removed dairy, sugar and gluten, and minimized carbohydrates. He added more veggies and protein to his diet and reduced calories by eating correct portions.

His biggest issue?

Hunger.

"I could deal with having blander food, giving up cheese - which I love - and eating foods I didn't like," O'Neil said.

But he didn't think he could get past the hurdle of constant hunger pangs.

A prescription-strength appetite suppressant helped curb his food cravings.

O'Neil also began attending a boot camp class at the downtown Vault Fitness gym.

Exercising regularly accelerates the weight-loss process, said personal trainer Krista Enoch, who leads the class, which includes strength and high-intensity interval training.

"Diet and exercise together form a super combination," Enoch said.

O'Neil has succeeded because he has been "determined, dedicated and consistent," she said. "He's a dream client. It's been fun to be his cheerleader."

Michael O'Neil looks at the tanktop he earned Tuesday, March 7, 2017, before boot camp class at the Vault Fitness Center in downtown Colorado Springs. O'Neil weighed in at 198 pounds earlier that morning, 202 pounds less than the 300 pounds he weighed a year ago. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

Healthier diet

O'Neil and his wife started taking walks and cooking nutritious meals together.

Cauliflower became the new pizza crust, toast and mashed potatoes. He reached for hummus instead of chips, and liquid aminos replaced soy sauce.

In the first few months, O'Neil dropped 35 pounds.

On the advice of Ramirez, he didn't weigh himself in the beginning, so as not to get discouraged or encouraged. So he didn't realize he had lost so much weight.

"I didn't know how far I could go - I thought maybe 50 pounds," he said.

There were good days and bad days. Some days he'd realize he didn't have any vegetables, for example, or he would eat dairy, such as eggs with a little cheese.

Once a month, he allows himself a "cheat" day, when he forgoes the plan. On a recent cheat day, he ordered a cheesy burrito and a margarita at a Mexican restaurant.

As his stomach shrank, his confidence swelled.

"I've watched this transformation of Michael having more strength and confidence - his whole body composition has changed," Enoch said.

After dropping 65 pounds, he started to plateau.

But by then, it was 100 or bust.

"I was down 87 pounds by Christmas and started to realize how cool it would be if I could get to that mark by in a year," he said.

The more you lose, the harder it becomes to lose weight, O'Neil discovered, and he knew those last few pounds wouldn't be easy.

He persisted, and a few weeks ago, a month shy of a year, the 6-foot-3-inch O'Neil saw the number "200" for the first time in 12 years.

"It almost seems unbelievable," he said.

One hundred pounds is an amazing amount of weight to lose, said Ramirez.

"What's even more amazing is keeping it off by making some changes to habits and it becoming a lifestyle," Ramirez said.

"I'm so incredibly proud of him for doing it the old-fashioned way," said Bree O'Neil, who has lost 60 pounds. "He's worked so hard and set such a good example for our children. He's done this for himself and our family and our life together. I'm more in love with him now than ever."

O'Neil said the couple wishes they could redo their wedding photos.

"We both look so much better," he said.

For a while, O'Neil felt like he had lost himself.

"I hated how I looked. I wasn't as attentive, engaging or funny. I wasn't just losing control of myself physically, but also mentally, a little."

Now, he's back.

"Struggling with a weight problem is exactly how it sounds - it's a struggle," O'Neil said. "It is possible to lose the weight, but you need to realize it's not a diet, it's a life change. I feel happier because I look better. I try to be humble but sometimes vanity does get the better of you, and it's nice to look good."

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