An Honors Class for Remedial Dieters

An Honors Class for Remedial Dieters

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reader's Choice 20th Anniversary Edition

An Honors Class for Remedial Dieters

Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.

~Les Brown

I eyed the name of my next patient on the schedule and groaned. Maggie Nelson. Why did I even bother trying to help her? Talk about a waste of time. I had spent hours over the years counseling, encouraging, guilt tripping, and attempting to motivate the butterball to lose weight. Diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, worn-out knees — the woman needed to drop a good ninety pounds — but I might as well have instructed a Macy’s mannequin for all the results I’d seen. She couldn’t afford Weight Watchers, her insurance didn’t cover gastric bypass, her knees ached so she couldn’t exercise, broccoli made her bloat, and artificial sweeteners gave her a headache. When it came to excuses, Maggie could write a bestseller.

I inhaled a deep breath and forced myself to enter Maggie’s exam room. I perused her chart and scowled. As expected, not only had she not lost a single ounce, she’d actually gained a whopping ten pounds. Next came her lame excuse: she’d had out-of-town company and how could I expect her to lose weight around her birthday and anniversary? Then she claimed she “ate like a bird.” Right! An ostrich, maybe. My favorite excuse? She had to keep freshly baked chocolate chip cookies around the house in case the grandkids paid a visit. When I asked how often the grandkids came, she hemmed and hawed and finally admitted they lived out of state.

We danced the same worn-out waltz, Maggie and I. I’d counsel her to exercise more and cut down on her sweets and soda and she’d nod, promise to do better, and waddle out of my office, both of us knowing nothing would change.

Then I read Jennie Ivey’s story, “The Honors Class,” in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Positive, a story about a class of remedial history students whose teacher had been falsely informed the class was filled with academic superstars — the “Honors” students. Because of her high expectations and the extra effort she poured into these supposed “gifted” scholars, not only did all the students pass, but the majority earned A’s and B’s. Wow! Remedial students acing Honors History? Unheard of.

A twinge of guilt pricked my conscience. Had I prematurely given up hope for patients like Maggie? Did the quote about “the soft bigotry of low expectations” apply to me? Truthfully, I’d given up on Maggie years ago. But what if I treated my obese diabetics with the same high expectations and extra effort with which Jennie Ivey treated her remedial History students? What if I treated my failing dieters as though they were “Honors” patients?

You’ll just be wasting your time, my inner cynic insisted. No harm trying, my conscience countered.

First, I researched everything I could find from reputable journals and books about people who had lost at least fifty pounds without surgery and maintained the loss for over a year. I discovered the National Weight Loss Registry, which researched and followed over three thousand people who met these criteria. Then I created a notebook of all the winning advice from these weight loss champions. Weekly group support proved helpful to many successful dieters so I’d start a weight loss support group where I’d teach the principles of the Weight Loss Registry.

At Maggie’s next clinic visit, I told her about the group and encouraged her to join. I offered the class for free so money wouldn’t be an excuse. She claimed she didn’t want to face rush hour traffic every week. That’s when I took her to task. “Maggie, you claim you desperately want to lose weight, but you aren’t willing to make any sacrifices. If you seriously want to get off insulin and be healthy, you won’t let rush hour traffic keep you from participating.”

Arms crossed, Maggie glared at me. “I’ve lost forty pounds three times before. It never stays off.”

I put a hand on her arm. “It came back because you returned to your old eating habits.”

She moaned. “I’ve failed so many times before. I guess I don’t believe I can do it.” She glanced up at me, tears in her eyes. “You really think I can lose this weight and get off insulin?” Her eyes registered a glimmer of hope.

I squeezed her arm. “I know you can, Maggie. But it will take sacrifice, time, and hard work. Just think, you could be fifty pounds lighter by this time next year. Think how much less your knees would ache.”

She hesitated, fear etched across her face.

“You can do this, Maggie. I’ll help you.”

She glanced up, grinning. “Alright, I’ll do it.”

Thus, every week we weighed ourselves, recorded our food intake, wore pedometers, ate high protein breakfasts, and explored the emotional triggers behind our overeating. We learned to distract ourselves when tempted to snack.

When Maggie lost three pounds the first week, you’d have thought she’d won an Olympic gold medal. Within a month, she’d lost ten pounds and proudly demonstrated to the group how the waistline of her pants was now loose.

I wanted to cartwheel across the room the week Maggie announced her husband had bought her an exercise bike for Christmas. She was cycling thirty minutes each morning while watching the Today show.

There were some setbacks along the way, however. Three months into the group, Maggie gained two pounds after a family reunion. She hung her head in shame and said nothing during the meeting. Her face, however, screamed, “I’m a failure.”

After class, I took her aside. “Maggie, I’m so proud of you.”

Her eyes widened. “Proud of me? Why? I ate like a pig and gained two pounds.”

“But you showed up tonight, didn’t you? That shows you’re committed — even when you’ve messed up. Champions don’t quit, they learn from their mistakes. They keep trying until they succeed.”

She smirked. “I learned to stay away from the cobbler and ice cream.”

I laughed. “You’re my star pupil and you’ve proven it tonight — you didn’t quit. You may have failed at dieting before, but you’re an Honors student now.”

In four months, Maggie lost thirty pounds and cut her insulin dose in half. Her knees no longer ached. When her grandchildren came to visit, she informed me, “I served them turkey slices and baby carrots for a snack and they liked them just as much as the cookies.” She said she wanted to teach them healthy eating habits.

After she’d lost the thirty pounds with no signs of reverting to her old eating habits, Maggie announced she was starting a support group at her church. “I want to teach others everything you’ve taught me. They’re all asking how I lost my weight.”

Everyone applauded.

Her face beamed. “If I can do it, anybody can. People just need somebody to encourage them along the way.”


Jennie Ivey would probably be shocked to learn that fifteen “remedial” dieters lost over two hundred pounds of fat because of her story. Amazing what raising the bar on low expectations can do! Thanks, Jennie!

~Sally Willard Burbank, MD

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