On New Year’s Eve in 2014, Tommy Tomlinson could have kicked back and reflected on his past accomplishments as an award-winning journalist and happily married husband. Instead, he confronted a future that looked frighteningly short. It was the cusp of his 50th birthday, and he weighed 460 pounds.
Prompted by the obesity-related death of his sister, the Brunswick native finally committed to losing some excess pounds. Being a writer of human-interest stories for publications such as the Charlotte Observer and ESPN magazine, he naturally wrote about his experience.
His memoir, “The Elephant in the Room,” now available in paperback, is an astonishingly candid look at the shame and pain that surround a secret binge eater whose size requires reconnaissance missions before meetings at restaurants to make sure the seating can accommodate him.
Bucking the trend for quick weight loss, Tomlinson prefers losing it the old-fashioned way with exercise and healthy eating. His book is not a self-help guide but a thoughtful and sometimes humorous examination of how and why he got to 460 pounds and what he’s doing to change it.
Now 56, Tomlinson says he’s lost about 100 pounds so far, and he hasn’t eaten fast food in three-and-a-half years.
“If you saw me on the street, you’d still say there goes a fat guy. But if you know me, you’d say I was clearly in better shape than I was,” he said. “I could stand to lose 100 more pounds and probably more than that, but I feel like I’m on a path to get there that I never felt like before. I’m all in on the effort.”
A Cappella Books presents Tomlinson in conversation with ESPN senior writer Tom Junod at the Highland Inn Ballroom on Jan. 23. Speaking last week from Athens where he taught a journalism class, Tomlinson talked about his experience.
AJC: Your book generated a lot of buzz when it came out this time last year. What are your reflections on 2019?
Tomlinson: Professionally it was fantastic. I got this really nice reaction, not just reviews and such but the thousands and thousands of messages I’ve gotten, and people coming up to me at book signings and on the street who were really moved by the story. Health-wise, it’s been a tough year. My family and I have been through quite a bit in the last year or two. My best friend died. My mom died. My father-in-law died, and my mother-in-law, we’ve spent most of the last year getting her ready to move to a retirement home. That has put a lot of stress on us personally. In fact, I’ve gained some of the weight back that I had lost, but I’m back on track to losing again.
AJC: Was it difficult getting back on track?
Tomlinson: The difference this time is that before when I would lose some weight and gain it back, I would feel like I was starting from scratch with no plan or idea. Now I’ve had success, and I have a self-awareness that I didn’t have about why I eat, and I’m able to manage that stuff so much better. Before, if I had a bad day or two, then I was just off the deep end. It’s been quite a while since I’ve been on the deep end. I’m really happy about that.
AJC: In the book, you talk about the importance of figuring out why someone overeats. Why do you?
Tomlinson: Growing up as sort of a lonely kid, an introvert who was socially awkward, it became a way to celebrate the good times in life and to soothe myself in the bad times. It was the one sort of reliable pleasure that I had. I knew that if I had a really good pizza or a really good cheeseburger or a Little Debbie, that would make me happy in a way that nothing else in my life could. Another part of it was, I kept trading long-term success for short-term pleasures. When you do that for 50 years, that’s how you end up at 460 pounds.
AJC: What is your weight loss method?
Tomlinson: Calories in and calories out. I have this Fitbit I wear that measures the exercise I do every day, and it measures the calories I burn. It also has an app where I keep track of what I eat. As long as the calories I eat are less than the calories I burn, I’m making some progress. The more that gap is, the better. Yesterday I had a gap of 1,500 calories, which means I walked a lot, and I didn’t eat much. That was great. Some days it’s 15 calories.
AJC: Why lose weight slowly when there are so many quick-loss methods out there?
Tomlinson: My doctor said 91 percent of the people who lose a lot of weight gain it all back. He said my job for the rest of my life is to stay in that 9 percent. What that means is, I lose weight more slowly. All these diet plans and self-help things out there that are designed to help people lose weight; they’re not good at helping people keep weight off, especially people like me who have so much weight to lose. If you have 200 pounds to lose, the “how” is never enough. You have to start looking at the “why.” That sort of self-analysis is the basis of my book. You’ve got to figure yourself out why you’re like you are in the first place. Only then can you figure out a plan to get yourself healthy.
AJC: What advice do you have for people trying to lose weight?
Tomlinson: A million times in my life I’ve said I’m going to start tomorrow and never did. The time you need to start is right now. Set a goal for yourself, even if it’s a small one. Figure out a method and find some way of keeping track of what you’re doing. Don’t worry about being perfect. Know that the path will not be straight, but if you keep at it, you’ll get there.
Questions and answers were edited for brevity and clarity.
A Cappella Books presents the “Elephant in the Room” author in conversation with ESPN senior writer Tom Junod.
7 p.m. Jan. 23. Free. Highland Inn Ballroom, 644 N. Highland Ave., Atlanta. 404-681-5128, acappellabooks.com.
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