FEATURE: One Irish woman's journey from 19.5st to 9.5st

AT 40, Linda O’Leary, looks sensational. Tall, toned, and gorgeously slim, she’s wearing a skimpy, sleeveless dress. She runs a business offering weight-loss advice and, as she exudes positivity, it’s difficult to imagine O’Leary any other way.

But when she was 26, it was a different story. So different, that when she saw a photograph of herself on holiday, she freaked. Vastly overweight, she looked double her age. Weight had always been an issue for O’Leary. She’d tried every diet under the sun, from Weight Watchers to the cabbage diet, but now the scales showed she’d reached 19½ stone.

O’Leary considered herself happy. She and her boyfriend loved food; they enjoyed eating at home, and away, and she’d numbed herself to her problems.

“My sense of normality had changed,” she says. “I looked at my habits, and realised that whenever I was upset I turned to food. One biscuit would lead to two packets. I binged, and I ate in secret.

“I’d go to a shop and fill a bag with sweets, cakes and crisps. I’d eat it all, then feel guilty. Then the sugar craving would kick in again, and I’d go to another shop and buy more. I had no control. I stopped socialising. I’d cry when I got an invitation to a wedding. I’d look at myself in the mirror and feel disgusted.”

Determined to overhaul her entire lifestyle, O’Leary studied nutrition. She realised her blood sugar level was to blame for her cravings, and began to eat the low GI way; taking the best bits of diets she already knew. That stopped the cravings and hunger pangs. And in 10 days, she lost seven pounds. “I added exercise, starting with a 15-minute walk at lunchtime. Then I walked in the evenings too, and I bought a fitness DVD and got fit at home. My shape changed completely.”

O’Leary had lost weight before; only to put it on again once the diet failed. This time, she needed to change her whole mindset.

“I’d become a negative person. I had to change that. I needed to learn why stress led me to food. I read self help books, and listened to clips of inspirational speakers. I realised I could have control over my thoughts. I could choose not to take a critical remark personally; and if I woke up miserable, I could change that by focusing on positive things.

“After seven months, I’d lost five stone eating a healthy, well balanced diet. I’d increased my protein, and cut down my carbohydrates. I had a couple of glasses of wine on a Friday night, and a bar of chocolate on a Sunday, so I didn’t feel deprived.”

O’Leary’s goal was 11 stone. But she decided to maintain her weight at 14½ stone, to prove to herself that she could. “Before, I’d piled on the weight and ended up heavier still,” she says. “I maintained the weight for eight months, and then, over the following six months, I lost the 3½ stone.”

Last year, hitting 40, O’Leary decided to reduce her weight a little more. “On my birthday last April, I weighed 10½ stone. I looked good, but my thighs were still chunky. I couldn’t wear the skimpy black dress I had planned.” She hit her target of 9 stone 7lb last September. Happy in herself now, Linda has set up a business — www.healthlifebalance.ie. Working out of Rathfarnham and Wicklow, she charges €275 for a 10-week programme of 30-minute consultations. What are her key tips?

“If you slip, get back on track at once. That chocolate muffin was 200 calories. When people panic, and feel a failure, they then order a takeaway, and pick until bedtime. They’ve added a further 1,500 calories. Ultimately, maintenance is key. It’s realising you can live at your ideal weight. And it’s all about balance.”

Natalie’s story

Mum of two Natalie Galbraith, 35, wasn’t huge. And she was pretty healthy. She ran a marathon in 2012, but at 10½ stone and 5ft 2”, she was feeling out of shape and wobbly.

“I wasn’t fitting into my clothes properly, and I was overeating. I wasn’t eating the right food. I work in a restaurant, and socialise around food. I love food. I had bad habits, but I thought that was just how it is.”

A neighbour of Linda O’Leary’s, Natalie knew about her weight-loss advice business. And back in November, she decided to give the programme a shot.

“We did a lot of talking about my attitude to food. Linda identified how my weight affected me, and how losing it would affect my life. I realised my weight issues were about much more than clothes. It affected my attitude towards myself, and how I feel around my husband, my friends and my kids. I felt rubbish. We also discussed my triggers.

“Linda gave me worksheets, recipes and aids. I kept a food diary. She told me never to lie. I realised I had to limit the amount of ‘good food’, like brown bread. A lot of it was to do with portion. The first week was the hardest. I could think of nothing else. But I lost six pounds. I took off weight over Christmas. I still had a drink, and I indulged in cheese and crackers; in roast potatoes, and chocolate. I’ve learned to do it in moderation. Eight weeks on, I still have 5 pounds to lose. That will make me 9 stone. I’ve tried all the diets, and they didn’t work for me. Linda’s is different. I feel amazing. I’m in size 10 jeans, and there’s no overhang. I’m comfortable. My whole mental attitude has changed. She’s changed it. I know I will always be this way, because I feel so much better.”

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