It took just a random encounter with a trainer at Patty Deters’ local Gold’s Gym to basically change her whole life.

It was January 2016 and Deters, now 56, was determined to lose the weight she’d gained after being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis a few years earlier. She was 276 pounds, nearly 50 pounds more than she was when first diagnosed.

“I didn’t know how to get it off,” says Deters, who lives in Grand Junction, Colorado. “I tried everything. I tried Weight Watchers, I tried every diet book out there, I tried just juicing, I tried vegetarian, I tried when they have meals sent to you.”

While Deters was accompanying her teenage son to the gym — he was venturing back after recovering from surgery for scoliosis — a trainer saw her working out and told her, “I can help you.” In fact, the gym was hosting a 12-week weight loss challenge and the trainer swore to Deters he could help her win.

Deters was shocked. “I remember laughing in his face,” she says. “‘Nobody can help me,’ I told him, ‘I’m beyond help.’”

Boy, was she wrong.

A Painful Road to Weight Gain

A slimmer 145 pounds in college, Deters, a mom of three, started to put on weight gradually over the course of her marriage. For the first 10 years, she and her husband worked for an organization that provided all their meals in a cafeteria. But once they had to fend for themselves, eating healthy proved to be a challenge. “A lot of times for convenience sake, with three small children, we just grabbed McDonald’s or Subway or whatever. So [my weight gain] really started getting worse,” Deters says.

Deters wasn’t eating wildly indulgently, but she wasn’t choosing particularly nutritious foods either. A typical breakfast might have been a bowl of sugary cereal and milk; lunches included cold cuts sandwiches and chips; pasta was a popular dinner choice — “spaghetti, ziti, lasagna, of course with French bread; the kids loved pasta.”

“When you take what I was eating with pretty much zero activity, that’s why it wasn’t working,” says Deters.

Then came the RA diagnosis.

“I was about to turn 50 and all of a sudden my hands wouldn’t hold anything anymore,” says Deters. “I couldn’t unscrew water bottle caps or use a can opener. I had a primary doctor who had me try probably four months of different things because she said, ‘You’re too young, it can’t be arthritis.’”

Her symptoms persisted — “I was in severe pain, like 20 Motrins a day”— so her doctor ordered bloodwork and referred her to a rheumatologist, who promptly diagnosed her with RA. The doctor put her on prednisone, which immediately started to relieve her pain and swelling, but further added to Deters’ weight gain. She put on 20 pounds that year and continued to gain weight even after her doctor switched her to methotrexate, which she currently takes to manage her RA.

It All Started With a Food Diary

Nothing about Deters’ weight loss was miraculous or overnight. In fact, it all started with a simple food diary. The trainer had Deters log the food she ate each week and email it to him every Sunday. While she had tracked her food intake before, “I never had anyone care”— and that made all the difference.

“I’d tell him proudly that I ordered an Egg White Delight from McDonald’s,” Deters says. “He’d say, ‘Why didn’t you make eggs at home?’” Deters’ diet changes didn’t focus on strict calorie counting or eliminating foods outright; instead, she emphasized eating more whole foods and cutting back on foods that made her feel crummy. (This is what eating an anti-inflammatory diet looks like.)

“The clean eating makes my inflammation better,” says Deters, who’s scaled way back on simple carbs like bagels, sandwich bread, and pasta. “If I have a night out and eat bread or pasta, my joints feel it the next day.”

Instead, Deters combines complex carbs with protein, which helps her feel full. For breakfast, she opts for homemade eggs and plain oatmeal (with a few raisins for flavor). For dinner, she’ll have chicken and brown rice, or lean steak with a baked potato — minus the butter, sour cream, and cheese.

Added sugar — or even the taste of sugar— is another thing Deters watches closely. “I hardly eat any sugar. My hands will swell. To me, it’s not worth it.” She cut out the multiple daily cans of Diet Coke she used to drink and chooses fruit, like strawberries, when she craves something sweet.

No More Goal Weight

As for that weight loss competition? Deters technically lost: She came in second place. “But in my world, I won,” Deters says. “The fact that I’ve kept it off and lost even more, I think I’m the winner.”

Even better, her RA management has improved dramatically. In six months, her Vectra score, a multi-biomarker blood test, dropped by half.

And according to Deters’ own personal inflammation test — “Does my wedding ring fit?” — she’s passing with flying colors. She hasn’t had to take ibuprofen to help it fit in more than five months.

“It’s really fun to go see my doctor because she’s so happy for me,” says Deters. “Every blood test I’ve had since I started the weight loss journey has indicated that my RA is in remission. I haven’t had to be on prednisone since I started [my journey].”

Deters currently weighs 201 pounds. She’s still trying to lose weight — “every pound I get off also helps my joints” — but she doesn’t have an end number in mind.

“There’s more to life than just the number on the scale,” she says. “It’s easy to become frustrated with trying to reach a goal weight. I used to obsess about the number. Now I focus on how great my quality of life is and wonder why I ever let a number have so much power over me.”

Deters doesn’t need to take afternoon naps anymore. When the weekends roll around, she no longer has to beg off plans with her husband and children because she’s too tired.

‘Do What Doesn’t Hurt’

Deters’ weight loss journey hasn’t been without its share of ups and downs. Last fall, she started feeling pain and swelling in her hands again, and started to worry her RA was flaring again. It was scary and frustrating.

“I would cry because I didn’t understand why it was happening when I was doing everything right,” Deters says.

After bloodwork and X-rays, it turned out that Deters’ RA was still, in fact, in remission. Instead, she had a bad case of tendinitis from overexerting herself. “The doctor said I was just pushing too hard, and when I stopped pushing so hard it went away,” Deters says.

She had to scale back on her workouts, limiting weight training to just two days a week. Her go-to exercise for when she’s not feeling well: swimming, which she did competitively in college.

“There are times especially when you don’t feel well, when everything is hurting again,” says Deters. “For me, I focused on what doesn’t hurt, and swimming didn’t hurt. So instead of just stopping and laying down on my couch, I said ‘do what doesn’t hurt and keep moving.’”

Over time, the tendinitis improved. Today, Deters feels back on track with her weight loss, aiming to continue to slim down while allowing herself to enjoy life and not overdo it too much at the gym.

“People lose weight and gain it back and lose weight and gain it back, so a question I get a lot is ‘How do you stay with it?’” Deter says. “Knowing how I felt when I was originally diagnosed, I don’t ever want to feel that way again, so it’s very easy for me to stick with it.”

Follow Patty on Instagram @pattysfitnessjourney.

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