“I can't even put it into words. There aren’t enough words to describe the relief,” explains Leanne, reflecting on what it felt like to finally hear that her obesity had a root cause: and one that could potentially be fixed.
After struggling with her size her entire life, all it took was one appointment with the head of Austin Health’s Weight Control Clinic, Professor Joseph Proietto, to give the former taxi driver hope, a revelation she never thought she’d hear, and the motivation to continue to persist with a weight loss goal.
Weighing 253.6 kilograms when she first sat in Proietto’s office, Leanne reveals she couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t been conscious of her size — “it's like there's Lea and then there's Lea’s weight; it’s something I've always battled against and raged against".
Discovering that her obesity was driven by genetics was like receiving an unexpected Christmas present.
“it's like there's Lea and then there's Lea’s weight; it’s something I've always battled against and raged against".
“'You’ve got the fat gene in spades' is what I think he said verbatim,” Leanne continues, emotion still in her voice long after that pivotal moment. As she recounts her journey to that point, it’s easy to understand why.
“I don't remember a time where it actually wasn't focused on, or commented on. It was always an entity that was around me. To be finally told that it's not your fault, that there is actually a physical reason that you are struggling as much as you are, that it's not because you have no self control, that’s it's not because you don't like vegetables as much as everybody else — because I do eat vegetables, you know.”
Leanne’s efforts and experiences are captured in new SBS documentary series, The Obesity Myth, which follows a few of Austin Health’s obese patients. Endeavouring to dispel the idea that obesity is a lifestyle choice, the three-part documentary series charts the stories of overweight Australians and their families as they tackle their condition as a chronic genetic disease.
When watching the show, it's clear that Leanne is not alone in her weight loss battle: revealed throughout the series are crucial realisations that many of the patients featured were fighting a losing battle with their weight before they arrived at the clinic.
“You have one of those epiphany moments"
Like Leanne, Tracey also had a life-changing moment that helped her to be start believing she could lose weight. She explains that her size has been large since she was young and it's always dictated her existence. Her light-bulb moment, however, came just before she reached Austin Health.
“You have one of those epiphany moments, where you think ‘I’ve really got to do something about this,’” she explains.
By the time the series features her story, she’s already lost 73 kilograms on Proietto’s program.
“I had been fat my whole life, had done every diet under the sun, tried every fad diet, been to Weight Watchers, done all that sort of stuff,” Tracey continues. “And then I had a moment where I was sitting on my couch, I had a two-and-a-half year-old granddaughter, and my dad was actually playing with her with his sunglasses. And I thought, ‘you know, I can’t actually catch my breath washing myself in the shower, so I am not going to see great grandchildren. Like, I need to do something about this.’”
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to weight loss
After hearing about the Austin Health clinic's program, Tracey was committed to doing whatever it took to lose weight, improve her health and change her lifestyle. So she embraced Proietto’s program with gusto.
“I read through the criteria and thought ‘oh yeah, I can do this. It’s not going to be easy, but I can do this'.” From that point onwards, she was so determined that she chose to stop taking appetite-suppressing medication when she reached 80 kilos. Tracey recognises, however, that while willpower and determination worked for her, it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation.
“One of the things I’ve always put my weight down as is like being a sober alcoholic. I’m a sober obese person. So, on the inside, you are still a chubby person, but you have just got it under control. That’s the way I equate my experience personally… and I think one of the things about being obese is that you never really feel in control.
"You’re not in control of so many things — I never thought I was in control of my weight, and therefore I wasn’t in control of my health,” she outlines. “I wanted to be able to say that I was a normal, fully functioning person that could go out and be able to control my own hunger, be in control.”
For Leanne, however, control wasn’t a motivating factor — feeling like she wasn’t being punished was more important. She was just as committed to losing weight and improving her health, but wanted to ensure she could enjoy the new path she was on, and not feel penalised for her genetic condition.
"You’re not in control of so many things — I never thought I was in control of my weight, and therefore I wasn’t in control of my health.”
“Food is still something we all take enjoyment out of — it’s the parties, it’s the social gatherings, it’s the family events, all of that,” she explains. She includes cheat days as part of her monthly routine, because, “I feel punished enough being over weight, rightly or wrongly. And that's the crux of the matter — that’s how you feel. And that's what skinny people don't understand. They think that you've done this to yourself, that you deserve to be punished. And I don't think that's a fair thing because I didn't intentionally set out to make myself fat.”
Finding extra motivation
Of course, both Leanne and Tracey not only had to adapt to Austin Health’s program in their own ways, but to life as a documentary participant during the filming of The Obesity Myth.
The process of tracking their experience for the cameras had its own ups and downs, demonstrating that the process of losing weight varies from person-to-person. Motivation comes in many forms — whether it’s being held accountable, or having a chronicle of a life-altering period.
"And although obviously you live that every day when you're pulling on your size 12 pants instead of your size 26, it gives you that little spring in your step when you see yourself."
So how did they each handle the pressure of weight loss and the camera? Leanne tells SBS she gave herself monthly reprieves from Austin Health’s shake, protein bar and vegetable diet. She also found that making video diaries was a good way to keep her on track, even when things got tough. “I had to stick to it because I had to be accountable every day, and send this diary in every day,” she recalls.
Conversely, Tracey was enthused by the idea of recording her efforts — “it was a way to have it documented that I couldn’t document myself,” she notes. “You could have a photo, and you could have a weigh-in, but for me, it is such a huge part of my life, it was something I could say, ‘well have a look at that. That’s me, I did that.’ And although obviously you live that every day when you're pulling on your size 12 pants instead of your size 26, it gives you that little spring in your step when you see yourself.”
The Obesity Myth airs Mondays at 7:30pm on SBS. Watch the first episode at SBS On Demand: