Fibromyalgia. Fatty liver disease. Seizures. Depression. Raynaud syndrome. Walking pneumonia. These ailments plagued Michelle Kaiser day in and day out for a decade. Even her resting hours were disrupted by back spasms. It was enough to make her wish she were dead.
“I was in so much pain I thought, ‘I’m not going to make it anymore,’” Kaiser said. “I refused to live like that. So, I planned it. Dec. 31 was going to be my last day on Earth.” Suicide, however, wasn’t the answer. Her cure wasn’t some magic pill or get-better-quick scheme. Multiple doctors had failed to help her and use of prescription medication wasn’t much more successful. It was time to take matters into her own hands
Since July 2018, Kaiser has lost an astonishing 100 pounds. The Omaha woman who once donned a size 24 now wears a size 12. Her shoe size dropped. By following the keto diet, Kaiser found her solution—weight loss.
The prevalence of obesity affects more than 90 million U.S. adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These rates continue to rise and so do the number of Americans looking to reverse their weight gain, especially around the beginning of each year.
What separates the resolutioners from the success stories is rarely the same. There’s Atkins, South Beach, Jenny Craig, Paleo, Weight Watchers—and that’s just dieting. Shedding the pounds is a numbers game, but there’s no math formula to follow. Everyone is different. The secret to weight loss? There isn’t one.
Four people in the Metro reveal there is no one right way to trim down. Trial and error, sweat (a lot of it), counting calories, and regimented schedules don’t even unite them. The only commonality is they’re all losing it and loving it.
“I’m finally free of all the pain, the illnesses, and the confinements of who I want to be,” Kaiser said.
Even after refocusing her life to the gospel that is the ketogenic diet, Kaiser still has to stare down cake, brownies, and other delectable desserts all day every day. She is the gourmet maker behind every delicious morsel at The Omaha Bakery.
As the owner and founder of her own confectionery, Kaiser evolved her business to satisfy her keto cravings. Shoppers can still purchase the sweet eats they’ve come to know and love, but now there are approximately 40 other goodies offered that are low in carbs and sugar free.
“I’ve been told, ‘Your business is going to close because this is just a fad,’” Kaiser said. “Nope. We’ve grown 40 percent since I embraced this lifestyle with seven out of 10 customers looking for keto.”
Kaiser’s love for the low-carb, high-fat diet began when she started following it in July 2018. Two months prior, she suffered a seizure in her bakery as a side effect to medication treating her fibromyalgia. An autoimmune specialist and neurologist were at a loss for how to further treat her. She felt hopeless, until she heard about keto from a speaker at her networking group.
She then joined a Facebook group about the keto diet, on which other users shared their stories. As she discovered the way ketogenic works, she made sure to follow the diet to the letter.
Almost immediately, she faced her first challenge—her husband. While she altered her nutrition and even began intermediate fasting, allowing herself only a four-hour window every day in which to eat, he sat on the sofa with ice cream in hand. When he saw her frustration, he joined her on the journey and lost 60 pounds in less than six months.
“You can feel like you’re going without. It sucks,” Kaiser said. “Everyone else is eating fries with ketchup, or burgers with buns. Having my family on board really made a difference.”
Now she’s dedicated to making a difference in others’ lives. Beyond whipping up keto-friendly treats to sell, she speaks to small groups about the benefits and is writing a book that’ll be part autobiography, part recipes.
“I just want to inspire others to believe in themselves,” Kaiser said. “Anybody can lose weight—that’s not the key. I’ve been a bakery owner for 30 years. The hard part was changing everything I learned. I embraced a lifestyle, then turned my business into a profit.”
MarQ Manner is at Benson’s Krug Park with a drink in hand. It’s straight from the tap, super smooth, and—most importantly—super comforting. This is not typical of someone who stopped drinking almost two years ago.
“Nitro coffee on tap is my go-to now,” Manner said. “It comes out in a real glass, looks and tastes good, plus nobody is eyeing you. I get to still look like a real adult.”
Manner is a regular of the Omaha bar and music scenes. From downtown and Benson to neighborhood haunts and holes in the wall, he’s not picky. However, you won’t see him pounding shots or getting blitzed—anymore.
“I was a heavy drinker, and I was very adamant about it,” Manner said. “At the very end of my drinking, it became a chore to maintain that alcoholism or whatever it is. It was no longer fun.”
When he put down the bottle, he expected improved energy or a happier liver. A trimmer figure was never in the plan. But tighten and trim he did. To the tune of 75 pounds to be exact.
The music columnist and manager of Homer’s was inspired to trade cocktails for coffee by a Christmas photo with his nephews and nieces. After seeing the picture, he felt embarrassed and wanted to quit drinking to do better by himself.
So, he quit. Cold turkey. No AA, no relapses, no looking back. Living next to a mix of bars in Benson didn’t even prove a challenge.
He quit drinking soda at the same time, as his favorite way to drink it was mixed with alcohol. Six months later he quit smoking—bye-bye to three packs a day.
“I became a lump on the bar stool. I felt like crap all the time.”
No longer drinking away his most recent hangover, Manner soon had the energy and time to start walking as exercise. One block became two, two became a mile, a mile soon became eight or nine. He started biking too, and in winter he walks around the mall.
“With my age, it’s my chance to do things differently,” said the 46-year-old Manner. “It’s exciting and fun. I still go out a lot, but I don’t go all out. The money is adding up, too. I can spend on dinners, presents, different things.”
And these days, those Christmas photos look even better.
Little ones in Patti Peterson’s life gave her the push she needed.
“As the grandmother of three, I found myself spending a lot time on the floor, putting together puzzles, building towers, and laying train tracks,” Peterson said. “Getting down on the floor was easy. Getting up? Not a particularly pretty picture.”
When her own two sons left home and started families of their own, life changed for Peterson and her husband. They began eating out more often, with calories becoming an afterthought. At age 64, she decided enough was enough. That’s when her internist recommended the New Direction System, a weight control program through the Nebraska Medical Center.
The purpose of New Direction is twofold: weight loss and education. The belief is only by instilling permanent changes in nutrition and exercise through weekly classes can a healthier lifestyle be maintained.
As with other weight-loss programs, this one is not for everyone. In fact, this one is only for those who meet the medical requirements, which include having a body-mass index of 30 (or 27 with certain conditions such as high cholesterol).
In summer 2018, Peterson went all in. She followed a very low-calorie diet that places the body in ketosis, which is a fancy way of saying her body burned fat as a source of energy due to restricted intake of calories. A medical team helped guide her through each of the program’s phases, and eight months later, she had lost 75 pounds. Phase one, reducing, required consuming four high quality, high protein, low carbohydrate meal replacements per day—and nothing else except water. The meal replacements are purchased through the Medical Center. Many of the meal replacements are soups and shakes, meaning the satisfaction of chewing food is gone. This phase lasts up to 16 weeks and is followed by an adapting phase where Peterson was able to buy normal food at the grocery store.
“Hooray! I made it to my goal weight. Although, really the journey continues,” Peterson said. “I attend meetings twice a month, continue to use some products, and eat regular, generally healthy meals.”
As a practicing attorney and partner at Kutak Rock LLP, Peterson is no stranger to hard work and discipline. No alcohol or coffee? Done. Consuming 800 calories a day? Check. Gallons of water? Bring it on.
“I am an official water drinker now,” Peterson said. “I have my little Camelback that I go nowhere without.”
Like anybody, she’s not perfect. Peterson’s philosophy is to not deny herself everything and to cheat only when the cheating is good. Ted & Wally’s ice cream is still a vice, but potato chips aren’t worth the calories.
“I hosted a tailgate this fall and had a chip for the first time in a year and a half,” she said. “it didn’t even taste good anymore.”
With more energy, exercise for Peterson today looks like the occasional bike ride, planting flowers, scooping snow, and maintaining her home. Then, there’s keeping up with the grandkids. That’s a workout regimen in and of itself.
“They are a year older, a year more active, and they love to be outside,” Peterson said. “I used to not be the first one to put on my sneakers. Now, I’m laced up and ready to go.”
“Lifting is a mind f—.”
This coming from a woman who can leg press 1,000 pounds and bench 160 pounds. Becky Grey is a hairstylist, wife, mother, and super woman. She has transformed herself, losing 140 pounds and beating the boys at an activity the boys claim to do best.
“My highest record weight was 298 pounds. I was unhappy about that number,” Grey said. “Now I’m lifting weight that’s heavier. It makes me feel accomplished, strong, happy.”
Don’t get it twisted, though. She’s always felt confident. Grey never tied her self-worth to her physical appearance, but knew she could be healthier. So, she tried it all. A Weight Watchers here, a Jenny Craig there. Nothing worked—until gastric bypass surgery in 2014.
“I kept quiet about it for a while because there’s a stigma that people think it’s cheating.” Grey said. “Regardless if I have a smaller stomach or not, I still have to make the smart choices. The salads, proteins…I make that choice, nobody else does it for me.”
Grey credits gastric for giving her a fighting chance, losing a pound a day. Then she, too, joined the keto craze. The medical team behind her gastric bypass surgery advised that she jump on keto right after getting the procedure done. They told her if she didn’t stay way from carbs and sugar, and adopt a high protein diet, then gastric would not be successful. Thus, she started following keto almost immediately after the operation. Like Kaiser, she doesn’t subscribe to any one author.
Grey calls it dirty keto, as she still eats beans and corn sparingly. Kaiser may even have some competition as Grey bakes her own healthy treats, albeit on a much smaller scale.
It was Todd Smith Fitness that then took Grey from a woman with a fighting chance to being a fighter.
“When I first went in, I was legit skin and bones,” she said. “I had no shape to me whatsoever. Now, I’ve put on 20 pounds of muscle.”
Before working with Smith and his team of trainers, Grey solely focused on cardio. Now a typical workout still starts on the treadmill, but it doesn’t end there. There’s the 20-minute warmup, followed by an hour lifting to tone either upper or lower body, then a half hour of jabs, and 30 more minutes of cardio on the stepper. She’s basically #beastmode incarnate.
Though she’s been pumping iron with Smith for four years, she said her muscles are constantly tender due to routines regularly switching. The best workouts make her want to use a walker the next day.
Grey believes results are about more than the amount she can lift above her head or what she sees in the mirror. It’s those everyday victories that matter most. She can cross her legs, go to a movie theater and not worry about getting stuck in the seat, or ride a roller coaster with her son.
“I put myself in a prison,” Grey said. “I didn’t realize it until I was out.”
It’s a crisp October afternoon, and Grey is getting her afternoon pick-me-up in the form of a Starbucks cold brew. The teenage cashier gushes over her brilliant purple hair.
“I just really, really love your look.”
What a look it is. There’s the satiny button-up shirt almost in the same hue as her hair, the widely flared jeans, and nails bedazzled and blinged-out in celebration of her birthday week.
“It’s a lot. I get it,” Grey said. “As a plus-size person, I always stuck out a little more. Now I feel better. I still want to stick out. Just differently.”
Looking good (and feeling good) is one small motivator for her. It’s true, weight loss is as simple as waging war against the scale. For many—including some of the people mentioned in this article—it goes beyond numbers. It’s deeply personal.
“You don’t love yourself enough to change? That’s fine. Find someone you love enough to do it for,” Grey said. “My driving force is my kid. I can’t let him down. You have to find out who, not what, is your why.”
This article was printed in the January/February 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.