Weighing the risks

Thursday, May 12, 2005
Cliff Lankheit, left, his wife, Melanie, and son, Kevin, walked along the Cape LaCroix Recreational Trail which the family has used to help them lose weight through exercise along with diet control.

The Lankheit family of Cape Girardeau lost three people, but they don't want them to come back. Cliff Lankheit, his wife, Melanie, and son, Kevin, each lost the equivalent weight of one person during the past two years. Cliff, 54, once weighed 367 pounds; he has lost 121 pounds, and is still losing. Melanie, 52, weighed 311, and has lost the most weight at 155 pounds, just a pound shy of her current weight. Son Kevin, 23, started out at 307 and now is a trim 180.

Recent studies have shown that Americans are overweight and out of shape, which can lead to numerous health risks and even an early death.

The Lankheits turned their lives around by doing what health-care professionals recommend: no gimmicks, no surgeries, no quick fixes, just a common-sense balanced diet and exercise. Recently, a freelance writer for People magazine interviewed the Lankheits intending to feature the family's success in print. They hope to hear in the next few weeks whether People will buy the story. Melanie said Good Housekeeping has also showed an interest in their story.

But losing weight hasn't been easy. The turning point for the family came after a rather costly outdoor vacation. On a visit to national parks, the Lankheits realized they couldn't enjoy the hiking and other activities they once did because of their weight.

When Melanie recalls that time, it seems that her family's condition was a revelation.

"I don't think people realize what denial is," she said. "I didn't look at myself realistically in the mirror. It crept up on us over the years."

Health problems had also crept up on both her and Cliff. They had heel spurs brought about because their feet were carrying too much weight. Cliff suffered from sleep apnea, kidney stones and high blood pressure. He had to have his gall bladder removed. Heart disease and cancer run in his family, as does a tendency to be overweight.

"I was looking at this man and thinking, 'He is going to die if we don't do something,'" Melanie said.

Melanie said she had tried losing weight before by using canned products that are supposed to taste like milkshakes. That didn't last long. Gastric bypass surgery wasn't an option; no one wanted to take such a drastic step. They settled on Weight Watchers because Melanie had tried the program before and knew it was based on good nutrition, and it wasn't a fad diet.

"The biggest thing we hear about Weight Watchers is that it doesn't make you feel deprived," said Wendy Yellin, a Weight Watchers official based in San Ramon, Calif. "We don't ask you to give up food groups or give up anything. You can call it a diet, but really it's just healthy eating."

Melanie said she learned how to prepare her family's favorite meals in more healthful ways and they all learned how to eat smaller portions.

"Once we got started and began having a little success, that kept motivating us to go on," she said. "When you have family support that makes all the difference in the world."

It is that kind of support, as much as the change in eating habits, that helps people lose. People who join Weight Watchers say they are motivated by the group support from and examples set by fellow weight losers.

"I still enjoy going to the meetings," Melanie said. "I have a bond with these people. The support is so crucial."

After the pounds started coming off, the Lankheits began walking, short distances at first, then for longer stretches. To augment their walking, they also work out at a health club, to tone up some problem areas of sagging skin associated with large weight loss.

Kevin was the first to reach his goal weight, and has kept it off for eight months. Cliff is still working toward his goal; he started out about 50 pounds heavier than the others.

Melanie said she has dropped nine dress sizes. She began as a size 28 and now wears a 10 or 12. She also buys shoes a size smaller now.

Cliff's weight loss made it possible, he said, to postpone retirement as a teacher and accept a job as principal at St. Joseph Catholic School in Scott City. Melanie works at the Southeast Missourian. Kevin said losing weight gave him the confidence to go to graduate school.

The daunting task of dropping large amounts of weight can be discouraging.

"You just have to take it one day at a time," Melanie said. "It's no different from being a cigarette smoker or an alcoholic. You are addicted."

Cliff said Melanie kept everyone motivated."We're successful because we did it as a family."

The family also rewarded each other. When all three lost their first 100 pounds around the same time, Cliff and Melanie bought Kevin a new mountain bike and his uncle gave him a set of golf clubs. Cliff got a clock he wanted, and Melanie got jewelry.

"It's a big thing," she said. "You really need to make a big deal out of it."

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