Sorting through papers on her late husband’s desk, Ollie Symons, 46, came upon an envelope which she knew contained his will. She opened it and ran her finger over his name. She and Larry had never had much, and her only real inheritance was their 10-year-old son. “Chandler,” she whispered, tears spilling down her cheeks. Ollie was now the only parent Chandler had left. And how long would he have her?
"I need to name a guardian for our boy," she suddenly realized. Ollie let herself cry, remembering the day a doctor had warned that — with 345 pounds crushing her 5'3" frame — she’d likely die in her early 50s. “Gastric bypass is your best option,” the doctor had said. Yet Ollie resisted because surgery terrified her. It didn’t seem fair that diets didn’t work for her. But was it fair to leave her son without parents? It definitely was not fair. She couldn’t do that to him. Ollie stopped crying. "No matter what it takes, I will get myself in better shape," she vowed.
Cleveland Clinic Diet: The First Steps
Born to a mentally disabled mom, Ollie had more often gone without than she had too much. Difficult years in foster care had led to a loving forever family — and while she did gain some weight through it all, she was still around 200 pounds when she married at age 30. Then came pregnancy and a blur of 80-hour work weeks and sleepless nights. She’d skip meals, then gorge on Big Macs, ramen noodles, and ice cream. Occasional low-carb diets helped, but once her husband became ill in 2011, her own health, though rapidly deteriorating, was forgotten. She was good at blocking out the negative.
The morning after finding the will, Ollie called the Cleveland Clinic near her Ohio home. Referred to Irene Dejak, MD, for gastric bypass, she found out that there was a hitch: “Your insurance requires nine months on a supervised diet before they approve the procedure,” said Dr. Dejak, who then recommended a protein-sparing modified fast (PSMF). “It’s aggressive. But the more you lose now, the fewer risks during surgery.”
Ollie would eat 800 to 900 calories a day, mostly from protein and veggies, Dejak explained. Research has found the approach — which slashes both carbs and calories — forces the body to burn massive amounts of fat while protecting metabolism-boosting muscle. It also helps rejuvenate cells and organs, dramatically improving health. And a British study found that some PSMF dieters shed up to 70 pounds in 56 days. But could Ollie stick to 900 calories a day?
PSMF: How to Get Started
After cottage cheese for breakfast, Ollie was resigned as she sat down to her first fish-and-greens lunch. She didn’t like fish. "You’re doing this for Chandler," she reminded herself. Later, when she felt urges for huge portions, she threw herself into work until it was time for a chicken-and-broccoli dinner. The following day was much the same; she struggled but took it one meal at a time.
At a support group recommended by Dejak, Ollie learned that water eases cravings. She’d drink glass after glass, and it did help. Of course, her morning weigh-ins helped, too. She was down first six pounds, then 19 pounds, then 25 pounds. As her body adjusted, her hunger disappeared. In 80 days, she’d lost 50 pounds. Ollie did a happy dance!
Ollie began to experiment, trying new veggies and seasonings. She was soon craving herbed chicken and fresh tomato salad. Another surprise: She could keep up with Chandler at the park! She tried different forms of excercise, including pool workouts and short walks. Nine months flew by, and she’d lost 100 pounds! “Do I still need gastric bypass?” she asked. Dejak warned that keeping weight off is trickier without surgery, but it was by far a safer option. "Safer is better for my son," Ollie thought. So she kept at it.
In a year and a half, Ollie shed 185 pounds. Dejak has helped her learn to increase her calorie and carb intake without gaining weight. “I’ve had to work a little harder than most to live a ‘normal’ life,” she says, “but the rewards are worth it.” That was especially true when Chandler, now 13, was assigned a report for school, and chose to write about how proud he is of his mom for getting healthy. Another unexpected reward: Ollie mustered the courage to look for love again, and she found it with her boyfriend, John. “I just turned 49, and I know I have a long, happy life ahead."
PSMF: When It's Safe
Though a protein-sparing modified fast (PSMF) is regularly used by fitness buffs to melt maximum fat, Cleveland Clinic’s Irene Dejak, MD, says the approach is intended for folks with a BMI of 30 or higher (that’s at least 174 pounds for a 5'4" woman) or BMI of at least 27 (157 pounds for a 5'4" woman), plus an obesity-related health condition like high blood pressure or prediabetes.
Since a PSMF tends to have a big impact on body chemistry, it’s important to get a doctor’s okay regardless of your starting weight, and to be monitored as you progress. Anyone who takes prescription meds will likely need to have their dosages adjusted as they go.
PSMF: What to Expect If You Try It
Dejak explains that by cutting both carbs and calories at once, your body has no choice but to burn large amounts of stored fat for fuel. As one bonus, the process releases compounds that help reduce hunger dramatically — an effect experts say many women feel within three days.
Another bonus: Studies show that fasting rejuvenates our cells and organs, helping them do just about everything better. This leads to improved blood-sugar control, a spike in fast-metabolism hormones, soaring energy, skyrocketing mood, slower aging, and amazing immunity. In one eight-week study at Newcastle University in England, a diet like Ollie’s helped the average test subject lose 33 pounds in 56 days.
While the Cleveland Clinic uses PSMFs for longer periods to treat severe obesity, elsewhere doctors may “prescribe” it for eight weeks or so to jumpstart better health. For ongoing weight loss after a fast, most PSMF dieters increase overall calorie intake while sticking to carbs in moderation.
What to Eat on a PSMF
Our nutrition team worked with Ollie to create this special version of her weight-loss menus for you to try. They serve up 900 calories a day, with a strong emphasis on lean protein and nutrient-dense veggies. And what's more, you can make your own menus! Simply allot yourself 800-900 calories a day, and get most of those calories from nutrient-dense lean protein and veggies. While using this plan, be sure to drink plenty of water. Add other ultra-low-cal extras (spices, vinegar, zero-cal sweetener) as desired. As always, get a doctor’s okay to try any new plan.
(Choose one daily and enjoy with a zero-calorie beverage like coffee or tea, if desired.)
Option 1: 1 cup fat-free cottage cheese;1/2 sliced plum tomato or 1/4 cup raspberries; Any beverage, 15 calories or less, such as sugar-free hot cocoa
Option 2: 2 eggs and 1/2 oz. reduced-fat cheese scrambled with cooking spray; one Tbsp. salsa
300-Calorie Lunch and Dinner
(Choose one for lunch and one for dinner daily.)
Option 1: five oz. chicken sautéed with lemon, herbs and cooking spray; 3 cups packaged salad mix; calorie-free dressing such as Walden Farms
Option 2: six oz. lean pork tenderloin, one tsp. grainy mustard; one and a half cups steamed green beans; 1 cup sauerkraut
Option 3: four oz. lean steak, one Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce; one cup mushrooms sautéed in cooking spray; one cup Brussels sprouts roasted with cooking spray
Option 4: Easy Shrimp & Broccoli (recipe below).
100-calorie Snack Choices
(Choose one daily.)
Option 1: one high-protein snack bar, such as Simply Protein Kids or Mini Kind Bar
Option 2: 100-calorie container of no-sugar-added yogurt
Option 3: 100-calorie pack nuts
Easy Shrimp & Broccoli Recipe
Defrost 20 peeled, deveined shrimp. In hot skillet, sauté one tsp. minced garlic and one fourth cup minced onion in cooking spray. Stir in two and a half cups microwave-steamed broccoli. Add shrimp, stirring until cooked. Season with salt, pepper, and lemon juice.
DIY Sugar-Free Hot Chocolate Mix
Packed with nutrients from cocoa, this budget-friendly recipe from DashingDish.com has just 15 calories and only one and a half grams of sugar per cup!
- 6 Tbsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
- 1/2 cup dry nonfat milk powder, such as Carnation
- 1 tsp. cornstarch
- 1 tsp. salt
- 18 packets or 3/4 cup baking stevia
- Whisk together all ingredients until well combined. Store in a sealed jar or container. Makes sixteen one-Tbsp. servings.
- To make hot chocolate: Stir one Tbsp. dry mix into one cup hot water until mix is dissolved.
This article originally appeared in our print magazine.