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Stress Eating Was Keeping Me Down

"You don’t believe what you’re eating until you look back on it after you’ve gotten healthy."

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May 8 2017, 4:03pm

Alex Merriam

Alex Merriam was one big guy. Before he was old enough to chug a legal beer, he weighed 350 pounds. High school is bad enough without having to go through it with that much extra baggage. People who don't have a weight problem always ask, "How can someone let that happen to themselves?" In Alex's case is was a simple matter of Dude vs. Food—and losing every time.

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But one day something clicked, and a two-year mission to drop the weight began. Merriam posted his before-after photos on Reddit, and the transformation is as incredible as the reactions he's received. Now, at 21 and ready to launch a career in federal law enforcement, he's figured out what all that weight had been costing him—not just in terms of health and social capital, but in potential. We asked him what life is like now without anything weighing him down.

So you're literally half the man you used to be.
Yeah, I lost the equivalent of a healthy-weight adult male. After I'd lost 100 pounds, some girls I know would say, "You lost me." I have no idea how I used to walk around with an extra me on my body.

Something had to have happened to get you going. Something that pissed you off or pulled an emotional trigger?
It was a moment, but not a big emotional one. The summer of my sophomore year in college I got a really cool internship working for the State Department at the US embassy in El Salvador. Public service is something I'm really interested in and want to continue in my career—preferably in a law enforcement office with federal agents. My boss and I talked about my career aspirations, and he was like, "You're on the right path in terms of your resume, but unless you get in shape, there's no chance you get a job in this field. Nothing matters if you can't pass the physical tests."

I didn't really think much of it at the time—I was pushing 350 pounds. But I don't know if it was my subconscious or what, but I started losing weight. Almost by accident. I was busy with work and running around and not having much time to eat and being in an unfamiliar country. About six months after my boss told me that, I'd lost 70 pounds.

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High school and college have to be one of the worst times in a guy's life to be 300-plus pounds. What was it like?
I guess I was depressed, I don't know. I'd never really been thin, which I suppose is something you read in a lot of these [weight loss] stories. I didn't know much about exercise and wasn't motivated to start learning. The physical reason behind my weight was I'd eat too much bad stuff. It's as simple as that. Rather than eating a few Oreos, by the time I was in high school and beginning of college I could put away a whole package. A lot of it was stress eating—I wasn't really happy with my life—and I really started putting on the weight.

What was the food drug of choice?
It wasn't just one kind of food, it was every food. I'd eat anything, which was part of the problem. Little by little, I think you build a tolerance to food, and you're screwed up by that point.

Like the way your body builds a tolerance to booze.
Yeah, you're just so used to it. Now I've learned about moderation. I'm getting ahead of myself, but part of what I was proud of about losing weight was that I didn't cut anything out. I was a college student, I didn't want to be That Guy. I wanted to have fun, drink with my friends, eat pizza. I was able to learn how to do that in a responsible way. Before, I just didn't have the mindset to eat two pieces of pizza. I'd eat half the pizza. Or for dinner instead of a salad I'd eat an entire frozen pizza. Looking back now, it's shocking that I ever thought that was an okay thing to do. You don't believe what you're eating until you look back on it after you've gotten healthy.

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So a guy doesn't drop 175 pounds without some bumps in the road. What held you back along the way?
I lost that first 70 without exercise, but after that I didn't lose anything for like four months. I was 280 and I met a girl and we started dating. When you're dating, you go out to eat, you do this, do that, and since I had been dependent on my diet to lose weight, I didn't lose anything during that time. That got me down a little bit, but I'd say things like, "Sometimes you have to make time for yourself," but what I ended up realizing was that I wasn't happy with this person anyway. So we ended it. Once I got home from school for the summer in 2016, I started going to the gym every day.

You went from No Exercise Guy to every day?
Yeah, for the past year now I've been going to the gym six to seven days a week. I've lost a little over 100 pounds (on top of the 70), about two and a half pounds a week. I reluctantly call myself a runner, even though I do enjoy it. It's something I never thought I'd enjoy. I was never a guy who'd wake up in the morning and say, "Hey, I get to go running today!" But I am now.

My initial goal was to get under 300. I just wanted to see a two on the scale. When I finally weighed myself and saw that, I was like, "Why don't I just keep going?" So at 250 I should be a lot healthier. I shouldn't be "pre" everything, pre-hypertensive, pre-diabetic. And I got to 250 and I got to 200 and I was like, "Well, if I get to 180 I should be fine." And then I was like, "Well, five more pounds and I'll literally be half of what I was," so…

How did you motivate yourself for that long a stretch?
My friends on Snapchat will unfortunately know this: I love motivational quotes. As dumb as quotes from John Wooden and Vince Lombardi can sound, they're pretty powerful to me.

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Aside from the weight loss itself, what other benefits have you seen?
I'm one of those people who's annoyingly happy now. I was never that happy a person, I guess. Now I'm the guy who's smiling all the time. And I've physically grown. I've grown 2.5 inches since I started losing weight. I'm 6'1" now.

No shit. Like your skeleton was waiting for its chance.
My body has definitely changed on some fundamental level. If I eat a big meal, I don't feel well. It's not a mental thing. I honestly wish I could eat a little more sometimes. I'm just so used to eating smaller, healthier meals. I think that's a good thing. I think that's the way we're built. We shouldn't be eating the amounts that we eat.

You don't crave unhealthy foods?
Kind of the opposite. Here's a weird story about that: I just got back from a 10-week trip to Europe and the Middle East. I saw 15 countries and walked 2 million steps, which is about 1,000 miles. If I hadn't lost weight, I would not have been able to do that. While I was in Paris, I walked into a store and bought a bag of lettuce and ate the entire bag while walking down the street. People were definitely staring at me but I didn't care. I was craving vegetables really badly. And now I eat vegetables with every meal. And a lot of lean protein. I love pizza, I love ice cream, but they're once-in-a-while things.

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Do people ask you for weight loss advice now?
Yeah, since I posted my before-after photos on Reddit, a lot of the messages I end up getting are, "Dude, can you give me your meal plan, your exercise plan?" I never had a plan. To me, you can't plan those things. Teddy Roosevelt said, "Do what you can with what you have where you are." I was eating in a dining hall most of the time and the food's really salty and not very good for you, so I did what I could with what I had where I was, which was mostly salad with grilled chicken. Something is better than nothing. Only you can control yourself.

How do you feel about that guy you were two years ago as opposed to now?
That's a good question. I'm much happier. And I attribute a lot of this effort to myself, but at least 60 percent of my weight loss goes to the support I got from friends and family, which is crucial. If I didn't want to go out drinking one night, my friends were supportive of that. Friends can push things on you, but they supported this so-called new lifestyle of mine. That allowed me to be a better friend because I 'm happier and have more energy to support them in return.

But the biggest thing is that I feel even more different than I look. Before, honestly, I had trouble getting out of bed and being motivated to do much of anything. I was a really, really lazy student in high school and in college the first two years my GPA was just below 3.0, which I understand is good for a lot of people, but not for what I want to do. Right around the time I started losing weight, it shot up. I wish I'd been that motivated all through college, but I went from below a 3.0 to graduating with honors. And I graduated a semester early, so I had three semesters to make it happen. And I did.

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Now that you've hit your goal, how do you plan to maintain?
I'm doing some strength training, bulking up a bit, getting muscle. I'm fluctuating between 175-180 now. Which is funny, to see the number on the scale slowly go up but my pants and shirts fit looser. I got rid of all my old clothes. I started at 3XL and I'm a medium now. That still blows my mind.

Ready to launch that career then?
When I have an interview in federal law enforcement, I'll crush that fitness test. I can run a 7-minute mile. I never thought I'd see myself doing that.

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