Amer Ismail says he was born obese.
He kept gaining excess weight throughout his childhood thanks to a sedentary lifestyle, plenty of online gaming, and a lack of knowledge on what “healthy” really meant. All that contributed to Ismail hitting 470 pounds in his early 20s. But, after taking on a challenge to eat 18 hot dogs in one night, Ismail realized he no longer garnered respect from those around him—or himself. So, he did something about it: He put down the hot dogs, learned to ski, almost died, and lost 200 pounds in the process.
“The biggest factor that contributed to my weight gain was honestly a lot of ignorance,” Ismail told Men’s Health. “We didn’t have much money growing up. It wasn’t about the quality of food, but quantity. Why spend eight bucks on a salad when I can get eight cheeseburgers for that much?”
Beyond the economics, Ismail said he also used food as a coping mechanism to deal with stressful and sad times.
“Ironically, food was also a coping mechanism for dealing with my obesity itself,” he said. “I’ve always been made of fun of, bullied, and teased for my size. I would eat the pain away.”
Ismail knew he wanted to lose weight. So, he tried. And tried. And tried some more. He tried keto, supplements, fasting, fad diets, and everything in between. At one point he lost 60 pounds, only to gain back 100. He did that until he reached his heaviest weight of 470 pounds.
“Being 470 pounds is not a normal size, people look and treat you differently. Your ideas aren’t taken as seriously. People look at you up and down and disrespect you,” he said. “I stood out, and it hurts to know that people can look at you with disgust without ever knowing me.”
Though painful, it was this feeling of disrespect that finally pushed Ismail to his breaking point.
While attending a baseball game with friends Ismail was challenged to eat 18 hot dogs on dollar-dog-night.
“I was arrogant and prideful and I said yes I can eat 18 hot dogs. And I did. People took photos and made Facebook posts of me eating 18 hot dogs,” he said. Though he saw it as an achievement at the time, his sister quickly set him straight.
“I told my sister what I did. Her response to me was, ‘Why?’ And that resonated with me. I realized that people were laughing not with me, but at me.”
From there, it all clicked. He knew that if he wanted respect he first needed to respect himself.
“The first step for me was acceptance,” Ismail said of the start of his journey. “Not just accepting how big I was, but accepting that I couldn’t go back. I had to do this.”
So, he started with small changes like cutting out soda and reducing his portions from super-sized meals to a regular combo.
This worked for the first 40 pounds. But after that, it was time to kick it into high gear by counting calories. He aimed to keep his daily intake to under 2,800 a day to lose two pounds a week, based on his weight and 6’4’’ frame. (Want to give calorie counting a try? Here’s how to start counting calories for weight loss.)
“I realized that 2,800 calories of junk wasn’t going to fill me up,” he said of changing up his food routine. “I was hungry all the time. So I started eating more chicken and broccoli and other healthier choices.”
After food came workouts. All he ever wanted to do was become an athlete and learn to ski. And he almost did, until 2017. At that time, at age 23, Ismail had already lost 90 pounds. But he nearly derailed it all when he tore his ACL while—of all things—attempting to ride the mechanical bull at his office Christmas party.
“My leg got caught, and pop went my ACL. I couldn’t walk the day after. Six weeks later, I ended up having a allograft surgery to replace the ligament,” he explained.
But, even this setback couldn’t deter him from his new lifestyle. Because his movement was limited, he focused solely on his diet, which ended up being a blessing in disguise.
“I focused on eating right and used Snap Kitchen to supplement a lot of meals because I couldn’t cook or really move. I lost 30 pounds during the first three months of recovery,” Ismail said.
Additionally, he began physical therapy, where he also met Chris Slocum, the director of strength and conditioning at Memorial Hermann, who helped Ismail get back on the path toward the athletic goals he always dreamed of.
Between the nutritious meals and a brand-new conditioning workout routine Ismail dropped 200 pounds—or, as he says, “one Hugh Jackman”—to hit new weight of 270 pounds.
“I can walk 12-plus hours a day where before 1 hour would knock me out,” Ismail explained. “I can jump. Like actually jump. I find myself dancing while listening to music and being amazed at how light everything feels.”
But Ismail hit another obstacle.
In early 2019, two years after tearing his ACL, Ismail hit the slopes to finally fulfill his dream of skiing. During one of his very first lessons, he tripped downhill and crashed onto his stomach, which caused him to rupture his spleen.
“I lost a full 4.5 liters of blood, and I was rushed to the ICU. Unfortunately, my spleen had to be removed. I stayed in the ICU for a week to recover. Doctors told me I was lucky to be alive. I’m just very happy that I still am,” he said.
But, even a little thing like staring death in the face won’t stop Ismail from moving forward and continuing to work toward his final goal weight of 200 pounds. And he’s still grateful for each and every aspect of his weight loss experience—even the challenges.
“I remember how happy I was being able to physically ski,” he said. “It was something I had never been able to do. It’s why I’ve worked so hard. I can’t wait to go back.”
While he recovers from this injury, Ismail is still focusing on his nutrition and is making plans to run his first half marathon later this year. He has a few more skiing lessons he plans to finish up when winter rolls around again, too.
“It’s all on my bucket list, and I am gonna do it all,” he said. “I have plans to go white water rafting in July and I never would have dreamed to be able to do so.”
For others, Ismail thinks the takeaway is this: Find a reason that getting healthy is important for you. Then, the rest will fall into place.
“Losing weight is simple, but it’s not easy,” he said. “It’s like learning a guitar or a new language. It’s practice and commitment. You have to make time for it and organize your life around it. You won’t notice changes for days even weeks at a time. You have to trust the process and keep working on it.
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