Weight Loss from a Wheelchair: My Plan

By graduation day, left, Gossett had acquired not only a law degree but extra pounds. At right, after following her carefully crafted diet plan for several months.
Article Highlights:
  • Muscle weakness prevents the author, who has SMA, from exercising for weight loss, so she's resolved to cut back on what she can control: kinds of foods and portions.
  • It's not always easy, but the author says counting calories, weekly scale readings and discipline go a long way toward sticking with the plan.
by Katrina Gossett on January 1, 2011 - 4:50pm

QUEST Vol. 18, No. 1

Note: Always consult your doctor before undertaking a weight loss plan.

I have always had problems with my weight. From the time I was 5, I’ve had round, chubby (some would say pinch-able) cheeks — and my cheeks weren’t my only round part.

When I was in high school I started really battling with weight. I decided to diet my senior year and lost 12 pounds. I thought that was the toughest dieting I would ever do, and I thought I was done with it. Wrong!

Combine college and the dining halls and the freedom to eat whatever you want with having spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), which prevented exercise, and you’ve got trouble. My weight slowly crept up, as did my pants size. I knew I was getting bigger, but I kept brushing it off, thinking I hadn’t gained that much, and I had an excuse — I had SMA, right?

Law school wasn’t any kinder to my waistline. By the time I graduated, I had gone up three pants sizes since high school, seven years earlier. But somehow I kept convincing myself that it wasn’t that bad, that I hadn’t really gained that much.

Although I recognized I had a weight problem, I didn’t know how to solve it and, in all honesty, I didn’t really want to know because that would mean work. But one day near the end of law school, I was reading an article about obesity and about how it can shorten a person’s life, and I had a flash of enlightenment. I realized I was going to have to lose weight, and that I would need to know how much I weighed in order to motivate myself.

Wheelchair scale

The key to Gossett's plan is her wheelchair scale.

So I went to the Internet. I knew there were a couple of different options for scales for people in wheelchairs. There are the type that hook onto a mechanical lift and weigh you like produce at the grocery store, and there are the kind they have at some doctors’ offices that you just roll onto in your wheelchair.

After some searching, I finally found the key to my success: a Health-o-meter wheelchair scale, just like the ones at the doctor’s office, for about $300. Now that’s a lot of money to shell out for any one item on eBay, but I knew that if it would push me to finally work on my weight and get healthier, it would be worth it.

Of course, it’s not necessary to use a scale to know if you’re losing weight. You can use clothing size or your appearance, but I found that the only thing that motivated me to start and to keep going was seeing that number on the scale and watching it go down.

Unfortunately, my scale was too small for my power wheelchair, but my shower chair fit on just fine. First, I weighed my shower chair alone so that I could subtract it from my total weight. Then, my attendant rolled me on the scale and read me the number. I did a little math, then I did it again — twice. I couldn’t believe my ears. I thought I was probably up 20 or at most 30 pounds since high school, but my new scale told me something different. I had gained 50 pounds!

I was depressed for about an hour. But sometime that morning, I made a decision— I was going to get back to my high school weight, no matter how difficult that was. I knew I faced an uphill battle: I had so much to lose, and SMA makes it impossible for me to exercise — I cannot lift my arms off the wheelchair armrests. So I knew I was going to have to cut back — a lot — on one of my favorite things: food.

Making a new plan

That very day I had just a cup of soup when I went out to lunch, and then I came home to formulate a more concrete diet plan. I decided not to work with a nutritionist and instead set up my own plan of safe, reasonable expectations, with the support of family and friends. (Note: Some MDA clinics have a nutritionist on staff, and they can be an excellent resource.)

I knew my goal of losing a pound a week — 50 pounds in about a year — was tough but also safe and achievable. I learned that the less muscle you have, the fewer calories you burn — another great gift from neuromuscular diseases, right? So I knew that cutting back on portions and, sadly, on sweets was my only real option.

A big problem for me was choosing foods that are easy to eat with my lack of strength. For example, carrots and celery are great for you, but I don’t have that kind of chewing power. Soup is often very healthy, but I cannot safely lift the spoon to my mouth without ruining every shirt in my closet. I had to be more conscientious in my plan.

Vanilla and strawberry protein shakes immediately became my breakfast of champions. Protein shakes are an important part of my plan because protein helps maintain my strength and energy and doesn’t require the chewing of a filet mignon. Also, it actually keeps me full until lunch.

For lunch, I love soup, despite the stain problems. I started running my canned soups through a food processor and drinking them through a straw. (I bought super-long tiki-style straws so I don’t even have to lift the mug.) If you’re a texture person, processing may not work for you, but it doesn’t bother me. The soups taste just as good and my shirts thank me for it. I try to do a variety of soups so that I don’t get too bored, and they usually contain some kind of meat, again for the protein.

Finally, at dinner, I eat a lot of the same things as before my diet (although I’ve eliminated fettuccini Alfredo), but I’ve cut way back on portion size. I usually eat about a cup-size portion, which surprisingly isn’t that small. Oh, and for dessert, sugar-free, fat-free mousse pudding — c’est magnifique! My diet can be rigid, but I also allow myself to eat whatever I want. I just try to make good choices. For example, if I am going to eat a bigger dinner, I choose a lighter soup for lunch.

Keeping track

Whenever possible, I count calories and generally try to stay under 1,100 calories a day. I know this sounds low, but with my height (5’4”) and physical activity level (zip), it seems to be my magic number for losing weight. All of this counting to 1,100 involves a lot of brain power or, after a long day at work, a calculator.

I already know how many calories are in my shakes and soups, and if I’m eating at home, I pick recipes that have the calories listed. When eating out, many restaurants put their nutrition facts online, so I check out the menu ahead of time, or I just make educated decisions. For example, I know that marinara sauce has fewer calories than Alfredo sauce; cottage cheese is always a good go-to side; and never ever eat more than half, often a third, of a restaurant portion.

I’ve been weighing myself every week since that fateful first day so I can see my progress and stay motivated. Most weeks, I lose around a pound. Some weeks it’s only a half a pound, other weeks it’s a pound and a half. But it has been steady loss almost the entire time.

Staying disciplined

Motivation isn’t always easy. There are times when I crave a giant hot fudge sundae or an entire pumpkin pie. Several things have helped me with these moments.

First, nothing is completely off limits so there’s no “forbidden fruit” syndrome, plus I’ve found substitute treats like my 60-calorie mousse.

Second, I’m motivated to make good decisions every time I think about reading my scale on Saturday. I’ll keep weighing myself weekly even after I reach my goal, so I can sustain my healthy diet in the future.

Third, knowing the calories of most of my foods helps me because I don’t want to break the bank for one piece of candy.

Fourth, and probably most importantly, I’ve been sharing my success with my family and friends who have been very supportive. It’s exciting to be able to call my aunt or friend and say, “Guess what … I lost 30 pounds!!!” (Happy dance!) Knowing that others know about my fight and that they’re proud is very helpful. They don’t judge my every food choice; they’re just there to celebrate with me — and there is much to celebrate.

This weight loss is something I never thought I could achieve with my SMA — at least not without starving myself. I knew that I needed to get healthier, but I’d given up hope and made excuses — until my wheelchair scale gave me the cold truth. Once I made the decision to lose, healthy food choices and support from family and friends have helped me shed 36 pounds — and counting.

What’s to stop me? Not SMA.

Katrina Gossett, 25, has spinal muscular atrophy. She is an attorney at Baker & Daniels LLP in Indianapolis, Ind., and can be contacted at kgossett@alumni.nd.edu.


In addition to the stories in this series listed below, be sure to check out "Weighing Your Options," a series of articles on weight loss and exercise, from Quest, July-August 2004.

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