By Ivey Schofield
Vicki Clark and Lauren Clark Hester know what it’s like to lose weight – temporarily.
The mother-daughter duo from southeastern North Carolina each lost about 60 pounds when they competed on the 17th season of “The Biggest Loser.” But nearly six years later, they have gained back the weight.
“I’ve fallen a lot, but I always get back up and try again,” said Clark Hester, who works as a nutritionist. “I’ve decided that I’ve had enough.”
Nearly 34% of adults in North Carolina are obese, marking the 20th highest obesity rate in the United States. In the rural southeastern part of the state, rates are typically higher. Bladen County, where Clark and Clark Hester live, has an adult obesity rate of 39%, according to the annual County Health Rankings.
Leading a healthy lifestyle can be tough throughout the region, where there is limited access to healthy foods but plenty of fast-food restaurants. The healthier options that are available tend to be more expensive, a particular challenge because southeastern North Carolina is home to some of the poorest counties in the state.
“How can you live healthy when you’re on a limited budget or an hour away from the nearest grocery or don’t have walking trails nearby?” said Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, a professor of nutrition at N.C. State University.
Obesity, defined by having a body mass index of 30 or higher, can lead to health issues such as stroke, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, anxiety and depression.
Bladen County is working to improve the health of its 34,000 residents. Health is one of the priorities listed in the county’s new strategic plan, which is meant to guide growth and spending for the next decade. Among the priorities, according to the plan, is to “expand recreational areas, parks, and walking trails.”
Bladen County is sometimes called “nature’s playground,” Terri Duncan, director of the local health department, told the Border Belt Independent last month. The county is home to natural lakes, farmland and trails.
“Some people are just not aware of that – even people who have lived here all their lives,” she said.
‘Hardest thing I’ve ever done’
As a nutritionist, Clark Hester knows what it takes to lose weight – a balanced diet and regular exercise. So does Clark, who is a nurse practitioner. But they also know that shedding pounds, and keeping them off, is much more complex.
After struggling with obesity for years, they set their sights on the popular weight-loss reality television show. They applied several times to be on “The Biggest Loser,” and they were finally chosen In 2016. They headed to California with a single focus: losing weight.
“It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” said Clark, who is a grandmother. “But who gets that opportunity?”
Clark and Clark Hester both started the show at about 230 pounds. They met with counselors to examine their relationships with food. They ate the healthy options provided to them on set. They exercised six to eight hours a day, burning 5,000 to 10,000 calories.
By the time they were eliminated from the show, they had each lost between 50 and 60 pounds.
“I wouldn’t say it was unhealthy,” Clark Hester said. “I think it’s not realistic.”
Back home in North Carolina, the mother and daughter returned to their normal lives, with work and family responsibilities. There wasn’t always enough time in the day to prepare healthy meals and engage in hours-long exercise sessions.
The struggle to keep losing wasn’t unique to Clark and Clark Hester. A 2016 study showed that participants of “The Biggest Loser” experienced slower metabolic rates for years afterward due to the rapid rate of weight loss.
Clark said most participants she knows have regained the weight since leaving the show. The exceptions, she says, are people who have made healthy living their careers by becoming gym owners or teaching exercise classes.
“I always thought if I could get on the show I’ll never be this big again,” Clark Hester said. “But even a TV show can’t help you if you don’t make the decision to make the changes yourself.”
The lure of fast food
Clark Hester said her problem pre- and post-show was food.
Even though North Carolina is one of the top 10 agriculture-producing states in the country, it also faces food insecurity, according to Haynes-Maslow.
That means that in some places, like southeastern North Carolina, there are few options for healthy food – or no options at all.
Residents might have to drive 30 minutes to a grocery store and then take the time to shop, drive home, cook and clean up. And that’s only if they have access to a vehicle.
“For every hour that someone is trying to do something that’s healthy for themselves and their family, that also might be one hour worth of wage,” Haynes-Maslow said. “They have to make a choice: Do they try to make money, or do they try to go to the grocery store?”
Clark Hester says it’s difficult for her to drive by a fast-food restaurant on the way home to her son and husband. A drive-thru is more convenient than going to the grocery store.
But planning out meals and buying them in bulk at the store can actually be less expensive than continually zipping through a drive-thru, Haynes-Maslow said.
However, healthier foods like fresh fruits and vegetables and organic and non-GMO (genetically modified) foods often cost more – which is difficult during a time of high economic inflation.
“I think we’d all be motivated to plant a garden,” Clark joked, referencing the skyrocketing prices of food.
Duncan said Bladen County residents do have access to fresh vegetables. For example, the county is one of the biggest producers of blueberries in the state.
“But if you look in the grocery stores, the vegetable aisles are pretty full these days. It’s the sugary aisles [where items] are tough to find,” she said.
It’s hard to give up that feel-good food, Clark Hester says, especially when she’s had a bad day. It’s her coping mechanism.
“If I had really tried 100 percent with my nutrition, I could’ve kept losing [weight],” she said. “I can only blame myself.”
But Clark Hester enjoys being active. She recently began teaching step aerobic classes at Foundation Church in Elizabethtown. The church used to teach Zumba classes but stopped when people quit showing up.
Clark struggles with prioritizing exercise. In her 60s, she thought she’d be retired by now. But leaving her job to be on “The Biggest Loser” meant she had to get a new job – two hours away.
About one-third of residents in Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties are physically inactive, according to the County Health Rankings. The rankings, produced by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, provide an overall look at a community’s health.
Exercise, whether it’s walking, running or strength training, is imperative. “Any type of movement you can add into your day is really important. That’s going to protect your health later on,” Haynes-Maslow said.
Some rural communities don’t have safe walking trails or sidewalks with adequate lighting. Plus, if those exercise opportunities are available, they’re often a car ride away.
Only about one-third of residents in Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties have access to exercise opportunities like a gym, according to the rankings. That’s half the state’s average of 68%.
On “The Biggest Loser,” Clark would pick up rocks or use her own body weight for strength training. She learned how to exercise without a gym.
Now, Clark says she would love to work out for one to two hours per day. But the reasons not to are long: She has a long commute. She would rather spend time with her grandchildren. She wants to travel with her husband.
Clarks acknowledges these are excuses. She has three-day weekends, and she could join her daughter’s exercise classes.
“If we could somehow put motivation in a tablet that I eat, that would solve a lot of issues,” Clark said.
Motivation is key, but it is individualistic. “A one-size exercise program is not going to motivate all people,” Duncan said. “A one-size nutrition program is not going to motivate all people.”
Clark and Clark Hester don’t blame their living habits on limited access to nutritional food and exercise opportunities. They blame it on themselves.
“There are absolutely ways to be active and healthy,” Clark Hester said. “People have to change their minds and do something about it.”
Clark prefers testing self-guided nutritional programs at home. Clark Hester likes driving to the gym at her church.
“We know diet and exercise is what you have to do,” Clark said. “But knowing it and doing it are two very different things.”
Years after flying out to California to lose weight on television, they’re trying again and again to figure out how to live healthy in southeastern North Carolina. And they’re learning to be proud of themselves along the way.
Follow Ivey Schofield on Twitter: @SchofieldIvey