Holding down the front lines in the battle of the bulge is a unique support group standing united in the fight against calories. It's not always easy, but together, members of Taking Off Pounds Sensibly (TOPS, for short) are committed to winning their war on fat one meeting at a time.
TOPS is an international nonprofit support organization founded in 1948 as a way to bring together groups of people fighting similar weight battles. The idea is simple: it's easier to lose weight with the support of others than to try and go it alone. That philosophy is being carried out by a number of TOPS groups operating in the central Kenai Peninsula area.
On a recent Thursday morning, the members of TOPS Alaska Chapter 164 gathered at Soldotna United Methodist church for the group's weekly meeting.
Before the meeting began, group members had to undergo the sometimes daunting, sometimes thrilling task of stepping up to the scale the true test of their weekly commitment to their personal diet plans. A private affair, only the group's recorder and the person being weighed found out the immediate results of the weigh-in. However, the looks on group members faces told the tale of the tape. Some smiled brightly, some grinned sheepishly, giving away the outcome. However, nobody seemed overly discouraged.
Following the weigh-in, the group settled down around tables set up in the church's activity room. That's when the group's leader, Mary Lane, called the meeting to order. Immed-iately, everyone rose to their feet to recite the group's two pledges one for regular TOPS members and one for the group's elite KOPS (Keeping Off Pounds Sensibly) members who already have achieved their dieting goal.
A mixture of humor and self-encouragement, the pledges basically state that members will continue to try and overcome their weight battles in a positive manner and are committed to the group's mission of supporting their fellow members.
"I am an intelligent person. I will control my emotions, not let my emotions control me. Every time I am tempted to use food to satisfy my frustrated desires, build up my injured ego or dull my senses, I will remember, even though I overeat in private, my excess poundage is there for all the world to see. How foolish I have been," recited the TOPS members.
TOPS AK No. 164 members recite an oath at the beginning of one of their meetings.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Then the KOPS chimed in with their version, intended to help them remember how to continue keeping weight off.
"... I have controlled my emotions and not let my emotions control me. Every time I am tempted to use food to satisfy my frustrated desires, build up my injured ego or dull my senses, I will remember that I am to be an example of what TOPS can do, as I Keep Off Pounds Sensibly," said the KOPS.
The idea that positive support is the best way to help people lose weight is at the heart of the TOPS philosophy, according to Lane. She said the group believes that in order to achieve weight loss goals, people have to be surrounded by others who are in the same frame of mind.
"It's a support group to help you get into the mood to lose weight," she said.
As Lane called the group's roll, each member answered by stating whether they'd gained, lost or stayed the same over the past week. When group members announced a loss, everyone clapped and congratulated them. But when a gain was announced, the reaction was positive as well, with fellow members smiling, joking and offering words of encouragement.
The loose, friendly atmosphere of TOPS is what drew Don and Peggy Edwards to the group more than a year ago. They'd tried just about every diet program in the book, but had never managed to find a program that seemed to work. Overweight and out of options, Peggy said they were ready to try anything.
"We didn't know what we were going to," she said following the Thursday meeting. "I was desperate. (Don) said, 'Honey, I'll do whatever you do.'"
Chapter leader Mary Lane, left, and other TOPS members applaud after they recognized Peggy Edwards (in gray sweater) as their newest KOPS someone who has met their weight goal and commits to "keep off pounds sensibly."
Photo by M. Scott Moon
They went to TOPS hoping to find something different from traditional diet plans. Right away, Peggy said, she noticed something unusual about the group's members. Although some were obviously fighting to get their weight under control, she saw other group members who seemed perfectly fit and healthy.
"When we first started coming, I said to (area leader) Nancy (Burton), 'Why are these people still coming if they don't have weight to lose?'" she said.
The reason, she quickly found out, is that TOPS isn't just for people hoping to lose weight. It's also for those who have taken off the pounds and want to keep them off for a lifetime.
Burton said TOPS isn't all about losing weight. In fact, she said, there have been some members who've joined the program for various reasons looking to gain weight. TOPS isn't about drastic weight reduction, she said, more it's about sensible weight control.
"People think of us as a weight loss group," she said. "We're a weight support group."
Don and Peggy Edwards prepare lunch together in the home they are building in Soldotna. They've made weight management a team affair.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Don and Peggy soon found out how valuable the support of others can be. Where other diets simply prescribed a plan to change the foods they ate, going to TOPS helped them learn how to control their urge to overeat. In other words, although they could find a diet that would work in the short term, finding a plan to eat less overall proved more difficult.
"Portion control was the biggest thing," Peggy said.
The support they got from other group members was invaluable. Because TOPS teams beginning members with a KOPS mentor, members are shown from the very beginning that there is hope.
"They kept us on the straight and narrow," Peggy said of the support she got at the meetings.
"You have to surround yourself with the same kind of thinking people you are."
Going to group meetings each week paid big dividends for Don and Peggy. After first consulting a doctor to find out what a sensible weight loss goal would be, they embarked on a year-long journey of weight loss together. Combining walking, a low-fat diet and group meetings, things started to change rather quickly. In just over a year's time, they'd reached their target and lost a combined 142 pounds.
Don said they were somewhat secretive about their new program at first. They didn't tell their two sons in Anchorage about their new program, and instead opted to surprise them one weekend. He said his daughter-in-law met them at the door with a funny look on her face, then went upstairs to tell her husband his parents were at the door.
"She said, 'Look out the window, I think your parents are sick,'" Don recalled.
A family photo shows the Edwards preparing a turkey last winter, before they joined TOPS. They've lost more than 140 pounds since the photo was made.
Photo courtesy Don and Peggy Edwards
The transformation was profound for Don and Peggy, but they didn't quit TOPS once they had reached their goal. Instead, they still attend meetings regularly, keeping up what to them is a lifelong fight against second helpings and extra sour cream.
"It's become such a part of our lives, we know we need to maintain," Peggy said.
The biggest thing they've learned now is how to control how much food they eat at any given meal. Where they used to sit down to a big meal of steak, baked potato and salad with all the fixings Don said they have learned to take a less-is-better approach to dining.
"Now we have half a steak and a salad," he said.
As Thursday's meeting rolled along, part of the reason Don and Peggy continue to show up became evident: It's a lot of fun.
The group holds weekly weight-loss contests, has a guest program each week and raffles for fruit and other healthy food. At Thursday's meeting, they also held a special ceremony for a TOPS member who had reached her doctor-recommended weight goal and had graduated to KOPS status.
Each KOPS member of the group put on a special sash that signified their status, and a brief ceremony was held to honor the new inductee into the ranks of those who'd won their battle against obesity.
Don Edwards seasons his salad before before starting a lunch that featured poached salmon with vegetables. The Edwards have cut many simple carbohydrates like bread, pasta and rice from their diet, but caution that people need to craft meals that work for them.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
It was by no means a solemn affair, with group members continuing to joke and laugh throughout. When one elderly gentleman donned a rather weathered sash, someone joked, "yours is getting wrinkled."
"So am I," he replied.
One of the additional attractions of the program is its cost. Group members pay just $23 per year to be part of the program, and there is no cost for special foods or diets.
Area leader Burton said she isn't paid to coordinate the 11 local chapters, and each group pretty much runs its meetings however it wishes.
"This is out of a love of TOPS and trying to help people with weight problems," Burton said.
She said each individual is allowed to pick whatever diet plan seems to help take off weight the best. The group doesn't push any particular plans or agendas, just supports its members as best it can, while trying to keep things light, she said.
Having fun is at the heart of TOPS, which prides itself on being a place where members can find sanctuary and comfort from a world filled with temptations. Judging by the number of KOPS sashes worn Thursday, its members seem to be enjoying a great deal of success as well.
And without the gentle prodding and warm encouragement they get from their fellow members, most likely would be fighting a losing battle on their own. With TOPS, they have a chance to get together, talk about their weight loss successes (and setbacks) and find comfort in the fact that others are fighting the same fight.
The Edwards walk near their home in Soldotna. They turn sheet metal screws into the bottoms of their shoes so that they can stay outside, but other TOPS members walk indoors or use a gym to stay active.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
It's a program that seems to work. Just ask Don and Peggy, the Soldotna couple who now have a lot less trouble wrapping their arms around each other without those 142 excess pounds getting in the way.
Smiling as he and his wife left the meeting on their way to share a sensible lunch, Don said he and Peggy owe everything to the encouragement and support they got through TOPS.
"If it hadn't been for TOPS, we wouldn't have made it."
Anyone wishing to learn more about TOPS is welcome to call area leader Nancy Burton at 262-3281, visit the group's Web site at www.tops.org or check out the Clarion's community calendar, which contains a daily listing of group meeting times and contact numbers.
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