Diabetes Forecast

Aaron Thompkins: A Winner at Life

He didn't win "The Biggest Loser," but he found success shedding weight and managing his diabetes. Now he's helping others do the same

By Carolyn Butler ,

Growing up in Ohio, Aaron Thompkins was practically raised on diabetes: Three of his grandparents had type 2, as did myriad aunts, uncles, and cousins on both sides, and family get-togethers were marked by a flurry of test strips, insulin shots, and recurring debates about who could or could not partake in everyone's favorite strawberry Jell-O pie after dinner.

"All my life, people would say, 'You don't want to get sugar,' " says Thompkins, who was absolutely devastated, at the age of 8, when his beloved maternal grandfather died from diabetes complications. "I saw a lot of folks I love struggle with it, and my mom was always after me, like, 'You have got to stop eating all that bread all the time, all that junk, because you don't want to end up like Grandpa and Uncle Tony and everybody else.' "

Still, Thompkins's family history didn't scare him straight. Instead, the self-admitted carbohydrate lover kept on eating more than his fair share of Jell-O pie, pasta, and bread, all through his childhood, teenage years, and beyond. "I don't know why, but I just didn't believe that I was going to get [diabetes]; I felt kind of invincible," says Thompkins, who was a relatively active kid and went on to play right tackle for the football team at Edinboro (Pa.) University. "I got tested there [at school] often, and I was always OK, so I ended up thinking, 'Oh, I'm healthy, I'll never get it.' "

Once the college athlete graduated, however, his love of Big Macs and Blizzards started to catch up with him. "I wasn't exercising anymore and I'd eat every meal—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—at fast-food restaurants," recalls Thompkins, now 30, who works in graphic design and lives in Kent, Ohio, with his wife, Amber, and 4-year-old son, London. "I'd just run to McDonald's real quick and supersize to the largest fry they had and get two Big Macs, as opposed to just one, with the combo. I could easily eat a whole pizza in one sitting."

It didn't take long before the situation was dire. By the end of 2008, Thompkins had gotten so big that he had to visit a truck scale to get an accurate weight reading: 477 pounds. The young husband and father knew he needed a drastic change—and so he set his sights on The Biggest Loser, a reality-television program that pits obese contestants against one another in a quest to lose weight while navigating their way through fitness and food-related challenges, temptations, and the like, often with startlingly impressive results. "I was a huge fan of the show, and I felt like they make miracles happen," he says. "I saw that over and over again, every single season, so I felt like, 'Man, if I could just get on there, maybe a miracle could happen to me.' "

After being rejected twice, Thompkins made it all the way to the end of auditions for the show's 10th season. But before he was selected, he had to compete with two other would-be cast members to see who could complete 500 step-ups first. "My immediate thought was, 'This is going to be so easy; I'm guaranteed,' " he remembers. "In my mind, I felt like I was still that 300-pound football player with good feet who could move around pretty well."

Needless to say, it was a shock when he got beaten—and handily. "I wanted to break down and cry—I was devastated—but my son was watching and I didn't want him to see that, so I just kept going until I finished," says Thompkins, who was extremely disappointed in himself. "I felt like I had a chance to change my life and I'd lost that opportunity to be a better father for my son—that was the biggest thing."

But all is never lost in the land of reality-TV twists and turns: About a week later, Thompkins got a call from Bob Harper, one of the Biggest Loser trainers. Harper said that he had an opportunity to save one deserving hopeful and that he'd chosen him. "It felt real good, and I told Bob that I felt indebted to him," says Thompkins. "He had my loyalty from that point on because not only did he save my life, but he was saving my son's, too, by giving him a father and everything."

So in May of last year, Thompkins headed out to "the ranch," a 600-acre camp-like compound in California's Malibu Creek State Park, for The Biggest Loser: Pay It Forward. The first two weeks were a diet-and-exercise boot camp, with a strict daily calorie limit and grueling three-hour workout sessions with Harper and fellow trainer Jillian Michaels, and then several more hours of fitness "homework," like long hikes or weight-training sessions. "It was definitely not a fancy spa!" says Thompkins with a laugh. He notes that contestants were expected to prepare all their own food—a huge challenge for someone used to getting his meals at the local drive-through or out of the microwave—and also to clean up after themselves. "In the beginning, it was like, 'Who's ready to quit today?' "

Aaron Thompkins with son London, 4.

Despite the trials, Thompkins stuck through it all—even hard-core training with the Marines at Camp Pendleton, which included scaling a mountain and completing a 5K obstacle course alongside super-fit soldiers, even though he was still over 400 pounds at the time. Eventually he learned to love working out and eating more healthfully.

His motivation? "I really just wanted to be a better role model for my son," he says. "Growing up, I had a father who was an alcoholic, and I was always embarrassed about him, because he couldn't control himself. . . . And [then] I realized, I pretty much spent my whole life trying not to be like my father, but I was turning out just like him, except instead of abusing alcohol, I was abusing food. That kept pushing me forward while I was at the ranch."

Thompkins started dropping weight right away, but over the course of The Biggest Loser, diabetes finally caught up with him: After he had a slew of lab work and tests over a period of several weeks, the show's medical expert, Robert Huizenga, MD, informed him that he had type 2. "It was just crazy, because obviously, I always knew I was at risk for diabetes . . . but I was still caught off guard," says Thompkins, who'd had numerous normal blood glucose tests in the past, including one just a month earlier.

That's not an uncommon experience, according to Huizenga, an associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of California–Los Angeles who specializes in obesity-related issues. "We see it all the time: People come in with 'normal' sugars . . . with hemoglobin A1Cs in the mid-6s with markedly elevated insulin, in the face of a normal, initial one-time fasting glucose," he says. Each season, he adds, two or three contestants are typically diagnosed with type 2, while roughly half of the rest have prediabetes, which means they have a very high risk of developing type 2 in the next five years. "We know a lot of funny money is going around," he says, explaining that people may clean up their diet in anticipation of visiting the doctor and having a fasting glucose test. "It's a whole different story when you can see what's going on in the last four to six weeks."

Thompkins's diagnosis didn't get any airtime when the show premiered last September, but he feels grateful that it happened during filming. "Based on my history and how I deal with food and my emotions, if I would have found that information out at home, on my own, it would have been an entirely different story," he says. "I probably would have broke down, got emotional, cried, and gone out and gotten something bad to eat. But on the ranch I felt empowered, like I was in a great place where the right people around me could help me out and get it under control."

His 20 fellow comrade-competitors, in particular, provided a unique measure of support. "We were really able to lean on each other, and whenever I wanted to quit, I could just look at the person next to me and know they were going through the same exact thing, and think, 'If they can do it, so can I,' " says Thompkins. "On the ranch, my peer group, they expect for you to lose weight, especially if you're on their team! And Bob and Jillian, the producers, they all expect greatness, so you're more inspired, and you just naturally follow through."

Luckily, Thompkins's diabetes was caught early enough that he has been able to treat it with a healthy diet and regular exercise—namely, cutting way back on his beloved bread, pasta, and other refined carbs and working out for a prescribed 90 minutes a day. "We get [contestants] to lose 5, 6 percent of their weight—all fat, literally—within a couple of weeks, and in this incredibly accelerated program, we see blood sugar drops that have never been documented in medicine before," says Huizenga. Over the course of the show, he notes, Thompkins's A1C dropped from 6.5 to 5.4 percent.

In the end, Thompkins lost 88 pounds before being eliminated in Week 7 of the three-month competition, when he dropped a mere 4 pounds. The group of winning contestants strategically voted to send him and his partner, Jesse Atkins, home—even though another team had lost even less weight that week. He had mixed feelings about leaving. "I was upset because I didn't feel like I deserved to go home just then, and I definitely wanted to finish the journey, but at the same time, I was just so over the drama," he explains. "I wanted to continue to try to improve my life, but I was over the game part of it." Indeed, Thompkins was so inspired by the experience that he went home and shed 84 more pounds before returning to the live finale in December, a total of 172 pounds lighter.

Still, the real battle has only just begun. "I think, frankly, that most people go on to The Biggest Loser and expect it to just fix us—like we're on there for three months and we're fixed—but unfortunately it's not that simple," says the former contestant, who's gained back more than 30 pounds in recent months. "When you come home, you have all the old things: I have my family here, but you start to take that for granted again. You have old situations, all the stress coming back, and you automatically want to make old decisions," he adds. "Dairy Queen is literally right down the street, you're driving by it on the way home from work every day, and it's really a struggle. It's the mental part—your subconscious and decision making, that urge that drives some of us to choose correctly or chose poorly—that I've got to figure out now." Thompkins has been seeing a therapist for assistance with his emotional eating and other food-related demons.

He's also trying to help himself by aiding others in their own weight-loss struggles. Thompkins recently founded Better Living 360, an online social network that provides support for people who want to be healthier and lose weight. The group now has more than 1,000 active members across the globe. He has also been giving speeches at local schools and colleges to promote health, weight loss, and diabetes awareness. In addition, not only did he head a team for the American Diabetes Association's Tour de Cure cycling fund-raiser, but he also persuaded five other fellow Biggest Loser veterans to do the same. "If I didn't get involved with doing these things, frankly, I think I would be 468 pounds again today," says Thompkins. "Because I go through the battles right now, but the only thing that keeps me in line is the idea of trying to help out other people, to be an example, and to give other people hope, so I have to try to stay in line."

Thompkins is now fully recommitted to reaching his goal weight of 230 pounds (the same as his football idol, former Ohio State and NFL running back Eddie George, in his prime). That means hitting the gym with a vengeance, keeping up with his weekly therapy sessions, and, most important, cleaning up his diet again, with the help of his trainers and a local weight-loss support group he started through BL 360.

He especially wants to get a message out to the African American community—including his own extended family: Diabetes is not inevitable. "So many of my relatives, so many folks in the community, including me, it's almost like you expect it somewhat, and there's no fighting—like me, I just sat around and waited till I got it—and it's very sad," he says. "But you don't have to accept it at all. You can be proactive and do something about it, and you can prevent diabetes."



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