These days she’s just half the woman she was two years ago – which was how long it took Caren Parkinson (48) to lose a whopping 87kg.
At her largest she tipped the scales at 177kg. She used to live like a recluse to avoid people staring at her, Caren says about her former self.
She wouldn’t go to a restaurant unless she knew she’d fit into the chairs. “I was surviving, I wasn’t living,” she says.
Now there’s no sign of that Caren: when she landed in hospital with kidney failure in December 2016 she knew it was a wakeup call to change her lifestyle.
Now she’s helping people around the world who want to lose more than 40kg following the Banting diet. Since December last year she’s been supporting people step by step on their weight-loss journeys via her Facebook group, Caren Parkinson – Alive and Bantified. She also does WhatsApp and Skype consultations.
“To lose that much weight you have to turn your life around completely,” she says. “I’m always available to talk about the emotional side of things.
“Sometimes you can feel isolated. Not only when you’re so big, but also when you first start banting; you need support.” Caren already has more than 40 clients, two of whom have lost more than 10kg.
Whenever they’ve cheated or are struggling to keep going, her clients confess and she comes to their rescue with advice.
“My arrangement with them is that if I don’t hear from them then I accept they’re still banting.” When she hears about her clients’ progress on a weekly basis she’s filled with pride. She too hasn’t yet hit her goal weight. “I want to lose 100kg. That’s just another 13kg, then I’ll celebrate and buy new clothes.”
Just more than two years ago Caren decided it was time to change. She discovered the Facebook group Banting 7 Day Meal Plans and learnt more about the lifestyle promoted by scientist Tim Noakes.
“I know the power of social media. After a while the people in the group became my friends. Back then, that’s what got me going,” she says, chatting to us in a Pretoria restaurant.
Now she’s playing a similar role for other people. One client writes on Facebook, “[Caren] understands your failures, your fears and your tears. She was where I’m now, which makes a huge difference.”
Caren is heartened that she’s making a difference in other people’s lives. Before her own transformation she’d been overweight all her life, says the creditors’ clerk from Pretoria.
At school her nickname was Jumbo, and others’ hurtful comments were part and parcel of her life. “People would say things like, ‘Are you going to break a chair again today?’ or they’d tell my ex-husband he’s hiding behind his fat wife.”
They divorced in 2012 and Caren is now single. “[Those comments] really hurt but I learnt to look away, to avoid eye contact. Then you can’t see the whispering.
“At around 16 or 17 I was thinner for two years because I was taking pills, but that gave me a constant runny tummy,” she says, shaking her head.
Dieting became her full-time hobby. “Pills, instant diets, injections . . . You name it, I’ve tried it. At one stage I drank only juice but whenever I ‘transgressed’ I felt like a failure and would overindulge again,” she says.
“I ate the wrong foods. All of it loaded with starch.” And over the years she steadily packed on the kilos. Her eldest son, Chyle (24), had to remove all the mirrors from her home in the south of Johannesburg because she couldn’t bear the sight of herself.
But when she had kidney failure she realised she was at a crossroads. “I had so many health issues. I had to take a handful of pills morning and night. I had to see a cardiologist once a month because they were worried my heart would give in, and twice a week a kidney specialist too.”
Until she was admitted to hospital she didn’t realise to what extent her health problems were linked to her weight. “I realised I had to do something for the sake of my sons, because death was staring me in the face.”
Her youngest son, Chad (16), is still at school and Chyle’s first child, a boy, was born this month. “Can you believe it? I’m a grandmother!” she beams.
“Now [my lifestyle] is for him. Because of my weight I couldn’t be the mom I wanted to be for my boys. I’m going to make up for it as a granny.”
Instead of the high-carb meals she used to tuck into, these days she eats vegetables and foods rich in protein such as eggs. “[The banting lifestyle] has changed my life,” she says.
She started dropping kilos, but without a mirror or scale in the house she hardly noticed. “One day I realised a shirt that used to be very tight now fitted me like a dress. In the first year I lost 50kg.”
She still doesn’t take much notice of the scale because that wasn’t why she wanted to slim down. She also doesn’t spend much time in front of the new full-length mirror Chyle bought for her last year.
“I made the change for my health and I feel great. Before I just sat at my computer and avoided all physical exercise, but now I have a lot more energy and I’m more active.”
Supporting others who also want to slim down has become her passion. After all, she knows exactly how tough it is. When she suffered an emotional setback two weeks ago, she too “transgressed” by eating toast, but so far she hasn’t shared this with anyone.
“Afterwards I cried my eyes out,” she says, wiping away the tears.
“It’s not only about the bread. I was upset because it represented my old life and my old self, and I was so, so frightened of going back there.”
Then she too heeded the advice she gives others: make the next meal a Banting meal again and start from scratch. Over the next two months she’s due for surgery to repair a hernia of the stomach lining.
It’s been there for some time but because she’d been so overweight it hadn’t bothered her much.
“I don’t have medical aid but the doctors at the state hospital I go to are wonderful. When they saw how much weight I’d lost, they arranged that after my hernia operation I’ll get a tummy tuck to get rid of all the excess skin.”
The surgery will be done in four sessions. And Caren intends waiting for her stomach to recover before she buys new clothes. For the moment she’s wearing whatever “more or less” fits.
“I’m going to buy skinny jeans and then look at myself in the mirror!”