KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Michelle Sullivan scored a prominent entry last August in the annals of putting oneself out there.
A big, vivid image of Sullivan's body fat as recorded by a medical scanner appeared on the cover of the Kansas City Star's FYI magazine for all to see, with her internal belly fat lit up in bright yellow.
It's not the kind of graphic information everyone would want to share. But Sullivan was ready to do something about her weight problem, and she figured going public would help her stay focused and could help others, too.
The 50-year-old nurse had decided to take advantage of a new body scan at St. Luke's Cardio Health and Wellness Center touted as highly accurate and specific. It differentiates between subcutaneous fat, the kind you can pinch, and visceral fat, which is internal and is the most dangerous kind because it crowds out organs and produces harmful chemicals.
Sullivan knew she needed to lose weight, but the map of the fat concentrated in her abdomen, visceral adipose tissue, and the number assigned was a shock.
A VAT estimate higher than 100 is considered an increased health risk. Higher than 160 is "high risk." Sullivan's VAT was 271.
Since her encounter with the scan, Sullivan has lost 23 pounds. She followed the advice of Becky Captain, nurse practitioner at the center, to focus each meal on a lean protein and "two colors," that is, vegetables and fruit. Sugars and starches are no-nos.
"I feel a lot better," Sullivan says about her smaller self. The body aches she feared might be the onset of arthritis have gone away.
"But it's hard," she says. "Every day is hard."
For breakfast she often has scrambled eggs and a piece of turkey bacon — she's always loved bacon. But no toast. Lunch might be a piece of chicken plus tomatoes and cucumbers.
Sullivan also prepares for those "other" times.
"If I'm going out shopping, I pack some nuts in my purse so I don't stop and get a big pretzel," she says.
In the afternoon at work she chews bubblegum to avoid snacking. And no more soda, which she used to enjoy daily.
"I haven't had any soda," she says, "and the other day I took a sip just to see what it would be like. It was so sweet I couldn't handle it."
Captain says the center has provided about 275 scans since offering them to the public in July.
"People are surprised to hear about the different kinds of fat they're carrying," she says. "Just knowing about their visceral fat and that it's working against them, it's hurting their health, is a motivator to lose weight."
The scan can serve as a wake-up call, she says.
"A lot of people have the feeling that they've let themselves go and let themselves down," she says. "They're in tears, wondering how they let this happen in the past five years or eight years.
"But we tell them it's not where you've been, it's where you're going."
Sullivan has an appointment later this month for a follow-up scan. Because diet improvements can reduce visceral fat fairly quickly, her VAT number likely has decreased.
She knows she wants to lose 17 more pounds. So far, she says, she hasn't been consistent with walking or a gym exercise routine, which will be her next step.
Sullivan has heard from work associates and others that her story inspired them to take action about their own problems with weight.
"People tell me how grateful they are that I did this. I say, 'Hey, however my fat can help, I'm there for you,'" she says with a laugh. "I know I needed this extreme measure to get me started."