Health & Medicine

Legislators slim down during session with weight loss challenge

Sen. Jimmy Higdon, a Lebanon Republican, came in second in the legislative weight-loss contest, dropping 36 pounds from January though the end of March.
Sen. Jimmy Higdon, a Lebanon Republican, came in second in the legislative weight-loss contest, dropping 36 pounds from January though the end of March. John Flavell

FRANKFORT — Voters in Marion County elected two of the "biggest losers" in the General Assembly.

Rep. Terry Mills, a Democrat, and Republican Sen. Jimmy Higdon — both from Lebanon — took top honors for cutting the most fat during the 2012 General Assembly as part of a weight-loss contest legislators began at the beginning of the session.

Mills was the top loser overall, shedding 40 pounds from January to the end of March. Higdon lost 36 pounds during the same time.

"Now, the real challenge is keeping the weight off," Mills said recently.

The weight-loss challenge was the brainchild of Rep. Tim Moore, R-Elizabethtown, and Sen. Joey Pendleton, D- Hopkinsville. The two started to talk about Kentucky's burgeoning childhood-obesity problem after a legislative meeting last summer where it was discussed.

A 2010 report showed that Kentucky ranked third in childhood obesity and seventh in adult obesity. Also, Kentucky is one of eight states with an overall obesity rate of more than 30 percent.

"We were talking after the meeting about what we could do to get a handle on this problem," Moore said. "We thought that we could encourage healthy lifestyles by being a little bit more health conscious in the General Assembly."

Twenty-six members of the House and Senate lost 180 pounds during the three-month session. The Senate lost a greater percentage of its weight, 4.1 percent. House members lost 2.5 percent of their overall weight. Democrats, however, beat Republicans by losing 3.4 percent compared to the Republicans' 2.62 percent.

During the initial weigh-in, Mills, a retired Social Security Administration employee, and Higdon bet on who could lose more weight. Higdon was confident he would win. The former grocer already had lost more than 30 pounds from November to January.

"Honestly, I didn't think Terry was a threat," Higdon joked.

The legislative session is one of the most difficult times to lose weight. The days are long. The schedule is unpredictable. At night and in the morning, there are receptions for legislators filled with dieting no-nos like pastries and fried foods.

Mills knew Higdon's weaknesses. At a Kentucky Farm Bureau breakfast, Mills met Higdon at the door with a plate full for doughnuts. Higdon didn't take the bait.

In November, Higdon decided to follow a plant-based diet. He doesn't eat processed food. He's also given up all soft drinks and sugar.

"I didn't just have a sweet tooth," Higdon said. "I was a sugar addict."

Now, he not only doesn't crave sugar, "anything with sugar in it is really repulsive to me. I just don't care for it anymore."

Higdon also discovered he was eating when he was not hungry.

"We do a lot of things out of habit," he said.

At legislative receptions, he stuck to fruits and vegetables. When he didn't have time to eat lunch, instead of reaching for fatty or sugary snacks, he got a bottle of water.

Over the years, Higdon had tried to lose weight with some success. But the pounds always came back.

"I'd always do very well and then go out and celebrate and put on another 10 pounds," Higdon said.

Mills also has lost weight over the years only to gain it back over time. He used a formula that worked for him in the past, which is based on a Weight Watchers plan before it switched to a Points program. Mills limited himself to certain amounts of protein and carbohydrates. He avoids sugar and fried foods.

"I made a dramatic cut in my intake," he said. "I also vowed when the contest started to walk the steps of the Capitol and the Capitol annex two or three times a day."

When he was home in Lebanon, he would walk three miles at least five days a week. He also cut out eating at night.

Additionally, Mills attended fewer legislative receptions. When he did go to a reception, he tried to snack on fruits and vegetables only. Moore said that he and Pendleton also encouraged House and Senate leaders to stock healthy snacks like carrots and celery in their offices, which are off of the Senate and House floor. The offices are a frequent gathering and grazing place for many legislators.

Mills and Higdon said they hoped the legislature's efforts will translate to more people leading healthier lifestyles.

"I'm 61 and I've spent most of my life battling my weight," Mills said. "If we can get the message to our young people at a very young age then they may not have the same struggle."

Higdon paid Mills $10 for besting him in the challenge.

Higdon, who has lost a total of 66 pounds since November, said he hopes to lose 20 more. He now weighs 264 pounds.

"It's amazing," Higdon said of his health after his weight loss. "When I got up to 330 pounds, every joint in my body hurt."

Mills' health also has improved and he has the lab results to prove it.

"I had blood work on Dec. 21 and I had blood work on March 26, and there was a dramatic difference in my cholesterol and sugar levels," he said.

For example, his triglycerides are down 47 percent. His LDL cholesterol dropped from 122 in December to 65 in March.

"It's amazing," Mills said. "This told me what I already knew, that eating healthy and exercise is a good thing.

"I hope people realize that they can do this. "I know how hard it is and I know how many of us struggle. But if I can do this, anyone can."

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