When Karol Brandt-Gilmartin visited her doctor for an annual wellness exam in February 2008, she knew she was overweight, but she still felt healthy. The news shocked her. Pamphlets in hand, a concerned doctor told Brandt-Gilmartin she was pre-diabetic and had high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
"I looked at her like: 'You've got the wrong patient, because that's not me,'" says Brandt-Gilmartin, who at the time was 5 feet 1 inch tall and 237 pounds. But the doctor confirmed that her health was in danger and urged her to figure out why she was overeating.
"That was when I realized that I needed to get control of my emotional eating habits," Brandt-Gilmartin says. "I needed to address my issues and exercise. That was my 'aha' moment, and I never looked back."
Growing up, Brandt-Gilmartin was athletic and a healthy eater. But in 1996, when she was 31 years old, she launched an event production company, and the long hours led to eating "lots of fast food" and a lack of time to exercise. She relieved work-related stress with comfort food.
Nearly 10 years later, Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures destroyed her business and severely damaged her home. A relationship that she was in at the time crumbled. In an effort to "numb the pain," she once again turned to food and, as a result, gained weight.
"I hated to go out in public, because my self image was so low," Brandt-Gilmartin says. But after her epiphany in the doctor's office, she decided to change, sought support from her family and shared her weight loss goals with like-minded individuals in similar situations. She weighed herself each week, joined a gym and hired a personal trainer.
"I made the commitment to put myself first, make better choices and move forward," Brandt-Gilmartin says. Within two years, without stimulants or surgery, she shed 103 pounds.
Today, Brandt-Gilmartin is a certified spin instructor, an avid runner who recently completed her first half marathon and the coauthor of The Struggle Is Real — a new weight loss book (available on Amazon.com and at select retailers).
She met coauthor Robby D'Angelo — a Biloxi native — through a mutual friend. He was reluctant to write the book, but like Brandt-Gilmartin, he had a successful weight-loss story to share and wanted to reach a wide audience.
"I grew up as 'the fat kid,'" D'Angelo says. "People tell me I shouldn't use that word, but I embrace it, because I know it's true." D'Angelo says his parents and brother are renowned athletes, and living in their shadows led to emotional eating.
D'Angelo was 208 pounds when he graduated from high school. Dreaming of playing on the offensive line on University of Southern Mississippi's football team, he intentionally gained more weight. By the time D'Angelo earned a spot on Mark May's All Mayday American team in 2006, he weighed 305 pounds.
"I was having all this success, but I wasn't happy because I knew that being this big guy wasn't authentic to who I was on the inside," D'Angelo says.
Halfway through his senior year of college, he vowed to lose the weight as soon as football season came to an end. At that point, D'Angelo had already undergone six knee surgeries. His weight yo-yoed for a while, but after he educated himself on proper nutrition and exercise habits, he lost 40 pounds in a year and kept it off.
"When you are healthy and happy with who you are, it shows, and you're able to make those around you happy," he says. "That's what led me to write this book with Karol."
The Struggle Is Real isn't laden with nutrition or exercise advice. Instead, the book aims to help readers replace negative thoughts with positive ones, make better choices, understand the importance of commitment and maintain a healthy lifestyle. A 30-day challenge mentally prepares them for their weight-loss journey.
The authors detail their individual struggles and encourage people to formulate their "why," which D'Angelo describes as one's internal source of motivation — the reason the person wants to lose weight.
"As you go through life, obstacles will come up," D'Angelo says. "But if your 'why' is strong enough, then you're able to overcome them."
The duo launched a website (www.thestruggleisrealbook.com) and a Facebook page (www.facebook.com/thestruggleisrealbook) where readers can ask questions and reach out to one another for support. As the authors know, tasty temptations are abundant in the Deep South. Brandt-Gilmartin has a penchant for king cake. D'Angelo loves pasta. But they enjoy these treats in moderation and incorporate extra exercise into their routine if necessary.
"I didn't get to 300 pounds by accident," D'Angelo says. "I love food. The key is balance. You can have those meals that you absolutely love, but make more healthy choices than unhealthy choices. Make choices that are aligned with your goals."
The authors have come a long way since making the commitment to lose weight. D'Angelo recently placed third in the "Men's Physique" category at the Southern Muscle competition. In July, Brandt-Gilmartin got married in what she described as "the biggest rock wedding, ever." She recalls standing on the stage in her perfectly fitting dress, feeling "100 percent confident" in her own skin for the first time in years.
Despite their achievements, the fitness enthusiasts believe they still have work to do.
"It's not over yet," Brandt-Gilmartin says. "We're continuing to set goals and evolve into the healthiest, happiest, most positive people we can become, so that we can share our story."