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Utah young adult loses 260 pounds, changes outlook on life

By Erica Palmer

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 12 2014 4:05 p.m. MDT

Zakary Swendsen with his mom and his brother Marcus celebrating his high school graduation. Swendsen said his entire transformation would not have been possible without the support and sacrifices of his family.

Provided by Zakary Swendsen

Stunned, Zakary Swendsen walked out of the doctor's office with his mother.

The 18-year-old was overcome with feelings of fear and discouragement, but he also had a spark of hope and motivation.

Swendsen, who weighed 450 pounds, had just experienced a reality check. His doctor told him if he didn't lose weight soon, he would die of a heart attack before his 21st birthday.

"It was a big eye-opener," Swendsen said. "It really helped me put reality into perspective, like, 'You really are overweight.' "

Since then, Swendsen, now 21, has turned his addiction to food into a passion for fitness and his once hopeless outlook on life into a greater drive to help others. With his family's support and help from God, he has shed 260 pounds and gained more muscle than he's ever had in his life.

And most of all, he said, he has experienced a mental change of attitude that has made him a new person altogether.

A lifelong battle

Swendsen, a native of Springville, Utah, said his battle with his body began at age 8 when he started gaining extra weight.

He was made fun of at school and began struggling with a negative self-image. He coped by turning to food for comfort.

"He was a sweetheart, but he was a very sad boy because he didn't like being the chubby boy in school," said his mom, Michelle Swendsen Elwell. "He was teased, made fun of for being big. He was a happy, active boy, but he just loved food. It comforted him."

She said she would try to encourage him to play sports and take him swimming and hiking, but his feet and knees often hurt and it was hard for him to be active. He didn't feel comfortable being involved in sports and would sneak food when he was feeling sad.

"It was just always there and so easy," Swendsen said. "If I was sad or depressed, I'd go eat."

Things only escalated in high school. On the outside, Swendsen was doing great. He was on student council at Springville High and was involved with the football team, though he could only be the water boy. He was the chubby kid that everybody loved, and he walked the halls surrounded by friends.

But he said his happy face was just a mask hiding how much he was really struggling. The fat jokes persisted, and his self-confidence was nonexistent.

"Not being able to (play) on the football team in high school because I was overweight is when I really started to realize, 'You aren't going to be able to do anything,' " Swendsen said. " 'You're going to be those guys that are on the TV that's like world's biggest person because you can't get out of your bed.' "

By the time he graduated, he was in a severe downward spiral of addictive eating and depression. He said once he realized the severity of his situation, his thoughts got more and more desperate and he tried to take his own life.

Swendsen then spent two weeks at an in-patient facility being treated for his suicidal thoughts. He said this really alerted him to where he was in life and caused him to re-evaluate where he was going. He was referred to doctors to assess the state of his physical well-being, and they told him the fateful news. "That really did kind of open my eyes again, to 'You need to change,' " Swendsen said.

Time to change

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