Irish New Yorker Nollaig Cleary was severely overweight for most of her life, but now she’s a half-marathon runner who has lost 130 pounds and counting. She tells all about her remarkable weight loss journey.
Who among us hasn’t fought (and lost) the battle of the bulge?
Nollaig Cleary was on the losing end of many such battles throughout her 48 years, but now, 130 pounds lighter and counting, it’s safe to say that she’s won the war. And she’ll keep fighting until every excess pound is erased.
“I’ve been up, and I’ve been down my whole life with my weight, and now I’ve never felt better,” Cleary, a native of Co. Fermanagh and a New Yorker for the past 25 years, told the Irish Voice during a weekend interview at her home in Yonkers.
Cleary is well known and popular in local Irish circles for her commitment to many organizations, particularly the Fermanagh GAA and New York Ladies GAA which she has been deeply involved with for 20 years, serving as chairperson for the past 10.
A physical therapist who immigrated to New York in 1993, armed with a degree from University College Dublin and a Morrison visa, Cleary opened up about her struggles with weight in the hopes that others with similar issues can take inspiration from her monumental achievement of shedding 130-plus pounds…a whole human body when you think of it.
“It hasn’t been easy at all. I would never say that it was. It’s a lifestyle change that you have to be totally committed to,” she says.
Making the leap took a long, long time. Cleary has struggled with obesity since childhood, growing up as one of seven siblings in a happy household just outside of Enniskillen in Fermanagh where GAA was religion, and good food was served by a mother who loved to cook.
Cleary had her appendix removed when she was six years old and says that her weight issues began not long after. Though she swam on the school swim team and played soccer and Gaelic football, shaking the excess weight was always problematic.
“I went to Weight Watchers and Unislim, but nothing worked. I remember going to Unislim with my mother, and then she’d be cooking up a big Irish meal the next day,” Cleary laughs.
Her weight fluctuated and ballooned when she arrived in New York in 1993. “I was enjoying life here and I was eating a lot,” she recalled.
Cleary put a stop to the weight gain in 2000, joining a gym and hiring a trainer/nutritionist who tailored an eating plan. She lost 60 pounds, “and then I guess I just lost interest,” she remembers.
All the lost weight made an unwelcome return, and then some. The loss of her beloved mother five years ago to Alzheimer’s made a bad situation worse.
“I wallowed when she passed away. I ate for comfort, and of course, that’s one of the worst things you can do to yourself. I find that food choices are dictated by how you are feeling, and I was feeling very low,” she recalls.
Just over three years ago, in the fall of 2015, Cleary changed jobs and was required to visit a doctor for a basic check-up and confirmation of required vaccines. The doctor was extremely kind, gently broaching the subject of Cleary’s weight and offering a helping hand if and when she decided to make a change.
“It was the first time I went to a doctor who didn’t give out to me or judge me,” Cleary says.
“People who are overweight feel bad enough as it is. The struggle with low self-esteem and self-worth is very real.”
Cleary’s first stop after the doctor visit was the local Sports Authority, where she bought herself a new pair of sneakers. Inspired by the doctor’s advice, she dug out the eating plan devised by the nutritionist she saw back in 2000 and immediately cleaned out her kitchen cabinets and refrigerator of all “bad” food.
“The first thing the nutritionist had always said to me was when in doubt write it down. So, I started keeping a food journal and it helped me stay on track. I use the app My Fitness Pal to log my food intake,” she says.
Remarkably, Cleary began and has more or less continued her weight loss journey totally on her own. No weekly meetings at Weight Watchers, no food deliveries from Nutrisystem, and definitely no gastric surgery.
The determination, she advises, must come from within. If that’s not there, all the weight loss assistance in the world won’t help.
“The biggest part by far is mental. Do you want to make a change? If so, you’ve just got to commit totally to it,” Cleary advises.
Being organized about food is also a must. Cleary’s weekly shopping basket is planned to include everything she’ll need for every single meal and snack. Then she makes sure to have foods prepared and ready which eliminates the temptation to grab something unhealthy.
Cleary is a keen student of metabolism. She studies the science behind the calories she consumes – the good ones that come from proteins, and the not so good ones that come from carbs and sugars.
“There’s a real science to weight loss. Not every calorie is the same. A calorie that comes from sugar is much more detrimental than one that comes from a protein,” she says.
Last year Cleary felt that she hit a wall with her weight loss regime and sought the advice of a nutritionist. She sees her once a month for a weigh-in and an examination of how her metabolism is balancing out with her food intake. Her weight loss train again started to roll.
Cleary considers breakfast to be her most important meal. It can consist of an egg white omelet or oatmeal with some blueberries or blackberries. (She’s not a big fruit eater, wary of the excess sugar calories in things like oranges.)
Her job as a physical therapist is all-consuming – she also treats private clients – so her meal choices are meticulously planned for the day.
“I balance everything out. My main meal is lunch. I’ll have a big green salad and load it with color, things like peppers and onions, and maybe some almonds, salmon or chicken with light balsamic dressing,” she says. (Creamy Italian and Russian toppers have long been gone from her condiment choices.)
Dinner is a lean protein, not too much, and Cleary makes a point to lightly snack during the day on things like nuts, Greek yogurt, low-fat chocolate milk, and low-fat cheese to ensure that she doesn’t wind up with sharp hunger pangs which could lead to a binge eat.
“If you allow yourself to go hungry, you’ll just wind up grabbing anything,” she says.
What foods has Cleary pretty much said goodbye to? Red meat, bread, and potatoes, three huge staples of the traditional Irish diet, gone.
“I know,” she laughs. “I haven’t had a potato in a long time! Occasionally I will have half a bagel. And very occasionally I might have a piece of bread from the basket if I’m at an event, but that’s it.”
Alcohol is also off the menu, as are diet sodas and sugary drinks. Cleary consumes at least half a dozen bottles of water a day. Her beloved coffee is a non-negotiable, though; she still enjoys a couple of cups a day.
Exercise is also a backbone of Cleary’s weight loss plan. It wasn’t so much in the beginning when she was recalibrating her mind towards new food choices. She would take some walks and use a treadmill but nothing too strenuous.
One of her friends is a personal trainer, and last year Cleary enlisted her help with weights to avoid the excess flabby skin that can result from extreme weight loss – her new body has none of that – and a running program. She had stepped up her walking regiment and wanted to transition to running to burn more calories.
“I’m a physical therapist so I should know all of this, and of course I do,” she says. “But there’s nothing like someone pushing you to do these things. I definitely don’t exercise every day and I’m not hardcore but doing what I do really helps.”
Cleary’s crowning fitness achievement came last month when she ran the Yonkers half marathon. For someone who used to get winded after walking less than a mile, taking part in a 13-mile race was never in her wildest dreams.
In the process, she raised $9,000 for the Aisling Irish Center in Yonkers, one of the organizations she strongly supports. She wasn’t the fastest runner/walker on the route, but undeniably she was one of the ones who has come the farthest.
“I’ve had such incredible support from so many friends here. Honestly, I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them. They’ve been encouraging me and cheering me on, and some have started weight loss with me too. They have been amazing to me, keeping my spirits up,” she says.
The holidays are fast approaching, and with them, temptation lurks. Cleary is well aware that Christmas puddings and apple pies will be on the table when she returns to Fermanagh for Christmas. She intends to stick to her healthy eating routine – she never uses the word diet – with some room for her old favorites.
“Your life can’t be all about deprivation,” she says. “You can allow for treats here and there. Maybe I’ll run a little more to compensate. But denial of something that you really want never works. If you want that cheeseburger have it, and then make sure to make up for it.”
Cleary’s confidence is at an all-time high, she says. Clothes shopping, never a favorite thing to do, is a breeze now. Her choices used to consist of one or two stores. Now she can go anywhere.
“I usually bring friends with me. And I pick out things that are too big for me. They bring me smaller sizes that I think I could never fit into, and sure enough, I do. It feels really good,” she says.
Her self-esteem has also soared. Not that Cleary was ever a shut-in; she maintained an active social life despite feeling embarrassed about how she looked.
“I bucked the trend in that I didn’t hold back, and I continued doing what I did, but I didn’t like how I looked. And I have heard nasty comments for sure. After a while, they fall on deaf ears. But your confidence is shot,” she says.
Cleary’s new outlook on life includes scheduling more “me” time, a necessity to ensure that she’s taking care of herself and prioritizing her health. That’s not easy with her work schedule, not to mention her commitments to the Ladies GAA, but she’s determined to do it. After all, she’s got another 40 pounds to go, she says, and she won’t stop until she gets there.
“My goal is to stick at it. I’m the first to say it’s tough, very tough, but it’s hugely rewarding,” Cleary says.
She notes that the Facebook Memories feature is also a great motivator. “Sometimes I see those old pictures of myself,” she says, “and I think, ‘There’s just no way I’m going back to that. Not ever.’”