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A Crash Diet, A Crashed Metabolism

Marathoner Found The Drive To Lose Weight Caused Her To Do The Opposite

Lori Riley

8:51 PM EDT, October 12, 2013

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HARTFORD — Kelly Burns Gallagher needed to lose weight.

First a little background:

She is an Ironman triathlete and a marathoner. She coaches other runners and triathletes. She is a lawyer in Hartford. She is the treasurer of the Hartford Track Club and organizes a number of road races.

Oh, and she is a Type A personality, with a capital A.

After competing in Ironman Florida (a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run) last fall, she felt that if she lost maybe 20 pounds, she could be faster. So Gallagher, 32, of Southington started to eat very small breakfasts. She would eat a salad for lunch. When she went home, she would not eat many nights. She would just go to bed. And on top of this, she was training 2-3 hours a day, biking 5-6 hours on Saturdays and running two hours on Sundays.

She did not lose weight. She gained weight. Over a frustrating four-month span, she added about 20 pounds to her 5-foot-9 frame.

"My ideal race weight for my height is like 140-145," said Gallagher, who finished the ING Hartford half-marathon Saturday in 1 hour, 55 minutes. "There are girls at my height who race at 128-130. It's tough because I want to be littler-looking."

In February, Gallagher — who has completed five Ironman triathlons and a number of marathons — weighed 191 pounds.

"I didn't want to go out," she said. "I didn't want people to see me like that. I kind of felt like, a lot of people watch what I do. I write a blog, I write articles for a website. I'm out there. People notice."

But though she was despairing, she got help. She went to a registered dietitian and a therapist. It was determined that she had crashed her metabolism, in which the body responds to "dieting" as if it were starving and can store everything as fat. She also had adrenal fatigue. As Gallagher describes it: "My body is producing weird hormones at different times. Hormone imbalances are causing my body to save everything I eat as fat. No matter what I do, I save it as fat."

Under the guidance of the dietitian, she began to eat more, and she lost some of the weight. She is now down to about 175-180 pounds.

"It's been a tough issue over the last year to deal with — eating how I'm supposed to eat, dealing with my body image issues, trying to essentially feed my body what it needs to eat so it maybe will decide it doesn't need to save everything as fat, and re-regulate my hormones," she said.

This is not uncommon, according to Margo Maine, a clinical psychologist in West Hartford who has specialized in eating disorders and related issues for the last 30 years and has written numerous books on the subject.

"We see people all the time who have ground their metabolism to a near halt in the effort to lose weight or stay slim," Maine said. "This is a really important issue to talk about. People have a natural body weight range which their bodies want to be at or around. Over half of the factors that govern our adult weight are genetic and there's only so much we can do to alter that natural weight range.

"It's important for people to exercise and to eat well. But when people take this desire to lose 10, 20 or 50 pounds to the extreme, they can do this reversal to their body. It's like hibernation. It's the body's response to starvation."

Let's face it. We'd all like to lose five or 10 pounds, right? Many of us — I'm talking women here — don't like the way we look when people take pictures of us and post them on Facebook. Gallagher used to go through and delete them. She only liked pictures of herself in profile.

And when we go to a road race, forget it. There are a lot of skinny people there. Well, we feel like there are, anyway. And then there are the rest of us.

"In 2011, I was doing Ironman Lake Placid," Gallagher said. "It's a two-loop run course. I'm coming in to finish, it's still daylight, I was in the top 70 of all women and this guy looks at me and says, 'Good job, you only have 13 more miles.'

"I said, 'What, you don't think a fat girl can run?' "

In hindsight, she felt bad. "He was just trying to be supportive."

When she was nominated and chosen to be part of the Hartford Marathon's Elite Inspiration team, the marathon put up giant posters of each team member at the race expo at the XL Center the past few days. That's all Gallagher needed to see — a giant picture of herself — but she dealt with it.

"I think athletes have particular pressures on them," Maine said. "You don't have to be skinny to do a sport.

'People have to accept their body as it is. That's a hard position. We need to be more aware of many factors that affect weight. People can be healthy at any size. It's not weight that determines health, it's activity level."

Gallagher knows this. She was going on about it Saturday after the half-marathon.

"I think people look at [a marathon or a road race] and go, 'I can't do that, because that's all skinny people. I'm not a skinny person so it's off limits to me,'" she said. "And it's not. People don't want to feel uncomfortable. They don't have to feel uncomfortable because there's all kinds of people coming across the [finish] line. People feel like they can't do something because they look a certain way."

Gallagher is trying to break down that barrier. It's hard, but she's trying.