Beneath the shade of my parasol, I watched my friends diving into the pool. As they larked about, I badly wanted to leap in alongside them. But, as ever, my insecurities about my size had me pinned to the sunlounger. It wasn’t the first time I’d spent a holiday feeling gloomy and self-conscious, watching everyone else having more fun than me. And it wasn’t that I didn’t like the sun – I loved feeling it on my skin! But when it came to stripping off, there was zero chance I’d let anyone see me topless.
As I sat there, desperate to join in, my friend Kathryn yelled out from the pool: ‘Luke, come on, it’s gorgeous in here!’ She was one of the five friends from my job in a department store in Manchester who had joined me on a trip to Ibiza in the summer of 2016. I raised my drink and forced a smile: ‘Thanks, but I think I’ll finish my book,’ I called back.
It was when the sun came out that I felt most unhappy about my weight. I’d been a big lad for as long as I could remember, with a big appetite, and as I moved into my teens, I got bigger still. At secondary school we were allowed to help ourselves to as much food as we liked in the canteen, including traditional puddings like jam roly-poly, then I’d get home and eat another big meal, with packets of crisps as snacks.
At school, I’d adopt a larger-than-life personality. But as the summer holidays came around, I’d be filled with dread...
Family trips with my mum, Julie, dad, Peter, and younger brother Joel were spent covered up in baggy T-shirts and long shorts, feeling like the odd one out. And while I knew they loved me as I was, and my slim friends never made me feel bad about myself either, I became more insecure as my weight rose.
Ever since I’d known what a paramedic was, I’d known it was the job for me. For some reason, ambulances really stirred my imagination. Through my teens, though, as my waistline expanded and my fitness plummeted, any thoughts of wearing that green uniform disappeared, and I’d drifted into shop work instead.
By then, I’d become an expert at masking how I felt. I was a friendly, outgoing guy – but that cheerful disposition hid so much worry about the way I looked. And I dressed to hide my shape, wearing an oversized T-shirt under a baggy shirt, then a loose jacket over that, believing the layers would hide my size. Which was fine during the colder months – then summer would come around and the layers would have to come off. Even in the heat of Ibiza, I’d strip down as far as my T-shirt, but no further.
Not long after we got home, Kathryn took me aside at work. ‘I want to lose some weight for my sister’s wedding in a couple of months, so I’m going to join Slimming World. Do you fancy coming with me?’ she asked. I knew what she was doing. She’d seen how insecure I’d been on holiday and, although I felt nervous, I was chuffed she was trying to help me. But I wasn’t sure about Slimming World. ‘Isn’t it for women?’ I asked. Kathryn smiled. ‘Well, why don’t we go and find out?’ she said.
Soon afterwards, Kathryn and I were sitting at our local group in Stockport, waiting for the Consultant, Maria, to explain how it all worked. There were lots of young people, a few guys – there definitely wasn’t a Slimming World type. ‘This might be OK after all,’ I whispered to Kathryn as Maria took her seat with a smile.
Later, when it was my turn to step onto the scales, I prepared myself for a shock. I reckoned I weighed about 16st. In fact, I was 18st 1lb. My cheeks burned. ‘I think I’ve become so good at hiding under baggy clothes, I didn’t realise how big I’d got,’ I told Kathryn. We enjoyed the group session, and hearing about other people’s struggles and successes gave me hope.
That week, while Mum prepared her usual spread for the family, I cooked my own healthier versions of bolognese, lasagne and chilli, and made sure I had at least a third of a plate of Speed Food veg, which Maria had explained would help my weight loss even more. After a week of surprisingly tasty meals, I was overjoyed to find I was 7½lbs lighter. And, as I got a round of applause from the other members for getting my half-stone award already, I realised something: this might just work!
One of my best friends, Liv, had started taking boxing classes at the same time as I’d joined Slimming World. In a couple of months, she’d seen very little progress, while the difference in me was undeniable, and it didn’t take long for me to convince her to come along to group. After group we’d cook a meal together at her place or mine, something delicious like Food Optimising diet cola chicken, and we’d encourage each other with daily texts to stay on track.
Within six months I’d lost 4st and was looking and feeling better than ever. Filled with new confidence, I volunteered to climb Ben Nevis for charity with a team from work. The incredible 1,345m slog up the highest peak in the British Isles was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
As we marched towards the top, I thought about how much fitter I was since joining Slimming World and, for the first time in years, I thought back to my ambition of becoming a paramedic. What if that wasn’t an impossible dream any more?
But before I was able to look into it, I was promoted at work, which meant relocating. So, in June 2017 I uprooted myself and moved to Birmingham. Busy with my new job and living in a city where I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t get around to joining a new group. Despite that, I kept Food Optimising as best I could and, although I didn’t lose any more, I stayed at 14st. Then, a year and two months later, I decided to move back to Stockport.
As soon as I moved home, I rejoined Liv at my old Slimming World group. She looked incredible! She’d lost over 5st, and had just been chosen to be the cover star of the October 2018 issue of Slimming World Magazine. Seeing her looking so beautiful on the cover filled me with pride, and inspired me even more. And by September I’d matched her and had lost 5st 2lbs.
That sense of achievement gave me the confidence to book a trip to Bali, Singapore and Australia. My friend James was coming with me for the first month, but for the final two months I’d be travelling solo.
In terms of challenges, it felt like another Ben Nevis. And the fact I was daring to do it showed just how far I’d come in the past 20 months.
Soon after we arrived in Bali, James and I found ourselves at a beach club. The music pulsed, the drink flowed and the sun beat down on a sea of suntanned bodies dancing in and around the pool. Everyone looked cool… except for the one guy stubbornly keeping his T-shirt on. ‘Luke, come on, take it off, you must be boiling!’ James called from the water. I gulped, grabbed the bottom and yanked it over my head. No one gasped, the music failed to stop, the mynah birds didn’t fall from the trees... No one even noticed and, for the first time in my life, I was enjoying the sun on my skin just like everyone else.
‘YESSSS!’ I yelled as I flung myself into the pool. Going shirtless for the first time was a major moment for me and it set the mood for the rest of my trip. When James went home I toured Australia on my own, making friends for life along the way. It was an extraordinary trip, and I know I’d never have had the courage to do it if I hadn’t lost the weight.
Back home, with my self-esteem at an all-time high, I realised that all my dreams were within reach if I wanted them enough. So, I did something scary and exciting – I applied to do a degree in Paramedic Practice at Edge Hill University in Lancashire – and I was accepted.
Now I’m 11st 13lbs, and I’ve lowered my target to 11st 9lbs. I feel a world away from that insecure, unhappy person who’d given up on his dream of becoming a professional lifesaver. He’d never even have applied, too afraid of rejection. Now, 6st 2lbs slimmer, I can’t wait to get into that green uniform!
From holidays to a new career, I’m saying ‘yes’ to whatever comes my way – nothing is going to stop me from enjoying my time in the sun!
Nothing, or thickly sliced white toast with butter.
Scrambled eggs on two slices of wholemeal toast, or home-made Slimming World breakfast muffins.
Soup with a bread roll, pasta bake with chips, and a hot pudding such as jam roly-poly with custard.
A jacket potato with canned tuna or chicken and lots of salad.
An Indian takeaway with the family.
Packets of crisps and fizzy drinks.
A low Syn yogurt, or a no-added-sugar 175g jelly pot for ½ Syn.
*Weight loss will vary due to your individual circumstances and how much weight you have to lose.