By Susan Dibble
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Around Jefferson Middle School in Villa Park, staff members refer to Assistant Principal Raúl Gastón as "the incredible melting man."
The 6-foot, 4-inch Gastón has lost 180 pounds in just under a year's time, going from a pant size of 60 inches to 36 and a shirt size of 4XL to large.
He attributes his success to the Chicagoland Weight Loss Challenge that he took through the Villa Park Parks and Recreation Department, one of a number of sites that offer the program.
"Overall, (I'm) feeling much better. I used to take the stairs one at a time," he said. "Now I can climb the Willis Tower. I can climb it if I want to."
Gastón, now 42, weighed 410 pounds when a friend told him about the Weight Loss Challenge last year. He had tried many diet programs before, but this time, he was motivated.
He had gone to a casting call for NBC's "The Biggest Loser" program, went through several elimination rounds and had been told to make a doctor's appointment before flying to California for the final casting call.
"I got the call that said thanks, but no thanks," he said. "I decided, I'm keeping my doctor's appointment."
Gastón said filling out the questionnaires for "The Biggest Loser" had been an eye-opener for him.
"I think every person who gets to a certain weight is in denial," he said. "Going through that process, I knew how out of shape I was and how harmful it was to my health."
Eat right, exercise
The 12-week Weight Loss Challenge program taught him about proper nutrition, how to improve his eating habits and how many calories a day the body burns. Gastón lost 50 pounds and signed up for two more sessions.
"The biggest thing I had to do was bring down my portion size," he said. "I would eat a whole pizza by myself, three or four burgers with cheese and fries."
During their weekly sessions, participants weigh in and learn about the elements that make up a balanced diet. A big emphasis is put on getting the right protein, said Anna Ault of Villa Park, the coach for all three sessions that Gastón attended. Topics like hydration and fiber also are covered.
"It's about good nutrition and making sure the calories you are consuming come from more power-packed nutrients," she said.
Gastón and Ault, a participant in the Weight Lost Challenge before she became a coach, agree that a key component of the program is the sharing participants do with one another about what has worked for them.
"We all had good weeks and bad weeks, but overall everybody made progress," Gastón said.
Ault said the average participant loses 15 to 20 pounds per session, which can last from 10 to 12 weeks. During that time, participants receive personal coaching from an associate with Ambition 4 Nutrition, who finds out why they took the class and what their goals are.
An extra incentive is that at the end of each session, first-, second- and third-place winners are awarded cash prizes determined by the number of participants enrolled and each participant's percentage of weight loss. Total winnings per challenge have ranged from $450 to $1,000, Ault said.
Gastón was the first-place winner in all three sessions he attended, but the real reward was the change he saw in himself.
"I didn't really care if I won or lost," he said. "If I was better than where I was, that's all I needed to be."
Participants are encouraged to exercise but left to develop their own fitness routines. Gastón, an Elmhurst resident, now arrives at the gym at 5 a.m. six days a week to work out for two hours. He makes a point of getting around by walking and bikes three miles to work twice a week when weather permits.
"It became a routine. It became part of what I did," he said.
Now at about 230 pounds, Gastón said he wants to lose 10 more pounds and plans to have surgery this summer to remove extra skin. He's cut his calorie intake from 4,000 to 5,000 a day to under 2,000. The father of two young daughters, Gastón said he's taken over the cooking and his family's eating habits have improved.
"It's just finding the right products, and they're out there. I'm not going anywhere special," he said.
For instance, now when Gastón makes a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, he uses a whole wheat, low-calorie bread instead of white; a low-fat product called Better 'n Peanut Butter; and a fruit spread in place of jam or jelly. The result is a sandwich with 150 fewer calories, he said.
"If you do that consistently, you're bringing down your calorie intake and your fat intake and bringing up the good stuff," he said.
Gastón no longer needs blood pressure medication or suffers from sleep apnea and back and knee pain. The threat of diabetes is gone.
Others can't but help notice the change.
"There have been quite a few double takes," he said.
Pass it forward
Gastón has drawn the attention of not just students and school staff, but of parents, said Dave Katzin, principal of Jefferson Middle School, who hired a much larger Gastón a year ago. Gastón willingly shares his story, but isn't preachy about it, he said.
"He's been a motivation for a lot of people, myself included," Katzin said. "It's a great accomplishment, but it doesn't define him."
Gastón shows the same commitment to students as he does to losing weight, Katzin said. As assistant principal, Gastón is in charge of discipline.
"The job of assistant principal is not all fun and games, and he never stops smiling," Katzin said.
A teacher for 13 years before he took his present position, Gastón last served as a Spanish teacher, department chairman and volleyball coach at York High School in Elmhurst. Now determined to "pass it forward" by sharing with others what he has learned about weight loss, he already has given several presentations and wants to put together a website this summer.
"It's been fun. People start asking how you do it," he said.
Getting the right information about weight loss is essential, but Gastón knows there's no results without action.
"Unless you are ready to receive that information, it's just information," he said.
For details on the Chicagoland Weight Loss Challenge, see chicagolandweightlosschallenge.com. The program is offered in Villa Park four times a year, with the cost for the upcoming summer session of $49 for residents and $52 for others. For information, call (630) 834-8970.