As Told To: 'I ended up sitting in my car crying'

A lot of men don't feel comfortable opening up about struggles with weight in an environment that focuses on females, says Tony Vassallo.

As told to Sadaf Ahsan 5 minute read October 14, 2021
Tony Vassallo

Tony Vassallo works with men to help them love their bodies. SUPPLIED

Tony Vassallo is the founder of the Toronto-based MODA Nutrition Inc., and is a specialist in sustained weight loss after going through his own weight loss and body positivity journey beginning in 2010. His mission is to help other men going through the same struggle to eat healthier and find a way to love their bodies. This is his story.

 

It was March of 2010, I was 37 years old and, in a three-week time span, there were two things that that stood out. Because I was a diabetic, I needed to go to my doctor every three or four months to renew my medication, and when I did, he would typically weigh me. This was the first time I crossed over 300 pounds; that was a threshold that really slapped me in the face. Officially, I was in the category of morbidly obese. And then, a couple of weeks later, I needed to purchase a suit for an upcoming wedding, and the pants wouldn’t fit even though the jacket did. They were a 48-inch waist. So I was now a 50-inch waist. Here I was, crossing two thresholds. It’s like when you think of where you were when Kennedy was shot. Even now, I can feel myself in that place, in that moment. That was the wake-up call. I ended up leaving the store and sitting in my car crying, wondering how it all happened and deciding it was time for change. It was a visceral desire, I’d had enough.

That led to my first official shot at weight loss. Before, I’d only stuck with things for a day or two, so I spoke to a doctor who set me up with a dietitian, but in my heart of hearts, I knew I just needed to let go of junk food — the packaged stuff, fried foods. Everyone has a certain kryptonite. For me, that was ultra-processed food. I realized that avoiding it altogether was easier than moderation. And I reminded myself often of what I call “JERF: just eat real food.” When it came to portions, my mantra was “OPR: one plate rule”; I have one plate versus my old way of eating, which was treating every meal like an Italian wedding of one. Now, I was having three solid meals a day, and each one consisted of protein and fibre — real food. And just like that, the weight seemed to drop off.

Prior to this, my notion of weight loss was starvation, deprivation, excessive exercise. I was afraid that I’d have to let go of my great love: great food. But what I thought was my greatest liability turned into my biggest asset. I always loved cooking — even as a kid you could catch me watching Julia Child on PBS; I used to record her show and watch it over and over again. I took that love of cooking and learned how to make it healthy and as palatable and tasty as possible. I surprised myself with this mission. I discovered all kinds of foods, whether it be different grains and vegetables, or even ways to prepare them.

I also joined a weight loss support group. And I was walking more, from 15 minutes to an hour a day. I also stopped going to bed at 2 a.m. and instead, ended my day by 10 p.m. These were healthy rituals I didn’t realize before could make a difference when it came to my body. And by 2011, I had gotten down to around 170 pounds.

During this time, I also learned about health issues I was facing, including high blood pressure, sleep apnea and acid reflux. But, and it’s embarrassing to say this, my health wasn’t the reason to lose weight, it was how I looked. Overeaters Anonymous use a phrase that I love: “I came for the vanity, I stayed for the sanity.” That was me, and eventually it became about the sanity. I don’t know if it’s possible to sustain weight loss unless you make that shift and truly want to have a better life. Up until then, I felt like I was treated like a second-class citizen. It wasn’t until I lost the weight that I truly noticed how you can be treated differently based on how you look. When I was overweight, people didn’t tend to make eye contact, but after you lose weight, more people smile, you hear ‘good morning,’ ‘how are you doing?’ That’s not right, it was painful, but it was a sign of how everything changed.

This ultimately led me to want to create an environment where I could share what I had learned. I specifically wanted to work with men, because it often feels as if weight loss programs are inherently directed at women. And the fact is, a lot of men simply don’t feel as comfortable opening up about their struggle in an environment that is predominantly female, so the hope was to create a safe, unbiased outlet.

The idea for MODA, my weight loss program for men, came while I was on a sabbatical of sorts and went to Malta for a few months. I was on a bus — ironically, the bus route where my parents met years before — and I was looking out the window at a clothing store, and saw a man trying to squeeze into a jacket that didn’t fit. It reminded me of my incident at the clothing store. I looked up at the store’s sign, which read “Moda Clothing.” That means “fashionable” or “cool” in Italian and Maltese, and that’s what I wanted to do — make healthy eating cool. Suddenly, I thought, I can make this happen. It got the wheels turning, I found enough support, and by the spring of 2015, MODA had launched. We offer group support and one-on-one sessions to help those attending reach their goals.

For those on a similar journey to mine, I want to remind you that it is going to be a different experience from person to person; what will work for one won’t work for another. Don’t get caught up in the latest diet craze. Instead, find a lifestyle that you truly believe you can sustain. Don’t try to do too much too quick, but focus on incremental changes to your lifestyle. And don’t focus on befores and afters, where you never see the in-between and the work it took to get there; it’s all ongoing. It’s about acknowledging the old adage: it’s a journey not a destination.

This story is part of Healthing’s series, The Shape of Us.