Bob Greene and Oprah Winfrey
September 09, 1996 12:00 PM

“And the winner of the Best Talk Show Host is…

Oprah Winfrey sat in the audience at the 1992 Daytime TV Emmy Awards desperately hoping she wouldn’t win. “I was in the front row trying to keep my too-fat knees together in a ladylike position,” she writes in the introduction to Make the Connection: Ten Steps to a Better Body—and a Better Life (Hyperion). “I was thinking, ‘God, let Phil win. So I won’t have to waddle my way up to the stage with the nation watching my huge behind.’ I was 237 pounds—the fattest I’d ever been.”

Following is an exclusive excerpt from the book, which will appear in stores next week.

Oprah Winfrey!”

I was stunned. Stedman and my staff were cheering. I wanted to cry. I felt so much like a loser. I was the fattest woman in the room.

The next day I met Bob. That’s when my life began to change. Up until that point I had spent a lifetime dieting and depriving myself, then overeating and gaining even more weight. It all started when I arrived in Baltimore at the age of 22 in 1976. I had a new job as coanchor at WJZ-TV, and I was terrified that I might not measure up. Things weren’t working out with my new anchor. He seemed unhappy to have me there.

I lived in Columbia, Maryland, across the street from the great Columbia Mall. They had some of the best food stalls known to womankind. A whole booth sold nothing but potatoes, any kind you could imagine. And you know I love me some potatoes. They were fried, dipped in vinegar, or baked with cheese and onion.

There was a pizza booth, a corn dog booth, and my favorite at the time, a giant chocolate-chip cookie stall. On weekends I’d go from stall to stall. Sometimes I’d order something from every booth. I didn’t realize at the time that by overeating I was trying to fill something deeper. The fact that I was lonely, somewhat depressed, and having a hard time adjusting to the new job never entered my mind.

By that fall I had gained 10 pounds. I weighed a whopping 148! I went to see my first diet doctor, who put me on a 1,200-calorie-a-day eating program and gave me a prescription for diet pills. The pills made me crazy as a betsy bug! I stopped taking them after about a week and tried to cut my 1,200 calories down to 800 to speed up the process. If I only knew then what I know now! Dieting and deprivation only make you gain weight in the long run. By the end of the year I was 150 pounds.

When I moved to Chicago in December 1983 to host AM Chicago, the local morning show, there was no pressure from my bosses to lose a pound or change anything. Still, I thought this could be a new chance to get motivated and finally get the weight off. I was so excited about my job, the city, my staff. Three or four times a week, we’d hit Rush Street, a great Chicago strip lined with restaurants. We’d order margaritas, quesadillas and cheese nachos. No burgers for me though; I wanted to keep it “light.” So we’d eat “light” cheese nachos and drink light beer and then just split desserts—two to a banana split.

A month later, I was shocked to find I weighed 180 pounds. One day while doing a show with yet another diet expert, I just knew everyone else was thinking: Why doesn’t she lose weight with her fat butt self? So I told the story about the time I’d been trying another diet back in Baltimore.

I had been doing very well, then I made the mistake of visiting my old haunts—the food stalls at the mall. But I didn’t succumb. Instead, I literally ran out of there. After getting home, I was overwhelmed by a compulsion to eat. As I opened cabinet after cabinet, I found only salt, Tabasco sauce, Argo starch and maple syrup. And in the freezer, a package of frozen hot dog buns. Quickly I turned the oven on a broil, threw the buns in to thaw out, and, even before they could, I grabbed the syrup and smeared it over the partly burnt, partly frozen buns. Looking back, I see no difference between myself and a junkie, scrambling for a needle and whatever dope might be around. Food was my drug.

The show started on the first day of January 1984. The next four years, I would move from 202 to 218. I’d start a workout program, fail, and gain. By 1988, I’d had it. I was so depressed and sick of myself. I thought I would try anything short of drugs or stomach stapling. Then I heard of Optifast, a fasting and diet supplement program. I saw this as the road to freedom.

I had saved a pair of Calvin Klein jeans from Baltimore. They were a size 10. They represented a time when I felt better about my body. I thought if I could get back into those jeans, my whole life would be okay.

The times I was tempted to eat on Optifast were when I felt frustrated or neglected. I remember coming home one day and Stedman was busy doing something. At that moment, I thought, “I’ve gotta eat, I’ve gotta eat.” I later realized what I really wanted was the attention.

I was 211 when I started on Optifast in July 1988. By the fall, I was 142 and into a pair of size 10 jeans. I wanted to share my secret with everyone else who’d struggled. So I went on the air and blew out the Optifast lines that day. Heaven only knows how much we made for them.

Anybody who had shown as much discipline as I had by not eating for four months certainly had licked this problem for good. What I didn’t know was that my metabolism was shot. I’d lost muscle weight. I wasn’t exercising. There was nothing my body could have done but gain weight.

It was time to stop the supplement and return to real food. I was 142 for one day. The next day I was 145. In two weeks, I was 155. I felt helpless. There was nothing I could do except pour out my soul in my journal.

November 29, 1988: Exactly two weeks after the diet show, I’ve gained five pounds. I’m 150 today. I’ve been eating out of control.

January 2, 1989: This was my day to start dieting again. Instead, I made pork chops and ate them. Oh, well. Tomorrow’s another day, Miss Scarlett.

November 14, 1989: Anniversary of the diet show, 168 pounds. I’m thoroughly disgusted with myself. Where is my resolve?

April 28, 1990: I’m exhausted. I worked 20 hours today. I’m worried about Brewster Place. Eating snacks all day from the crafts table. I hate seeing myself on film.

August 11, 1990: The fat has stopped me from feeling; so blocked. I cannot think.

September 9, 1990: Made the worst-dressed list with Marge Simpson. Described as bumpy, dumpy and down-right lumpy in a gown I thought I looked pretty decent in.

Outwardly I was becoming more popular and successful. Inside, the burden of weight was always there. I tried not to be depressed about it. Maybe I just needed to accept that I would never be happy with that part of myself. I did, however, keep searching for it. I couldn’t bear to think of myself as a quitter. That’s why standing there at the Daytime Emmys at 237 pounds, I decided to try again. I booked three weeks at a new spa in Colorado.

When Oprah met Bob Greene at the Doral Telluride Resort and Spa in 1992, she writes, “I thought, “He must think, What a wallapalooza. I’m supposed to work with her?’ ” Greene, however, saw a courageous woman. “She was noticeably uncomfortable, but she had no reason to be. I had tremendous respect for her, as I do for anyone attempting the challenge of permanent weight loss.”

Bob Greene: Oprah has been blessed with so many gifts, but a favorable metabolism is not one of them. For Oprah to maintain her weight, she must work much harder than the average person. She also must find healthier ways to deal with life’s problems. This is not to say that she always follows my program to the letter, but she realizes that when she does, she gets results quickly, and when she doesn’t, it is her choice. She also knows that this new way of eating, living and thinking has greatly improved the quality of her life. She now has control, and you can too.

I have a program that I believe is the fastest and healthiest way to increase your metabolism and shed excess weight. There are no shortcuts. You will gradually progress within your ability, but it will require you to work hard each day.

Before you can make any physical changes, you need to know yourself. This is the foundation that will help you transform your life. Think of what happens when you build a house on a shaky foundation. It eventually crumbles. This is one of the reasons that so few individuals maintain their weight loss. If you don’t know who you are or what you want, or you are unhappy with yourself, or you believe losing weight is the answer to all your problems, I can almost guarantee that the weight you lose will come back.

Becoming self-aware can be a difficult process. If any of you find that confronting these issues causes you great distress, I recommend you see a professional counselor for additional support. Losing weight alone can’t transform your life. Changing your perception can.

When I say “Know yourself,” I mean spend the time to understand your strengths and weaknesses, what motivates you, and what you like and dislike about yourself. Think about what you can and cannot change about yourself, why you behave a certain way in a certain situation, and whether deep inside you feel that you have control over your life. Oprah calls it “Peeling back the layers.” That’s what I want you to do. Take the time to explore who you are.

Now I want you to make a physical assessment of yourself. You can best do this in front of the mirror, with or without clothes. The purpose is not to shame you. It’s to give you a true starting point. Picture yourself both heavier and thinner. Then say these words: “This is where I am today. I could be better. I could be worse. This represents my life.”

Exercising three times a week will improve your health and your cardiovascular system, and you’ll even feel much better, but it doesn’t do enough to change your metabolism and vastly reduce your weight. This is the reason you need to get aerobic exercise daily, or at least five times a week. When you exercise in the morning, you are charging up your metabolism right from the start.

In setting up your typical week of exercise, I strongly recommend that you choose a primary exercise, as well as one or two alternate exercises. Walking is my top choice for most of you who want to lose weight. It’s highly aerobic; you don’t have to learn a new skill, you don’t need any expensive equipment, and you can perform it just about anywhere.

To properly perform the technique of aerobic walking, it is important to keep your head straight and chin up and to look forward, not down. Keep your shoulders up and level—not hunched or rolled forward. Your hips should be in line with your shoulders, and your back should be erect. Bend your arms at a 90-degree angle and swing them to help propel you as you walk. As you swing your arms, make sure that your hands don’t reach above shoulder level. This will keep your posture in check.

Oprah started out walking at a pace of 17 minutes per mile. She quickly progressed to 13 minutes per mile. She then switched to jogging as her primary exercise, and walking became one of her alternates. At the time she reached her goal weight, she was running about 8-minute miles. She needed to progress to jogging to continue losing weight. Many of you will be able to reach your goal weight by remaining with walking as your primary exercise.

How long you exercise is important—20 to 60 minutes is recommended—but it is less important than how hard you exercise. If you are not exercising at the proper intensity level, you will not see much weight lost. At what intensity should you exercise in order to change your metabolism? Exercise intensity has traditionally been prescribed using a percentage of your maximum heart rate, or the number of heartbeats per minute.

Your heart rate reflects the rate at which your body is using oxygen, as well as the rate at which it burns calories. Checking your heart rate during exercise is only a fair way of measuring how hard you are working out. You need to work hard enough and long enough to break a sweat and elevate your breathing. I believe nothing under 70. percent of your maximum ability will produce the type of results we are looking for. This is the intensity at which I want you to learn to exercise.

Soon after you begin exercising regularly, you will start to feel better physically and mentally. You will also get subtle signs that your metabolism is changing. Your clothes become looser, and you will have more energy throughout the day.

“Once you’ve learned how to exercise, it’s also important to learn how to eat right,” writes Greene, who recommends a low-fat diet—no more than 20 to 50 grams per day—balanced with a generous mix of fruits and vegetables, and six to eight glasses of water. Equally important, he insists, is a philosophical commitment, a “daily renewal,” to help set goals and focus on the day ahead.

Daily renewal begins when you first wake up. You take a few moments to state what is important to you, what you wish to accomplish, and the steps you will take that day to work toward your goals. Starting out, you may decide it’s best to write down your renewal statement. Later you may say it out loud or just say it to yourself—whatever works for you.

Before I met Oprah, I often encouraged my clients to use a log or a journal. They stated their weight-loss goals and kept track of what they ate and when they exercised. It also helped me evaluate how they were doing. I was glad to hear that Oprah too had kept a journal for most of her adult life. This became a valuable tool in discovering how and why Oprah ate.

One of the most important aspects of a journal is accurately writing about your feelings. You can learn so much about yourself. It’s a good idea to maintain your journal for at least three months. After that, a healthy lifestyle should be second nature.

There are two concepts that go hand-in-hand with daily renewal:

1. Living in the moment.

2. Finding joy in your life.

I believe that without incorporating these two concepts into your day and your life, you may have a difficult time maintaining any results you achieve.

These are difficult concepts for people who struggle with weight, since they are often very unhappy with themselves; for them eating may fill a void. They usually believe they can only be happy when the weight is removed. This is almost never the case. If any of these same individuals reach their goal weight, they realize that they are still unhappy with themselves. And they almost always return to their old habits to mask the pain.

Exercise is one way to learn how to live in the moment. You become very aware of your breathing, of every muscle that is working. Just try thinking about the past or the future while you exercise! You can’t help but become very aware of your breathing, of every muscle that is working.

When I first met Oprah, I never saw her experience joy. One day we were taking a long walk along Indiana’s backroads, when I asked her about it. “How often do your feel joy in your life?” I asked. She appeared caught off guard. I asked her when was the last time she had experienced a joyful moment. “Ah. I’m trying to remember,” she said. “I think it was 1985, when I was doing The Color Purple. I loved every moment of it.” I dropped the subject, but her response made me sad. I could tell it made her sad too. Here it was 1993. She hadn’t experienced real joy in almost eight years.

Her day was filled with lists of things to do, and she was always focused on what she had to do next. At times her show was the exception. During that hour, she was occasionally able to live in the moment.

As time went on and Oprah was more successful with her weight-loss program, I began to see her express little bouts of happiness. I remember the first summer after I started working with her, we were out at her farm and she had a couple of girlfriends visiting. They were the perfect picture of southern ladies, with their sundresses and wide-brimmed hats on, sitting on Oprah‘s porch, singing along to Bonnie Raitt songs. When I walked up to the porch to let Oprah know I was ready for our second workout of that day, she gave me an almost defiant look. “Bob, I’ve had the best day, and I’m not working out again today.” She looked so genuinely happy that all I could say was, “Have fun.”

These joyful moments became more frequent. But her strongest joyful moment I ever witnessed came in October 1994. We had been running in pouring rain during the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington. Oprah had run a perfect race. I looked up and saw the 25-mile marker. It was clear she would finish. I turned around, and I saw Oprah with tears in her eyes.

I immediately thought of the time when I first met her. I remembered all the obstacles she had overcome—her difficult childhood, her food addiction, her busy, stressful life—to be there that day. I recalled all of the hard work, self-discipline, desire and commitment she had shown during the past two years that prepared her for this race. I thought of all the miles run on dusty Indiana back-roads. I thought of all the 5 a.m. workouts. I thought of the long runs when she was exhausted but kept going anyway. And when I looked into her eyes brimming with tears, I knew she was replaying those memories too. I had never seen her so joyful.

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