For 25 years, Olga Perina lived in the Czech Republic. During that time, she barely ate any fast food, but enjoyed the local dumplings and cabbage dishes. Then in May 2016, her mom died and she moved back to the United States. As she coped with her grief and the move, she turned to American food for comfort.
“I haven’t had fast food for ages,” Perina, 47, of Chicago, told TODAY. “I started eating fast food and gained the weight.”
After years of enjoying “delicious” fast food, she was diagnosed with stage 3 chronic kidney disease in fall 2020.
“I was looking for my medical chart (online), and this thing popped and ... I’m like ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die,’” she recalled. “The kidneys, they have to work twice as hard when you’re overweight.” Doctors wanted Perina to follow the DASH diet, a heart healthy way of eating developed by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, which aims to lower blood pressure. They also urged her to walk 20 minutes a day. At first, she refused, but after she was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease, she started taking her health seriously.
“It was very overwhelming because it’s a shocker,” she said. “When I found out (I had CKD), I went to Dairy Queen and I had a BR Blast, and that was the last ice cream I ever had.”
Perina stopped eating junk food and drinking soda, shying away from sweets, bread and potatoes. She also had to reduce her salt intake.
“You’re eating a meal, and the first thing you do is take the salt shaker and put it on your food, and I couldn’t do that,” she said. “It was a drastic change when I did it, and I continued to do it.”
While it felt tough at times, she knew that eating heart-healthy foods would boost her quality of life. She started adding in more fish, fruit and vegetables into her diet. To help her, she used the Lose It! app, which made it easier for her to track her calories and eat proper portion sizes. At first, she lost weight quickly and worried.
“Within a week, I lost seven pounds, and I was like, ‘Oh my god am I sick? Is it another disease?’” she recalled.
She soon realized that it was eating more fruits, vegetables and lean protein that was helped her shed the pounds. After changing her eating habits, she also began walking, at first taking a friend’s dog for strolls. But she also tried adding extra movement in her day, like taking the nine flights of stairs in her apartment building.
"I started hula hooping, which I hadn’t really hula hooped since I was 8, and that was a challenge," Perina said.
To stay motivated and divert her attention from emotional eating, she started spending more time with her daughter outside, writing a book and knitting.
“That kept me distracted from food,” she said.
Since October 2020, she's lost 57 pounds and has hit a plateau — though she’s not bothered by it. What’s more, her blood pressure has dropped, and her kidney function improved.
“I don’t feel tired that much anymore,” she said.
Perina is pleased with her progress and has found that giving herself encouraging pep talks has helped her.
“I always said to myself, ‘You’re beautiful. You’re gorgeous. Look at you. You can do this,’” she said. “I (lost weight) by encouraging myself to look at myself and telling myself these things.”
She shared advice for others hoping to improve their health.
1. Take your time
Perina took her time losing weight and didn’t set any arbitrary deadlines to lose a certain number of pounds by a certain time.
“I would tell people that if they want to lose weight or if they’re having a struggle in losing weight, to take it slow, really slow,” she said. “Slowly try each day.”
2. Give yourself a break
Sometimes Perina eats sweets or fast food, and she doesn’t punish herself. She simply returns to her fruits, vegetables and lean protein at the next opportunity.
“I will have a donut because I need to live a little, but after I have that donut, I always get back on track,” she said. “I have to because I’m only cheating myself.”
3. Cultivate self-love
“Tell yourself in the mirror that you love yourself, that you look great. There’s motivation to loving yourself,” Perina said. “You’ll have the motivation to win.”