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Shay Sorrells of “The Biggest Loser” Answers Social Workers’ Questions!

Shay Sorrells did not win the eighth season of the “The Biggest Loser” (Tuesdays at 8 p.m. Eastern on NBC). Still, the National Association of Social Workers member and Newport Beach, Calif., resident has become one of the hit show’s most popular challengers.

When Shay competed she was the heaviest contestant up to that time, weighing 476 pounds. She shed 170 pounds by the end of the season. Now Subway restaurants will pay Shay $1,000 for each pound she loses by the end of the ninth season.

Several weeks ago Shay invited other social workers to ask questions about her experiences.

Here are her responses:

Q: What can we do to give lower income families access to healthy foods? When you need to put food on the table or into your children’s mouths, sometimes health goes out the window and it doesn’t matter if you’re eating macaroni and cheese or a healthy dinner — you just need to eat!

SHAY: I completely agree and understand and have lived the whatever-is-available-is-what-you-eat lifestyle. There are some small changes and choices you can make to a menu that won’t break the bank and are food stamp friendly!

If you are working with a family that has NO means:

  • Look for organizations in your community that are willing to donate fresh vegetables and foods! You would be surprised how many places would be willing, especially when you flash that non-profit, tax write-off paperwork!
  • Depending on your location (and family situation), if you are in a rural area or at least dirt is accessible think community garden, back patio garden, or even windowsill garden! It is really cheap to grow your own veggies, spices, and herbs and it’s a great learning experience for the whole family.
  • Sometimes it can just come down to preparation. Ingredients such as almond milk are superb for you and much cheaper. Using less butter or less oils to cook is a better option. White bread and wheat bread usually cost the same. Buy wheat bread and brown rice instead of white bread or rice.
  • Educate clients on how a $3 dollar McDonalds Happy Meal can actually stretch if you spend that amount on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for several meals.

For the family that has LITTLE means follow the above tips plus advise clients to:

  • Check out vegetables and fresh meats that are near expiration and are “manager’s specials” that are deeply discounted. Grocery stores near where I live often do this.
  • Select frozen vegetables, which are a more affordable option and often go on sale and don’t perish as quickly. Frozen vegetables also have more nutrients than fresh ones because they are frozen at peak freshness.
  • Opt for low-sugar cereals for the kids! Last time I checked, sugary cereals were more expensive than Raisin Bran and similar brands.
  • Go to Costco! They have great deals on large quantities and these days carry a lot of health-conscious products such as Greek yogurt (more protein and less carbs, keeps the tummy fuller on less of it! ), egg whites which stretch much further than whole eggs etc!

Q: How do you manage to get in appropriate meals, snacks and exercise in the social worker world? As all social workers know we are very overworked and very underpaid.

SHAY: First, follow some of the above advice that I gave for our families. We all teach our families budgeting and prioritizing very well but often don’t practice what we preach! Am I right? I work in the field a lot so at the start of the week (Sundays for me) I cook a week’s worth of meals (meat, veggies, fruit, snacks etc.), put half in the freezer and the other half portioned in baggies in the fridge. Every morning I throw a days worth (whatever your calorie intake is) of food in a cooler, put ice packs in, silverware etc. and I know I can have anything in that cooler. Now on the days I wake up and realize I was supposed to be somewhere five minutes ago there are several places besides a grocery store, which is my first choice, that I know I can stop and get something that won’t completely destroy my day. For example, I go to Subway and I get a six-inch, whole wheat (with the bread scooped out), turkey sub with double lettuce, tomato, bell peppers, spinach, cucumbers and avocado, with pepper and balsamic vinegar. With applies and iced tea that’s $6. If I can’t locate a Subway I go to El Pollo Loco and get a skinless chicken breast and a loco salad (or two). Ask for the salad without the tortilla strips and get the light creamy cilantro dressing. Shred the chicken into the salads, use half or less of the dressing (or just use the house salsa!).  That’s $4 and not bad on the calories!

Q: I am glad you were able to address your problem and I wish you well on your new diet and new mind set. However, do you think you provided a poor role model for clients when you were obese?

SHAY: Thank you for your well wishes. I do not believe I provided a poor role model because much more makes up a social worker than their size or weight. However, I do think for me it was a reality that I was not going to be a very good social worker if I was a dead one or an immobile one. I have helped empower many clients in my years in the field and I do not think my weight directly affected them. However, it did affect me and my abilities. If anything, I believe that to truly empathize and understand someone you will have had to walk in their shoes, whether literally or at least mentally. I think by going public with my journey and struggle it provided a very positive role model for many more people than I could have ever imagined.

Q: I get hesitant to bring up a client’s weight unless they talk about it first. I don’t want to offend my clients or make them uncomfortable in any way. What is your suggestion for bringing up this topic?

SHAY: Talk about general health overall. If that makes you feel more comfortable it can be a gateway to the conversation. The reality is if you are overweight you know it and you know everyone else knows it. The other side of that is no one can make a change for you, you have to decide to do it for yourself and that may be why clients do not talk about it openly to us. However if it is directly affecting their treatment or services (diabetes or medical care) you may want to address it in that capacity and set goals and objectives accordingly.

Q: From your experience as a social worker, are the causes of obesity common across diverse populations or are they differentially experienced by individuals of different socio-economic status, race, gender etc.?

SHAY: Obesity and weight issues are an American epidemic that does span across many populations. However there are some cultural and ethnic components that definitely have an impact on some more than others. For example, some cultures celebrate and show love through food because it is their only means. This can lead to emotional eating and weight issues. For other cultures their traditional foods historically were the least nutritious and basically most unhealthy because of their status in society. This is difficult to change because now the food is accepted and celebrated as culture. America also markets certain foods and products to certain socio-economic classes more frequently than others. I read  a study that (said) there are more fast food places per square mile than grocery stores in ALL lower economic neighborhoods! This is a problem of epic proportions and a macro social work issue if you ask me!

Q: What would be the first intervention and the most important interventions for a client who asks for help dealing with weight and eating-related issues?

SHAY: Help the client pinpoint what the underlying food issue is, whether lack of education about nutrition and exercise or emotional eating. This will lead you to your next intervention which would be education or counseling and most of the time both.

Q:  Do you plan to incorporate what you learned on the “Biggest Loser” into your practice or with your clients?

SHAY: Absolutely! I learned more than just weight loss on “The Biggest Loser.” I really learned about the emotional weight and the compulsive emotional eating that had taken over my life. There are direct connections between mental health and our physical and emotional health. We are total people, and to compartmentalize and only work on one aspect is a disservice. Many times emotional and mental health issues derive from a physical health issue. Are you depressed because you are overweight or overweight because you are depressed? Treating both would be the best possible method of help for our clients.

Q: I work in a diabetes education clinic. We are holding a class for people interested in learning to live and eat healthy. What do you feel is the most important issue to address in a class like this? I want to stress that we are not going to talk about losing weight.

SHAY: Lifestyle change! Diets are a setup for failure! We must look at lifelong changes that are achievable and sustainable. Goal setting is HUGE! Research suggests setting small attainable goals no further than 12 weeks out. Ideally, four to six weeks keeps interest peaked. So some goals may be to keep my blood sugar between this and that number, to walk four times per week, to drink eight glasses of water daily etc. Achieving these small successes will pave the way to better health without ever talking about weight!

Q: What are your future plans?

SHAY: I plan to continue on my journey to a healthier and happier me and to continue helping people for as long as I can. I do not believe that I have had this experience for only my growth but for the growth of others around me. I am a social worker — in my opinion from birth — and that is not going to change. It may look different but then I never went with the status quo. It may be in a public speaking arena, in a macro public advocacy role, or in helping agencies and companies to provide healthier opportunities for their employees to promote total health.

To learn more about how social workers such as Shay help people live healthier lifestyles visit the National Association of Social Workers’ “Help Starts Here”  Mind & Spirit Web pages by clicking here and Health & Wellness Web pages by clicking here.

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