A Good Loser

Dr. Jeff Levine gained national attention last year when he shed almost 200 pounds—nearly half his weight—all in the name of reality TV.

Jeff Levine got fat while training to become a doctor. In his first year of residency at Overlook Hospital in Summit, Levine stayed awake during 36-hour shifts by eating the potato chips, chocolate bars, and hot dogs that were provided free in the hospital cafeteria. He supplemented those snacks with the often fatty meals that pharmaceutical sales reps would provide for lunch. At home, caring for a baby and a two-year-old with his wife, Doris, Levine had little time to exercise.

He gained 75 pounds that first year. Levine continued to get heavier over the next fourteen years, peaking in the summer of 2004 at 400 pounds. “People think, You’re a doctor, you should know better,” Levine says from his family-practice office in New Brunswick. “But people forget we’re human first. We have the same weaknesses that everyone has.”

At his heaviest, Levine grappled with severe sleep apnea, blood clots, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. Doctors suggested surgery, including a stomach-stapling procedure that, Levine says, would have reduced his stomach to the size of an egg. He had trouble climbing stairs. “My ankles started to hurt so much,” he says. Some of his patients took time out of their own sessions with him to broach the uncomfortable subject of his weight.

Between those dark days and this fall, Levine, having lost nearly half his body weight, has become New Jersey’s unassuming spokesman for obesity awareness. It was his appearance last year on a reality TV show, NBC’s The Biggest Loser, that finally spurred his transformation. Before the show, Levine lost 30 pounds; on the show, he lost 103; after the show, he lost 50 more. (In September he weighed roughly 230 pounds.)

Secluded on an equestrian ranch in California’s Simi Valley for twelve weeks during the taping of the show, Levine, then 42, exercised four to six hours a day at a gym, using treadmills, stair-steppers, elliptical machines, and cycling machines. He prepared healthful meals and snacks, using egg substitute instead of whole eggs in vegetable-stuffed omelets and spreading fat-free cream cheese on crackers with salmon. He was never hungry. “I promised myself I would never starve,” he says, “and never do anything I wouldn’t let my patients do.”

Levine was eliminated in the second-to-last episode, but he took what he learned back to Hillsborough, where he and Doris live with their four daughters, ages ten to seventeen. He hits the gym each morning at 5:30. When he needs to use a computer at home, he chooses the one upstairs to avoid being tempted by the refrigerator. He steers clear of food with a high glycemic index, like white rice and white bread; asks for light meals on flights; and brings healthful lunches to work. He allows himself treats like ice cream but buys low-fat brands and scoops smaller portions into smaller bowls. Levine says he once used food “as a drug,” but now eats for sustenance and energy.

“I feel great,” he says. “I was just playing soccer with my kids on Monday. We play basketball. I’ve gone horseback riding in the Poconos. I’m on the horse, thinking, Oh my god, I can’t believe I’m doing this.”

Levine has shared his story not only with his family but with state and national groups. He has spoken at the Robert Wood Johnson Hamilton Health Center, an American Academy of Family Physicians conference in Florida, and an American Dietetic Association meeting in New York. In September he was the keynote speaker at the launch of the Emanuel Community Development Corporation’s Wellness Challenge 2006, which aims to help staffers and clients from four New Brunswick–based social service agencies lose weight and make healthy lifestyle changes.

“That was very motivating,” says Betty Perez, who heads the Puerto Rican Action Board’s team in the wellness challenge. “Every time I think back to Dr. Levine, I’m like, if he can do it, I can do it. I think a lot of my team members feel the same way.”

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