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Art Smith's Weight Loss Reveals the Importance of Compassionate Support

Posted: 04/18/11 03:20 PM ET

When Art Smith talks about losing weight, people listen and change for good. This chef to the rich and calorie-conscious has inspired waist-watchers far and wide to resurrect hope, if not shape up and slim down. If I hadn't been changed for the better by a recent phone interview with Oprah's incredible shrinking chef, my natural-born skeptic would have said, "Yeah, right. You had an Aha! Moment on the telephone?" Actually, I did. Smith's hope is contagious, his story transformative. But don't take my word for it. Read on.

While he readily tells all about his weight-loss success, Smith reveals few details about the depths of his despair. When he says things like, "I wasn't in a good place," Smith seems to be suggesting that he could use more distance from his not-so-distant past.

On paper, this Chicago chef was living the American dream -- personal chef, restaurateur, author, TV celebrity. In reality, Smith was deathly afraid of dying. For good reason. By the time he had reached an all-time high of 325 pounds, the then-49-year-old had developed type II diabetes and an alarming habit of rushing to the hospital with what he feared were heart attack symptoms.

It turns out that the obese chef was suffering from panic disorder, not the heart disease that killed his diabetic dad. The diabetic son probably struggled with binge-eating disorder, too. Exhausted and ravenous after a late-night kitchen shift, he thought nothing of gorging on four or five peanut-butter sandwiches.

Despite the steady decline of his health, no single wake-up call woke Smith up. And yet, not long after his 10-year stint as Oprah's full-time chef (he's still her special-occasion chef), he started searching for help to change his unhealthy ways. He spent months interviewing America's top trainers before he found one he could call his own, Az Ferguson, who called to say, "I heard you need help. When do you want me to be there?"

The title of Ferguson's book may be "The Game On! Diet: Kick Your Friend's Butt While Shrinking Your Own," but it wasn't this life coach's kick-ass approach or ripped abs that sold Smith 18 months ago. It was their instant, compassionate connection.

"It was the first time I met someone who believed I could be better than I was," Smith says.

Ferguson personalized his plan to Smith's tastes (chocolate!) and interests (running), but it's much like other popular plans. "The Game On! Diet" prescribes "whole foods" (lots of fruits and vegetables), 60-plus minutes of daily exercise (cardio and strength training), some measure of success (the bathroom scale) and incremental goals (Smith's first: 50 pounds by his 50th birthday).

What separates this LA trainer from the rest is his time investment. Rather than avail himself for an hour or two, Ferguson makes himself available 24-7. Smith's first session was an extended two-week house call.

"A complete stranger dropped out of a plane," Smith explains, "moved in and we started working together."

If your inner skeptic is thinking you can't lose weight unless you can afford a live-in trainer, think again. Money can surely buy to-die-for real estate, but it can't buy sustainable slimness.

Smith did pay a pretty penny for his extreme make-over, but the secret to his success has nothing to do with dollars or cents. Besides daily running and the occasional marathon, it was good, supportive company that did the trick for him.

In dozens of studies on "social support" or team effort, dieters who found compassionate company have lost more weight and kept it off longer than those who kept to themselves. In fact, the longer dieters stay in touch with supporters, the more likely they are to stay the course.

Support, it's worth noting, can be positive and negative. Positive support is a conscious and generous act committed by any number of caring individuals. Negative support is that thing some people do when they discourage healthy change, like when someone buys you the very snack you've sworn off.

If you generally accentuate the positive and decrease, if not eliminate, the negative, you'll be in good shape. Easier said than done, right? If you don't find positive support in the obvious places -- a diet group, a personal trainer, a nutritionist -- seek until you find. You'll have more fun losing the weight, and better odds of keeping it off.

Smith has gotten positive support from any number of friends, relatives and relative strangers. One kind stranger who saw Smith on Bravo's "Top Chef" sent him an iPod loaded with workout music. Lady Gaga's up-tempo tunes have also kept him putting one foot in front of the other on the treadmill. The support has become mutual between Smith and his "kids," the young chefs who've followed his example and shrunk down to a healthier size. There's no shortage of positive influence at home, which he shares with his life partner, their three dogs, five cats and 15 fish. Keeping all this good company, the 51-year-old chef has lost and kept off a grand total of 110 pounds.

"I'm proud of myself," Smith says, "but more important, I'm proud of the fact that my success is helping others."

As proud and positive as Smith feels, he's not immune to negativity. Worse than the less-than-helpful hints he's gotten from well-intentioned friends -- "You're too thin!" "Aren't you taking this to an extreme?" -- is the negative feedback he's heard from Hollywood execs.

"I always felt I didn't get roles [TV jobs] because of my weight," he said, "but recently, I didn't get a role because I lost weight."

The happier, healthier chef finds he can push past the negative and stay positive. Encouragement apparently has a bigger impact on eating habits than discouragement.

Now that Smith's weight-loss efforts have paid off, he's putting his money where his mouth is to prevent childhood obesity through his charity Common Threads.

Smith's hopeful message to all ages: "Not only do you need yourself for weight-loss success, you need other people."

What do you imagine would happen if you took Smith's hope to heart? I have, but I'll save that topic for later. Now might be a good time to notice how Smith's story leaves you.

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Jean Fain is a Harvard Medical School-affiliated psychotherapist specializing in eating issues, and the author of "The Self-Compassion Diet." For more information, see www.jeanfain.com. To share your reactions to Smith's story, please post your comments below.