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Doctor follows her own advice, loses 97 pounds

She's up at 4:30 and out the door of her Largo home by 5 just about every morning of the week. One hour and 5 miles later, she returns home from her brisk walk to get the kids ready for school and herself off to work. Charmaine Carter, 44, is a busy woman with a family and a full-time job who still manages to make time for a healthy lifestyle.

The reasons are pinned to a bulletin board in the hallway of her Feather Sound office, where there are more than a dozen photos of the Carter family — husband John, daughters Courtney and Victoria and son Jonathan. Charmaine Carter beams as she points out who's who, including a heavier version of herself taken months ago.

It's a portrait of progress, a personal journey to health traveled by a woman who knows the stakes better than most.

Carter is a family physician who found herself in the ironic position of preaching to her patients about the dangers associated with obesity. For her, getting healthy was not only a personal imperative, it also was a public and professional responsibility.

'No more excuses'

But it was a personal realization that tipped her mental scales toward wellness. A year ago, Carter's "baby," Jonathan, was about to turn 10.

"I realized I hadn't lost my baby weight and decided, I've gotta get this weight off. No more excuses." At 5 feet 8 inches tall, Carter was more than 100 pounds overweight.

During medical school, Carter was in top physical shape. She took up competitive bike riding and cycled at least 26 miles each day, in addition to working and studying. The routine helped her win a lifelong war with weight, slimming her into a size 12.

Then she got married, started practicing medicine and soon had her first child. She lost some of the pregnancy weight, but not all of it. Carter and her husband wanted a big family so it wasn't long before baby No. 2 was on the way, followed 20 months later by their third.

Three pregnancies. A hectic schedule. Then came the grief over not being awarded custody of a foster child the couple had raised for two years. It all left the doctor in poor physical condition.

"I was putting other things first," she says. Taking care of herself was so far down on her list, it pretty much fell off.

'She looks fabulous'

Then came the 10th birthday revelation last May. Carter made the decision to lose 120 pounds, and like the scientist she is, she formulated a plan.

She gave herself 18 months to accomplish her goal by addressing two critical issues: food and physical activity. She liked the look of the South Beach Diet regimen, and she followed the plan's instructions to cut out starchy carbohydrates for the first two weeks, then add back only the highest-fiber, nutrient-dense carbs.

She included the family in her healthy eating plan, introducing a new vegetable or lean protein every week. The children got involved helping with shopping and cooking. "We had never had Brussels sprouts before, squash, cauliflower, eggplant. Soy burgers, turkey chili."

Once the food issues were in hand, it was time to tackle exercise. Carter decided to start walking in community races. During the week she would train by getting up early and walking in her neighborhood. On the weekends, she would compete in whatever walking or running event she could find in the bay area.

That kept her motivated because she was always training for something. "At first, I could only walk a half mile and I'd be sweaty and tired."

She laughs now, remembering how difficult that half mile was back then and how natural it is now to walk 10 times as far.

The focused physical activity and attention to diet have paid off: In less than a year she has lost 97 pounds, bringing her down to 232 pounds.

She hopes to lose another 40 or 50 pounds and has set as her goal Jan. 10, when she and her husband — who has dropped 30 pounds on the family's regimen — will participate in the Disney Marathon.

Patients who haven't seen her in six months or a year are floored. Carter, a warm, empathetic woman with a reputation as a careful listener, has always been frank about her own weight struggles with her patients, and they seem genuinely thrilled for her.

"She looks fabulous," says Shawn Marsh, 39, of Dunedin, a patient for more than eight years. Carter says hello as she dashes through the lobby on her way outside for a newspaper photo.

Marsh has one word for the transformation: "incredible."

Now that she's getting healthier, Carter says it's much easier to counsel her patients to follow suit. She sends them home with the tools that are helping her: "I pull out a walking schedule, a sheet on the South Beach Diet plan, and I share photos of myself in races.

Good days, bad days

Back inside her office, Carter shares one of the most important tools that keeps her on track: a stack of three thick, tattered journals, rubber-banded together. These compact notebooks are where Carter has recorded her food intake and physical activity every single day since beginning her program on May 21.

Even while on vacation or out of town the notation is made, in handwriting legible only to a doctor. It's all there — the good days, the not-so-good.

Glancing through a journal, Carter stops on one page and remarks with a giggle, "I didn't do too well on that day."

Now, Carter is training for this weekend's Aflac Iron Girl National Women's Event Series. The 10K/5K run and walk takes place Saturday at Coachman Park in Clearwater. Carter hopes to walk the 10K (6.2 miles) in one hour and 25 minutes.

What might have been impossible for her less than a year ago should be no trouble at all for the doctor who followed her own prescription, shaping not only a new body, but a new mental image.

As Carter herself puts it: "I am an athlete.''

Irene Maher can be reached at imaher@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3416.

. Tips & resources

Follow in her footsteps

Charmaine Carter used The Ultimate Pocket Diet Journal, by Alex Lluch, to track her progress. It's available from Amazon and major book sellers starting at $9.95, but any small notebook will do, as long as it fits in your pocket, purse or briefcase. Clip on a pen or pencil to make notes throughout the day. Don't get to the end of the week and expect to remember what you ate for lunch last Saturday. Make entries often.

• Go to walking.about.com for information on walking for fitness. You'll also find downloadable walking logs, nutrition tips and schedules to train for your first race, half-marathon and marathon.

The same Web site has a link to the Google Pedometer Map. Highlight your usual route and it will give you the distance.

•If you would like to check out the South Beach Diet, there are numerous books available by its creator, Dr. Arthur Agatston, a Miami Beach cardiologist. See www.southbeachdiet.com.

Doctor follows her own advice, loses 97 pounds 04/01/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 1, 2009 5:32pm]

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