At a little over 5 feet and 398 pounds, Karla Dombrock finally got tired of being the biggest person in the room and worrying about whether she would be able to squeeze into her car in tight parking spots.
So the Burnsville wife and mother of two traded her junk-food-and-chocolate diet for healthy eating habits, joined a weight-loss support group and shed over 250 pounds, more of her than what remains.
Now she weighs less than 150 pounds and is the biggest loser among women members of TOPS – for Take Off Pounds Sensibly — chapters across Minnesota. Besides being the Minnesota weight-loss queen for 2011, she’s also the runner-up for all TOPS chapters in the United States and Canada.
“Now I just feel I can do so many things,” the 53-year-old daycare owner said in an interview, “and that makes me feel like a different person.”
Growing up in Northfield, she was “really average” as a child, weighing just 150 pounds when she graduated from high school in 1977, Dombrock said.
By the time she graduated from Concordia College in St. Paul five years later, she had added 27 pounds, then another 11 by the time she and husband Terry tied the knot in 1989.
A significant weight gain followed that she attributed to “a lot of emotional eating” triggered by stress. “I think I’d always used food in that manner,” she said, recalling compulsive eating in college and high school.
“When you eat a lot of the wrong foods, they’re loaded with sugar and with lots of the stuff that makes you want to eat more.”
Dombrock packed away junk food and chocolate, “binging and eating all the time,” she said, “just consumed with eating.”
During one period she bought candy bars a dozen at a time and polished them off in short order. When she had a bowl of cereal, she dumped a one-quarter cup of sugar on it.
“I was extremely addicted to food,” she said, acknowledging the label “foodaholic” accurately describes her then.
Hauling around all that weight made walking and standing uncomfortable.
“Every step was just drudgery,” she said. “I just did as little as possible.” She continued to do the shopping, but her husband did all the other errands.
Stores with generous parking spaces were a plus. “I was always afraid that I was not going to be able to get back into my car.”
Dombrock found herself sitting down halfway through emptying the dishwasher and other chores.
“I was very aware that I was living my life more like a handicapped person, like a person in a wheelchair.
“I was tired of a stretchy size 5X wardrobe and walking slower than everyone,” she said. “I was always the biggest person in any room.”
Then in late December 2006 she stepped on the scale in her doctor’s office and was shocked when the numbers didn’t stop until they reached 398.
“That was my biggest,” she recalled. “From that moment on that was it. I just think at some point you’re just worn out,” and she finally realized the pounds weren’t going to stop piling up.
She lost the first 40 pounds out of desperation, Dombrock said, by eliminating fast food and binge eating. “I just started being conscious of what I was putting in my mouth.”
Then she joined Weight Watchers and dropped about 30 more pounds before her weight loss reached a plateau.
She had been a member of TOPS a few years earlier when she hadn’t managed to lose much weight. But a neighbor and close friend belonged to the Eagan chapter, and Dombrock, weighing 326½ pounds, joined her in January 2007.
TOPS is a nonprofit network of nearly 10,000 weight-loss support groups with almost 170,000 members across the U.S. and Canada, according to its website, www.tops.org.
It took nearly five years, but by October 2011 Dombrock had lost another 176½ pounds off her 5-foot, 3½-inch frame, a total of 248, to reach her goal of 150 pounds.
“I’m so grateful God gave me the determination to get the weight off,” she said.
She didn’t count calories, but she was aware of them. “I didn’t keep a record … but I just ate lower-calorie meals,” she said. “I just had to stay away from foods I loved, and I had to stick with foods I liked.”
Her strategy included eating whole foods like tomatoes and apples and whole grains, preparing her own healthy, low-calorie, low-salt meals at home and minimizing the use of packaged foods.
At a restaurant, everyone ordered what they wanted, she explained, but she couldn’t because what she wanted was high in calories. At home, however, she used low-calorie foods and could eat as much of them as she wanted. “I’m a volume eater … I really like volume.”
The fact that her doctor had lost more than 120 pounds himself during that period helped motivate her, Dombrock said.
Her TOPS chapter was helpful too. She liked the camaraderie of the group and actually enjoyed the weekly weigh-ins because of the satisfaction they provided every time she lost more weight.
With the highest weight loss to goal last year of any woman among more than 4,600 members in over 300 Minnesota TOPS chapters, Dombrock was crowned state queen in May at the organization’s convention in Hinkley. She was recognized as international queen runner-up in July at the TOPS international convention in San Diego, Calif.
She actually weighed only 145½ pounds, 4½ below her goal weight, the last time she stepped on the scale at a chapter meeting, Dombrock said.
An unexpected benefit of her weight loss is newfound energy.
“I just am so happy right now,” she said. “I’m just doing a lot of stuff.”
“I have new drive,” she said, and she’s discovered she likes to do things she didn’t care for before, like cleaning.
She enjoys more freedom of movement, walking confidently and quickly with better balance. And instead of having to find a specialty shop, she can go anywhere to buy clothes.
“At my heaviest, I couldn’t walk around the block, and now I’m a size 10 who enjoys hour-long walks,” she said.
Losing more than 250 pounds was difficult but satisfying, she said. “Certainly more satisfying than the chocolate and junk food I was living on.”
When she reached her goal weight, Dombrock became a member of KOPS, for Keep Off Pounds Sensibly. She continues to attend TOPS meetings and weighs in each week to avoid regaining the weight.
“Keeping it off is going to be almost more important than getting it off,” she said.
That hasn’t been too much of a struggle since there are lines she will no longer cross because she knows she’ll get carried away. Buying candy bars is off limits.
While she still likes chocolate, “I have new favorites that I like so much that it helps take the focus off of that.” Peanut butter and Honeycrisp apples are high on the list.
She starts her day with spoonful of peanut butter on a half-slice of toast every morning, but only one.
“I’ve gone to bed thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so lucky I get to have peanut butter in the morning,’” she laughed.
Among the tips Dombrock gives others when she appears at Minnesota TOPS events is that they can indulge themselves while losing weight. You can eat lots of foods you love, she said, as long as they’re fruits and vegetables because those are really health foods.
She admitted to treating herself each Monday night with visits to the KFC and Taco Bell drive-throughs where she orders a piece of extra-crispy chicken, a cheesy gordita crunch, triple-layer nachos — and no salad.
“But I stop at that because that’s all I’d better do,” she said, and she refuses to go into the restaurants to avoid any temptation to order more food.
“It can be done,” she said, speaking to any readers who wish they too could lose a substantial amount of weight.
She advised them to find a weight loss plan that allows you to bring in people such as your spouse, friends, children and others to share details of their weight-loss experience. It helps to be accountable to someone and to receive their support, she said.
“You really need a cheering squad,” she said. “It’s such a long road that it’s very easy to just give up.” But if you tell people, they’ll be happy for you and lessen your burden along the way.
As impressive as Dombrock’s weight loss has been, her sister, Jennifer Hoover of Apple Valley, is working on an even greater challenge.
At 5-feet, 3 inches, the 46-year-old weighed 468 pounds, but she’s lost more than 130 of them, 93 as a member of the Eagan TOPS chapter. She has about 150 to go.
Editor’s Note: Sr. Perspective writer Chuck Sterling lost 50 pounds as a member of the Kimball TOPS chapter.