In 2005, Joseph Mancuso weighed nearly 500 pounds and was close to death at age 39. As the New Jerseyan grappled with a Type 2 diabetes diagnosis, he found it more difficult to complete everyday tasks, such as going to work, socializing or shopping. The health consequences of carrying so much excess weight were preventing him from living the full life he so desired.
“I couldn’t do many of the things normal-sized people take for granted, like getting on rides at amusement parks,” he says. “There are many examples of how my obesity mentally persecuted me.”
In an effort to get healthier, he tried to manage his condition by taking medication and following the Atkins diet. Unfortunately, the diet wasn’t sustainable and he didn’t like the side effects of the medication. Once he stopped, his uncontrolled blood sugar became life-threateningly high. As the years passed with no clear solution, his condition continued to worsen and he started to wonder if he would ever find a path to better health.
In 2015, he developed a severe diabetic ulcer and a bone infection on his right foot. While preparing for surgery to address the infection, his doctor told him he might lose bone mass — or use of his foot entirely. Before he went under the knife, he thought to himself, “If I’m lucky enough to retain function of my foot, I’ll do everything in my power to get healthy again.”
When he woke up, he was amazed to find he could still feel and use his right foot to its full ability. At that moment, he knew it was up to him to turn his life around.
“Once I got home from the hospital, I was unable to exercise for long months, which was grueling,” he says. “The only thing I felt in control of was my diet, so I made sure I stuck to it like my life depended on it. Oh, wait, it did!”
To help monitor his nutrition, Mancuso downloaded MyFitnessPal to track his calorie intake. After 2 1/2 years using the app every single day to track his meals and workouts, he is 250 pounds lighter.
For Mancuso, now 51, the solution to his success is simple math: calories in minus calories out.
“I know that sounds cliché, but it really can’t be done any other way,” he says.
He currently consumes about 1,200 calories a day, six days a week. Once a week, he allows himself a day to relax his eating a bit and enjoy a cheat meal or two. He has also incorporated exercise into his routine, completing 500 pushups six days a week, riding his exercise bike 30 miles a week and power-walking about 8 miles a week.
Today, Mancuso’s diabetes is in check, and he’s just 25 pounds short of his ultimate goal weight of 225 pounds. Not only is his life full of activity, he’s also back in the social swirl, meeting friends, going to the beach and fully embracing life.
He’s even learned to embrace humor as a source of strength through the darkest times. “My ability to make people laugh was always the one constant quality of mine that made me feel good about myself. All those years I was grossly overweight made me hate myself physically, but I always had my humor to make me feel I was still worthy especially in social situations,” he says. “Being so heavy made me dread being in social groups because I always felt like people were talking behind my back, making fun of me. Cracking jokes and making people laugh was my way of distracting them from my weight issues.”
He’s now writing a book about his experience, tentatively titled “Half the Man I Used to Be” — no relation to the Stone Temple Pilots’ song, he says. In the book, Mancuso will discuss his lifelong struggles with his weight, beginning when he was just a boy and ever present into adulthood, plus his ongoing battle with his weight — a battle he’s winning thanks to a more positive outlook and a commitment to himself.
While his humor bolstered him on the long haul back to health, his success has also required a good dose of self-love and willingness to make a change. When friends tried to offer him health advice in the past, he ignored them, he says. He had to find the internal motivation to start on the path toward health.
“The only one who can truly help you is yourself. One day you will open your eyes, look at yourself and your life and say, ‘I don’t want things to be this way anymore,’” says Mancuso. “Each person has to hit a wall before real changes can be made.”
Written by Kim Westerman, a freelance travel, food, coffee and wine writer and a longtime writing teacher with an interest in mindfulness and contemplative studies. She lives with her wife and two young children in Berkeley, California.