Michelle Clark can see it in the faces of old friends she hasn’t seen in a while.
When they clap eyes on the 46-year-old and her husband Jeff they’re quite likely to do a double take.
After losing more than five-and-a-half stone each, they don’t look like the same couple.
But what really surprises people the most is how they’ve managed to achieve such a dramatic weight loss in 18 months.
With one in 30 of the UK population now classed as morbidly obese, the amount of people turning to weight-loss surgery has leapt up. The number of stomach operations being performed in England’s hospitals has gone up by 12 per cent in the last year.
And thousands of men and women turn to slimming clubs for help with their weight problem.
Yet Michelle and Jeff, 52, decided to do it on their own – saying they’re proof that willpower alone can work.
‘People don’t recognise us,’ says Michelle, from Hilsea, Portsmouth.
‘You can see it in their faces and you say “Yes, it’s us”. Our whole lives have changed for the better.’
The mum-of-two adds: ‘A lot of people have said they couldn’t do it without some kind of help but sometimes you’ve just got to do it for yourself and not because someone else has told you to do it.
‘My mum was always saying “You’re getting bigger” but you’ve got to want to do it for yourself.’
HGV lorry driver Jeff and doctor’s receptionist Michelle had both struggled with their weight for years.
By the time Michelle decided to do something about it she was tipping the scales at more than 15 stone. Unhappy in her size 16/18 clothes she vowed to lose weight in September 2010 after finding out she’d be heading off on a cruise.
‘Back in 2005 we’d been on a cruise and I’d lost some weight for that,’ she explains. ‘I thought “Right then, I’m not going to go out and buy all new clothes. I’m going to lose weight again” and that was when alarm bells started ringing for me.
‘My initial goal was three stone. I didn’t want to go to WeightWatchers, I’d been there and done that. It was okay but as soon as I stopped all the weight piled back on again.
‘I really just looked at the way I was eating. I’d always had issues with my weight. I ate big meals and snacked. We’d sit in front of the TV eating bags of Doritos and dips. All that went out of the window and we started eating healthier meals and smaller portions.
‘I got a Wii Fit and I got on there four times a week. I didn’t want to go to the gym because I was too embarrassed about my size so I started going out walking.’
At more than 17 stone, Jeff also knew he needed to do something about his weight. Working away from home for most of the week, he’d got used to bunging a ready meal in the microwave he kept in the cab of his lorry, rarely ate any fruit or vegetables and did hardly any exercise.
But it wasn’t until he saw some photos of himself from Christmas 2010 that he decided to follow Michelle’s lead and overhaul his diet.
The couple’s 22-year-old daughter Lizzie had bought him a slow cooker for Christmas and that meant he could start cooking fresh meals from scratch in his lorry.
Proud Michelle says: ‘He started eating healthier but he wasn’t getting much exercise, so when he made a delivery and they were unloading it he’d go for a walk round the block. The first time he ran round the block he came back out of breath but he slowly built it up. Last year he ran the Great South Run for the first time, now he’s doing a half marathon and he’ll do his first marathon this year.’
By the time they sailed off on the QE2 in May 2011, Michelle had lost more than three stone and Jeff was also doing well. During the five-day cruise they kept up with their exercise regime, with Michelle using the deck to walk around two miles a day.
The pair both began to walk at weekends, gradually increasing the distance covered as they got fitter.
Now a petite size 10, Michelle feels more confident than she has done in years. Jeff’s now a sleek 12 stone and has seen his waist measurement drop from a 42 inch to a 32/34.
Next year they’ll celebrate their silver wedding anniversary – with Michelle the same size as she was on their wedding day and Jeff even slimmer than he was when they tied the knot.
‘I don’t miss the junk we were eating,’ reveals Michelle. ‘We still have cake, I still have chocolate, just not to the extent that it was before. It’s just a case of thinking that if you’ve had a big slice of cake you’ve got to do a bit more exercise.
‘I’ve struggled with my weight all my life but this is the most time I’ve managed to keep it off. I don’t like to call it a diet. It’s a change of lifestyle. I now know what I can eat and how to do it. I still go out for meals, I still have puddings, I don’t feel guilty about that because I think “Tomorrow, I’ll go out for a long walk”.
‘It was a case of looking at what we were eating before and changing everything. It was a lifestyle change – eating and exercise.
‘We were complete couch potatoes. We wouldn’t walk to the shop to buy a pint of milk, we’d get in the car and drive round the corner. We started by walking 20 minutes and then walking back again. We increased it to half an hour and then we were doing two or three-hour walks.’
As well as adjusting their portion sizes Michelle says they’ve both learned when to stop eating before they become uncomfortably full. An added bonus has been that their weekly shopping bill has also gone down because they’re buying more fresh stuff and leaving the ready meals, processed goodies and snacks on the shelves.
Michelle says people can’t believe it when she tells them how they’ve achieved their success – but she thinks everyone can do it if they really want to lose weight.
‘Go for it, give it a try,’ she adds. ‘I used to look at slim women and think I’d never be like that. If I can do it, anyone can do it. Get out there and do something.
‘It seems to have given us a zest for life, we want to do things and get involved. It seems like a bit of a waste now when I look back and think of all the things I could have been doing.
‘We used to sit around – but we’re making the most of life now.’