Pamela K. El, before and after.

Pamela K. El has a job she loves, as a marketing vice president for State Farm Insurance Company. Two years ago, her company began sponsoring “The 50-Million Pound Challenge,” a national, interactive program to help people lose weight. El traveled across the country with Dr. Ian Smith, the physician, journalist and well-known author of The 4 Day Diet, to promote weight loss and good health.

But for El, life on the road, pitching healthy living to other people, took its toll on her personal health. The heavy travel schedule and long days translated into lots of unhealthy airport food, late-night snacks, not enough fresh fruits and vegetables and little exercise. Her life had turned into the antithesis of the plan she was marketing.

After more than a year of bad habits, her career and health collided. “When I started the tour in 2007, I was at the top of my game professionally. I weighed 217 pounds, but was a happy big person,” says El, 51, who lives in Bloomington, Ill. “I had high blood pressure and was teetering on diabetes, but basically I thought I was OK.”

Then she saw herself in a promotional video about the company’s initiative. “I had gained 20 pounds and looked like the poster child for obesity,” says El. “When I saw myself on that video, delivering the message of good health, I realized what a hypocrite I was. This wasn’t what I wanted. How could I be telling people to be healthy when I wasn’t? At that moment, I broke down and cried.”

That moment also became her turning point. “Seeing myself gave me the motivation to change,” she says. “Rationally, I knew the facts. But I had never looked in the mirror and applied that to myself.”

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After she made the decision to change her weight—and her life—getting started was the easy part. She asked Smith for help. “He said, ‘Pam, if you’re ready, I’ll help you.’ He’s a diet expert, and I’d been traveling with him for over a year and had gained 20 pounds. I could’ve asked him for help at any time. But I hadn’t been ready.”

That day and date are etched in her mind: Feb. 24, 2008. Smith gave El his new book, The 4 Day Diet. It’s actually a monthlong program, arranged in seven “modules” that last four days each. You do the first two modules one after the other. The first is the Induction, a cleanse to help remove toxins and kick-start the program. After that comes Transition, to reintroduce all the food groups. After you’ve completed the first two steps, you can do the other modules in any order you’d like for four days each. They are:

·        Protein Stretch, which is heavy on health protein, light on carbs.

·        Smooth, which incorporates some formerly forbidden foods like pizza and French fries

·        Push, the sprint just before the final stretch in which you move back to a stricter eating plan

·        Pace, a comfortable module that is healthy but less strict.

·        Vigorous, the final module to lose those last few pounds

“I won’t lie. Losing weight is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” says El, who is married and has two step-children. “But it’s also one of the most important things I’ve done.”

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Once El began Dr. Smith’s very structured program, she realized that her travel schedule was going to be her biggest challenge. “I’m on the road, and it’s hard to find healthy foods, but I had to learn to put weight loss first,” says El. “I had to say to myself, ‘Yes, I travel a lot; yes, I work hard, but I’m doing this to lose weight.’”

It took planning and organization. “I had to get up earlier before a flight to throw some grapes, an apple and a snack bar into my bag rather than eat the fast food at the airport,” she says. “I had to be prepared and determined.”

She also did her best to stick to a consistent workout schedule. “I learned to schedule time to go to the gym and stick with it,” says El. “It was up to me to get the excuses off the table.”

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Her determination paid off. She is 70 pounds lighter and went from a size 18 to an 8. “The best part is I have cut my high blood pressure medicine in half, and my doctor says I’ll be able to come off of it altogether soon,” El says. “I have absolutely walked away from diabetes.”

Weight loss has meant more than just looking good, El says. “What’s been the best part for me is how much my appearance has motivated other people. I’ve had hundreds of people tell me that my story inspired them. Having this physical transformation allows other people to look at me and say, ‘If she can do it, I can do it.’ That’s very gratifying to me.”

Linda Villarosa is a health columnist for The Root. Passing for Black is her first novel.