‘Couch potato’ peels away weight

(Republished with permission from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This article originally ran in the Health & Fitness section on Monday, August 18, 2008)

By Patricia Corrigan Special to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Maria Littrell works out at Lionheart Fitness in Richmond Heights. Littrell, who lost weight through gastric bypass surgery, does strength training and cardio exercise twice a week.
Maria Littrell works out at Lionheart Fitness in Richmond Heights. Littrell, who lost weight through gastric bypass surgery, does strength training and cardio exercise twice a week.

A few days after gastric bypass surgery, Maria Littrell found herself in the grocery, choosing which type of baby food to buy — for herself.

“I remember thinking the little jar of peach cobbler looked good,” Littrell said, laughing.

Before the operation, Littrell honored her Sicilian heritage by eating pasta — a lot of it, and often. After struggling with her weight for 20 years, Littrell had gastric bypass surgery in September.

The surgery reduces the size of the stomach and allows food to bypass part of the small intestine. For the first six months, Littrell had to limit her food intake to 4 ounces per meal. A 3-ounce portion of meat or chicken is about the size of a deck of cards.

“Now, I can eat 6 to 7 ounces at one sitting, as long as I pace myself,” she said. The part of Littrell’s stomach that functions is about the size of her little finger, and if she eats too much or too fast, she becomes ill.

To date, she has lost 130 pounds.

“It was all worth it,” Littrell said. “I used to be a couch potato. Now my ultimate goal is go zip-lining through a rainforest. I also want to go parasailing, and I want to take tango lessons. I see myself doing adventurous stuff.”


Littrell moved here with her family from Chicago when she was 13. For the past 14 years, she has worked as a secretary in the chemistry department at Washington University. Under the name Marial, Littrell works part time as a psychic at Mystic Valley in Maplewood. She lives with her son, Zack, in Clayton.

When Zack started his senior year of high school in August 2006, Littrell began preparing herself for an empty nest.

“His life was changing, and I knew I needed to do something to alter my life as well. I didn’t want him to graduate from high school and me to still be the same,” Littrell said. “I decided I wanted to improve myself.”

At the time, Littrell (pictured at left with her son, Zack) weighed 313 pounds.

“I had struggled with Weight Watchers and NutriSystem. I would lose a little and then gain it back. The more I gained, the worse my arthritis got, the worse my esophageal reflux got and my broken foot was not healing,” she said. “It was just one problem after another.”

Littrell researched several types of weight loss surgery, and in February last year, she entered Washington University’s weight management program in preparation for the operation. Participants undergo physical and psychological workups, and they also meet with nutritionists to learn how to eat and which vitamin supplements they will need.

“The anticipation of what was to come kept me going,” Littrell said.

The surgery was easy, she recalls, and she returned to work part time after just three weeks. Learning how to eat again was hard.

“For the first three weeks, you eat baby food,” she said. “When you get past that and you get to eat cottage cheese — 4 ounces at a time. That’s your meal for a few weeks, and usually, you don’t eat all of it.”


Nine weeks after her surgery, Littrell had dropped 50 pounds. Then she suffered a setback, developing rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. She started treatment for both. When the pain was under control, Littrell joined a gym — her first.

“One issue after gastric bypass surgery is loose skin,” she says. “If you don’t get into a formal exercise program, it can be a big issue.”

She looked for a small place that offered personal attention, and she found Lionheart Fitness in Richmond Heights.

“I met Mike Aiello, a trainer, and told him my story. He designed a program for me, and now I work out in a class, doing cardio and strength training,” Littrell said. “Since January, I have tightened up considerably, dropped another 55 pounds — and lost many inches.”

Littrell wants to lose an additional 40 pounds.

“They tell you to expect it to take 18 months to two years to lose all the weight,” she said. “I eat healthy, organic, nutritious food, nothing with more than seven grams of sugar, nothing with high fat content and nothing high in carbohydrates.”

Following the prescribed diet is second nature to her now, Littrell said. She has found plenty of good recipes in “Before & After: Living and Eating Well after Weight Loss Surgery,” a book by Susan Maria Leach (William Morrow Cookbooks, 272 pages, $24.95).

“I don’t deny myself anything, but I’ll make do with just a taste,” she said. “I also read labels very carefully, I drink a lot of water and I do not eat after 8 p.m.”

The hardest thing for Littrell to give up was those big bowls of pasta. Littrell also has had to give up her wardrobe — several wardrobes — as she has dropped from a size 26-28 to a size 14-16. Littrell hits the resale shops around town and also shops the sales at stores where previously she could not find anything that fit.

Friends and acquaintances that haven’t seen Littrell for a while are shocked when they do. Her former brother-in-law did not recognize her when she ran into him at a store, she said.

“A month ago, my son picked me up at work, and Zack said he had to look at me three times before he realized it really was me.”


Getting to know the new Maria has been an interesting process, Littrell said.

“After the surgery, you look in the mirror and emotionally, you still see the fat person. Slowly, that begins to change,” she said. “Now I look in the mirror and realize I really have done this.”

Littrell has no regrets.

“I am so glad I had the surgery. I’m more confident, and I want to do the girly things — wear heels and try a new hairstyle,” she said. “I’m dating again. I’ve even started writing a new advice column.”

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Did Littrell’s psychic abilities tip her off in advance that she would change her life so completely?

She laughs.

“Psychics are the worst readers for themselves. Still, I always knew that no matter how much I wanted to change, until I was truly ready, it wasn’t going to work,” she said. “Once I was ready, I knew that I could enjoy my life from that moment forward.”


Copyright 2008 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Inc.