On New Year’s Day 2013, Hannah Jenkins made the same resolution she’d made many times before. This time, it stuck.
“I’d been overweight for so much of my life,” says Jenkins, who at the time was a 278-pound freshman at East Tennessee State University. “I never had a specific weight goal other than to get below 200. I did want to be a size 8 in jeans, though.”
We’ll spoil the story a bit: She got there. It was enough of a life-changing experience that she changed her career plans midway through college. That she became something of a media darling this past spring didn’t hurt either — it just affirmed she made the right choice.
Growing up in Knoxville, Tennessee, Jenkins and her sisters ate out five times a week.
“My parents didn’t have a lot of nutritional knowledge,” Hannah explains. “Meals at home were frozen convenience foods like burritos, fries, corn dogs and chicken patties. We always had lots of junk food around the house like Little Debbies and chips and ate whatever and whenever we wanted. In the South, it’s acceptable to be overweight.”
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But she didn’t like the way it felt, inside or out. “When you’re overweight and someone’s talking about someone else who’s overweight, I felt ashamed,” she says. “You think people are talking about you.”
So she started working out at the campus gym. “I thought you lost weight by exercising,” she says. “But when I took the time to research, I learned exercise is just one part of it. So I started counting calories in my head.”
Everything clicked when she found MyFitnessPal. Jenkins was able to log her meals and exercise in the same place instead of keeping track of calories, carbs and sugar on her own. And if she had a craving for sour Skittles, her favorite, she could check her sugar intake with a few quick clicks.
While fellow freshmen were gaining the stereotypical 15 pounds, Jenkins dropped a significant amount of weight between New Year’s and summer — and went home looking and feeling a lot different than she had when she left.
“I didn’t weigh myself until January of the next year,” says Jenkins, who currently weighs 175. “I’m the kind of person who can be discouraged by the scale if I don’t see it going down as quickly as I want, so I decided not to weigh myself until I was 100 percent ready to see what that number was.”
But losing weight affected more than her health and appearance. Toward the end of her sophomore year, Jenkins decided mass communications wasn’t her path and changed her major.
“It hit me that I wanted to switch to nutrition when I realized what a huge impact learning about nutrition had on my life,” she says. “I wanted to share that knowledge with others so I could help others change for the better, too.”
Jenkins’ two favorite classes were human metabolism and nutritional biochemistry, where she learned about how the body breaks down food for energy.
“It was eye-opening to learn how the body can use healthy foods like veggies and what happens when we eat not-so-healthy foods like cheeseburgers,” she says. “The classes really helped me view food as fuel rather than a source of entertainment or comfort.”
And they inspired her to keep the weight off. “I realized that, as a nutritionist, people would be looking to me for advice,” she says. “Nobody would want advice on how to lose weight from a nutritionist who doesn’t look like they’re at a healthy weight themselves.”
Though Jenkins lost the weight three years ago, recent features in People, on MSN.com and SFGate have celebrated her accomplishments — and given her new opportunities to help others.
“I’m almost more appreciative to have the attention now because it shows I lost the weight and kept it off,” she says. “I’ve had many girls reach out on social media to say I’ve inspired them to lose weight or get healthier. Most had no idea how to lose weight or how important it is to track calories. Most people seemed to want to hear I had some sort of special secret to weight loss, but at the end of the day, it’s all about burning more than you’re taking in.”
Three people can already attest to her combination of education and experience: Jenkins’ father, twin sister and younger sister have lost a collective 276 pounds, all inspired by her hard work.
Jenkins graduated in May and is firming up her plans for the future, both personally and professionally.
“I’m focused on getting stronger and becoming more well-rounded in my fitness routine,” she says. “Right now, my goal is to be able to do a pullup. My ultimate career goal is to work with overweight children and teens. Going through childhood overweight is not fun and I want to help other children not have to go through what I did.”