At a recent sacrament meeting, one speaker, the mother of six with just one last 16 year-old-left in the nest, recounted the story of her then 7-year old son.  A few days before Mother’s Day, he proudly showed her a pile of crumpled bills and coins.  “Mom!  What do you want for Mother’s Day?  I’ll buy you anything you want!” 

She thoughtfully replied, “Mother’s Day is about a lot more than presents.  What I’d really like is a son who listens and obeys all year!”

He closed his eyes in serious contemplation for a few moments , then opened his eyes and frankly responded, “Wow. That’s way, way  too hard.  I have about $8.00.  So what can I get you?”

Of course, we all laughed, but it was food for thought for me.  How often do we, like this little boy, making decisions on gifts or service, even if it’s not what is really wanted or needed?  I believe this extends to how we treat our bodies.   In a very real way, every day is Mother’s Day as we responsibly nurture our bodies, not unlike a mother cares for a child, by providing a lot of discipline and love that is not all fun and games.  A great deal of the time a mother’s actions are not what is wanted, but what is needed and necessary.

That same Mother’s Day, two returning missionaries gave talks in their wards about their missions.

Sam Gates and Josh Lee and their families have been great friends of ours since these boys were in kindergarten, the same ages as my own sons.  It’s been a great joy to watch them grow up as both of them have been sweet, smart, funny “bigger than life” characters  since Day One.   They both served marvelous U.S. missions (one in Salt Lake City, the other in San Bernardino California)  and came home with the experiences that mark two years of demanding, but successful service. However, they both returned with something highly unusual and extremely out of the ordinary:

One had lost 50 pounds, the other 70 and BOTH came back looking healthy and fit.

While it is extremely typical to gain weight while serving on a mission, often quite a bit, and it’s true that some lose a bit due to poor health or the locale, these two young men were different in that they had consciously determined, during this incredibly busy time of their lives, to address their personal fitness needs and to come home as healthy as possible with changes and habits in place for a lifetime of healthy living.  After having been the little boys and teenagers who ate whatever they wanted, just like the little boy who wanted to give his Mom what was easiest, they took on what would seem virtually impossible while serving a full-time mission:  a serious health plan that would not impede their time of full-time missionary service.

How did they do it?  That’s what today’s article and my next article are all about.  Today’s article features Sam Gates of the Springfield Ward in the Annandale, Virginia Stake who served in the Salt Lake City South Mission.  In my next article you’ll meet Josh Lee, of Oakton Virginia, who served in the San Bernardino California mission. 

Though I’ve watched them both grow up, I can’t tell you how exciting it is to sit down with them as returned missionaries, with two years of missionary service behind them, ready to head off to BYU next fall.  

Elder Sam Gates From Springfield, VA Served in the Salt Lake City South Mission, May 2009-May 2011

Sam, like his two brothers and two sisters, has always been tall.  If Arnold Friburg  had done paintings of  of Nephi and his brothers as children, with his styling on  muscles, bulk, and size,  he would have used the handsome Gates boys as models.   They towered over the others their age.  Their mom Susan, whose wit and wisdom makes her a favorite leader in our ward and stake, had her hands full just keeping her three sons full and busy.  All three boys enjoyed (and their parents encouraged) athletics from an early age, playing on county baseball, soccer and rugby teams from their earliest elementary years . 

Summers were spent swimming on the community swim team.  Along with being tall, they were solid guys with the weight to really hit a ball and keep a game moving.  Susan, like most of us moms with boys, made countless trips to Costco and the grocery store.  She served plenty of carbs to keep them fueled.  Whatever calories they consumed were quickly burned off in all their activities. 

Sam ran cross country his freshman and  sophomore years of high school.  He says these were his leanest years and he came in at about 185 while still growing and adding height.  By the time he was a junior he was pretty much at his full height, 6’ 1”, and playing high school football.   As had been the case from early years, the carbs and extra calories were worked off during practices and games and he pretty much ate whatever he wanted.  When he graduated he was right at about 205-210.

After graduating  from high school, he worked an office job full-time for nearly a year earning money for his mission.  Although he was no longer playing football, he ate the same.  Without high school athletics to stay in shape, he lost the muscle and added a good 10-15 pounds before submitting his missionary papers.  When he received his call to the Salt Lake City South mission he was thrilled.  With good reason:  the Salt Lake City missionaries have very unique experiences and opportunities.  He spent his first six months on a bike and quickly lost the weight he had gained the year before after high school graduation.  His next six months however, with a transfer that gave him and his companion a car, were a different story.  Between the lack of exercise, lots of dinner appointments from their wards, including a Polynesian Ward that fed them extremely well, he gained the 15 pounds back, plus some more.

As he passed his one year mark in the early summer of 2010, he was at his highest weight ever:  235.  He learned that most Salt Lake City missionaries go home with an average of 20-30 extra pounds, along with their missionary experiences.  He was coming to realize that he was going to do that very thing and began to wonder if there was something he could do to change that.  

At this time, he was transferred to a ward where a couple with whom they did a lot of missionary work  became like second parents.  They were very into health and fitness and talked to Sam and his companion about the things they were doing to acquire and maintain health.  They were able to show these great young elders that there were many things they could do with both limited time and on a missionary budget to become much healthier. They kindly pointed out that both of them would feel a lot better at a lighter weight, especially Sam.  He became aware that he could go home in May looking amazing for Mother’s Day!

Knowing that there was no way that they could be entirely independent of lots of dinner appointments where they had no say in what was served, the couple showed these willing elders how to make the most of the meals they could control:  breakfast and lunch.


  They showed them what foods would fill them up nutritionally.  They took them to Costco and showed them the best vegetables and fruits.  Then they spent time with them, adapting a P-90X workout that they could do in their apartments in the 30 minutes allotted to missionaries for exercise.


Sam says that the key to getting started was the support from them and his companion.  It took a good month to make the transition to a lot more fruits and vegetables and a lot less processed  foods.  He did not go “cold turkey” but from step to step, i.e. from sweet cereal and milk for breakfast, to Cinnamon Life, to cooked oatmeal with fruit and no sweeteners.  They had a very healthy breakfast, with oatmeal or eggs and fruit.  Lunch was a big salad with no dressing, or a vinaigrette.  That left dinner to eat what members had prepared.  If they were asked what they’d like for dinner, they’d suggest lean meats and veggies.  If not and they had no say, they ate smaller servings of whatever had been prepared.

“Wasn’t that hard?” I asked Sam.  “After all, there’s a built-in expectation of how much the elders can eat when they come for a dinner invitation!”

“Well, more than anything, it’s important to not hurt anybody’s feelings.  So we just had smaller portions of everything.”

When I asked about dessert, his answer really rang a bell and was good advice for all of us on tact in declining dessert:  “If we knew they had knocked themselves out making something special, of course we’d have some!  But if it was ice cream or cookies from a box, we knew that they hadn’t gone to any extra effort, and we usually declined.”

The exercise component was as important as the eating plan.  “We had to do everything indoors, working out in our apartment within a very limited time.  So we had a list of about 30 cardio exercises and fitness moves, pretty much using our own weight as resistance since we had no weights or equipment.  This couple spent time with us on P-Days teaching us how to do these exercises. We REALLY worked hard for those 30 minutes and made every move and every minute count!”

So, how much did he lose?  P-Days became weigh-in days, education/training days and grocery shopping days with this wonderful couple.  During his first 4 weeks he lost 20 pounds, even though he was making the transition to healthier eating and not 100% on track.   Over the next 6 weeks he lost another 15 pounds.  Another 6 weeks found him another 15 pounds lighter.  In total, he lost about 50 pounds over a four month period, from September 2010, through January of 2011.  Over the next several months until returning home the first week of May, he lost another 20 pounds.  While this was very rapid, it was done with Dr. Gardner’s and Dian Thomas’s best resources:  fruits, vegetables, limited carbs, very little sugar and lots of exercise! 

His total amount lost was 70 pounds.

“Wasn’t it hard?”  I asked Sam. “Passing up all the treats and dishes that Utah Mormons are famous for?

“Well,” he said, “Yes, but no.  I had really made a commitment, and I did have small portions of things.  But in truth, the answer is a lot like the Old Testament story of Elishah and Naaman.  Wanting to be cured of leprosy, Naaman went to Elisha and when told to do something as simple as washing in the Jordan River seven times, got mad, expecting a whole lot more fanfare for his healing. 

People think they need to do all these fancy things to lose weight, but in reality, it’s pretty simple:  most people just need to eat more of the right things, less of the wrong ones and exercise!  (Note from Carolyn:  I know that for many of us our health and bodies are at a very different place than a young man Sam’s age.  I encourage you to go back and read Dr. Gardner’s Meridian articles on why some people do not lose weight, even when we’re doing the right things.)

Here are a few more of my questions to him:

What was your motivation?  “I’ve always been big,” he said.  “And I just started to think that there was never going to be an easier time to get healthy for life.  And I sure didn’t want to get any bigger and have to lose even more!  So I just decided I better just do it.

“I also wanted to be a good example for my friends and family.  I didn’t want to talk about it.  I wanted to come with it DONE!  I had wanted to surprise my family and especially my Mom for Mother’s Day with my return home in May, but they asked for a picture at Christmas to include with the family Christmas letter, so they saw me then.  They sure had a lot of questions for my phone call on Christmas Day!

“Still, I lost another 20 pounds after Christmas, and had worked out the whole time, so my body had changed a lot between Christmas and my return in May.  It was a great surprise to them all to see how different I look.”  (His mom says he’s still setting a quiet example at home.)

Does food have the same priority in your life?   “No, not really.  I know before my mission I’d eat just when things got quiet or boring, like on Sundays after Church.  Now if things are quiet or boring, I go find something to do.  If I do decide to eat when it’s not a mealtime, I’ll have an apple or carrots something nutritious.”

What are you eating now?  “I’m on maintenance.  It’s easier to maintain than it was to lose it in the first place.  But basically still the samelots of fruits and vegetables, lean protein.   My mom fixes chicken or fish for dinner.  I don’t really eat pork anymore.  Less and less red meat.  I eat hardly any milk or cheese.  I have lost my taste for sweets:  I had a handful of Apple Jacks cereal straight from the box and they were nasty sweet.  I had to go brush my teeth to get rid of how it tasted and felt in my mouth.  My family is eating pretty healthy,  but just like in the mission field and real life, I’m the one that chooses what I eat and there’s always choices that are better than others.

What are you doing for exercise?  Now that I can leave the house on my own, I love to run.  We’ve also got some weight lifting equipment at home.  I’m really looking forward to doing a triathlon this year, so am gearing up for serious training.

What’s the best part of having lost the weight?  My new self-confidence

What was the hardest part?  It’s like the little boy in your Mother’s Day story:  Having the desire to not only lose the weight, but the desire to do the work required to lose it.


Is this for life?  Absolutely!  For always.  Definitely.  I will do what is required so I only have to do this once in my life.

Is there anything you miss food-wise?  Cookies are still a weakness, but I know what to do and will manage!


And what does his wonderful Mom have to say about his Mother’s Day surprise?   “I’m absolutely amazed! I’ve told him:  If you can do this and exemplify this kind of self-discipline and determination while serving the Lord full-time, there’s nothing in this life that you cannot achieve!”  What a marvelous Mother’s Day gift … one that money could never buy. 

As for me, I’d love to see the girls respond to Sam when he gets to BYU.  He’s going to have to be very creative to not break a million hearts! 

For my next article:  Part II Josh Lee and his 50 pounds!

Carolyn Allen has been providing weight loss inspiration since 1999 both online and in community venues in the Washington, D.C. area.  Her book, 60 seconds to Weight Loss Success, is available at  Her favorite food is steamed broccoli (lots of it!) with a little butter and lemon-pepper. Learn more about her herbal health tonic at