Daughter's challenge is one for father too
March 15th, 2012
02:28 PM ET

Daughter's challenge is one for father too

Editor's note: Denise Castelli is one of seven CNN readers chosen to be a part of the CNN Fit Nation Triathlon Challenge. She lost her leg to an infection following a tragic accident in a collegiate softball game.

My entire life I've been blessed with two selfless parents who have given me everything.

I was fortunate enough to be afforded many opportunities. I played the piano and clarinet, took art classes, played softball, bowled... the list goes on. We had a home cooked family dinner every single night and always found ways to spend time with our entire extended family.

My parents gave me vision to see the future, strength to face the many battles of my life and unconditional love that made me unafraid of failure.

I always know, no matter what, at the end of the day, I am still loved and they are always proud of me. When you really think about it, that's an extremely powerful thing.

The two years that I was sick were hard on me, but it was even harder on my parents. Talk about feeling helpless - they had to watch their little girl (their Nene) suffer day in and day out without really knowing how to help or what to do.

This took a toll on both of them, mentally and physically. They forgot about their own health and focused solely on mine.

My father’s health issues started before I was sick. He had been dealing with his weight problem for a few years already. It had never been out of control, but during this time, he developed a problem with emotional eating.

After spending all day in the hospital with me, he would eat, and eat, and eat. Waiting for me to get out of surgery? He would eat. I had always considered my father stocky, not heavy. Yet I remember looking at him and thinking "Wow, he's really overweight."

His doctor agreed and decided that he needed to be on cholesterol medication and sugar medication - he had become pre-diabetic.

My mother and I tried to figure out ways of talking to him about his weight without hurting his feelings. It was not an easy subject to tip-toe around. I would remind him how important it was that he dances with me on my wedding day and that he is around to play with his grandkids. I tried to go at it from every angle possible but mentally he wasn't ready to lose the weight. Food was still a comfort to him.

The change he needed came on the day I was selected for the Fit Nation Challenge. I remember hugging in his office and talking about the challenge ahead of me and he said "You know what? This just might inspire me to lose weight."

I didn't want to hold him to it or put any pressure on him, but man, I knew this was something he had to do. I knew this was something I WANTED him to do. Suddenly, this challenge wasn't about just me anymore - it was about one of the most important people in my life, my father.

Things became real for me when we were in Atlanta for our kick-off weekend. I had a hard time listening to Carlos speak about his diabetes and all the diabetics in his family. Carlos went on to say that one of his family members had lost a leg due to diabetes.

I couldn't sleep that night. All I could think about was someone who I love, someone so close to me, going through an amputation - that thought made me sick to my stomach. Limb loss isn't something I would wish on my worst enemy.

Our nutritionist, Ilana, had said something that struck so true to me. "Dieting makes you fat."

BINGO. All the years my father struggled with his weight was summed up into one simple sentence. He was always trying to diet, and never trying to make a lifestyle change. I had just discovered the simple logic behind why my father could never lose the weight he had gained.

When I came back from Atlanta I couldn't wait to share all these ideas with him. I didn't want to throw too much his way, but there was one recipe that I was going to force him to try.

Every Sunday morning he makes buttermilk waffles for me, my mom and my sister. I asked him to try out the recipe for egg white oatmeal pancakes that Ilana had given us. At first there was some resistance because everyone has their own ideas about what "healthy" food tastes like, but this substitution sounded delicious.

Well, these pancakes have become our new Sunday morning breakfast! This was a great way for me to introduce a healthy lifestyle change, with yummy food that wasn't going to be toxic for his body.

With a healthy foot in the door, my mom and I then talked with him about portion control. Fortunately for my father, this is where my mom was going to have to learn to change. To all Italian women, food is love. If you're sick? An Italian mom tells you to eat. You had a bad day? Let me make you something. You got an "A" on your test? I'll whip up something good for dinner. Didn’t sleep well last night? You probably didn't eat enough.

This is the way it's always been in the Italian culture. So, my mom had to learn to cook less. Instead of making 14 chicken cutlets for 3 people (no joke) she now makes 4. If the temptation isn't right in front of my father, he won't eat it. We've all done our best to keep the crap out of the house and out of the reach of his mouth.

So now that he's portioning his food, eating less (and healthier) calories, he keeps a journal of his sugar readings. Four times a day he checks his sugar and records it in his journal. This helps him keep track of what makes his sugar spike and what makes it plummet. This is the first time in 5 years that he’s taken a proactive step in dealing with his problem.

Since the beginning of February, my father has already lost 30 pounds. He has 30 more to go and then he will have reached his goal weight.

He hasn’t looked or felt this good about himself in years! Now that he's feeling better about himself, he's decided to get his butt back into the gym. Since I've learned about the importance of a heart monitor, it was the first thing we went out and bought.

I told him that he can never, ever, ever work out without wearing it. So far, it’s only been baby steps, but I have no doubt that by the summer he’ll be running miles with me.

When I decided to take on this challenge, I knew it would change my life for the better. But I had no idea the effect it would have on the life of one of the most important people in the world to me - my father.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.