Eric and Maleka Beal had moved their family to Texas after Hurricane Katrina, when Eric came down with a mild case of strep throat. What began as a cursory trip to the doctor quickly evolved into a defining moment of his and Maleka's lives. "I went to get on the scale for the initial examination," he says. "And they didn't have a scale that could weigh me."
The embarrassment was momentary, but Maleka remembers a lingering depression that seemed at odds with Eric's typically happy-go-lucky personality. "He told me what had happened, and I said, 'OK, well, what are you going to do about it?'" she says. Their answer, the couple says, was to take a good hard look at themselves. They realized that with Eric weighing in at 400 pounds and Maleka at 278, they had long surpassed being slightly overweight. Their health and their family were in danger.
Their collective gain was the result of years and years of overeating and bad habits. "If eating was an Olympic sport, you were looking at two gold medalists," Maleka says. Both were born and raised in New Orleans by families who enjoyed the city's smorgasbord of foods. Consequently, when the couple started their own family, "we didn't eat for nutrition," Eric says. "We ate for taste." Both Eric and Maleka were busy managing individual careers, two young sons and a stable and supportive marriage — which they also believe factored into their unhealthy habits. "When you're happy with someone, you eat!" Eric says, laughing. The problem culminated post-evacuation, just before Eric's doctor visit. "We were living in a hotel for months, where we didn't have access to a kitchen or a place to store groceries," Maleka says. "We were eating fast food every night."
Something had to give, but the Beals knew they needed to take a realistic approach. Their love of food — preparing it, sharing it, enjoying it — was a cornerstone of their family culture. They couldn't envision themselves morphing overnight into people who exclusively ate "rabbit food."
"We really began to spend a lot of time educating ourselves, researching the kinds of fresh foods that were out there and what they could do for our bodies," Eric says. "We became critical thinkers."
They pored over nutritional cookbooks. They examined the diets of people they considered healthy, mostly athletes, and found that often these role models ate greater quantities than what the Beals considered normal without sacrificing their favorite foods. The key difference they noticed was control over ingredients and the maintenance of an active lifestyle. They questioned their old routines. "How much were we eating? When were we eating? How was what we were eating actually affecting our bodies?" Maleka says. "We had to really be honest with ourselves, but once we understood the caloric intake, we began to understand just how we blew up."
They began replacing processed foods with fresh produce, eating structured meals at home, exercising and involving their children in the process of food preparation. They also made conscious decisions to cure themselves of their bad habits: Before their transformation, "we had ice cream after dinner every single night," Maleka says. Eric rattles off a list of behaviors he learned to avoid: skipping breakfast, eating anything fried, eating after 7 p.m. "These were all learned behaviors I had, that I never even thought about," he says. The alterations to their daily routine weren't difficult, the couple says, because they were so minor. "It wasn't about some drastic change," Maleka says. "It was a slow transition, learning that there were tipping points, that small things could make a big difference."
Always a fan of Oprah Winfrey, Maleka was hoping mostly for audience tickets when she wrote the producers in 2011 about her family's commitment to a healthier lifestyle. Instead, both Eric and Maleka were invited on the show as featured guests, along with several other fans who had experienced significant decreases in weight. Collectively, Maleka and Eric had lost 300 pounds, and national television seemed a good place to debut their leaner physiques. It marked a special moment for the couple and brought fame they hadn't anticipated.
"When we got back from being on the show, we started getting calls from people we knew, asking us how we did it," she says. "It got to the point that we were getting so much interest that we had to find a way to centralize the information."
Thus, their healthy lifestyle coaching business, Better Choices (www.betterchoices.co/wp), was born. The Beals offer weekly, three- and six-month coaching sessions, along with seminars, grocery store visits, workout circuits and online motivational resources for cooking and fitness. Their webinars are lighthearted and playful, as Eric and Maleka intersperse healthful cooking techniques with good-natured riffs on each other and anecdotes about their family life. Their recipes include pizza on whole-wheat crust, loaded with vegetables and tilapia fillets, and roasted chicken layered with fresh herbs.
"We've always been very service-oriented, and we like working with individuals, spending one-on-one time with them learning about their experiences to come up with a program that fits their needs and goals," Maleka says. "We have so much energy and enthusiasm about this."
Eric sums up the philosophy of the business in its name. "I thought about the fact that I had really changed my life, how I had really changed my thought process," he says. "I thought, 'What am I doing differently now than I did before?' I was making better choices."
Eric and Maleka will release a cookbook in June, along with a motivational weight loss journal. They remain committed to the lifestyle they've created and hopeful for the future of the careers it helped them create. "I think people relate to our chemistry as a couple, but also to the fact that we know what they're going through," Eric says. "We've been there. We watched every pound come off."