TORONTO, Ont. —‘If you could do it alone, you would have done it already.’ That’s the motto behind one of the most, if not the most, successful weight loss programs in Canada. And it’s one that was designed specifically for men.
Harvey Brooker’s Weight Loss for Men has been a sort of Mecca for overweight and obese men in the Greater Toronto Area for decades. Thousands of men from all over make the pilgrimage to Dufferin Street and up the large set of stairs to the weekly support meetings. And thousands of men have lost their beer bellies, hit their goal weight and, most importantly – have kept it off all thanks to the program.
Karl – Before 329 lbs on Sept 2014
The man behind it all – Harvey Brooker – is now 72 and is still incredibly dedicated to changing the lives of men who believe it’s in them to lose the weight.
The weight loss program is mostly focused on education and motivation. With a six, nine, or 12-month membership, men can attend weekly meetings on Sundays, Wednesdays or Thursdays. The meetings have a short, educational portion, where men learn what foods to eat, how to order food at a restaurant and how to shop at the grocery store and a longer motivational portion where Brooker encourages his patients to continue on their journey to weight loss and a healthy lifestyle. Brooker also does one-on-one sessions with individual patients. The classes mostly focus on healthy eating habits, though everyone is careful to stress this is a not a diet program – it’s a lifestyle change.
The blend of education and motivation in his classes was intentional, according to Brooker, who has done his homework and is always researching and improving his weekly presentations. Especially when you consider doctors are among his clientele.
“My first love is motivation,” he said. “I’ve had to learn about the education part of it all. I’ve had doctors and dentists in my classes. I even had a neurologist recently, who knows all about the nervous system, but doesn’t know how to control his own eating. So that’s why it’s important to have both education and motivation. And even the interaction with other men in the class… continued attendance is imperative because support is the only thing that works long-term when you’re talking weight loss.”
The program officially launched in 1985, but didn’t gain traction until the late ’90s and early 2000s when Brooker turned his advertisements to local radio stations and some major stories were published about him in the Toronto Star and the Toronto Sun that outlined the program’s unique
One of the Brooker’s most vocal and famous patients is Toronto’s own mayor, John Tory, who dropped 40 lbs when he joined the program in October of 2010. Over the years, Brooker said he’s helped people of all types – physicians, lawyers, even truck drivers. But the one constant: the program is for men and men only.
“I decided to start an all men’s class because I found that men had absolutely no answer to how to train themselves on how to eat properly and men basically didn’t know about nutrition and healthy eating at all,” Brooker told Truck News. “They don’t understand food, and historically, they are trained and expected to eat large portions, because their fathers and grandfathers did it. But what most men forget is for most, their fathers and grandfathers weren’t idle and sitting behind a desk or wheel for most of the hours of the day.”
Frank Rossi (not his actual name) said he made the choice to join Brooker’s program after several health issues he had compounded together and he was put in a corner.
Rossi has been a professional truck driver since he graduated high school. He is currently 62 years old, and in January 2015, when he joined the program, he weighed 265 lbs – the heaviest he’s ever been.
Rossi said his weight started to pile on after he got married at 32. He started having hip problems and he walked with a limp. By the age of 38, he couldn’t walk comfortably and ended up having a total hip replacement. Just seven years after that, he had another total hip replacement. After that, he had an ankle replacement.
“After the surgery, my doctor said to me, ‘With your weight, you’ll be lucky if you get 10 years out of it. Keep the weight off and you could get a few more years out of the new ankle,’” Rossi said. “On top of that, I had some cholesterol issues and I had to take medication for it. My wife used to say to me that I would snore a lot and I would stop breathing during my sleep so…I just felt that my days were numbered and that if I didn’t look after myself and change my lifestyle, these things were going to catch up with me.”
Karl after 208 lbs on Feb 28, 2016
So, he decided to join the Harvey Brooker program, whose advertisements he had been hearing for years on the radio while on the highway. And in seven months, he lost 90 lbs.
“He really opened my eyes on how to control hunger and what foods to eat,” Rossi said of Brooker.
In the weekly classes, Rossi said he enjoyed learning about portion control – something he never thought about – and how to effectively navigate a grocery store to get the most nutritious food.
“The program taught me to walk around the perimeter of the store where you can find fruits and vegetables, fish and dairy products. And how to avoid the centre aisles where all the canned and processed foods are kept,” he said. “I had the hardest time adapting to portion control, which you learn about in the classes. I’m Italian so I have to look at all this beautiful food and we have a lot of parties but I know now when to walk away from the table when I’ve had enough.”
He said though the educational sessions are informative, the best part of the program is the camaraderie and having the support of other men in the program.
“You hook up with some guys in there and we share ideas and what works for them, what didn’t work,” he said. “It’s like you’re part of a team. And now, I’m more energized. I care about how I look. I dress well. I feel sharper. I can walk comfortably now without being out of breath. I don’t snore anymore. My wife isn’t concerned about me. My doctor is amazed and he even took me off the cholesterol medication.”
Another driver who joined the program is Karl, who didn’t want his surname published.Karl, 51, is a professional driver who has been driving since he was 18 years old.
Unlike Rossi, Karl didn’t have any major health issues that he knew about.
“My blood pressure was high but I was never on any medication,” he said. “I joined because I got tired of looking at myself in the mirror. You know, when you have to go to another wedding, and I didn’t fit in my suit, then I had to buy more clothes. I was tired of not being happy with myself.”
Most alarming, between his driver physicals he was gaining 20-25 lbs.
So in September of 2014, he joined Brooker’s program weighing in at 329 lbs. By his 50th birthday in April of the next year, he dropped 80 lbs. Today, Karl weighs 208 lbs – he lost 121 lbs total with the program, going from a size 44 waist to a 34/36 and from 3XL shirt size, to L/XL. He has been maintaining his weight for three months.
In the beginning of his weight loss journey, Karl said the biggest struggle was being tempted by fast food while on the road.
“So what they tell you in the program is to always have healthy snacks on-hand,” he said. “That way you don’t have to pull into the McDonalds. I keep my cooler full of good stuff – fresh fruits and veggies, cereal, turkey sandwiches, salads. Sometimes by the end of the day, I have stuff to bring home with me because I haven’t eaten it all. Before the program, it would be burgers or fast food anytime I was hungry.”
And if Karl is thinking about buying that bag of chips or a chocolate bar to tide him over until dinnertime, Brooker is one step ahead of him. Though the comparison of Brooker’s Dufferin facility to Mecca may seem far fetched, it’s not when you realize that his patients look at him like a guru or saviour because, in essence, he has saved, or extended their lives.
“When you join, you get a medallion,” explained Karl. “It’s almost like AA. It has a picture of him on it with words of encouragement. I always carry it in my wallet. So when I’m buying something, it’s like he’s always watching me. And it reminds me how far I’ve come. I owe Harvey everything – his program really changes people’s lives.”
Sonia Straface is the associate editor of Truck News and Truck West magazines. She graduated from Ryerson University's journalism program in 2013 and enjoys writing about health and wellness and HR issues surrounding the transportation industry. Follow her on Twitter: @SoniaStraface. All posts by Sonia Straface