The journey to weight loss, however, was not without a few bumps in the road.
Joe's Weight Loss Story
In the years leading up to his arrival at Pritikin, Joe had become an emotional eater. Battling depression, he turned to food as a means of coping. Often times in his "consume mode" Joe would binge eat, not even realizing what he was putting into his mouth.
Eventually it got to the point where he couldn't even bend down to tie his own shoes. He couldn't run outside with his kids. He couldn't attend events without sitting uncomfortably in auditorium or theater seating, barely fitting in the chair. The only clothes that fit him came from Big & Tall stores, which proved especially problematic on the golf course where all Joe wanted was to fit in and wear a normal golf-style collared shirt. Instead, he was left playing 18 holes in an oversized t-shirt.
Each time Joe attempted to diet or lose weight on his own, the efforts would turn out fruitless: nothing worked. In 2016, a cardiologist told Joe that in the next five to 10 years, he would likely suffer a heart attack and if not a heart attack, a stroke. It was probable that he would develop diabetes as well.
"That was my life expectancy before Pritikin," Joe said. "That's the road I was heading for."
The Turning Point
If Joe had angst about going to Pritikin in the first place, that apprehension only increased upon his arrival. Missing the initial orientation, he was out of sorts when he arrived after Easter weekend last spring. Walking into the gym, he didn't see anyone else as heavy as himself and was immediately discouraged. Thinking he had made a mistake in coming, Joe immediately retreated to his room and didn't leave. Just as he was on the phone with a travel agent looking for a flight out of Miami, Joe says he heard a knock at the door.
A young member of the kitchen staff, Roberto Granado, was outside his room hoping to convince Joe to give it one more chance. After much back and forth and realizing he was indeed in need of a bite to eat, Joe reluctantly followed Roberto to the dining hall and sat down. It took about 20 minutes for him to realize that no one was going to hand deliver him a small, restrictive portion of a meal. When Roberto came back over, Joe recalls having to ask him to repeat himself when he explained:
"This is the only place you're going to come to, Joe, where you can eat as much as you want and still lose weight," he said, referring to the Pritikin Diet and Eating Plan.
Explaining that guests are free to go help themselves to the buffet, Roberto sparked something in Joe.
Still not quite believing the young server, Joe remembers thinking, "I'm going to show this kid that I'm Joe Panarella and I can eat an entire plate a food."
Filling his plate to the brim Joe entered his "consume mode," mindlessly eating everything he had served himself. Following his old habits, he went up for seconds. Up until that point, Joe said he had never been a vegetable eater. In fact, he wasn't even fully aware what nutritional foods even were. But after that first meal – filled with whole, minimally processed foods low in calorie density – not only was Joe stuffed, but he realized that he had actually enjoyed the food. What's more, he couldn't even finish his second plate.
That afternoon was a turning point that he will never forget.
"If [Roberto] didn't say those things to me," Joe said, "then trust me when I tell you, I was going home."
'Pritikin Gave Me a Secret'
After his conversation with Roberto, Joe gave Pritikin a chance and it wasn't long before the competitive, athletic side of him came out. He started small, spending just 15 minutes in the gym on the machine that first day and afterward, the staff was there to congratulate him.
Driven by the satisfaction of seeing results, the freedom of the Pritikin Eating and Exercise Plans and the support of the staff and his family, he began to do more. One lap in the pool became five, 20 minutes on the treadmill became 40 and eventually he looked forward to working out.
"Soon, the scale started changing. The weight was coming off," Joe said. "By the time I left that place I made sure I was the first one in and last one out. I was competitive."
"Pritikin puts everything in place for you to succeed."
Amidst the changes that led to burning up to 1,000 calories per day, Joe also discovered the truth about food. Realizing just how unaware he had been about all that he was putting into his body, he was in disbelief. Almost immediately Joe broke the bad habits that he had had for more than 20 years. Joe credited the experts at Pritikin for spelling things out in laymen's terms and making it easy for him to digest his new lifestyle changes. They provided him with the necessary tools and resources to continue when he returned home.
"I honestly feel like Pritikin gave me a secret," Joe said. "For 20 years I was a prisoner in my own body. Now, it's like I'm back to my teenage years. I can run, I can play with my son, I actually feel free. I feel like I'm not a prisoner anymore."
Passing on the Torch
Often asked which major surgery he underwent to lose the more than 100 pounds, Joe proudly smiles when he tells friends, co-workers and acquaintances that it was Pritikin. He's amazed at the confidence he now has and how people actually see him as a leader. All told, the answer was simple, yet it saves lives, according to Joe. Today, he knows what to eat and how to eat.
"They say knowledge is power and there is no doubt because Pritikin taught me what is good and what is bad," he said. "And I've never believed it more."
It's his hope that others who also feel as though they are imprisoned in their own bodies will find the path to Pritikin.
"I just want to help the next guy," Joe said. "Pritikin puts everything in place for you to succeed, you just have to go. If you really want to help yourself, it can be done because you instantaneously see results. The hardest part is going – the easy part is seeing the results."
The Big Moment
His journey wouldn't have been possible without the push and support of his family and friends, especially his wife. Before, during and after his journey at Pritikin she remained his most prominent source of encouragement. She keeps him in line and helps to ensure the food in their home is healthy and nutritious. She even went as far as to change her own eating habits. At the end of the day, it's a team effort, said Joe.
One of his wife's dreams had always been to take a helicopter ride. For their anniversary several years ago, he decided to book the experience as part of their weekend getaway. However, those plans quickly fell through. On the phone with a booking agent, with his wife on the line, Joe learned that the weight limit for passengers was a combined 500 pounds. They were informed that just 20 extra pounds onboard could make a big difference. At over 400 pounds himself, Joe and his wife were not able to take part.
"I have my life back and I really owe it to Pritikin."
"Because of my weight, I was hurting my wife," Joe recalled. "And that really hurt me knowing that my weight got in the way of us doing something special together."
This past summer, just a few months after leaving Pritikin, Joe, his wife and their children took that helicopter ride.
"To me, that was a celebration of being able to do things with my family," Joe said. "To me, what that did was really just bring it all together. I have my life back and I really owe it to Pritikin because they put me on track to get me to where I am now. And I'll never forget that."