GAINESVILLE, Ga. - When Mary Kay Berry was 31, she had trouble moving around and couldn't fit in an airplane seat.
At 330 pounds, the Clarkesville, Ga., woman was desperate for a solution. She wanted to try anything to get the weight off.
"I went to my doctor and said, 'I want pills, I want surgery, I want to get this weight off now,'" she recalled.
But her doctor wanted her to try a non-surgical option first. She was skeptical because she'd been on crash diets before and the weight always came back.
She attended Weight Watchers meetings in Gainesville. Most programs similar to the ones she attended aren't intended for those who are more than 100 pounds overweight. They focus on those who want to lose a moderate amount of weight.
Yet after 18 months, Ms. Berry reached her goal and lost 150 pounds. In celebration, her colleagues at Cornelia Elementary School called her to what she thought was a faculty meeting.
Instead, it was a farewell party for her old self.
"They said, 'We came to mourn the loss of half of one of our staff members,'" Ms. Berry said. "My co-workers were incredibly supportive."
Inspired by her success, many of the employees at her former school joined weight-loss programs. Her family members also followed.
"My sister has lost about 30 pounds, and my uncle has lost about 60," she said.
Now the head of the special education department at Level Grove Elementary School, Ms. Berry hasn't gained most of the weight back.
"That's the hard part," she said. "I still go to the meetings and get weighed in every week. For me, that's essential to long-term weight loss."
The nonsurgical approach rarely works for the morbidly obese, said Steven Walfish, an Atlanta psychologist who counsels bariatric patients at Northeast Georgia Medical Center.
"No one knows why some people are able to lose a tremendous amount of weight on their own," he said. "The vast majority cannot."
Obese patients usually have an addictive relationship with food, "and there's a very high relapse rate for any type of addiction," Mr. Walfish said, adding that most obese people, after many years of "yo-yo" dieting, feel helpless and hopeless.