Ron Lester and morbid obesity

Dr. Gabe Mirkin

Dr. Gabe Mirkin

Ron Lester was a Hollywood actor who became famous for playing Billy Bob, the 500-pound high school football player in the 1999 blockbuster movie, Varsity Blues.   He also starred on the WB Television series, Popular.   At age 30, after his massive obesity had caused him to have four arthroscopic knee surgeries and two “mild” heart attacks, he had gastric bypass surgery and eventually lost 349 pounds, going from 508 pounds down to 159 pounds.  After that, he had 17 plastic surgeries to remove his excessively-stretched skin.  In 2008, he was the keynote speaker at the ObesityHelp National Conference.  In 2016, at the very young age of 45, he died of kidney, liver, heart and lung failure caused primarily by damage from his years of massive obesity.

Ron Lester before and after weight loss surgery.

Ron Lester before and after weight loss surgery.

Early Years

Lester was born in 1970 in the small town of  Kennesaw, Georgia, where only 220 of the town’s 3500 inhabitants had gone to college and more than 20 percent never made it through elementary school.  Lester barely made it through high school; he repeated grades three times and was not graduated until age 21.  His mother was Jewish, painted pictures, and was his best friend, while his father, who was Catholic, spent a lot of time on the road as an independent truck driver.

As a small child he was teased and bullied about his massive overweight, but by about age eight he learned that he could get respect because he was very strong.  Since his huge size made people laugh, he became the class clown.   In high school, he played football and said that he was able to leg press 1500 pounds.  He was a very good wrestler, but at 6′ and 305 pounds, he was not allowed to wrestle in competition because the rules stated that the heaviest weight class was up to 275 pounds. What hurt him the most was that he could never get a date because of his massive size.

He suffered serious depression and attempted to kill himself in high school but luckily, the gun that he held to his head did not fire.  His parents tried to help him, but they had neither money nor health insurance.  He eventually went to an eating disorder clinic with a group of 19 girls suffering from anorexia.  The girls looked at him and were terrified that they could end up looking like him. 

His Start in Show Business

While he was still in high school, he got a job doing a commercial for Formula 409.  Their ad said “Living large ain’t always tidy.  That’s why Formula 409 cleaners pack serious grease-busting power.”  The picture of his huge body made that ad an overnight success and he made enough money to move to Los Angeles where he worked as a stand-up comedian.  There his massive obesity got him a role in the movie Good Burger, which led to his immortal role as Billy Bob in Varsity Blues.  The film was so successful that he was offered lots of acting jobs, all for characters who were morbidly obese.

 

Massive Weight Loss

One day, he was filming a scene for his television series, Popular, where he had to get into a limousine, but he couldn’t get into the seat.   The director had the crew remove the front seat and he still was unable to fit into the space.  “I just broke down and started crying, it was humiliating.”   It was then that he decided to get gastric bypass surgery.  After his surgery, he lost 349 pounds from his 508-pound body.

Gastric bypass surgery is often the only choice available for extremely overweight people, but it is not without complications.  Obese people have a terrible time with general anesthesia and can stop breathing, as Lester did.  The surgery is also associated with severe pain afterwards,  as well as gas and diarrhea so the person can eat only limited types of foods.  Massive weight loss frequently causes gall bladder disease and he had to have his gall bladder removed. 

A Typical Day Before Bypass Surgery

Lester described to writers how he would start each day with three big bowls of cereal, five glasses of whole milk and four slices of toast and butter; go to work, grab a bagel with cream cheese, tomatoes and red onion and two cans of Coke; then two Big Macs, super-size fries, super-size Coke and a fish sandwich.  Then he would have lunch.  An hour after finishing lunch, he would snack on chicken salad with lots of mayonnaise, red onion, celery and boiled eggs sliced up in it.   On 16-hour work days, he would also eat a couple more times and then eat dinner with everybody else. He also stopped at Burger King for three Whoppers, extra tomatoes and onions, no lettuce and pickles with heavy mayo and the biggest Coke they had. 

After Bypass Surgery

He would wake up and drink coffee, then eat three egg whites and a bowl of grits with a teaspoon of diet margarine.  At 10AM, he would eat grilled chicken in a bed of spinach. At 1PM he would eat a lunch of whatever was left over from the previous day, and at 5PM he would snack on pumpkin seeds.  For dinner, he would have a glass of wine, a spinach salad and then eat a full meal.  On working days, he would stop at a drive through and order a hamburger and fries and a small Coke.  On weekends, he often had a cup of clam chowder with a Bloody Mary and once a week he would have half a cup of ice cream. 

Dating after Weight Loss 

Lester said that he was a virgin until age 30 and it is likely that this is true.  After his surgery, his weight had dropped to 220 lbs., he  began dating.  He started to date a  woman with a giant butterfly tattoo, married her after knowing her for only one month and divorced her a month later.  When one girlfriend saw his sagging skin, she told him his body was like a deflated balloon.  Another girl dated him for four weeks but when she saw his excess skin for the first time, she left immediately.  He sat in his truck with a loaded gun, but changed his mind at the last minute.  After that, his mother called to tell him that she had made an appointment for him to see a well-known plastic surgeon in Atlanta.  Each surgery caused tremendous pain, so he was treated with the narcotic, Vicodin and became addicted to it.  He was strong enough to eventually lick his addiction and get off his pain pills. 

No Exercise

Lester had two gym memberships but never used them. “I figured I could bench 410 lbs. and leg press 1500 pounds, what did I need to go to the gym for? . . . I bought a treadmill and it had more clothes on it than my closet had in it.”  He bought a mountain bike, but the seat was too small for his buttocks.  He also said that pain from the surgeries to remove excess skin prevented him from exercising even if he wanted to exercise.  

Weight Loss Surgery Ended His Career

After he lost a lot of weight, he found it very difficult to get acting parts.  He had been unique because of his size, but without that, he was just like the thousands of other actors who were competing for parts.  His weight loss prolonged his life a little bit, but he was miserable.  He actually told a reporter that he threw away his acting career when he got the bypass surgery and with what he knew now, he would not have gotten the surgery.  He might have died earlier but he would still have had his acting jobs.  He said that the only advantage of getting the surgery was that he lived long enough to be there to support his mother during her fatal illness. 

All his life, his mother had been his best friend. In 2006, when he was 36, his mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. As soon as he learned about her illness, he left Los Angeles and for the next year he spent most of his time in her Georgia hospital room. His mother died in March 2007 and he remained in Georgia afterward.

Death from Obesity and Weight Loss

In November 2015, he was hospitalized for liver and kidney failure.  By June 2016 he was in critical condition in hospice care, and on June 17, 2016, at age 45, after four months in the hospital, he died of liver and kidney failure shortly after being taken off life support.

I do not have access to his medical records, but like other obese people, he must have had high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes. A high rise in blood sugar can damage every cell in your body. In his case, it destroyed his liver, kidneys, brain and heart and eventually killed him.  

My Recommendations

• Realize that people who are morbidly obese virtually from birth are different from their peers. Most of us could not eat as much as Ron Lester did and could not gain as much weight as he did, no matter how much we ate.   I think that something in the brain makes people like Lester hungry all the time, so they have to eat all the time. Lester had some not-yet diagnosed medical condition that made him so extremely obese.

• However, most people can help to avoid being overweight by being more active and avoiding foods that are associated with gaining weight.  Monitoring weight is a lifelong necessity for most people.  Any month, year or decade that you show a weight gain should be a signal to take off the extra pounds and get back to your normal or ideal weight.  I recommend intermittent fasting for weight loss and weight control.   

• The bacteria in your colon appear to determine how many calories you absorb from the food that you eat. They have enzymes to break down food that you don’t have, so some bacteria in your colon break down left-over food in your colon to cause you to absorb calories that would have otherwise passed from your body.  What you eat determines the types of bacteria that live in your colon because the bacteria eat the same foods that you do.  If you eat sugar and lots of other refined carbohydrates, your colon fills up with bacteria that increase your absorption of calories from these foods that might otherwise have passed from your body undigested. 

• To avoid overweight, I recommend that you restrict or avoid sugar-added foods, sugared drinks including fruit juices, other refined carbohydrates (all foods made from flour, such as bakery products, pastas and most refined breakfast cereals), and meat from mammals.  Eat plenty of vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and fruits in their natural state. 

• Try to exercise every day for at least a half hour.

Dr. Gabe Mirkin is a Villager. Learn more at www.drmirkin.com

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