After years of dreaming of Santorini’s stunning beaches and breathtaking sunsets, Julie Backhouse and her husband Brian booked their dream holiday to the Greek island to celebrate her 50th birthday.
They had an amazing break exploring the island and tasting its amazing food, but when they returned to their Milton Keynes home Julie faced a life-changing moment.
As she looked through the photos from their time away, the housekeeper was heartbroken by her appearance.
At 5ft 8in her body mass index (BMI), used to gauge a healthy weight, was 51 – more than twice the NHS recommended range of 18.5 to 24.9 – making Julie super-obese according to the official definition.
Julie, now 54, said: “When I looked at the photo of me on holiday, I honestly didn’t recognise who I saw. I didn’t think it was me.
“I’d never seen myself in the mirror this way before. I thought, ‘Who is this person?’
“As soon as I got home, I kicked any bad habits and built my fitness regime up from scratch.
“It took the best part of three years, but I’m happy and healthier than I’ve been in forever.”
So Julie decided it was time for change, and her strict diet and impressive exercise plan – including a lockdown marathon – means she’s not shed the weight and is happier than ever.
She now weighs 14st 2lb and wears a size 14.
Julie’s battle with weight began when her first husband, Mark Bray, passed away aged just 35, after having an epileptic seizure and hitting his head on a radiator.
“We met when we were teenagers through mutual friends, back in 1983,” Julie recalled.
“We were married two years later. He was a huge part of my life and we were so in love, but for a few years the epilepsy had really been making life difficult.
“It was an accident waiting to happen. He’d been visiting friends and had a seizure in the bathroom. By the time they found him, he’d bled out.”
“Sleepwalking through life” for the next two years, Julie recalled how she bounced between eating nothing at all and wolfing down junk food.
And, in 2000, it was Brian, who she had met five years before through work, that stepped in to offer her support.
“I really wasn’t looking after myself,” she explained. “I wasn’t the same after losing Mark.
“Me and Brian weren’t that close at the time, but he could see something wasn’t right and stepped in.
“We were both working for a security firm then and he would get me more involved with the rest of the team, making sure I went down to the pub after work.
“He really did look after me.”
Taking a year to “get her head straight,” in 2003 their friendship eventually blossomed into romance.
“We were at a work social, when Brian turned to me and asked if I would ever think about starting a new relationship,” she recalled.
“I was only in my 30s and told him I would, so he asked if I’d consider him and I said, ‘I certainly would.’
“I really trusted him. He’d seen me at my worst and was still interested. How could I not give him a chance?”
Marrying the following year, on March 19, 2004, at a local register office, soon it was not just Brian’s kindness that Julie was blown away by – it was also his cooking.
She said: “That’s when I really realised what a talent he had.
“He really made food a comfort for me, rather than something you eat because you have to.
“Brian can make anything out of nothing. He’ll look in the cupboard and throw together something delicious.
“Melt in the middle pudding, banoffee pie which I would give anything to eat right now.”
Seeing her weight gradually climb over the years, by 2016 Julie was the heaviest she had ever been, although she still “kidded herself” into thinking she was a healthy weight.
She said: “Up until then I had kidded myself into thinking my weight was completely fine.
“I told myself that Tesco’s clothes were always a couple of sizes too small. That I was just a bit bloated.
“I made every excuse under the sun.”
But all that changed after the couple celebrated Julie’s 50th birthday, on June 2, 2016, with a two-week trip to Santorini.
Not letting on to Brian just how upset the holiday snap had made her, when Julie returned home she dusted off the scales.
“When I saw I was 24st 12lb I just cried,” she said. “I didn’t tell anyone, not even Brian, I was so embarrassed.”
Wanting to lose weight the “old fashioned way,” Julie adopted a strict meal portion plan from 1985.
She said: “Years ago my mum went to Weight Watchers, back then it was called the Quick Start diet, and I remember she had success with it.
“It was hard to find, but eventually I found some literature online with all the meal breakdowns.”
Every day she was allowed a limit of 8oz protein, three portions of carbohydrates, two teaspoons of fat, two portions of fruit and unlimited veg.
Also getting into exercise, she walked on five days a week for 30 minutes at a time, with her husband.
And at weekends they explored the area around the beautiful Chiltern Hills near their home.
She said: “I made out I just fancied a health kick. I didn’t let on how ashamed I was of my weight.”
Losing roughly a stone every three months, by the start of 2018, Julie was down to 20 stone and already feeling the benefits.
Signing up to the 5km Race For Life that summer, she spent the next six months training, running three to four times a week with best friend, Suzy Hicks, 50.
By the time the race came around, on June 10, 2018, Julie was 18 stone – the slimmest she had been in years – and completed the challenge in just 70 minutes.
“I felt so much better in myself, even though I was still 18 stone,” she said.
Bitten by the running bug, soon Julie was jogging for two miles, five times a week – and by February 2019, she weighed 15st.
Celebrating her newfound fitness with a 10km race in Windsor, Berkshire, six months later, Julie stepped things up again – this time signing up to her local gym.
“I signed up with a personal trainer and started to build up my longer distance performance,” she said.
Also entering the Windsor half marathon in February 2020, Julie started taking natural supplements, containing an antioxidant derived from New Zealand blackcurrants, CurranNZ, in a bid to boost her recovery time.
She said: “I was genuinely amazed at the difference between exercising with and without CurraNZ.
“The product is very impressive – and I’ve tried many ‘miracle’ supplements over the years, but these wonderful capsules have helped me so much.
“The aches and pains from long runs were halved after taking them!”
But, as the Covid-19 pandemic began to unfold, Julie decided not to proceed with the race.
“By that point we knew something was happening and I didn’t want to risk it,” she added.
Going into lockdown just weeks later, on March 16, she was devastated that her running would be halted.
But, Brian – supportive as ever – had the perfect solution.
Julie said: “He could see how upset I was at not being able to train for my half marathon anymore, so he turned to me and said, ‘We’re getting you a treadmill.’
“I told him not to be silly – we couldn’t afford a treadmill. But we wouldn’t hear it and two weeks later it arrived.”
Sticking to her training plan – this time completely indoors – Julie was running up to 11 miles in one sitting on a treadmill in her dining room.
“I took the dining table out and put the treadmill in,” she added. “Which says a lot!”
Confident she could conquer 13.1 miles, on April 10 she set herself the personal challenge of completing a half-marathon at home on her treadmill, which she did in four hours.
Now 14st 2lb and a size 14, Julie has maintained her weight for the past six months – even running a full marathon at home on September 17.
Completing the 26-mile stretch in seven hours, she said: “I felt incredibly good after that.
“Once I’d passed the finished line Brian pulled out some flowers for me – it was so sweet.
“I didn’t even suffer the next day – I’d booked the day off, but ended up going in to work as I felt that fine.
“It sounds crazy, and I don’t normally buy into these things, but I’m sure CurraNZ had something to do with it.”
Losing over 10 stone since kickstarting her health turnaround, it is not just Julie’s fitness that has improved.
She said: “When I look in the mirror I see a completely different person – she’s so happy.
“I have so much drive to try new things now.
“Brian is really proud of me and always encouraging me to keep pushing myself.
“I just wish I hadn’t waited until I was 50 to do this, but, hey, I’ve got a lot of life left in me and, unless it’s on my treadmill, I don’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon!”
Julie’s old daily diet
Breakfast: White butter toast and cereal
Lunch: Cheese sarnie, crisps and chocolate
Dinner: Cream pasta with cheese and garlic bread
Snacks: Chocolate, biscuits, ice cream
Julie’s new daily diet
Breakfast: Banana with cereal
Lunch: Greek salad
Dinner: Boiled potatoes with halloumi
Snacks: Protein bars, cashews