At home with Yoni Freedhoff
by Caroline Wissing
photos by John Major
The reception area at the Bariatric Medical Institute is bright and airy. A plate-glass window spans one wall, spilling light through the modern space. This is where Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, weight management specialist and obesity expert, greets his patients.
As founder and medical director of the institute, he’s a friendly and approachable man with a confident and easy manner. He’s also a guy who walks his talk. (In fact, he runs.)
In the corner of his office stands a road bike, a testament to his personal commitment to living a healthful life. And on this particular weekday morning he’s celebrating his 100th consecutive day of exercise. He feels it’s important to do what he expects of his patients, given that he regularly counsels them about weight management and making positive lifestyle changes, including daily exercise.
From the office to home and back again, this family man tries to practice what he preaches in all aspects of his busy life with his wife, Stacey Segal, and their three daughters.
Back when Yoni was working as a general practitioner, he had patients asking him about weight loss, something he knew little about since his medical training didn’t cover the subject. When he heard about a conference on obesity taking place in Las Vegas, he jumped at the chance because, well, Las Vegas! He ended up interested in the subject of weight loss and, thankfully, this time what happened in Vegas didn’t stay in Vegas. Yoni created a business plan with his brother-in-law and in 2004 the Bariatric Medical Institute was born.
Its program doesn’t use ideal weights, body mass indexes, or waist circumferences to set goals for patients. Instead, there’s only one goal: To achieve “whatever weight they can reach when they’re living the healthiest life they can enjoy.”
Enjoy, Yoni says, not merely tolerate.
These days he’s often called upon to speak about issues related to weight, obesity, nutrition policy and food marketing. Regularly quoted in the press, seen on television and followed by tens of thousands of people on social media, he’s also known for the book he published in 2014, The Diet Fix: Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work.
In The Diet Fix, he writes that many diets fail because they require people to suffer: dieters have to give up certain foods or food groups, or restrict food intake so much that they’re constantly hungry. How many of us have started a diet but realized after a week or two that there’s no way we could live without bread or dairy or, goodness knows, without chocolate? As Yoni writes, the feeling of deprivation is the reason most people quit diets.
Rather than a one-size-fits-all dieting approach, his Bariatric Medical Institute designs programs that are tailored to individual needs. Through trial and error, staff and patients work together to discover what plan is going to be most successful. Patients are encouraged to ask themselves, “Could I happily keep living this way? Or is this an artificial form of suffering that I can’t sustain.”
Yoni also posts almost daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters (weightymatters.ca). Here, with knowledge, research, and humour, he inspires people to adopt healthier attitudes toward food, exercise and weight loss. He also tackles issues such as body shaming and weight bias.
As many of us have experienced or witnessed, weight bias begins in childhood. “The number one source of schoolyard bullying is weight,” Yoni notes.
Earlier this year, one of his Weighty Matters blog posts was about the ad campaign for a new children’s film. The animated feature Red Shoes and the 7 Dwarfs reimagines the Snow White story, but the Snow White character is depicted as overweight. A public outcry surrounded an advertising poster that featured the main character and the line: “What if Snow White was no longer beautiful?” People who are overweight can’t also be beautiful?
“This (reflects) an appearance-based shame that society says is all right,” says Yoni. “Weight bias is a social justice issue.”
He wants his own children to understand that, so he talks about weight bias in the media with Talia, 12, Leah, 10, and Yael, seven. For instance, he has read the Harry Potter series with each of his daughters. For the third time, now with Yael, he has undertaken a discussion about how certain characters, the Dursleys, are portrayed.
“When an author uses a character’s weight to personify stereotypically biased viewpoints: sloth, gluttony, laziness, stupidity, which is absolutely how the Dursleys are written … I can’t help but imagine that’s what the kids are going to learn,” he says.
And when children learn weight bias, it shows up on the schoolyard. “We know that bullying has a huge impact on a child’s development,” Yoni continues, “and we also know that kids who are bullied about weight are much more likely to struggle with weight long-term.”
As for his own childhood, Yoni grew up the son of a theoretical physicist (mom) and a chartered accountant (dad). They were both busy at their jobs and providing for their family, so health wasn’t particularly a priority. But in those days, health didn’t need to be a focus because both cooking at home and playing outside were normal activities. “At that time,” Yoni states, “the alternative to playing outside with friends was staying at home with your parents.”
Today, parents have a harder time encouraging physical activity in kids who’d rather be online than on the go. “Kids, like adults, are consumers of time,” he points out. “If you only have X amount of free time, you spend it doing the thing that’s most enjoyable.” Online gaming, YouTube, social media, texting, and other sedentary pursuits are go-to leisure activities for many kids.
When he talks to parents who are unhappy about that, Yoni says, “I encourage them to go play with their kids. Because at least up until the age of 12 or 13, for most kids, there’s nothing they would rather do than play with their parent.” Yoni and Stacey take advantage of that with their three girls. They do many outdoor activities as a family, including hiking the Rideau Trail and going on bike rides. Yoni is an avid runner, and Leah proudly ran her first 10K race this year during Ottawa Race Weekend.
“We try very hard to be good role models for the kids, because I’d much rather they emulate us and learn from our actions than for me to try to lecture about what they should or shouldn’t do.” To that end, the Freedhoffs cook 95 per cent of their meals from fresh, whole ingredients and have dinner together almost every night.
Stacey has a master’s in social work and works part-time with the Bariatric Medical Institute’s pediatric program, which is fully funded by the Ministry of Health. There she helps parents of five- to 12-year-olds understand how best to interact with their children who have weight issues. She works with those parents to bring about positive changes without the kids being made to feel like they’ve done something wrong. At another location she runs a group for children where the focus is on emotional resilience, addressing how to manage anger, depression, bullying, self-esteem, body image, and other issues. All this is in addition to running a private practice.
So on Thursday nights, when Stacey is at work, and on most Saturday and Sunday nights, Yoni cooks dinner for the family. While sitting at the table together on one of those evenings, he says the girls told him, “Dad, before we move out, we all need to learn how to cook all of these things.”
“We’re at a very sweet spot with our kids, and I’d be surprised if I don’t look back on this decade as the best of my life,” he says. “I’ve got my health … the kids are all healthy and happy, and professionally things are going okay. This is a really sweet time. But it goes by really fast.”
This dad feels it’s a privilege to be able to focus on health as a family. And in the busy Freedhoff/Segal home, life includes enjoying outdoor activities, cooking meals at home, packing a lunch every day, and sitting at the table and eating together. Yoni and Stacey hope it lays the foundation for their children to continue this lifestyle with their own families in the decades to come.