Major Ismael Correa admits he once “ate a lot of junk,” but he ultimately paid a hefty price for it. When he fell into a diabetic coma in 1994, his blood sugar was 14 times the normal level, and the event forever changed his life and attitude toward nutrition.
“I am not supposed to be here. When I woke up, even though it was a stressful situation, I remember being at peace and having this sense that God was with me,” Correa recalls. “From that moment on, I have been on a journey towards better health. It was a rude awakening and I think God used that to bring me closer to His presence.”
Correa, now a Salvation Army officer in Allentown, Pa., was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes (insulin dependent) at age 24. He weighed 210 pounds at the time, but standing only 5–foot–5, he was technically obese and admits he didn’t eat healthy while working for a non–profit in his hometown of Brooklyn, N.Y.
“My A1C (blood sugar level), my triglycerides, and blood pressure were out of control,” he said. “I have always been obese with congenital health issues such as diabetes, hypertension, and hypothyroidism. I have been on different medications in addition to insulin.”
Then there was the issue of his family history. Correa feared he would suffer a heart attack, aneurism, blindness or limb amputation as his grandmother, mother, and uncle did. All of them were also diabetics who died of congestive heart failure.
Correa got involved in physical fitness, including martial arts and weight training. He also followed special diets and would lose some of the weight, only to gain it back.
Frustrated by the setbacks, Correa began researching bariatric sleeve surgery, which involves cutting out a portion of the stomach so it can only take in small portions of food while eliminating the hormone that causes hunger. It also raises metabolism levels. Correa’s surgeon shared that many of his problems were related to “metabolic syndrome,” which prohibited his body from losing any meaningful weight because of endocrinological deficiencies.
“Bariatric surgery can restart your metabolism and then you lose any excess weight,” Correa explained.
High protein, low carbs
Over a seven–month period before the surgery, Correa met with a nutritionist, received clearance from all his health specialists, underwent a psychological evaluation, and participated in support groups. One of his goals was to lose as much weight as possible prior to surgery. Following his nutritionist’s meal plan, Correa lost 35 pounds on his own and 85 pounds in the next two and a half years. His A1C level was 9 when he was diagnosed with diabetes but is now a more manageable 6.8.
“Before the surgery, even though I was intentionally active, I was not losing the weight because of the health complications plus having metabolic syndrome, Correa said. “Once I understood that and proceeded to go with the operation, things made more sense. I have seen my metabolism is a bit faster now and I can eat and not gain enormous amounts of weight.
“After getting bariatric sleeve surgery, I follow a high–protein, low–carbohydrate diet,” he said. “I don’t deprive myself from some of life’s ‘goodies,’ but I am mindful of what I eat. My portions are smaller, but I have learned to be satisfied with them.”
Correa said he maintains his weight and health by keeping in touch with his doctors and keeping all appointments. He also takes his prescribed medications, along with vitamins and health supplements. Unlike before, he now eats a healthy diet and exercises daily.
The hours of a Salvation Army officer are often long and arduous and Correa knows maintaining his health is a key part of fulfilling his mission each day, and for the long term.
Despite his busy schedule as an officer, the 55–year–old Correa is up at 3:30 a.m. most days and out the door to the gym for a 90–minute workout. His current weight is 183 pounds.
“On those days when I can’t go to the gym at the usual time, I’ll go in the evening, or if the weather allows it, I’ll take a walk,” he said. “I also keep a set of dumbbells in my office and do a little workout while I’m at work. The important thing is to make the time to exercise. No one else can do this for me. It’s up to me. I must be intentional about being active and doing some sort of exercise, whether it’s the gym, walking, running, or some sort of organized sport.”
Looking better, feeling better
Prayer, meditation, and the reading of Scripture also keep Correa in balance and aid him in the managing of daily stress.
“Those have been the constants throughout the whole journey. Even though I have had frustrating times dealing with the weight and the sicknesses and the complication of diabetes and the other diseases, the knowledge and experience of God being with me has been real,” Correa said. “I think that has helped fuel my spiritual life and has helped me throughout my ministry.”
Major Doug Burr, a Salvation Army officer in Rochester, N.Y., never fell into a diabetic coma like Correa, but doctors told him he was nearing diabetic numbers about eight years ago when he took action to improve his eating habits. He only weighed 175 pounds, but his clothes were too tight for his liking, and he worried about a family history of diabetes.
“When you don’t feel good and you don’t feel comfortable, you know that something’s wrong,” Burr said. “I was not eating healthy by any means. I suppose I ate a typical American diet.”
Burr and his wife, Major Deborah Burr, were fans of the weight loss reality show “The Biggest Loser.” When he found out a “boot camp” was being held near his former appointment in Chambersburg, Pa., and some guests from the show would be there, Burr attended. He was surprised to see two pastors at the event, and they talked more about diet and watching calories than exercise.
“They really made it a spiritual event,” Burr said. “It focused on our spiritual responsibility to take care of ourselves.”
Burr took copious notes about nutrition, sugar, calories, and healthy eating habits.
“I was blown away by what I was learning,” he said. “It became a spiritual focus.”
Modern tech can help
He was also introduced to an app called “My Fitness Pal,” where he could type in what he was eating and it displayed the calorie count. Burr soon learned that a small apple has about 60–80 calories, while a medium apple has 100. The Wendy’s Frosty he loved so much had almost as many calories as an entire meal, so he now avoids them.
“It’s easy for me to stop eating with the app,” he says. “I close the app and I can’t eat any more. I’ve learned a lot about nutrition and what I should be eating and what I shouldn’t eat.”
“I’m like everyone else. I don’t think about what I’m eating. I just eat it. If I don’t eat a lot of it, I think, ‘Well, I’m OK.’ But it all adds up throughout the day. I’ve learned that if I’m not paying attention to my diet, I gain about a pound a year. That’s slow so I don’t notice it.”
Burr, 65, tries to maintain a strict intake of 2,000 calories a day, or about 500 a meal, and another 500 for snacks. He quickly lost 25 pounds and, while his weight has fluctuated, Burr is now at 158 pounds and has been in that ballpark for several years.
“When I start losing weight, and people notice it, it feels good,” he said. “It spurs me on to keep going. My clothes aren’t as tight and I can bend over easier without losing my breath and things like that. When I start feeling good, like I haven’t in a long time, it makes a difference, and I start feeling good about myself.”
“Since I learned all about nutrition and how to eat and exercise and do what I should, I feel pretty good.”
In shape for the fight
Burr said losing weight resulted in a corresponding drop in his cholesterol level and he has more energy. During a recent trip to Greece, he proudly outraced much younger people to the top of an ancient arena.
“What a lot of people find is that if they eat healthy, a lot of the meds they’re on for diabetes or high blood pressure, they don’t have to take that stuff anymore,” he said.
The lifestyle of a Salvation Army officer is often fast–paced and hectic. Burr admits the convenient thing to do is eat fast food and not think about the health consequences. That can take a toll over the years.
“Our Salvation Army office style is we sit behind a desk,” he said. “We have to do a lot of paperwork and especially if we’re not in a corps setting, where we have to get out and run after the kids and do different things. I often just grab what food I like and what’s fast,” he said. “Where we’re stationed now, there’s food everywhere. It’s so easy to eat in the role that we’re doing as officers. You eat all the time. I just must be careful.”
“I can even eat healthy at a fast–food place, I just must be intentional about it. I can go to McDonald’s and get a fine meal for under 500 calories, and it fills me up.”
Burr has taught a class on nutrition at his church because he believes people rarely slow down to learn about healthy eating. Revisiting the boot camp he attended helps Burr bring healthy eating to his spiritual life.
“I feel it’s our God–given responsibility to take care of ourselves,” he said. “The big thing I think about is our body as a temple. The Holy Spirit lives there. You must take care of yourself. If you take care of yourself, you have a lot more years of ministry and life ahead of you, but if you don’t, you’re likely to have a heart attack or stroke and die early. I should be offering everything to God, including my health.”