Sally Jones had six stones to lose and was contemplating stomach-reduction surgery when she read about an extremely low-calorie meal-replacement diet and decided to give it a go. In just seven months she slimmed down to a size 10 and was able to take up a new sport - climbing. HILARIE STELFOX reports

AT HER heaviest, Sally Jones was a size 18 to 20 and so big that she couldn’t have imagined that one day she’d take up a sport like climbing.

Today, however, Sally is a regular at the climbing wall in Huddersfield Sports Centre, having lost six stones and slimmed down to a size 10.

“I couldn’t have dreamed about climbing before,’’ says Sally, who took drastic measures to shed around six stones. “It’s absolutely the last sport you would ever think of if you were overweight,’’ she added.

At 38, Sally can trace her weight problem back to childhood. “I joined Weight Watchers when I was 10 and I’ve tried every single diet there is over the years, except the Atkins diet because I’m a vegetarian.’’

Finally, Sally decided that she would opt for stomach-reduction surgery, as a last ditch effort to lose weight. Her husband, Stephen Pickering, tried to dissuade her because of the risks of surgery. They have a six-year-old daughter, Ella.

“Then I saw an advert for LighterLife, a very low-calorie diet, and decided that I’d give it one last shot. I wanted to lose weight for my daughter, so that she wouldn’t have to worry about me. I was always out of breath and lacking in energy. I didn’t want to go swimming with her and things like that because I was so embarrassed at being seen in a swimming costume.’’

Sally joined a group of fellow slimmers on a LighterLife programme run by Joanne Neville, who is based in Edgerton Villas.The LighterLife diet consists of just 500 calories a day, in food bars or food packs that make up into drinks or soups. Dieters are also allowed black tea and coffee and must drink four litres of water a day.

Critics of such low calorie diets, which effectively replace meals with drinks or snack bars, say that it does little to re-educate eating habits.

But Sally believes that it was the only way for her to lose weight.

“It gives you a complete break from food. Being overweight is like being an alcoholic. As an overweight person you spend so much of your time thinking about food; thinking about what other people are thinking; and thinking about what you shouldn’t be eating.

“You use food for comfort, to drown your feelings,’’ explained Sally, who admits that she took solace in food and enjoyed large portions. As someone who has an under-active thyroid, which is controlled by medication, she also blamed her condition for weight gain.

“The programme is for people who have three stones or more to lose and you have to attend group meetings. At these meetings you get to think about why you’ve become obese and you learn about how to correct your eating habits. The counselling re-educates you.

“I was really glad to have a break and I didn’t find it a problem at all. I’d go out to restaurants with my family and just order coffee and water. There was no point in thinking about food because I couldn’t have any,’’ said Sally.

The combination of 500 calories a day and the counselling meant that Sally lost weight rapidly: “I got the same results as if I’d had the surgery, but I didn’t have to have an operation,’’ she said.

It’s now a year since Sally completed the programme and the weight has stayed off. She’s settled down to a fairly stable 10 stones.

Importantly, the weight loss gave her so much confidence that she was able to make a life-changing decision.

“The thing about the programme is that it makes you sit down and think about your goals in life. I decided that I wanted to get my PhD.’’

Last year Sally left her job at Huddersfield University, where she was a business and community development manager, to take up a scholarship to complete a PhD in education at Leeds Metropolitan University.

“I don’t think I would have done that if I hadn’t lost the weight, I wouldn’t have had the confidence. I used to feel that people think you are stupid if you’re overweight and that you don’t take care of yourself.

“The thing with obesity is that you can’t hide it. If you have a problem with food then you are wearing it all the time,’’ said Sally.

Once Sally had slimmed down she started going to a gym, where she met one of her climbing partners: “With climbing you have to be able to pull up your own body weight and you need to have confidence in your body. lt’s something that would have mortified me before.’’

She now trains at the gym three times a week, as well as climbing.

Sally is determined to maintain her new-found figure – not the least because she has invested a lot of money in a new wardrobe of fashionable clothes. “Sometimes I still think clothes have been mislabelled because I can get into a 10. I’ve become a bit of a clothes-aholic now but it’s great because I can shop wherever I want.

“I also have a lower tolerance for gaining weight because I’m not going to buy clothes in a larger size any more.’’

* Joanne says LighterLife is for people with a serious weight problem. “It is only suitable for those with three stones or more to lose or a body mass index of 29 or more. Quite often people have tried everything else and this is a last resort. The key to it is the management programme that helps people to re-introduce food and keep the weight off.

“We offer long term support, completely free of charge. I have someone who came back a year after losing her weight because she was going to start working nights and wanted to know how she could stop herself slipping back into old habits when her mealtimes were messed up. We sat down and drew up a plan of action,’’ explained Joanne, who became a LighterLife counsellor in 2006.

A 14-week programme for slimmers is recommended, at a cost of £66 a week, which includes food packs, an exercise DVD, books and a weekly two-hour counselling session in small single-sex groups.

Joanne, who was overweight herself, says she understands many of the problems faced by the obese. “I am a qualified lifestyle coach and it was while training for this that I lost my weight. I have managed to keep the weight off for the last three years but I know how difficult it can be. The counselling element is vital to the LighterLife programme.

(For more details call 01484 538855.)