The Nutrition Department began the competition on March 1, providing participating employees, who'd paid a $10 fee, with a packet containing ideas for meals and snacks, keys to decoding food labels, meal substitution ideas and portion control - the last of which addresses the aforementioned bowl-of-pasta problem. The employee who lost the highest percentage of body weight would receive $740.

"That's motivation," Talbot said with a laugh.

Also, every Hallmark Health employee, whether they were in the contest or not, received an e-mail each week with strategies for continued weight loss, such as "Kick Start Your Metabolism" and "Rethink Your Drink."

And who was the 'Biggest Loser?' Michele Summer, a Medford resident who works in food services at Melrose-Wakefield Hospital, was the winner, losing 11 percent of her body weight. Human resources employee Holly Polito came in second by losing 8 percent.

On Monday before the final weigh-in, Bob Venza, director of food and nutrition at Melrose-Wakefield Hospital, said the contest provided the motivation he needed in his "constant battle" to lose weight. Since the competition has begun, Venza has been more discriminatory in his choice of food and snacks and started taking his two dogs for a walk every day in an effort to get regular exercise. He feels "100 percent" better, he said.

"I don't even care if I win," Venza said in an interview with the Free Press on Monday, before the final weigh-in. "It just sent me in the right frame of mind to move forward."

Breads and pasta were two significant hurdles for Venza, he said. Talbot introduced him to whole wheat pasta - "Once you take that and put a red sauce on it, you can't really tell the difference" - in addition to the common tips of more fruits and vegetables and less sweets.

Venza also became more aware of what he drinks throughout the day in between meals, drinking more water rather than his usual supply of Diet Coke.

"I just had a complete physical before we started and everything came out good except for my weight," he said. "I don't have to see [my doctor] until September, but I almost want to see him before then because I think he'll be happy with everything."

Talbot said what people drink during the day between meals can be an overlooked potential pitfall. For instance, a latte from Starbucks can have the same amount of calories as a Big Mac, something that the employees found "shocking."

The first step, she said, is making sure to read nutritional labels on both food and drinks to keep track of what's going into your body. Sometimes a label on a drink, for instance, can show that the entire bottle is actually considered two servings, upping the listed caloric intake.

The on-the-go nature of society can contribute to poor eating habits, Talbot said, including skipping breakfast, which is critically needed to help kick start a person's metabolism in the morning.

"Even a slice of pizza is better than having nothing at all," she said.

For those who find it hard to fit exercise into their day, Talbot said employees have been given tips from Hallmark Health physical therapists on small, simple exercises they can do at their desk during the work day, such as standing up and briefly doing squats or using an exercise ball while sitting in your chair.

Talbot has some of her own personal tips as well.

"While I'm brushing my teeth I do my lunges or squats because it's 2 free minutes," she said. "It makes the 2 minutes go faster, too. I have an 18-month-old, so I have to get my exercise when I can. My husband thinks I'm crazy, but it works," she said, laughing.

Jim Larkin, director of engineering at Melrose-Wakefield Hospital, said he has been paying for a gym membership that has gone largely unused. The Biggest Loser competition gave him the motivation to make an effort to not waste that membership.

"There's something in the back of my head that says, 'I have to get on a scale at the end of the month,'" Larkin said. "I'm more compelled to go to the gym. Normally, it would be a 'find another excuse' type of thing."

Larkin, who is getting married in November - "I've got to lose the pounds anyway. It's kind of dictated by her," he said with a chuckle - said he's been more conscious of his propensity to eat French fries regularly for lunch, thanks to the log he keeps throughout the day of what he eats, but that developing a habit of exercise was the most important aspect of the competition to him.

"I have a goal of losing about 30 pounds and I'm about halfway there," he said last Monday. "I lost 15 pounds this month."

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