Meet Dr. Jeff
Obesity is a Global Issue
by Eve Jacobs
Promises, promises. We’ve all heard too many stories about
those amazing “new” diets that melt away 50 pounds in just a matter of
months; and we’re all somewhat skeptical of any weight-loss breakthrough that
guarantees shedding pounds with little or no deprivation. So the question
remains: Is major weight loss in adulthood even a remote possibility — and if
so, is it possible to keep the weight off and not “yo-yo” your way through
Meet Dr. Jeff Levine, devoted husband and father
of four girls ages 10 to 16, family physician, women’s health specialist,
associate professor and Master Educator at UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical
School, and last but not least, a contestant on the second season of NBC’s
reality TV show “The Biggest Loser”. He topped out at almost 400 pounds
about 15 months ago and weighed in at 217 pounds at last count. He doesn’t
believe in the idea of a diet (he considers it a “four letter word”),
refuses to go hungry or feel deprived of foods he enjoys, and has such a busy
work and family schedule that pounding away at the gym cannot take central
stage. He is living proof that losing weight is not impossible.
How did he pull off this humungous feat? Not without some tears and not
without some pain. But he insists to patients and friends that major weight-loss
and keeping the pounds off are possible, and offers them the benefit of his
hard-won insights and optimism, and even more important, his support. And to
further make his point, there he stands in front of them looking mighty slim and
Doc, as he became known on the show, does not watch much television, and is
certainly not a fan of reality TV. With little time to spare in his hectic
schedule, he allows himself just one regularly-scheduled show a week — Law and
Order on Wednesday nights. It was after watching an episode on December 15,
2004, that he spotted an advertisement to be a contestant on The Biggest
Loser’s second season.
Now, although Doc knew he was in big trouble with his weight, he had no real
desire to be a TV personality. But he went online that night to check out
NBC’s Web site. And despite missing the deadline to submit a five-minute video
detailing why he should be a contestant, and then missing a later deadline
because of various postal foul-ups, the show’s producers gave him a call after
seeing his “Doctor’s Got Fat” rap video (produced by his oldest daughter,
Jennifer). They offered him a contract if his audition went well.
The rest, as they say, is showbiz history.
But first, some personal history. Levine was a skinny, athletic kid, with a
high energy level. He never had a weight problem. In fact, people often
recommended that he put on a few pounds. “I was big into sports — basketball
and baseball — and never weighed more than 180 pounds until I was 28,” he
says. Levine is 6´1´´ tall.
He graduated from Syracuse University with a major in psychology and film. He
liked science, was good at science, but didn’t see himself in what he
perceived as the cutthroat medical school world. Interestingly, his grandfather,
whom he never knew, was a homeopathic physician in Sweden, his mother was a
massage therapist for several New York hospitals, and Levine was brought up on
After college graduation Levine found employment for two years in the medical
world — for one summer at Sloan Kettering Hospital in Manhattan and then in
the Department of Biochemical Genetics and Metabolism at Rockefeller University,
working with young patients with lipid disorders —and the doctoring bug bit
him hard. He took the MCATs and was accepted at Mount Sinai School of Medicine,
which he thoroughly enjoyed. He also volunteered at an adolescent medicine
clinic in Spanish Harlem throughout his four medical school years, and
discovered his calling for family medicine.
Jeff Levine with his family: (left to right) daughters Taylor, Danielle,
Jennifer and Elyssa, and wife Doris (center)
So, how did Doc — clearly a guy who loves what he does and is sound of body
and mind — end up barely able to negotiate a staircase at age 40?
Well, first and foremost, his life became quite complicated. He met and
married his wife Doris in the first years of medical school, and by the time he
entered his family practice residency at Overlook Hospital in Summit in 1990,
they had one baby and a second on the way. He worked 36 hours straight every
three days, and got into the habit of eating hot dogs, hamburgers and other fast
foods after midnight. He came home to a hopping household needing his
participation, was seriously sleep-deprived and had no time or energy for
exercise or sports. In fact, he had no time to focus on his own needs.
He pinpoints this period as the beginning of his weight gain. “I used food
to keep myself awake, to relax and as a reward. Food became tied to my
emotions,” he states. “I literally became addicted to food.”
By the end of his residency in 1994, Levine had gained more than 100 pounds.
Friends and colleagues frequently mentioned his overeating to him, “But I was
in denial,” he says. “I was still very active and figured that after the
residency, life would get easier and I would lose the weight.”
But that didn’t happen. Levine’s family kept growing (Jennifer was born
in ’89, Danielle in ’91, Elyssa in’94 and Taylor in ’96). He completed a
fellowship in women’s health in 1996 as well as a Master’s in Public Health
at UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. And because his income was not
sufficient to support his growing family during his fellowship, he moonlighted.
The pattern of overwork, sleep deprivation, little or no exercise and overeating
Levine says it all caught up with him about four years ago. Falling asleep at
the wrong times — during meetings, when he was driving home and once when
talking to a patient — was the first sign of trouble he could not ignore.
A sleep study indicated serious abnormalities and he began using a CPAP
machine to treat his sleep apnea (a condition caused or exacerbated by being
very overweight). But he was still convinced that if only he had a bit more free
time, he could lick the weight problem on his own.
In spring of 2004, Levine’s health declined further. Not only were his
blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol seriously elevated, but he developed
severe and extremely painful degenerative joint disease in his left ankle from
an old basketball injury. He could hardly walk up a flight of stairs.
Then his health picture took a sharp dive. In September of that year, he woke
up with chest discomfort and heart palpitations and was convinced he was dying.
He wound up in an emergency room in the role of a patient instead of a doctor.
“I had always been healthy. I had never missed work,” he says.
“I hadn’t been in the ER in 25 years. I knew I was in trouble.”
He consulted a cardiologist who strongly recommended gastric bypass, but
Levine still felt that he could take the weight off without surgery. “Gastric
bypass has some major risks,” he says. “I also knew it wasn’t how I wanted
to encourage my patients to lose weight. I wasn’t ready to take that step.”
He did join a gym, and his wife hired a personal trainer for him, but he
couldn’t carve out the time to exercise.
So, we pick up the story in January 2005. Levine was seriously tempted by
NBC’s offer — seeing it as perhaps the only option other than radical
surgery for losing 100 plus pounds. But he was extremely concerned about being a
burden to the other physicians and staff in the Department of Family Medicine.
If he made it on to the show, the already-hardworking team would have to care
for Levine’s patients for weeks or possibly months. After much soul searching,
he emailed all of his colleagues, spelling out the pros and cons of this
opportunity, and asking each one to respond openly and honestly.
“Every single one encouraged me to do this,” he says. “They all wrote
back to me saying, ‘We were afraid for you — afraid you would die — and we
didn’t know what to do about it.’” He gets emotional recalling their
So, on March 3, 2005, Levine was flown to California for his audition. He was
convinced he would fail his physical. “My legs were purple, my ankle was very
bad,” he says. “The doctor was concerned because of the state of my health.
He was afraid I would embarrass myself and ruin my reputation as a physician.”
But Levine was invited to be a contestant. The demands of the show were way
beyond what he thought himself capable of: four to six hours of exercise each
day; no TV, magazines, newspapers, or radio; no telephones and no outside
contact. Trainers taught team members better nutrition and eating habits, and a
nutritionist figured the range of acceptable daily calorie intake for each
Contestants cooked all of their own food, weighing, measuring and recording
everything. Levine was allowed 1,500 to 1,800 calories per day, with an
occasional increase to 2,000. He enjoyed his meals: “I had time to focus on
myself and to prepare what I like.”
His breakfast was either a four Egg Beater omelet with two ounces of Canadian
Bacon, onions, peppers and mushrooms, and sometimes two ounces of fat free
cheese (240 to 270 calories) or four ounces of lox on four Seven Grain Wasa
Bread slices with fat free cream cheese and chopped onions (290 calories). He
generally ate lean sliced turkey, ham, or roast beef with salsa, fat free
mayonnaise or hummus for lunch, and lots of salads with fat-free dressing.
Dinner consisted of fish, chicken, or beef, prepared with various spices and
vegetables. He also had one snack each day, usually a piece of fruit with some
“Never starve or deny yourself,” he says. “Variety, balance and
moderation are key.”
He also learned to enjoy physical activity again. During the first month of the
show, he could not walk without pain. After that, hiking became part of his
He found it excruciatingly hard to be separated from his wife and daughters. On
one episode, where he was allowed to make a five-minute call to his family, he
cried on camera.
His most pleasant surprises were the bonds he formed with other contestants.
“It was like the fraternity I never joined,” he says. “I made friendships
that I’ll have for the rest of my life.”
Levine has lost a total of 183 pounds: 30 before the show started, 103 while
on the ranch in Simi Valley and 50 since he’s come home. His time commitment
to the show was extended to 13 weeks — one sequestered in the hotel and 12 on
His return home on Tuesday, June 8, was triumphant. His wife had gathered 100
family members, friends, colleagues and patients in their house to welcome their
“biggest loser.” By Friday, he was back at work. Some patients didn’t
recognize their radically slimmed down doctor.
But Levine admits that although his story couldn’t be more upbeat, he’s
not cured — he’s an “obesity survivor.” It’s still a great effort to
get up at 5 a.m. so that he can fit a workout into his busy schedule, and
sometimes it’s a struggle to eat right.
“But now at least I can lead by example and not feel hypocritical when I
advise my patients on weight loss and exercise,” he says. “I tell them,
‘If I can do it, then you can, too.’”
Even big-time media outlets have singled out Doc as a man who has something
important to communicate to a society with serious weight problems and an
obsession with becoming thinner. He’s been featured in TV Guide (Dec. 5,
2005), US Weekly (Dec. 19, 2005), People Magazine (Nov. 28, 2005) and O, The
Oprah Magazine (Nov. 2005), as well as in several New Jersey newspapers. He’s
an invited speaker nationwide, at medical conferences as well as
consumer-oriented venues. And he has a much-frequented Web site offering his
hard-won knowledge on weight loss and life to all who visit.
Take a few moments to go there: www.drjeff.tv
It could be the most life-changing trip you’ll ever make.