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Behaving well for better health

Mag McCuen (right) has benefited from IBT at Sanford. Her husband Steve has also improved his health with the changes the pair has mutually made. (Special to The Globe)

WORTHINGTON — Step by step, small changes are making a big impact on Mag McCuen’s life and health.

A retired teacher who’s been living with diabetes and high blood pressure, McCuen was smart enough to know it was important for her to make improvements that would boost her quality of life in the short and long run.

“I’m from the generation that was told to eat everything on your plate because there were always those starving children in China,” laughed McCuen.

“And until I was about 10 years old I was really thin — my family used to play ‘restaurant’ with me to get me to eat — but once my tonsils were taken out, I’ve struggled with weight all my life,” the Ortonville native continued. “I’ve tried all kinds of diets over the years and lost weight, but I’ve always gained it back.”

After confiding in Katie Talbott, PA-C, at Sanford Worthington Clinic that she was interested in finding a better method for weight loss that focused on choosing the right foods, Talbott referred her to the IBT (intensive behavioral therapy) program available at Sanford Worthington Medical Center.

“They offer this to the elderly,” joked the good-humored 70-year-old. “You can go in to see a gal once or twice a month, get weighed and talk about your particular lifestyle, how much you exercise, what you eat and how you can utilize foods to help you lose weight.”

In her regular visits with Michelle Poppen, a registered dietician at Sanford, McCuen gained insights into habits that were not necessarily contributing to positive health outcomes — but she never felt judged.

“There was no condemnation whatsoever, just discussion about what I did that particular week or two-week period, and if I’d happen to lose weight during that time, it was a wonderful accomplishment,” she said.

Meeting with Poppen, McCuen learned how much she should be moving on a daily basis and what types of foods she should eat or avoid.

“She gave me a list of foods that are really good for you and that can help diabetics, and in what amounts you should eat them,” said McCuen. “And I kept a food journal so she could help me assess what I was actually eating.”

McCuen found the method encouraging, even though IBT is far from a quick fix.

“It’s not fast, but that’s not the idea,” she said. “It’s about taking off weight gradually and keeping it off, and that can be a very slow process.

“When you have ingrained bad habits, or eat out a lot, you don’t always realize what you’re putting in your mouth and you have to retrain yourself and learn to know which foods are good for you — or not.”

McCuen’s road to the present stretches back to her early adulthood. After graduating from Winona State University, she traveled for three months throughout Europe with a girlfriend.

“When I came back, it was Thanksgiving — not an easy time to find a teaching job,” she laughed. So McCuen headed north to earn a second degree in special education at Moorhead State University.

In 1972 she accepted a job with ISD 518, initially teaching at Bigelow and the Lakeview School; she worked closely with teaching colleague Kathleen Regnier, and the pair later taught at the former West Elementary.

“I married Steve McCuen in 1974,” she revealed. “He was born and raised in Worthington and on the farm.”

When the couple’s daughter, Stephanie, was born, McCuen took a break from teaching for a few years, returning to the profession in 1985. She ultimately worked from 1993 to 2007 as a special education instructor at Worthington High School before retiring for good.

“I really enjoyed the life in Worthington,” said McCuen, mentioning her involvement with Eastern Star, American Lutheran Church and friendships with fellow educators.

Last fall, the McCuens began splitting their time between their Worthington farm and Pleasant Prairie, Wis., where their daughter and her family live. With two young grandsons (ages 3 and 6), the McCuens wanted to make family time more frequent and accessible.

And the IBT program has already helped the McCuens make additional significant changes.

“We now have a treadmill at home, and if the weather is bad, we go to a Walmart or other store to just walk up and down the aisles,” McCuen shared.

Dining out is something the McCuens enjoy doing, and they don’t plan to give that up.

“We won’t stop going out to eat, but I’ve learned not to eat certain foods,” she explained. “My husband was a farm boy who loved meat and potatoes, but now I don’t really eat potatoes, or anything fried, and we eat a lot more fish, chicken, vegetables and salad with dressings that are vinegar and oil-based — and we rarely order dessert anymore.

“Clear soups are also good, and so is drinking a glass of water before you start eating, and sometimes we share a meal when we go out — because it’s not always about what we eat but how much.”

A lot of the food “tricks” McCuen had already heard over the years, but until she began IBT with Poppen, they didn’t necessarily speak directly to her.

“Meeting with a coach made me realize, ‘Oh, that applies to me,’” she said.

These days, McCuen brims with good food advice, such as avoiding pasta, butter, sugar, baked goods and excessive red meat. She’s even ousted the cream from her coffee.

“I drink a lot of black coffee now, and water, and I was never one to drink a lot of regular pop but now I know that even Diet Coke isn’t so good for you,” she said. “And we’ve learned to stick to one glass of wine rather than two because liquor has sugar in it.”

McCuen happily lists fresh favorites, like strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, cauliflower, broccoli and walnuts.

“When we go back and forth from Minnesota and Wisconsin, it’s an eight-hour drive,” she said. “Now we snack on trail mix or eat a banana during that time.”

Steve has been a positive participant in and supporter of the healthy changes his wife has incorporated.

“We’ve both lost a little weight, but it’s not like I’m losing six pounds a week,” she joked. “It’s a slow process, but I’m more aware of the fact that I do feel better when I’m eating better and moving more.”

After IBT, McCuen has a high degree of enlightenment about potentially harmful habits and food in general.

“They say there are food-a- holics, but the problem is that food is always there and it’s necessary to eat to live,” said McCuen.

“The food is always going, ‘Hello, I’m here, pick me, pick me!’ all the time, so you have to learn to pick the right things.

“When you start thinking about what you eat, you feel more in control and can learn to look at food and say, ‘No, I don’t want to eat that, I want this,’” she continued.

While indulging in her retirement activities of reading, traveling and enjoying her grandsons’ antics, McCuen has also gained wisdom in observing her fit daughter’s consciously healthy choices.

“She’s careful about what she eats and gives her sons fruits and vegetables instead of sugary treats — and they don’t know the difference, they’ve come to prefer the healthy stuff, and I realize, ‘Wow, that works,’” McCuen said.

“You get accustomed to what you put into your body, and that’s why we should try to put the healthy foods in.”

With IBT, McCuen can tell she’s feeling a little better and is motivated to keep trying.

“Our grandsons keep us on our toes, and it’s wonderful,” she expressed. “We’re really moving now.”