Paul Sonnenberg was overweight for most of his life. He tried different diets over the years, but those hardly ever worked. If one did work, it was never for long; the weight would always bounce back.

Decades of unhealthy eating and inactivity eventually started to affect more than just Sonnenberg's weight. It really caught up to him last winter, when some tests done at a routine doctor's appointment showed he was right on the very edge of being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. He also had high blood pressure.

He's a tall guy, at 6'3", but even so, his weight of 340 pounds was considered dangerously heavy. He fell into the "extremely obese" category on body mass index charts.

A 'before' shot of Sonnenberg, taken in January 2018, shows him at his previous weight of about 340 pounds. (Submitted photo)
A 'before' shot of Sonnenberg, taken in January 2018, shows him at his previous weight of about 340 pounds. (Submitted photo)

Sonnenberg knew then that he needed to make some changes in his life. He heard about a prediabetes class at Perham Health that could help him lose weight, feel better and get healthier. If he was lucky, he learned, he might be able to avoid a diabetes diagnosis. He decided to sign up.

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The first class was held March 14. Today, less than a year later, Sonnenberg looks like a different person. He's lost 120 pounds - almost 30 percent of his total body weight. He's down six pant sizes, and went from a 5X shirt size to a 2X. He weighs less now than he did back in high school.

"I've been an overweight person all my life," he says, joking about how now, "people who haven't seen me for awhile will ask, 'Are you okay?!' They're thinking I'm sick, because of the rapid weight loss."

He faux-complains about the chilly fall weather, which hits him harder these days because he doesn't have all that extra padding on him anymore: "I'm really not liking the cold because I've lost all this body weight! Now, it's 50 degrees and I'm shivering. Sheesh."

He likes to poke fun at himself, but Sonnenberg's transformation has had serious consequences on his health, and all for the better. His blood sugar levels are back in the normal range now, and his blood pressure has gone down. He takes about half the pills he used to take every day.

'A worldwide epidemic'

Rose Mader, an RN and certified diabetes educator at Perham Health, says diabetes has become "a worldwide epidemic."

In the U.S., the number of adults diagnosed with diabetes has more than tripled in the last 20 years. More than 30 million Americans have diabetes today, a condition that increases their risk for a long list of devastating health problems, including heart attacks, strokes, kidney failure, amputations and blindness.

Diabetes is a disease that occurs when the body doesn't make enough insulin, can't use the insulin it does produce, or a combination of both those problems. Insulin is needed to move glucose (sugar that the body takes in from foods) through the bloodstream and into the body's cells to be used for energy. When cells can't take in glucose properly, it builds up in the blood and causes high blood sugar levels.

"Diabetes is an autoimmune disease, and it can strike anyone at any time," Mader says.

That said, there are different types of diabetes, and for the most common type, type 2, there are things people can do to prevent or delay its development. Type 2 is the most deadly type of diabetes, but it's also the most preventable. It usually starts in middle or later age and is linked to obesity and genetics.

"It's no secret that type 2 diabetes is a leading cause of death and disability," states a press release from Perham Health, which goes on to add, "It is a surprise to many that one in two adults with diabetes is undiagnosed. Additionally, one in three adults are at high risk for developing type 2 diabetes - called prediabetes - and 90 percent of them don't know it."

The good news is that lifestyle changes, such as eating healthier and getting more exercise, can keep type 2 diabetes at bay.

'The only place I ever ran to before was the refrigerator'

The program Sonnenberg started in March is a locally-led version of the National Diabetes Prevention Program, an evidence-based lifestyle change program backed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The program can help people cut their risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 58 percent. The average participant loses 7 percent of their body weight over the course of the one-year program.

Sonnenberg's success is proof of the program's life-altering potential. While his weight loss results aren't typical, the majority of people who complete the program meet their own personal goals and successfully delay or altogether prevent the development of diabetes.

Participants meet in small groups once a week for the first 16 weeks, and then monthly for the remainder of the year, to learn how to be healthier and support each other through that process. Meetings are led by lifestyle coaches and include lessons, handouts, guest speakers and group discussions.

In the first half of the year, participants learn about healthy diets and are encouraged to add physical activity into their routines (the goal is 150 minutes of extra activity per week). They're also taught how to cope with stress and setbacks. The second half of the program focuses on maintaining the changes made in the first half. Participants keep a log of the foods they're eating and the exercise they're getting, and continue to get support from their class leaders and peers.

For Sonnenberg, the lifestyle changes made were fairly simple. Diet-wise, he started keeping a closer eye on his fat and calorie intake. He cut out fast food, cut down on how much bread he used to eat, and stopped eating high-fat junk foods like potato chips. At the same time, he added more fruits, vegetables and leaner meats into his diet. He can still eat most of the foods he likes, but he's more careful about his portions now, and makes sure that if he has one higher-fat meal in a day, the other meals he eats will be lower-fat to balance it out.

For exercise, he started taking early morning every day. At first, he'd walk three miles a day, and that would take him close to an hour. Today, he walks/jogs about 4.5 miles a day, and does it in far less time than that. He even took part in a 5K run this past August, and completed a second one in October. He had never done anything like that before in his life.

"The only place I'd ever ran to before was the refrigerator, or my favorite watering hole," he laughs.

Fast walking is Sonnenberg's primary form of physical activity. He walks about 4.5 miles every morning. Here, he's on the paved trail outside Perham Health. (Marie Johnson / Perham Focus)
Fast walking is Sonnenberg's primary form of physical activity. He walks about 4.5 miles every morning. Here, he's on the paved trail outside Perham Health. (Marie Johnson / Perham Focus)

'Treat this as a marathon, not a sprint'

A graduate of Perham High School, Sonnenberg grew up in the motor vehicle business. His father started Marlo Motors in Perham in 1964, which Sonnenberg now owns and operates as a second-generation family business. He and his wife, Deb, have two grown children, a son, Kyle, and a daughter, Elizabeth. He says the support, patience, and understanding of his family have been integral to his success with the Diabetes Prevention Program.

In fact, a gift given to him by his kids has been one of his big motivators. Kyle and Elizabeth bought Sonnenberg an Apple Watch, and he's been using a fitness app on that to keep track of his activity levels. The app alerts him if he's been inactive for too long, which nudges him to get moving again.

He also has a good friend who's been trying to lose weight and uses that same Apple Watch app, so Sonnenberg can compare daily activity levels and weight loss progress between the two of them. Sonnenberg is very competitive, he admits, so that pushes him to reach his goals.

Of course the program itself has helped keep him in line, too, he says: "Having the support of the clinic and speaking with the group for the first 16 weeks on a weekly basis, where you can talk amongst yourselves and give support, is helpful."

Sonnenberg's success has been an inspiration to his other group members. There are five of them, and as of last week they had lost a total of 177 pounds. With four months still left to go in the program, all but one has already met their personal weight loss goal, and that last one is "very close," says Mader.

Sonnenberg is in the 11th of 12 total diabetes classes hosted by Perham Health thus far, and six more are planned for 2019. He plans to return as a guest speaker at next year's classes, to talk about the challenges and successes he's experienced.

"He's been delightful, motivating, and supportive of everyone in class," says Mader of Sonnenberg. "I think he's done a phenomenal job."

Going through the program isn't always easy, Sonnenberg says, but it's worth it in the end. He won't guarantee that he'll keep every pound off once his classes end in March, but he's established a new, healthier routine for himself and he's hopeful the changes he's made will stick.

"The best advice I can give to people is, treat this as a marathon, not as a sprint," he says. "And you might have a couple weeks where you stumble and gain, but then you get back at it again. If I can do it, anybody can do it."

More about type 2 diabetes

  • It's a leading cause of heart disease, stroke, blindness, kidney disease and nerve disease
  • About 79 million American adults have "prediabetes," meaning their blood sugar levels are nearly high enough to lead to a diagnosis of diabetes
  • Risk factors include lifestyle, age, family history and weight, among others
  • One in two adults with diabetes is undiagnosed
  • Once a diagnosis is made, a person is considered to have diabetes for the rest of their life, even if blood sugar levels are controlled through lifestyle changes
  • The percentage of people with diabetes increases with age; less than 10 percent of the general population has diabetes, but that rate jumps to 25.2 percent among those 65 and older
  • Early warning signs include frequent urination, extreme thirst, increased hunger, nerve pain or numbness, slow healing wounds, blurred vision and dark skin patches
  • Diabetes-related health care costs in Minnesota amount to an estimated $3.1 million annually
  • Get informed and take action
  • For more information about the Diabetes Prevention Program classes hosted by Perham Health, contact Colleen Bauck at 218-347-1236. The next classes begin in January.
  • For those who prefer not to take a group class, Perham Health also offers individual counseling to people with all types of diabetes.
  • For more information about the National Diabetes Prevention Program, visit
  • For a free online prediabetes screening, visit