WASHINGTON — Surrounded all day and most nights by delicious cakes, cookies, pies and more, Susie Morrison gave in to temptation too often during long hours at work in the White House pastry kitchen.
But no more.
Never a runner, the assistant pastry chef has finished her first 5K run. When the weather cooperates, she pedals her bicycle 26 miles roundtrip to work. She's eating more vegetables, limiting coffee and drinking up to a gallon of water every day — dietary changes that Morrison says helped her drop 30 pounds from her 5-foot-5 frame in about 18 months.
One person gets most of the credit for Morrison's lifestyle makeover: Michelle Obama.
While the first lady's campaign to lower childhood obesity rates will need time to produce results, if ever, the White House is one place where her message about eating balanced meals and getting more exercise is not only resonating, but showing results, too.
"She is a great inspiration for me to focus every day to try harder, and I have," Morrison said.
Some of Morrison's colleagues are also taking the message to heart — and the proof is in their waistlines. Four members of the White House residence staff — Morrison, two chef colleagues and an assistant curator — have lost more than 110 pounds since July 2010. They have kept the weight off so far.
Executive chef Cristeta Comerford, now 15 pounds lighter, said Mrs. Obama's campaign helped the group recognize their poor eating habits.
Instead of the cookie she reached for daily, Morrison, 44, said she now snacks on an apple or a handful of grapes.
Comerford often lined up a cup of coffee, a can of soda and a can of Red Bull and sipped from all three during the day.
Assistant chef Adam Collick cut out hundreds of calories by eliminating a daily coffee fix — three 20-ounce cups topped with whipped cream drizzled with chocolate syrup. He and Comerford have replaced their caffeinated drinks mostly with calorie-free water. They still drink coffee, but stop at two cups a day.
Collick also has cut down on mindless eating and is limiting dessert to a few times a week, instead of with every meal. Those changes and about an hour of exercise most days have helped the 46-year-old lose 30 pounds. He said consistency is important for good results.
"Once you see the changes in your body and the way you feel, it's going to make you want to keep doing it," said Collick, who became a de facto coach to colleagues battling the bulge. The 25-year veteran of the White House kitchen helped motivate them to stick with their programs or get back on track after they'd overdone it a little.
Overdoing it is easy as a chef in a place where there are few food-free functions — ranging from receptions and dinners for hundreds of visitors to lunch for President Barack Obama and a guest in his private dining room off the Oval Office. One occupational hazard for the chefs is having to taste the food during all stages of preparation to check the flavorings, a seemingly simple task that when performed again and again every day can jeopardize anyone's well-intentioned efforts to eat right.
If not careful, Collick said, the chefs could easily eat an entire meal just by tasting their way through the work day.
"We're preparing really good food so it's really very easy to just snack all the time," added Comerford.
Comerford, 47, said she wanted more stamina to keep up with her 10-year-old daughter, a competitive gymnast, and to set an example with her smart food choices. The family sticks to a balanced diet of whole grains, low-fat proteins and plenty of vegetables but will loosen up enough on weekends to enjoy a hamburger or equally indulgent meal.
That's the basic advice Mrs. Obama dispenses — that losing weight doesn't have to mean deprivation. The first lady has said french fries are her favorite food and she also has been taken to task from time to time after being spotted at burger joints around town.
Assistant curator Lydia Tederick said she lost more than 35 pounds after signing up for Weight Watchers and joining a gym with her husband. They work out at least three times a week, and Tederick said she spends most Saturday mornings at the farmer's market stocking up on fresh fruit and vegetables.
Her initial goal was just to lose weight so she could fit into her clothing better.
"But now my goal is to maintain my weight, to tone up, be more fit, and I would love to have arms that look as fabulous as Mrs. Obama's," Tederick said.
Jim White, a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association, applauded the employees. He said studies have shown that having a partner in weight loss aids the process.
"Losing weight is not the easiest thing to do or we wouldn't have overweight in this country," said White, a registered dietitian and personal trainer in Virginia Beach, Va.
Morrison, who has worked in the pastry kitchen since 1995, said she gained weight after giving up exercise because of injuries and not paying attention to her diet. After deciding it was time to refocus on her fitness, Morrison said she would envision herself working out and getting healthier and stronger.
"I persevered and it's nice to come to this point and have happy results," she said.
Perseverance will be important for Morrison in the days ahead. White House chefs will soon begin preparing for a holiday season that, despite Mrs. Obama's focus on eating healthier, still serves up traditional, calorie-laden fare at dozens of parties and receptions that jam the calendar between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Darlene Superville can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/dsupervilleap