When Lionell Dixon, of Galloway Township, visited Miami in 2004, he felt out of place.
It was August, and Dixon, who weighed 275 pounds at the time, not only had to deal with the heat and humidity. He also couldn't help comparing himself to the beautiful, slim and well-built people who are all over the sun-worshipping city.
"I wore all baggy clothes to hide my insecurities," Dixon said.
After that experience, Dixon, now 31, made up his mind to change his life. And he's been so successful at it that he has a book coming out describing his journey and his weight-loss advice titled "Out of the Shadows," published by the Hollis Media Group. Dixon writes under the name Lonnie Fresh.
At one point, Dixon, who is 5 feet, 10 inches tall, weighed 315 pounds. His journey to lose that weight was a bit of a roller coaster.
After his Miami trip, Dixon said, he ate like a pig for two weeks before waving that life goodbye. He started hitting the gym, and by the end of the year he weighed 180 pounds. His weight crept up a little, but by 2012 he dropped down to his current weight of 165 pounds.
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The oldest of three children of a single mother, Dixon was homeless several times growing up. Even when he had a home, there wasn't a lot of food around. His mother was strict with the amount of food he was allowed to eat. But in middle school in Egg Harbor City, he started to visit his friends' homes, where he could eat as much as he wanted. He shot up from about 160 to 240 pounds by the time he was in high school.
As he started to gain weight, Dixon, who had played football and basketball in elementary school, stopped exercising. He was teased at school and called "fat" and "stinky."
Dixon landed his first job at McDonald's at age 16. During the year he worked there, he said, his eating was out of control. He would eat two Big Mac meals, four apple pies and wash it down with super-sized shakes. Then a few hours later, when he left work, he might eat a big salad bowl full of cereal. Dixon says he was bulimic, a disorder that was not acknowledged among black teens.
"I wasn't hungry. I was eating because of a psychological, internal battle," Dixon said.
During high school, he tried different diets, and even diet pills. Later his doctors advised him to lose weight. He knew he had a weight problem, but he wasn't determined to change until after Miami.
Now that he has shed the pounds, does he miss what he used to eat?
"I don't miss anything," he said. "I wake up, and my taste buds are totally different."
Dixon's transformation began with a low-carb diet. He drank water, ate protein and switched to sugar-free sweets. He stopped eating processed and bleached foods and sugar.
He also became serious about exercise, starting with an hour a day at the gym, five days a week. He has his personal training certification.
Dixon organized his exercise routine so that he does a full-body workout during the course of a week. Each day, he focuses on a different body part at Island Gym & Fitness Center in Absecon. He has competed in men's physique and body-building competitions.
"I feel a lot better. I feel more confident," said Dixon. But it hasn't been easy.
He has wanted to give up a number of times, but using visualization techniques helped him continue a more healthy lifestyle.
"It's crazy the attention I get, just from funerals alone," he said. "I've got people, family members, gathering around me, asking questions."
"Just last night, a guy from Chicago sent me a message and told me that I was his biggest inspiration and that he would love to meet me one day," Dixon said. "I get that all the time."