Tampa Bay’s top weight management guru looks inside for changes on the outside

Four years ago, Ana Tuzzo was 240 pounds, miserable and depressed. She had high blood pressure, high cholesterol and osteoporosis and seemed doomed to diabetes since both her father and grandmother had died of the disease. A friend recommended Dr. Cesar Lara, known for his highly touted weight management clinics in Tampa Bay.

Now four years later, Mrs. Tuzzo is a new person. She dropped 100 pounds, practices ballroom dancing five days a week and on weekends rides her bike up to 20 miles. At 63, she eats healthier and feels better than she has ever felt in her life.

“Doctor Lara gave me my health back, gave me my youth back and probably gave me another 20 years of enjoyment with my children and grandchildren,” she says quite matter of factly. “He changed my life by telling me to go out and have fun and dance, not to worry about dieting and exercise, but to change my way of thinking. It worked!”

Mrs. Tuzzo is one of many Tampa Bay residents who salute Dr. Lara for his non-traditional techniques in weight loss.

“I believe in miracles,” says Dr. Lara, dressed casually today in his comfortable Dunedin office. “We can make our own miracles when you believe in yourself and act upon them. I try to connect the patient with the awareness that you can make a change if you believe.”

These might seem like heady words from a physician, but there is something different about Dr. Cesar Lara. He speaks of “spirituality” and “making a difference in the community,” of “empowering his patients” to control their lives and seeking non-traditional therapies such as hypnosis and acupuncture.

His office walls are covered in beautifully carved and painted face masks collected from around the world … Africa, India, Venice.  Many are of Aztec influence and have special meaning for the physician who was born in Guatemala.

“Masks, “  he says, “ We all have  one on. I believe that we are who we think we are. The power of the mind is indomitable.”

Dr. Lara’s weight management philosophy, practiced at three clinics in the Tampa Bay area, focuses on education through lifestyle guidance or “coaching”  to a greater self-awareness and confidence. Yes,  he may prescribe FDA approved appetite suppressants or supplements, which is normal in most weight reduction plans,  but education is the key Dr. Lara advocates to achieving and maintaining weight loss.

He mentions the nationally known physician and motivational speaker Wayne Dyer as a personal inspiration. The philosophy: By empowering the patient to a spiritual awakening they become more confident and thus motivated to become healthier.

Dr. Lara’s awakening came a decade ago.

“Life is a journey of spiritual awakening,” says the father of three. “My journey started as a family physician. But that left me empty, I wanted to do more for people. I thought “what can I do to make a real difference in people’s lives …. I found that traditional medicine does not have all the answers.”

Frustrated with the inability to cure his overweight patients of many major diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and high cholesterol,  Dr. Lara realized that weight loss was the only solution to help heal these illnesses.

Dr. Lara sees a variety of patients from extremely overweight who need to lose over 200 pounds  to the weekend athlete who is looking to drop 10 or 20 pounds. About half of his patients fall in the middle – those wanting to lose between 30 and 50 pounds, he says.

“Many overweight people are ill and on medication,” says Dr. Lara. “They are depressed and feel helpless, like they have lost control. I try to give them the self confidence they need to take control of their lives.”

Ana Tuzzo initially told Dr. Lara she was not going to diet or exercise. She had tried dieting and it only seemed to have temporary results, and she hated the thought of exercise. But she did like the idea of dancing.

“Dr. Lara said ‘Just move, be alive, be active, don’t sit in front of the TV. You like to dance so go out and have fun’,” says Mrs. Tuzzo. “He also taught me how to change my diet and eat right.”

Dr. Lara even decided to jump on the ballroom dancing bandwagon himself recently when he danced his way to the title of  Best Male Dancer at Tampa Bay’s Dancing with the Stars competition on Sept. 11.   The event, which featured 15 local celebrities, was a benefit for  Kid’s Charity of Tampa Bay, Moffitt Cancer Center and Pepin Heart Hospital.

That event proved to be one of many ways in which Dr. Lara aims to give back to the community.  He is the founder of the St. Michael’s Free Clinic and Weight Away Tampa Bay, both of which focus on providing treatment to those that cannot afford to have it.  And for the past five years he has been the medical correspondent for Bay News 9 En Espanol bringing important health news to the Hispanic community.

And If anyone can be inspiration for living a healthy lifestyle, it’s Dr. Lara.  Last year, he ran his first marathon at the age of 50, and plans to do it again this October in Chicago  along with his son Marcus.

By Marcia Biggs written for Destination Tampa Bay magazine