When someone you believe in, believes in you, magic happens.
I have been asked to recite my story on more occasions than I can remember. When I began my food journey, the last thing I expected was that I would be talking to people about something so personal, but sharing my story has made me realise how much we all have in common. I was born into a food family. My paternal grandparents were Jewish Russian immigrants who owned a bakery and delicatessen, and my maternal grandfather distributed French food and wines throughout Africa. Every occasion that I can remember from my childhood involved food, and my brother and I were encouraged to try everything. If our early experiences influence what is to come, then it is no surprise that food would become central to my life. But my relationship with food was not always positive.
I was an active child who participated in multiple sports. The more I trained, the hungrier I got, and it seemed as if no amount of activity could control my weight. Looking at old photographs of myself, I can see that my body was perfectly normal, but I’d convinced myself that I wasn’t good enough and I needed to lose weight. As a consequence, I starved myself to an unhealthy 49 kg (I’m 1.63 m tall). Within five years, my weight had swung in the opposite direction, to 80kg, with 32% body fat. What I now realize is that it wasn’t just my weight that was out of control. Everything in my young life was out of balance, with food, ironically, being my only ‘safe space’.
In those days, if anyone dared me to do something, I took it as a personal challenge and made it my mission to prove them wrong. Low self-esteem can manifest in every part of our lives and it distorts the filters through which we see ourselves. Children have very little ability to see the bigger picture. Because their world revolves around their perception of reality, negative thoughts can be unknowingly introduced by the adults in their lives.
When I began dancing competitively, at age 16, I knew nothing about nutrition and even less about moderation. Days before a competition or show, I’d stop eating, in the hope of losing a few grams. Then, minutes before going onto the floor, I’d compensate for the energy deficit with chocolate and vodka (to calm my nerves). As a result, my glucose levels spiked and then dropped so fast I could barely function, so I ate more chocolate and drank more vodka to
help me ‘cope’. For most of my teens, my body was in permanent state of chronic stress, laying down a foundation for the later onset of insulin resistance and oestrogen dominance.
Inevitably, my body responded by entering ‘survival mode’ and storing fat. I just assumed that exercise alone would keep me in shape so, as the weight piled on, I became severely depressed. By my early twenties, I’d tried every conceivable diet. Depression graduated to self- destructive behaviour and I became bulimic. I was prescribed Prozac, and turned to liposuction, when what I really needed was an education.
In my early twenties, my mother decided we should join a gym and enlist a personal trainer. My first trainer, a man who would ultimately change my views on exercise, was Reg Park, a former Mr Universe and mentor to the young Arnold Schwarzenegger. I trained with him three times a week, but ignored his nutrition advice, which was to eat plenty of vegetables and whole foods, and protein at every meal. I’ll never forget the day I proudly told him about my ‘healthy’ breakfast of muesli and honey with fat-free milk, only to have him tell me I might as well eat sugar directly out of the bowl! He wanted me to eat eggs for breakfast, but I couldn’t do it. I was addicted to sugar, and associated protein with big muscles. Growing up in the supermodel era, I certainly didn’t want muscles! Little did I realise that this man was handing me the key to better health. I couldn’t see it, and although I was training like an athlete with the best mentor in the world, nothing changed. Eventually all the weight came back with interest.
By my late twenties, I had convinced myself that I was genetically flawed, ‘big boned’, destined to be overweight and round in shape, and there
was nothing I could do about it. I pretended to be happy but, in reality, I hated my body and hid it beneath baggy clothes.
One day at the gym, I noticed a poster advertising a body transformation challenge. By then, I had test-driven so many fad diets that I didn’t believe anything could work. A few days later, when I came across a book about the same weight-loss programme (‘Body for Life’), I bought it and read it in one day. It all seemed too easy, and the recommendations flew in the face of every sacred cow I had adopted (at that stage, my sacred cows and I were happily grazing in fat- and sugar-filled pastures!). My decision to read that book was a turning point, as I’d finally reached a point where I was ready to question what I believed to be true.
I realized that my lack of self-esteem was consuming me and began to wonder if there was more to life than the way I looked. Once I recognized that if I wanted to change my body, I needed to change the way I thought about myself, I decided to take up the challenge and put the programme to the test.
By far the most challenging part of going down the dieting road again was convincing myself that eating ‘properly’ could make me lose weight, and that I didn’t need to exercise for hours. But I had nothing to lose except fat, so I put my trust in the experts. Within two weeks,
I’d lost 3kg, by week six it was 9kg, and by week 12, I had lost a total of 15 kg. For the first time in my life, I was enjoying food without feeling bad about it, and I had energy. It was amazing! The positive feedback was encouraging and I wanted to share my experience with everyone. Finally, I was losing weight without dieting and starvation. When I reached 64 kg and 24% body fat, I swore I would never revert to the person I was before. But a lifetime of behaviours had yet to change. Life has a dark sense of humour; take your eye off the mark old habits creep back – onto your thighs, your butt, your hips... Although I was still following the programme, I started taking shortcuts, and soon gained 6kg.
Psychologically it was a disaster. Unable to accept my own role in my weight gain, I looked for something else to blame. I spent hours researching nutrition, reading books and questioning anyone who might give the answers I wanted. I wrote down my goals, visualized my ideal shape and refused to accept anything but the ideal. I enrolled in courses to learn about the brain, biochemistry and nutritional science. I was convinced the truth was out there, and so I argued with my lecturers and challenged theory after theory. I became an ‘expert’ on everything from supplementation to fat metabolism. I told my doctor what to prescribe and which blood tests to perform. I recruited another dietitian, journalled my eating habits, and made everyone else responsible for my success or failure. Eventually I found a specialist endocrinologist who successfully treated my ‘problems’ and, for a few years, things stabilised.
However, in February 2004, I experienced a life-changing event. I don’t recall all the details, but I remember profound emotional and physical pain that left me feeling as if I was struggling to breathe, move, eat or sleep. After blood tests revealed nothing, it was diagnosed as a non-specific viral event but, deep down, I knew something was wrong. Looking back, I believe the years of accumulated mental and emotional turmoil, and self-imposed body abuse, were playing out physically. My body knew that I hated it, and it was fighting back. But my mind was engaged in its own struggle. I believed that if I simply disappeared, no-one would notice, let alone care. One night, feeling that I was out of options I had a conversation with God. Promising that if I recovered, I would commit myself to helping others. I fell into the first restful sleep I’d had in months and when I woke, two days later, I felt like a new person. My physical symptoms had vanished and I was emotionally at peace.
Once I accepted that my health was entirely my responsibility, that there were no shortcuts and no-one else to blame, I knew what I had to do. And here I am, many years later, regularly talking to people in fulfilment of my promise. I can’t think of anything I would rather be doing.
But back in 2004, the real work was about to begin. As a consequence of years of crash dieting and bingeing, I was diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, an inability to metabolise iron, and an insane hormone imbalance, and had to come to terms with the fact that it would take several months for these systems to restore themselves.
I worked out how many calories I should consume in a day, downloaded a meal planning program that counted calories, and spent hours inputting data. Just over two months later, I weighed 52 kgs with 16% body fat. Achieving this extreme result taught me that the secret to achieving a healthy body that you actually like, lies in self-nurturing, and that finding a formula that works is rewarding, not painful. Within a year, my weight stabilised to a manageable level, which I have maintained ever since.
Fast-forward to 2007. A friend who worked as an organisational coach asked me to help create a wellness programme for 60 participants. I’d managed to ‘fix’ myself, but had no clue how to help others. After several weeks of research, specifically into the mindset required to make permanent behavioural changes, we came up with the Re~Invent programme. Since the first successful implementation, the programme has been adopted by dozens of companies.
Today I run a successful nutrition and functional health coaching practice, working with both individuals and organisations towards achieving healthy lifestyles. I have appeared on television and radio shows, spoken at events, written course material, and won awards. The journey, I am grateful to say, continues. And to everyone who has ever trusted me with their demons, I know how hard it can be and I applaud your successes. Life is a gift; just know that you are worthy of accepting it.