Since 2005 I have been asked to recite my “story” to more people on more occasions than I can remember. I have spoken in front of audiences of varying sizes, expectant faces waiting to hear about some never heard of before, quick fix weight loss solution. In the beginning I was absolutely terrified. The prospect of holding a conversation with even one person in a familiar social gathering was challenging enough. The last thing I ever expected to do was talk to numbers of people at any given time, let alone have something to say that anyone would actually want to listen to. Even now, after witnessing the ways in which revealing my very human and certainly not unique experiences have moved some people into action and others to tears; it is always humbling.
I was born into a food family. My paternal grandparents were Jewish Russian immigrants who started a famous bakery and delicatessen. My maternal grandfather was a French gastronome who imported and distributed French food and wines through Africa. He was also known to toss plates of food across a room if they weren’t to his liking.
To say my family was obsessed with the next meal is a grand understatement. Dinner was always a formal affair with two to three courses. Champagne or wine was a constant, although never to excess. Even when we were children my brother and I were always encouraged to try everything. Every major or minor occasion that I can remember from my childhood revolved around food, the over consumption of it, the reasons why it was deemed inedible and even the withholding of it. Food was a reward, a band aid and very often the source of major family discontent. It was the reason I never fitted in as a child for so many reasons. My father was a feeder, my mother had a love hate relationship with everything she consumed.
It stands to reason that if a child is the sum total of their early life experiences and a model of their parents then it is no surprise that food and everything it represents would become central to my life. However, everything I had come to learn about food as a child was fundamentally wrong.
The reason I am so compelled to write this is because it is not just my story. Over the years many people have told me that this is their story too although there are a number of variations on a theme.
At the end of 1999 I weighed just over 80kg at 1.63m and at 32% body-fat. This was just another part of the never-ending cycle that was my life.
In 1994 I weighed 49kgs, not due to exercise or healthy nutrition but due to a self imposed bout of malnutrition in desperation to feel acceptable, worthy and that all elusive concept - happy.
Like all serial dieters, I eventually caved in and binged on anything and everything. To say that I had an abusive relationship with food and no self-esteem would be an understatement.
I had always been extremely active. A competitive figure skater and dancer since a very young age, swimming, figure skating, diving and riding horses. No amount of activity could control my weight, in fact it seemed to make the problem worse. The more I trained the hungrier I became and at that stage there was no one to advise me what to eat with the exception of a couple of well meaning but desperately misinformed dieticians.
What I came to realise is that it wasn’t my weight that was out of control, it was everything else in my young life, with food ironically being my only safe space.
At the age of 5, I became conscious of the fact that I was different. A ballet instructor told my mother that I would never be a ballerina as I was simply the wrong shape. She was absolutely correct. Ballerinas, like fashion models are required to have very specific physical proportions that are largely a result of genetics. You are either born with those width to height ratios or your are not. Fighting to become something you are not, is a waste of time and a recipe for misery, but that would take me more than thirty years to realise. Unfortunately my mother interpreted this comment as a personal attack on her ability to be a parent. She fought with everyone and took offence and everything in those days and to an extent, still does.
It was around this time that I was shipped off to a dietician. I was very young but I distinctly remember arriving at a house where an extremely overweight woman greeted us. I remember that day vividly. A dark haired woman wearing a yellow t-shirt and cardigan. The t-shirt stretched over her enormous chest and crept up over the fatty lumps on her hips. I sat across from her at a desk after standing on one of those old fashioned scales. I remember it said 34 kilograms. She then whipped a piece of paper out of the desk draw with a diet on it and explained what I should and should not be eating. The entire time I wondered what she ate everyday. And if I listened to this woman I will probably end up looking just like her. I also remember that a piece of cake - with no icing was on the menu every afternoon that page and needless to say the diet didn’t work. I did not want to turn into the fat lady in the stretched t-shirt. Weigh-Less followed soon thereafter. I will never forget the sawdust breakfast cereals, processed cheese, low sugar jams and Slim Slabs that became part of my life.
These were apparently the tools that where going to change everything. Make me a happier person. Oh dear, we got it so wrong. Looking back at photographs of myself as a child, I was perfectly normal. Certainly not overweight. Differently proportioned to many other children, but fat I was not!
But from that moment forward I was convinced that I was never going to be good enough. If anyone dared tell me I couldn’t do something, have or be something I took it as a personal challenge and made it an all consuming mission to prove them wrong, even if it meant self destruction in the process. When you have been taught that your self worth hinges on a number on a scale, especially from childhood, it becomes problematic in many areas of your life. Low self esteem doesn’t stay content to live in only one part of our lives. Trauma, both major and relatively minor if unresolved, infiltrates every waking and sleeping moment and distorts the filters though which we view the world, other people, situations and ourselves. Children have very little ability to dissociate themselves from their immediate reality. Everything literally revolves around their perception of the way the world is and this is reinforced unknowingly by the adults in their lives.
There were so many reasons I couldn’t relate to the other kids at school. I did not make friends easily until well into adulthood. I could not concentrate at school and really couldn't be bothered to study. I got though school only because I could take everything in and retain every bit of information that came my way as a means of survival. To this day I can concentrate for hours without distraction. I remember almost each and every detail of every conversation and meaningful experience I have ever had.
When I began dancing competitively at around the age of 16, I had no idea about nutrition, or for that matter moderation on any level. I stopped eating days before a production in the hope of losing a few grams, but made up for the energy deficit minutes before going out onto the floor with chocolate bars and a couple of shots of vodka (to calm the nerves). As a result my glucose levels spiked and then dropped so fast I could barely function. This was followed by more vodka and more chocolate. I survived in a state of chronic stress for most of my childhood and teens, a recipe for disaster in the long term which set the scene for insulin resistance and hypothyroidism.
All my body knew how to do was how to store fat in case of an impending famine. I was good at survival considering what I put myself through. The weight simply piled on and with it grew a morbid sense of hopelessness. I became severely depressed because I literally did not know where to turn or what to do about it. I assumed that exercise alone would keep me in shape, because the "wisdom" of dieticians in my experience most certainly did not. By my early twenties I had tried every conceivable diet. The depression turned into self destructive behaviour and eventually became bulimia. I was prescribed Prozac and turned to liposuction when all I really needed was an education.
At around this landmark time, my mother decided that we should both join a gym and enlist a personal trainer. I had no idea that the grey haired drill sergeant was possibly the one person I should pay attention to the most, who could possibly have saved me from a lifetime of misery.
My very first trainer, who set the benchmark for how I understood exercise forevermore was none other than world famous Mr Universe, Reg Park, mentor to none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger. I trained with Reg three times a week and blatantly ignored his nutrition advice which was to eat protein in every meal, a moderate amount of vegetables, just enough water and a variety of other whole-foods. So simple.
I will never forget the day, sitting in his office when I very proudly told him about my healthy breakfast of muesli and honey with fat free milk. Truly believing that I would get a gold star. Only to have him tell me that I was eating sugar and nothing was going to change unless I changed my choices. Reg wanted me to eat eggs for breakfast. I just couldn’t do it, I was so addicted to sugar and in my very confused mind, I associated protein with big muscles.
When your teenage role model is Cindy Crawford would you want muscles? Little did I know, this man was handing me the holy grail to health and happiness. I carried on training like an athlete with the very best mentor in the world but of course, nothing changed. And everything that the liposuction removed came back with interest.
The last stage of grief as we know, is acceptance. In my late twenties I resigned myself to the fact that I was genetically destined to be over weight, “big boned” as they say, round in shape and there was nothing I could do about it. Eventually, as many overweight people do - I convinced everyone around me that I was happy and that I really didn’t care. It took me hours to get dressed, I was uncomfortable in everything and I hid underneath extra large clothes that made me look even bigger than I was.
One classically fateful day the universe spoke again. At the gym, where I seemed to spend most of my life, I noticed a poster advertising a body transformation challenge. I didn’t give it too much thought because I didn’t think I was capable of transforming like the people in those pictures.
The poster remained on the wall at the gym and silently nagged at my subconscious every single day.
I had test driven so many fad diets by then and was so jaded I didn’t really believe anything could work. My subconscious wouldn’t let it go and in the days that followed I happened to come across a book about a fabulous weight loss program, the same as the one on poster in the gym, no less.
Eventually I bought a copy of the book and read it from cover to cover. It all seemed way too easy and it flew in the face of every sacred cow that I had adopted. But then the sacred cows and I were liberally grazing happily in some fat and sugar filled pasture. Little did I know at the time how that one decision would change my career path and destiny, forever. I had finally reached the turning point, the place where the discomfort is so great you have no choice but to start challenging what you have accepted as truth your entire life.
So many of us are brought up not to question “conventional wisdom”. That your parents, teacher, doctors and authority figures are always unquestionably right and they have your best interests at heart. Maybe they do and maybe they don’t, but very often they are horribly misinformed, and if this book serves any purpose I hope it teaches you to question everything. This is the place where you realise you have been following the wrong path your entire life for reasons that perhaps served you on some level but are no longer serving any kind of purpose. This is the place I look for in my clients, because nothing changes until something in your core belief system about who you are and what is possible irrevocably changes and cannot return to its original state.
I don’t remember why, maybe it was the unbelievable despondency that I was filled with. Maybe it was the all consuming rage. My body was not my own and I was letting my lack of self esteem destroy my life. Surely there are bigger issues in life than the way you look, the way you feel? But if these things determine how you feel about yourself as a person and the extent to which you can contribute to the world, then as superficial as it may seem, we have to pay attention to these issues.
If you are truly ready to change any aspect of your life, you need to change the mould that you have cast for yourself and create something new with a different set of tools.
I have never been able to give up anything I start so I decided to give it one last try and I honestly do not believe that I would be here today if it were not for that need to keep looking for another way. By far the most challenging part of going down this road again was convincing myself that regular eating would be the catalyst for weight loss. But then I had nothing to lose except fat and decided to march blindly into the hands of the experts. Considerable, since all the other experts in my past experience had been sincerely and fundamentally wrong.
I also had to come to terms with the fact in order to lose fat I would not have to exercise for hours.
Within the first two weeks of trying out a different approach, I had lost 3 kilograms of fat. By week six I had lost 9 kilograms and by week 12, I had lost a total of 15 kilograms of fat. It was easy, I was enjoying food for the first time in my life and I wasn’t feeling bad about it. I had energy, I wasn’t burning out. It was amazing! The positive feedback was unbelievably encouraging and all I wanted to do was share my experience with the whole world. I wanted to tell every human being that the suffering and torture could end! For the first time in my life I lost weight without dieting and starvation.
I had reached 64 kilos and 24% body fat. I swore blind I would never revert back to the person I was before. But a lifetime of behaviours had yet to change. Life has a dark sense of humour, and little did I know that that this was where the real learning was going to begin. Take your eyes off the mark for a minute and old patterns have a way of creeping back, onto your thighs, your butt and everywhere else. I was sure that I was still following the program, the truth is I was taking shortcuts. I did not put all the weight back on, 6kgs in total, but psychologically it was a disaster.
Not having an iota of resilience, support or any tools with which to correct the course and continue. I crashed! I wanted to die. I blamed everything for my weight gain, except myself of-course. I harassed my doctor; challenged the “experts”, spent hours on the internet researching everything from the glycemic index to cortisol. I piled through books on nutrition and supplementation and emailed the authors with lists of questions. I challenged everyone and did battle with the gurus. I religiously 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 nutrition science. I was convinced that the truth was out there and somebody was withholding the facts. I argued with my lecturers and challenged theory after theory. I became an expert in every sense of the word, able to argue for and against every theory from bodybuilding supplementation to fat metabolism. I told my doc what to prescribe and picked my own blood tests.
I was going to get to the bottom of this, or die trying AGAIN. I recruited another dietician, I journaled my eating habits. I made everyone else responsible for my success of failure.
Eventually I found a specialist endocrinologist who took me seriously. Or rather, he entertained my lunacy and the fact that he was an out of the box kind of person helped enormously. He was the first person who made any real sense. He promised me we would fix it - and we did. When someone you believe in, believes in you, magic happens.
Aside from hypothyroidism, inulin resistance and everything working collectively to store fat and cannibalise muscle. The greatest piece of advice that I was given was to never follow the advice of a dietician or conventional dietary protocol ever again. But wait - isn't that how its done? By now, after thousands of hours of research, I realised that conventional dietary protocols are in fact oversimplified hypothesis. No more than plug and play theories which are replicable and scalable with no regard for bio-individuality.
By contrast sports nutritionists and body builders have been getting it right for decades and their results speak for themselves.
The real “drama” began in February 2004. I don’t remember the details leading up to the event. I just remember that I was in pain, larger than life, all consuming, mind-numbing ,dumb-founding, pain; of both the emotional and physical kind. I had symptoms that resembled Malaria or was is fibromyalgia? Every inch of my body ached. I was either boiling or freezing. My eyes felt as if they were about to explode, my mouth was dry and it hurt to breathe. I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. I had every blood test one could have but they revealed nothing.
At a loss for explanation it was diagnosed as a non-specific viral infection. Medical terminology for "we don't know". But I knew different. This affliction was borne of something much deeper. I simply stopped seeing the light. This was years of accumulated mental, emotional and self imposed physical abuse playing out physically. It always does sooner or later and it takes and enormous amount of work and realisation to undo the damage of decades. This was my first hand experience of psycho-neuro-immunology. I had had enough and I wanted out. At some point in the never ending hell of hours that did not want to end I made a deal with “God” - not that I am a religious person in the least. It was a long conversation, but in short, I needed to understand the point of it all. And if this was the way life was going to be then I didn’t want any part of it. I believed that if I disappeared no one would bother to come looking.
I truly felt that if the real purpose of my life was revealed and this anguish and agony took on a deeper meaning. And should I ever crawl out of the pit that I had dug for myself then I would commit the rest of my existence to helping others who were in the same position.
I passed out and woke up two days later. I experienced the most profound sense of trust and knew exactly where I was going and what I was going to do. I had no idea how it would transpire but I knew that there was not other option. The Universe was making sure that I fulfil my end of the deal, and for that I will be eternally grateful.
No trace of “fibromyalgia” or chronic fatigue syndrome and here I am talking to people - many, many people every day. I knew that I would have to continue studying, possibly for rest of my life. I can’t think of anything that I would rather do.
I suddenly and profoundly grew up and woke up in every sense! I don’t really know at what point I realised it, but I finally got it. My health was entirely my responsibility. That every single thought and action I took would drive me either towards or away from health and yes, even happiness. Because you can’t have one without the other. What happens on the outside is nothing but a mirror of what is going on, on the inside. There is no secret, no magic bullet, diets do not work. There are no shortcuts and there is no one to blame, not even genetics. It was a sweet and bitter victory and a profound freedom.
I had tasted success before, so I knew that I had what it would take to succeed. But now it was time to embed the lessons.
And so the real work began. Aside from metabolic syndrome, inability to metabolise iron, an insane hormone imbalance, I was perfectly healthy - well I didn’t have a terminal disease, other than a toxic dose of denial from which I was finally recovering!
I had to come to terms with the fact that it was going to take several months of recalibrating all of these systems to start working coherently, caused by years of crash dieting and binging. The days of hunting down the quick fix were finally over.
I worked out just how many calories I should be consuming in a day. I down-loaded a meal planning program which counted calories and spent hours inputting data.
And then someone did me a favour and said the words I will never forget as long as I live: ‘you are destined to have the shape you were born with, its genetically predetermined and there is nothing you can do about it.’ Not one to back off from a challenge, I was determined to change my body shape entirely and proved that the “big boned” theory was simply an excuse for not doing the work.
Underneath it all we are all just a skeleton. On top of the skeletal structure lie the muscles, ligaments and tendons. Which can be shaped any way we choose, using a combination of resistance exercise, stretching and particular nutrients that influence the way our hormones are expressed. These formulas trigger adaption and stimulate the chemistry required to store or use fat differently. You cannot change your shape without understanding and applying the principles of hormesis and adaption.
The final layer is the fatty layer, which covers the finely honed, custom built shape. Again it is your choice as to how much of this fatty layer you wish to have covering your bones, regardless of their size. The primary way of controlling the fatty layer is and always will be food. More so the types of foods rather than the amount of food. Gone are the days of calorie in calorie out thinking. However, eat too much of the wrong foods (processed sugar containing foods) and you will increase your body fat.
Just over two months later I weighed 52kgs at 16% body fat. Yes it was drastic but if you want to smash perceptions and get the world to wake up and take you seriously, be a living, breathing example. The honest truth is that achieving this seemingly extreme result was possibly the easiest, most self nurturing thing I had ever done. And the secret to great health and a physique you actually like lies in self nurturing, not pain. It was about finding the formula that worked and when the formula works it is not painful, it’s rewarding.
For the first time in many years I was truly healthy. For the first time since childhood I wore a bikini on a public beach, something billions of people do every day, but in the past had never dared to consider, and it felt so good! And the best part was that I blended in.
I remember looking back humbled, thinking about what I had put myself through. I starved, binged and beat myself up, mentally, emotionally and physically. And how with just a little self respect, science and divine intervention, the pieces fell into place. The human body is so forgiving. Miraculously, if you give yourself the basic resources it will reward you with healing and abundant energy. I have a respect for myself and a real sense of empowerment now that cannot be taken away.
Shortly after my transformation a friend who works as a coach for a number of international organisations asked me to join her in designing a wellness program for 60 participants. I knew how to fix myself, but I had no clue as to how to help others. After several weeks of modelling the process, specifically the mind-set required to make permanent behaviour change. This was mid 2006. I then went back "to school". Formally studied clinical nutrition and the first draft of the Re~Invent program was officially born.
Following the success of the first program, I found my way into dozens of other companies, large and small. And Implemented numerous successful programs. Today I run a personalised nutrition and functional health coaching practice, working with individuals and organisations, mentoring people towards healthy lifestyle change. The learning never ends and never should. The science of nutrition, like medicine is ever evolving.
Over the years I have won awards, appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Spoken at events and written course material. The journey, I am grateful to say - continues.
And to everyone who has ever trusted me with their demons, I know how hard it is. I have learned that we are all so alike. The human spirit is remarkable, if only more of us could use it for good. Life is a gift - just know that you are worthy of accepting it.