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From fat kid to TV’s toughest fitness trainer

Have you tried every fad diet out there? Avoided carbs, stuck to grapefruit for a week, ingested only liquids for days on end? Shockingly, Jillian Michaels has, too! TV’s toughest fitness guru (of “Biggest Loser” fame) was not always the healthy and fit woman you see today. In her new book, “Master Your Metabolism,” she writes that the key to weight loss is balancing your hormones. She s
/ Source: TODAY books

Have you tried every fad diet out there? Avoided carbs, stuck to grapefruit for a week, ingested only liquids for days on end? Shockingly, Jillian Michaels has, too! TV’s toughest fitness guru (of “Biggest Loser” fame) was not always the healthy and fit woman you see today. In her new book, “Master Your Metabolism,” she writes that the key to weight loss is balancing your hormones. She shares what she's learned over the years and how she went from being overweight to helping people everywhere shed pounds. An excerpt.

Let me guess — is this what's happening to you?

I tried putting the pieces together every which way, but the story was always the same.

Doctor after doctor, study after study, test after test, told me this very scary fact: In my quest to be “skinny,” I had abused my body for years and years. Rather than getting thinner, I’d succeeded only in aging myself, screwing up my hormone levels, and teaching my body to be fatter.

Now, before you say, “Jillian, give me a break — look at your body,” hang on a sec. If you’ve seen me on TV, you know I’m not a slacker. (I guess you don’t get called “TV’s toughest trainer” for being a softy.) True, I have logged many hours in the gym. I have literally worked my butt off for the body that I have.

But that’s my point: Despite all of that work, my body still wasn’t responding the way it should have, which is when I realized I was missing a piece of the puzzle. Today, it kills me to realize that I could’ve done half the work to get the body I have, had I just known then what I know now.

Now I know that the solution to living happily and healthily is hormone balance — not an impossible regimen that sucks the joy out of life. When I learned how to eat and live in a way that balanced and optimized levels of key hormones, most of my weight-loss battle was won before I even set foot in the gym.

Hormone hell strikes again

Let me guess. Do you have

• a scale that’s stuck, no matter how little you eat or how much exercise you do?

• a sagging energy level that seems only to be getting worse?

• skin that’s starting to turn sallow or wrinkle excessively — and you’re not even past forty?

• skin that’s constantly breaking out — and you’re decades past adolescence?

• moods that peak and trough unpredictably?

• a monthly cycle that drives you (and everyone around you) absolutely nuts?

• crushing fatigue that doesn’t improve, no matter how much sleep you get?

• a burned-out, slightly “crispy” feeling that you can’t shake?

• Have you lost and gained the same five, ten, twenty pounds, over and over?

• Or, more likely, have you lost and gained steadily more each time, losing ground, getting more and more hopeless?

But it took me a really, really long time to figure that out—and I don’t want that to happen to you.

A nation of hormone imbalance

When I look around, I know I’m not alone. There are a lot of screwed-up endocrine systems out there. The statistics tell the story:

• 24 million Americans have diabetes (1 in 4 don’t even know it yet).

• 57 million Americans have prediabetes.

• 1 in 4 people have metabolic syndrome.

• 1 in 10 people have an underactive thyroid gland.

• 1 in 10 women have polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).

• 1 in 13 women have severe PMS.

That’s before we even start talking about the 33 million women barreling straight toward menopause. Boomers, sure, but I’m talking about the first Gen Xers, too. Then add on another 33 million men headed for andropause, aka “male menopause,” which, yes, really does exist.

All of these conditions are caused by

hormonal imbalance. Some are the predictable result of aging; some are brought on by genetic predisposition. But what’s the most common symptom of an out-of-whack endocrine system?

Excess body fat, plain and simple.

Obesity — not to mention premature aging and disease — is caused by hormonal imbalances that gradually wear down the endocrine system until it is tricked into packing on pounds. And once your metabolism thinks you want to put on weight, it does all it can to accommodate you.

That’s why two out of three of us are overweight, and one in three of us have become obese.

And that’s why I wrote this book.

Together, we’re going to reeducate you and your metabolism so that your body becomes a naturally vibrant, invigorated fat-burning machine.

The great hormonal fake-out

Any and every body function you can imagine is controlled by your hormones. From minute to minute, your biochemistry tries to maintain homeostasis — a sense of balance — in your body. In addition to helping all the systems of your body — your kidneys, gut, liver, fat, nervous system, reproductive organs — communicate with one another, your hormones have another enormous job. Whenever your body interacts with millions of external variables — the contents of your meal, the time of day, the intensity of your workout — your endocrine system responds, releasing hormones to help you balance your blood sugar, go to sleep, burn fat, or build muscle.

The only problem is that sometimes those external variables shoot way off the charts, and your hormones don’t know which way is up. They try to help your body regain balance, but in the face of unhealthy foods, environmental toxins, or too much stress, they begin to overreact and overcompensate. And that’s when the problems start.

Too many stressful deadlines spike belly-fat-creating cortisol. Synthetic estrogens in the environment assault the body from every corner, and fake out your testosterone. Too many missed nights of sleep make fat-burning growth hormones dip low. Skipped lunches make the hunger hormone ghrelin jump. Addictions to sugared sodas stop satiety (fullness) hormones like leptin from working.

These dramatic hormonal shifts weren’t part of your body’s original plan. So the unpredictable fluctuations start to wear down your body’s natural regulatory processes. Your endocrine system no longer understands what balance looks like. It stops responding the way it should. Your organs take a beating; your glands burn out. You get hypothyroid, leptin-resistant, and insulin-resistant.

And then you gain weight.

That’s why we need to get your body back in balance. And that’s what this book will do. I’m going to give you all the tools you need to regain control of your body’s biochemistry. Together, we’re going to press the reset button on your metabolism and retrain your hormones, so that in­stead of gaining, you can start losing weight — a lot of it.

Confessions of a former fat kid

Just how far have we strayed from the path of natural hormone balance? Pretty damn far, actually. And I know, because for many years of my life, I was way, way off it myself. I’m going to tell you what happened to me, how my hormone levels got entirely messed up, not because it’s so unusual, but because many of the same things have probably happened to you and everyone you know. Without realizing it, even a fitness guru can have all her hard work undermined by out-of-whack hormones — so how does a teacher or a salesman or a stay-at-home mom stand a chance?

It all began when I was a total chubster.

I may look ripped now, but I spent my early years constantly struggling with excess weight.

Part of what started it all was living with my dad. My dad was an addict. And food was just one of his addictions. He was also very likely hypothyroid, although none of us knew that at the time. But his addiction to food and his genetic predisposition for being overweight definitely was transferred to me.

I’d hang out with my dad at

home when my mom was going

to night school studying to be a

psychologist. Food was the only

way that he knew how to show affection or relate to me. He would make huge buckets of popcorn and we would watch Buck Rogers together. Or we would make pizzas together. He even got into making us homemade ice cream.

If we left the house, we’d go out to our special chicken schwarma place, or the burrito place we liked. Food became one of the only connections I had with my dad.

But my issues with food didn’t all come from Dad. My mom, who was always skinny, would sometimes use food as a reward. I was an only child, and if my parents were both out, they would leave me with a sitter. I hated being with a sitter. So before the sitter got there, they’d take me to the bakery and say, “Pick whatever you want.” Or my dad would just order me a napoleon because that was his favorite. And on the way out of the bakery, I could have a rum ball, an extra little baked confection. Those things still have such a bizarre emotional connection for me, it’s scary.

My mom knew I missed her when she went to work, so before she left for the day, she’d say, “What would you like from the vending machine?” As soon as she got home, she’d bring me my Twix bar. I had an elaborate Twix-eating ritual: First, I’d carefully eat the entire caramel layer off the top of the cracker. Then I’d dunk the cracker in a glass of milk. These food rituals were a comfort to me. They were steady, consistent, reliable — and eventually very destructive.

Sad, huh?

My parents ultimately got divorced when I was twelve. Not coincidentally, that was really the pinnacle of my weight gain. Everything was falling apart for me. I was skipping school, failing in my classes, experimenting with the contents of my parents’ liquor cabinet — doing all kinds of bad things, dangerous things.

I started stealing my mom’s car after school—now, bear in mind, I was twelve. I’d get home in the afternoon while she was still at work, and grab her spare keys. I would take out the Jeep Cherokee and race around the neighborhood like a crazy person. I was very lucky that I didn’t kill someone, including myself.

While I was out in the car, I’d hit my fast-food regulars. It started with a Taco Bell run: two bean and cheese burritos with no onions and extra cheese. Then it was two bean and cheese burritos with no onions and extra cheese and a taco. Then, three bean and cheese burritos with no onions and extra cheese and a taco supreme—and, come to think of it, sure, throw in the cinnamon sticks and a Coke.

Or, after school, I would order a Domino’s pizza, go sit on the roof of my house, eat the whole thing. Or I would get a bag of Cheetos and eat the entire bag while I watched Punky Brewster or The Facts of Life — I would just sit on the couch and gain weight and be miserable.

Around this time, I started having dreams that I was a POW in a war zone. I became obsessed with movies about the Vietnam War, and I literally started to believe I was a reincarnated POW. The day my parents’ divorce was finalized, I kicked a hole in the wall.

I was twelve years old, five feet tall, and weighed about 175 pounds. (In other words, I was two inches shorter and 55 pounds heavier than I am now.)

My mom took a good look at me and realized she had to act — and fast. She took me to a therapist, but thankfully she also recognized that I needed a physical outlet to release my anger and frustration.

Enter exercise — and power

At the time, my mom was dating this guy whose nephews were taking martial arts from a teacher who was a bit unconventional, to say the least. I was intrigued. At some level, my mom sensed it would be the right thing for me, but sending your kid to this instructor was kind of like sending her off to military school. He did not mess around.

His name was Robert David Margolin and he taught out of a dojo in his garage in the Calabasas Hills. Robert created a hybrid style, a mix of aikido and Muay Thai called Akarui-Do. In essence, he was one of the first mixed martial arts pioneers. He became a sort of father figure to me — but he was definitely a renegade.

He was very extreme, and I loved it. It felt more real to me than a tamer, more conventional approach would have. I guess I’m just drawn to extremes. (You might have guessed this about me already.)

The men at that small dojo became like brothers to me. They were all dedicated to their health and were driven, spiritual, and focused. Because I looked up to them so much, I began to realize that all the other stuff I was doing — the drinking, the ditching school, and basically making a mess of my life — was not cool. This was cool to me. I wanted to be just like these people. I wanted to impress them.

So, what was it Rob said to me that finally got my ass in gear? Here is the story. I believe everyone who is serious about changing their lives has one of these — I call it “the rock-bottom moment.” It’s the epiphany that ultimately drives you toward change — no matter what.

One day while I was waiting for my lesson, I was standing there, scarfing down my bag of Cheetos. Robert came out to get me, took one look at the bag, and threw me out of the studio. “You’re wasting my time,” he said to me. “And until you’re ready to pick up what I’m laying down, you’re wasting your own time, but I actually value my time. So get out.” I felt the blood drain out of my body. He saw how stunned I was. “If you want to take this seriously, and take yourself seriously, then come back and I can help you out.” And he shut the door in my face.

Robert’s message to me, which became my guiding philosophy since that moment, was: The entire journey to health is about power. The definition of power, in my opinion, is learning how to make your dream a reality.

Let me tell you a little secret: I don’t love working out. Sometimes I do, but it’s rare. I couldn’t care less if somebody has six-pack abs or buns of steel. Don’t get me wrong, if you have that, good for you. But fitness is about so much more for me.

I use fitness to empower people. It makes people feel strong and confident and potent, and that strength transcends into other parts of life.

And now I understand that it’s the same with your diet and other aspects of your lifestyle. Once you make the decision to take control of what goes into your body, you’re able to harness that power. By recognizing that forces outside of your body have been disrupting your internal biochemistry, and taking steps to optimize your hormones, you’re tapping in to that same power, reclaiming it for yourself.

The day Robert kicked me out of his studio, I was fourteen. I’d been there just over a year. I suddenly realized how far I’d come. I’d gone from being the fat kid in school who couldn’t take her eyes off the ground — the one who ate lunch in Mrs. Cronstad’s office every single day because I was so afraid to show my face in the school yard — to being the kid who would walk down the hall and look people in the eye and think, “You can’t talk to me like that — I just broke two boards with my right foot. Bring it.”

I couldn’t risk losing that power again.

Working with Robert turned me around psychologically, gave me con­fidence, and showed me a way of life that I valued and that would help me achieve my dreams. He helped me realize that the stronger I was physically, the more potent I was as a human being.

But I still didn’t understand one key thing. Robert didn’t care whether I was skinny. I did. But he couldn’t have cared less. He wanted me to eat a healthy diet to take care of my body, but I didn’t really get that part of his message until many years later.

Hot young thing

By seventeen, I was a certified fitness trainer. And I was vain.

I was a young woman living in Los Angeles. Naturally, I wanted to look good. I was voracious about it. There was nothing that I didn’t read or know about. I had every trade magazine, from Muscle & Fitness to Shape. I read every diet book, tried every fitness craze. I saw what worked and what didn’t.

I was studying Navy SEAL training, poring over books about Bruce Lee and Israeli SWAT team methods. I spent hours and hours in the gym, doing the craziest stuff — I was doing plyometrics and high-intensity work­outs a decade before they hit the mainstream. I would go to the gym and hang upside down by one gravity boot or do one-arm pull-ups like it was nothing.

People at the gym would see me and think, “What the heck is this girl doing?” Then a couple of them started coming up to me and asking me to train them. That’s how my career as a trainer began — people wanted me to teach them all the crazy stuff I was doing to myself.

I wasn’t even thinking of making a career out of it. I was already bar­tending at night. (With a fake ID, I might add — still a bit of a rebel. Some things never change.) I was making really good money for a teenager. I didn’t need the extra money. I never looked for clients. I just thought, “Well, I’m doing this for me, but if you want me to, sure, I’ll train you. What the heck? Could be fun.” Of course at that point I had no idea this would be my destiny, helping people change their bodies and their lives through ?tness and health. I was still going through my own saga, my own continu­ing struggle with my weight.

I was obsessed with finding the right ways to burn fat, not just for my clients but for me. For example, for a while, I followed the prevailing be­lief that the most effective way to burn fat was to work out on an empty stomach. Then I had the chance to talk to a biochemist about it and came to find out that it was exactly the wrong thing to do because your body will metabolize its own muscle tissue! Scratch that, move on to the next thing.

I did the same thing with my diet. I experimented with Pritikin, Atkins, Blood Type, pH, Paleolithic, vegetarianism, food combining — even the dreaded Master Cleanse — you name the diet, I went on it. Why? Because I wanted to be skinny!

For a full decade, I treated my body like I was a lab rat. How could I have dreamed that all these extreme experiments were messing with my hormones? All I cared about was never going back to being the fat kid, and frankly, I didn’t care how I got the results I was looking for.

Working in the gym, reading up on all the latest diet research, I was to­tally in my element, loving life. But then, somehow, I got lost in cubicle land for a few years.

Excerpted from “Master Your Metabolism” by Jillian Michaels. Copyright (c) 2009 by Empowered Media LLC, reprinted with permission from Random House.