Each week on NBC’s “The Biggest Loser,” host Alison Sweeney puts contestants through grueling physical challenges, issues beguiling calorie-rich temptations and then weighs them on a scale to determine whether their punishing gym sessions are paying off.
So when she gave birth to her second child, she felt the pressure -- from herself -- to quickly bounce back and shed the roughly 26 pounds she gained. But that was one temptation she refused to give in to.
“The last thing a mother needs is more pressure,” Sweeney said. “Your body has been through so much. I want to tell every new mother out there: Give yourself a break! There will be plenty of time to get back into shape.”
Her new book, “The Mommy Diet: A Month-by-Month Plan for a Healthy Body and Mind Before, During and After Pregnancy,” urges women to get into shape before they get pregnant because it will be so much easier to shed the baby weight. Despite its title, it’s a call to sanity for any woman -- pregnant or not -- struggling to get off the dieting roller coaster.
“It’s not about making you instantly skinny -- sorry, that’s just not possible or healthy,” she writes of her approach.
That might be disappointing to those who want to put up monster weight-loss numbers like the contestants on the show. But Sweeney says those contestants are in a life-or-death battle with obesity and win only with hours-long gym workouts. New moms barely have time to shower and run a comb through their hair. They need to find manageable, realistic ways to make eating right and exercise a natural part of their day.
The lessons in the book are derived from her own experiences with childbirth, including the mistakes she made after the birth of her first child, Ben. She had an unfocused approach to shedding the roughly 35 pounds she gained, which left her frustrated. That changed when she made losing the weight a priority. She did things differently with the birth of her second child, Megan. She went into the pregnancy in great shape, continued gently exercising throughout and found that it was much easier to continue with a modified regimen after the birth.
“The Biggest Loser” audiences saw it all pay off when it seemingly appeared that one week Sweeney was pregnant and -- poof! -- the next week she was back to her slim, svelte self. “That is not what happened,” Sweeney said, explaining that much of that had to do with forgiving camera angles and savvy clothing choices. It took her months to lose the weight at a steady, even pace of about 2 or so pounds a week.
And when there were inevitable plateaus, she didn’t beat herself up. She embraced a philosophy that is often touted by Bob Harper, one of the “Biggest Loser” trainers: She trusted the process."I didn’t wake up every day expecting to be back to my old self. I just said, ‘What can I do today to move a little bit more? How can I give my body food that really nourishes me?’ And I had faith that the rest would work itself out.”
Sweeney slid into the booth at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood recently to discuss the new book. Here are some highlights of our conversation:
This approach to fitness and health seems like the exact opposite approach of “The Biggest Loser.”
No one should be standing over a new mother screaming at them to do more push-ups. New mothers have enough to worry about. But there are some common denominators. You have to watch what you eat. You have to exercise. Not just because you want to lose weight, but because you want to be healthy for your kids.
So what are your fitness goals? How many days a week do you work out?
I don’t hold myself to those kinds of goals. Because if I did, I would fail every week, and then I’d feel awful. My schedule to just too unpredictable. So instead I say I work out every day that I can. I always have a workout bag in my car. And I don’t let myself have excuses. I try to plan time to work out each day, but if I end up with an unexpected pocket of time, I take it and work out right then and there. And if the day is just insane, and I realize that working out will just add more stress to the day, then I skip it.
During an ideal week, what does your workout schedule look like?
I try to do cardio several days a week, and weights. I do spin classes whenever I can, but they’re so much fun I don’t consider that working out.
You struggled for years with weight and an eating disorder. How have those struggles informed your new book?
I was so regimented for so many years with my eating. If I was sticking to my diet, I was good; if I wasn’t, I was a failure. But it was that approach that was setting me up for failure. I really had to change my mind-set. And I had to get to the place where eating right and exercising was about my health, not the way I looked. If the scale says you’re a certain weight but you are sick and unhealthy, what good is that?
You must be around food constantly on set. How do you deal with that?
Oh, I go and check it all out. If people bake something, or bring something in, I’m the first one over there to look at it and smell it. And if I really, really, really want it, I’ll take a small bite. But I have to make sure those calories are worth it, and then I have to be accountable for it.
Do you count calories?
I’m pretty good with knowing the calories in things. I tell people to keep a food journal for a month and count every calorie. After that, you’ll pretty much know calorie counts for everything, you’ll be in the ballpark. And then you can decide: If I eat that, is it worth it? When you do that, it actually becomes easier to decide what you want to eat.
Do you feel pressure to look a certain way because you’re on TV?
Yes and no. I feel pressure, but not in a bad way. I allow my job to keep me on my A-game. You see how hard the contestants on “The Biggest Loser” work to get their lives back. I feel an obligation -- and a privilege -- to honor that by also piggybacking on that effort. I’m putting these people on the scale, I should be working out and following on my commitments too.
The media seems to go into overdrive to focus on weight these days, especially pregnant celebrities and when they get their pre-baby bodies back. Did you feel that?
I don’t blame those celebrities who want to lose the weight in three weeks. I actually feel sorry for them. There are certainly people whose job it is to get the body back into shape. Their body is their career. I just couldn’t go down that path. If you look at me naked, you can tell I had a baby. But instead of doing that, I focus on muscle tone and how much better I am at my workouts: “It used to take me four minutes to get up this hill; now I can do it in three minutes.”
OK, I have to ask: How tall are you and how much do you weigh?
I’m about 5'5" and I really don’t weigh myself all that much. I know when I’m on track with my weight because my jeans fit. [In the book, she says she wears a size 27 jean.]
Does anyone in your family struggle with weight?
OK, now you are trying to bust me. My Boston Terrier weighed 22 pounds, and should really weigh 20 pounds. Two pounds doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a big deal when you only weigh 20 pounds. When the vet told me, I took it personally. I was like “What do you mean my dog is fat? How can my dog be fat! I’m the host of ‘The Biggest Loser?’ ” But then I got over that, and I realized this was a teaching moment for the kids. I was able to say, “OK, here’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to make this fun.” And we made it a family thing to go for more walks, and be really careful about not overfeeding, and my son had fun with it.
Let’s talk about what you feed the kids. Are they allowed treats? Do they ask for fast food?
They don’t ask for fast food because they know what the answer is. We do not eat fast food. Period. They’re allowed one treat a day, and we try to make it healthy, like homemade ice pops. [There’s a recipe for them in the book.] And then we have lots of conversations about managing that treat. “If you eat the treat now, then you won’t have the treat later.” In our house, treats are just that -- treats that you have on special occasions. And [my husband and I] follow the same rule. The best thing your kids have going for them is you as a role model.