Growing up, I was an active kid—but that doesn't mean I was healthy. I wasn't necessarily obese, but I was what I'd call thick, which made me seriously struggle with body image.
I'd eat traditional southern cornbread and drink sweet tea (and opting for fast food in between), but I felt like my lifestyle worked well enough for me—until I contracted a rare (but temporary) illness that damaged the nerves in my leg. My condition made it impossible to walk, much less exercise.
The weight piled on quickly after that—add in the fact that I had two kids during that time period, and at 25 years old and 100kg, I barely recognised my body.
My turning point came one day when I looked in the mirror and actually said out loud, 'Girl, what the heck are you doing to yourself?'
It's not just that I didn't recognise myself in the mirror—it's that I didn't feel like myself, either. I'm a dancer, so I couldn't move the way I wanted to or do half of the things I used to—and the fact that I was responsible for my own poor health made it even worse.
One of the first realisations I had when I decided to lose weight was that I was going to have to ditch the idea of the food pyramid (turns out that carb-based comfort food is about as far from healthy as you can get).
I started by cutting out fast food—which meant cooking more at home.
I ditched Starbucks, too, as well as any sweets; instead, I focused on real, whole foods—chicken, vegetables, whole grains. I also cut out soda and focused mainly on water (making an exception for the occasional mimosa).
After a few months of that, I stopped drinking alcohol, along with dairy, and shortly after that, I started intermittent fasting (a.k.a., eating during a specific eight-hour period, and fasting for the remaining 16 hours). Currently, I follow a vegetarian and dairy-free diet—here's what a typical day of eating looks like for me:
- Morning: Since I'm fasting, I'll usually just have water, Arbone fizz sticks, or tea.
- Meal 1: I break my fast at noon with a protein smoothie bowl or avocado toast with poached eggs.
- Snack: Hardboiled eggs with cajun seasoning sprinkled on top is a go-to.
- Meal 2: I'll have something like black bean patties and steamed vegetables.
- Snack: Peanut butter and apple slices—I typically begin fasting at 8 p.m. each night.
After changing my diet, I also discovered my first fitness crush: cycling.
Spin class was perfect for me because the room was dark, so nobody could see me. Being so overweight, I felt way more comfortable sitting on a bike in a dark room where I didn’t really have to move, just pedal.
At first, it was hard enough just to do that (I'd even fake turning the knob when the instructor told us to add resistance). But, when I kept coming back week after week, I started to see my body transform as I got stronger.
Over the next few years, I discovered many more group fitness classes I loved—dancing, yoga, barre, and kettlebells, just to name a few—and realised I had a passion for fitness. I decided to start teaching my own classes at a local gym.
Even though I was eating right and exercising, losing weight still didn't come easily.
My weight loss wasn't fast—I was dropping kgs steadily but very slowly. Dealing with this was the hardest part, and trying to find the motivation to keep going when my patience was wearing thin was so difficult.
But the more I exercised and ate right, the better I felt, and I finally realised that I didn't have to lose 2.5kg a week to be improving my health (and in fact, it was probably better that I wasn't!). It took me three years, but by 2015, I had lost 41kg.
I was even surprised to discover that the place I'd once been deathly afraid of—the gym—had become my happy place! Eventually, I got my personal training certification and started working in gyms full time. I even met my husband at a gym!
Still, I'll never forget how it felt being that young, overweight girl who was intimated by the gym and didn't know anything about nutrition. I always look around for others who are feeling that same way and try to be a support system for them. My life’s mission is to help people believe in themselves and their goals, like I learned to believe in myself.
Oh, and I still have sweet tea and cornbread sometimes—you can take the girl out of Mississippi, but you can't take the delicious Southern food away from the girl. It's just that now it's the occasional splurge instead of my standard dinner.
Courtney Montgomery as told to Charlotte Hilton Andersen. This article originally appeared on Women's Health US.