I'm Maria Menounos, and Almost Dying Led Me to Finally Get Healthy

In college I was 40 pounds heavier. But it was when I was skinny that I had the most serious health crisis of my life.

Jun 2, 2014 at 4:30pm | Leave a comment

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Before and after.

When I was 13 I got a job at Dunkin' Donuts. Surrounded by all that sugar, I couldn't resist indulging. Even today it's my first stop every time I visit Boston. In my freshman year of high school, I was a size 8. Even though I was told I was too short for a modeling career, I participated in small fashion shows, did some print work and competed in the Miss Teen Massachusetts pageant -- and yes, there was a swimsuit segment. For any of you girls who think you need to be a size 0 to be attractive, maybe you'll change your mind after I tell you that I actually won that pageant.

But my overeating got worse in college. Off my parents' proverbial leash, I could keep candy and chips in my room and eat all the late-night pizza I could afford. The college cafeteria offered endless rows of all-you-can-eat fries, steak and cheese subs, sandwich melts, cake, pie pudding and ice cream. I had access to everything I could never have before -- and I went nuts.

At my peak of overeating, I would have a bagel and cream cheese for breakfast, a large steak and cheese sandwich with lots of French fries for lunch, and ice cream, candy and assorted junk in between. I was so obsessed with brown sugar Pop-Tarts that, to this day, I won't eat them for fear that the taste will get me addicted again. At dinner, I could down a whole pizza by myself. Two hours after dinner, I would have three Eggo waffles for dessert.

Soon, I grew to a size 14 and kept growing. Eating became a game to me. I started to compete with guys to see who could eat the most, and regrettably, I always won. At my heaviest, I was more than 160 pounds. Every time I came home from college, aunts, uncles and cousins had something mean to say. They would poke fun at my size and how much weight I had gained. It hurt so much that, in defiance, I would buy a gallon of ice cream and then hide in the garage and eat it.

I should have taken comfort in the fact that I was actually thriving in my life as an on-camera talent. Emerson College, my alma mater, was attended by the likes of Jay Leno, Denis Leary, Henry Winkler and countless other showbiz heavies. They have an annual award show called the EVVY Awards for their outstanding students. I was the first freshman in the school's 75-year history ever to win an EVVY for my on-camera hosting. So again for any of you who think you need to be a size 0 to be on camera or to be beautiful, I won that award when I weighed upwards of 160 pounds and wore a size 14.

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40 pounds heavier.

But I know how I felt: sick and lethargic.

I wanted to nap all the time and struggled to get out of bed each morning. All my Emerson professors and my boyfriend, Kev, whom I had just started dating, warned me about the high level of energy and stamina I would need to work in television, especially the news. You have to be prepared to work 18-hour days six to seven days a week. Their unanimous advice was if you want to make it in this business, you have to be physically fit and strong. In addition, I learned that my overeating and weight gain was putting me at greater risk for diabetes. I knew too well how the disease had affected Mom, Dad and me. The writing was on the wall. I had to take my health and my eating habits more seriously.

I tried a ton of diets -- shake diets, the grapefruit diet and the coffee diet among them -- but not one of them lasted. I was putting in long days, trying to do it all, study, work, build a career, be a good daughter and have a social life, too. Between my schedule and trying to make ends meet, being on a diet was just one more stress factor in an already stressful life.

When you're used to eating unhealthily as I was, it's incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to do a 180-degree turnaround and follow a rigid diet plan. You're tired and crave foods that will give you that surge of energy you desperately need. Unfortunately, they're the same foods that are loaded with junk like sugar. They do give you that jolt, but they make you crash soon after. You feel even more exhausted than before, and you reach for even more of the unhealthy food to lift you up again. It is a cyclical habit that leads to weight gain and poor health, as was clearly the case with me. And it's tough to break all at once. Is it any wonder, then, that every time I tried a new diet I'd get discouraged and gradually resume my old eating habits? Trying to do a complete diet overhaul was too much to handle.

Finally, in January 1999, I'd had enough. Since I couldn't find a plan that worked for me, I decided to create my own. It wasn't really an official diet. It was just me opting to set a goal and to make some dietary and lifestyle adjustments. It was a lot of trial and error but I created and followed a plan and a series of steps . The plan and steps were super easy to follow and perfect for someone who had no time, no money and no willpower like me. I outline all the steps in my new book The EveryGirl's Guide to Life. And by the way, the reason it's called the EveryGirl's Guide is because I think most every girl out there lacks time, money and will power. Adhering to the plan I created, within a year I ended up successfully losing 40 pounds. Unfortunately I still had more to learn. I was thin but not yet healthy.

I moved to California, where my career took off pretty quickly. I got a job at a place called Channel One News, a program that was beamed into high schools around the country. It was an incredible experience, and I was truly blessed to have it. However, I was working around the clock and was on the go constantly, just as Kev and my advisors had predicted. The only thing I had time for was fast food -- something that was new to me. In LA, I saw too few quality mom-and-pop shops and more fast-food joints than I'd ever seen in my life.

A year or so later I was hired by "Entertainment Tonight" and found myself more strapped for time than I had ever been. In my first year at "E.T." I worked 15-plus hours a day and 48 out of 52 weekends. And that time crunch just reinforced my fast-food habit. I'd eat it at least twice a day, often hitting the drive-through on my way to and from shoots. I bet I visited every fast-food joint in LA. Luckily, my weight didn't fluctuate very much. I knew enough to keep my portions small, and I was so busy working and running around that I must have burned all the calories off. Having lost the weight slowly over a year's time no doubt prevented it from piling back on, too.

Yet there were serious consequences to eating so much fast food, as I soon discovered I was in and out of the hospital multiple times for exhaustion, malnutrition and dehydration. Things got so bad that, on one occasion in France, I, literally, almost died.

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Near death in France.

I was on assignment at the Cannes Film Festival, pulling 18-hour days. My unhealthy diet and the exhaustion that went with it left me more susceptible to illness, and I contracted a rare intestinal infection. It was altogether painful and terrifying. I was 23 and found myself all alone in the corridor of a French hospital, shivering with a 105-degree fever. I didn't speak French, but it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that when the doctor used the words "operation chirugicale" and "terminale," he was talking about surgery and the possibility of death. It was the scariest experience of my life. The hospital did not want to release me, but I knew I had to return home. Kevin didn't have a passport to come get me, but he spoke enough French to persuade hospital officials to release me once the fever got down to 102. He urged me to find the strength to get on a plane. I basically crawled onto the flight.

When I finally got home and told my best friend, Rachel Zalis, what had happened, she was the one who made the connection between my unhealthy eating habits and how they were affecting my health. Rachel, then the West Coast editor at Glamour magazine and today a top style expert, knew some of the world's leading diet and health practitioners. More important, she had grown up in a family of doctors. Rachel has never eaten fast food in her life, and she advised me to stop eating it, too. I cut out that junk food entirely for a few years and never got sick as a result -- not even a cold. Today, I'll have fast food on occasion for fun, but it isn't and never again will it be a staple of my diet.

It was through that life-or-death experience in France that I realized the whole quest to have an amazing body or to be skinny needed to be seriously reevaluated. The end goal should not be "having a better body." What the hell does that matter if you're dead or immobile? It's about living a healthy life -- with the wonderful byproduct being that "better body." Just because you are thinner, does not mean you are healthier.

It was the final lesson in my weight loss journey and one that will remain with me forever.

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The book covers my journey and the all the proper steps to lose weight, get in shape and to live longer, healthier and more prosperous lives. I really hope it helps every girl out there who lacks time, money and will power to get fit and heathy for life while avoiding the pitfalls and setbacks I experienced.

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Reprinted with permission from The EveryGirl's Guide to Diet and Fitness.