As a young girl, Maria Kang approached diets like fashion trends. Atkins. Juice fasts. Pills. Each one new and exciting, but ultimately fleeting. This was all part of Maria's changing self-image, her desire to shape her body as she saw fit. She succeeded, but by her early twenties she felt an emotional and spiritual void, into which she threw her hard-won discipline.
In her dark days of binging and purging, Maria found slivers of hope in reading, writing and reflecting on life. Eventually it dawned on her: Happiness and healthiness lay on the road to loving your body, not abusing or depriving it.
Her life since hasn't been without the occasional lapses in self-doubt, but she has found grounding in the catchphrase "What's your excuse?," the idea that only you stand in the way of personal betterment. Once you discard the excuses and rationalizations, a new life unfolds.
The No Excuses Diet is Maria's life story and manifesto rolled into one. Below, enjoy the first chapter of The No Excuses Diet, in which Maria talks about her relationship with her mother, her depression spirals, and her runaway online popularity thanks to a single Facebook picture.
Excerpt of The No Excuses Diet by Maria Kang
I wasn't always fit. I never played a sport, and I grew up eating sugary cereals, boxed dinners, and fast food. I don’t have superior genes, either. As the eldest of three daughters, my heavier frame always mimicked the bone structure of my overweight mother. While my mother was a charismatic, vibrant, and successful businesswoman, she didn't apply that same drive to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. She became a diabetic in her twenties, experienced strokes in her thirties, and had heart attacks and a kidney transplant in her forties.
Watching her suffer made me vigilant about protecting my health. At twelve years old, I purchased a cheap Reebok workout video by Gin Miller at my local store, and I used old phone books as my fitness stepper. I read the many diet books that my mother had around and began following a diet comprising foods with no fat, such as candy, breads, and pasta. After slowly gaining weight in my teens, I began to experiment with other diets. I attempted a juice fast—that lasted only one day. I attempted the Atkins diet, but after three weeks of beef patties, bacon, and no bowel movement, I quit that, too. I tried diet pills and weight-loss shakes, with no success, either.
In college, I ecstatically became a part-time personal trainer and finally began learning how the body worked. I discovered strength training, integrated it into my workout routine, and was seeing incredible results. I learned how to master my metabolism by performing strength and cardio exercises, consuming balanced meals every three hours, and enjoying a splurge meal once a week. While it was difficult training, working, and studying all at the same time, I made it work because I was so conscious of the health risks that were inherent in my family. I was able to graduate in four years with a double major in history and international relations and a minor in political science from the University of California at Davis.
During my transition to work life, I decided to challenge my body and I started competing in local beauty and fitness competitions. For weeks, I would follow a strict diet of lean protein and complex carbohydrates, coupled with intense strength training and cardio exercise. I wasn't eating enough calories for my activity level, though, and after each contest I would binge eat; I biologically and psychologically needed to refuel. I did win several contests locally and nationally, but I felt a void.
I was in my early twenties. I had graduated from college, moved to San Francisco, broken up with a long-term boyfriend, and changed occupations. I had built an award-winning physique and was even featured in national magazines. I should have felt happy, satisfied, and accomplished—but I didn't. I felt empty.
I felt like I didn’t know who I was and what motivated me to be independent, ambitious, competitive, and fit. In those reflective moments I could hear my mother’s voice, cheering me on, supporting my efforts and celebrating the things I was able to do because she couldn’t.
Filling the Void
Up to this point, I thought that attaining objects, titles, and money would make me happy. But it didn’t. In fact, nothing did. I felt empty, so I began filling that emptiness with things that had consoled me in the past. I started consuming cakes, cookies, chocolate, ice cream, and candy. While I ate upward of 3,000 calories per sitting, it seemed my body didn’t register my incredible intake because I never felt physically satiated. When guilt overtook my psyche, I forced myself to throw up. I would begin this destructive cycle of bingeing and purging up to three times a day, three or four times a week for several years. Dominated by thoughts of inadequacy, feeling spiritually vacant, and lacking control of thoughts, I found that people and events around me created intense anxiety. My weight crept back up to my early college days, and my self-esteem was declining quickly.
I remember going home one day and admitting my eating disorder to my mother. She confessed that she understood my personal plight intimately, as she also suffered from bulimia when she was younger. In a Twilight Zone moment, I felt that history was repeating itself—after all, eating disorders leave a genetic stamp.
I saw the first twenty years of my life pass me by, and in an instant I grasped how every choice I had made was influenced by my mother’s pushing me to become everything she couldn’t be (because she had married young, had multiple children, and was overweight). I realized that I didn’t have ownership of my decision to pursue extreme fitness and live independently and successfully in a big city.
My obsession to compete and win at all costs had been motivated by a desire to make my mother proud. She sacrificed her youth and her health in both raising us and working. She didn’t take time for herself; she couldn’t pursue a more fulfilling life because her health limited her. One night, I started writing a letter to my mother—the woman for whom, beginning in fifth grade, I used to wake up each morning at 5 AM so I could iron her clothes, cook her breakfast, and pack her a healthy lunch. Even then, I knew her busy life prevented her from making the healthiest choices, and I had grown up wanting to help her live a healthier life. I felt a piece of me shatter every time I saw her inject insulin, take prescription medications, or become briefly paralyzed from a minor stroke.
I didn’t want to become my mother, but whether I knew it or not, I already had.
Finding My Passion
My crazy eating led me to gain 30 pounds in one year. My clothes no longer fit, and the extra pounds weighed heavily on my nearly 5-foot-4-inch frame. I started living in comfortable yoga pants, large skirts, and empire-waist dresses. I knew my body was metabolically damaged from years of disordered eating. It didn’t know when I would feed it, or if the food I consumed would remain there. I felt like my body was literally grabbing every calorie and saving it for a future famine.
In the depth of my personal pain I started to write, read, reflect, and pray. I began a personal website to document my innermost thoughts and initiated connections with people who empathized with my story of fear, guilt, shame, happiness, and triumph. I realized that I needed to let go of the past, to stop thinking of the future, and to start living in the present. If I consumed a cookie, I let it digest without negatively thinking of becoming fat or my feeling ashamed for lacking self-control. If I had an out-of-control binge session, I didn’t beat myself up about it, and instead I determined to make more careful choices. I let go of my shame, reflected on what had caused the action, and held myself accountable for the consequences.
During this time I discovered similar stories of women who had been on yo-yo diets, taken weight-loss pills, and tried fasting, only to be left with bodies that didn’t trust their owners anymore. Our bodies didn’t feel loved, nurtured, or protected. We were treating our bodies like the enemy.
So I began the process of loving my body again. I nourished it with healthy, whole foods. I strengthened it through physical movement. I cared for it by giving it enough water, sleep, and rest. I reminded myself daily that however my body manifested through good nutrition and exercise, it was beautiful. So it manifested at 145 pounds—20 pounds over my goal weight—for many years. In one of those years, 2007, I met my future husband and I created my fitness nonprofit, Fitness Without Borders.
After years of battling the bulge, I had realized being healthy was important to me. I knew it could prevent health-related diseases like heart disease and diabetes, as well as improve the quality of my life. I saw these changes in other people, in the low-income places I worked, in the elderly people I served, and in the overweight groups I mentored. Fitness was a powerful, life-giving force that I genuinely had a passion for, yet like everyone else I still struggled daily with my personal excuses.
Whenever I was bored, anxious, or stressed, I binged on chocolate and chips. If I was depressed, I often skipped workouts and opted to lie in bed. Even when I began eating well and exercising consistently, my body was unresponsive. I told myself that my mother’s genetics had finally caught up with me, that there was nothing I could do to lose those 20-plus pounds to get back into the shape that I loved. I resisted going on any diet because I knew it would trigger an eating disorder.
A part of me was settling down at my new weight, and I began believing this was as good as it would get. But part of me also knew that it was just an excuse. Deep within, I knew I could build my best body again if only I was willing to put in the effort.
In 2008, I found out I was pregnant, and I spiraled down into a state of depression for the majority of the pregnancy. Though my partner and I were engaged, we were unmarried. I had just quit my corporate job in San Francisco and moved home to Sacramento to help care for my mother, who was undergoing dialysis treatments for kidney failure. Not only was I fearful of our future together, but I was uncertain of what pregnancy would do to my body—a body still struggling to lose those 20 pounds. Most mothers in my family had experienced weight gain, stretch marks, excess skin, swollen ankles, enlarged feet, and deflated breasts—and many of those conditions didn’t go away after the babies were born. I was not too excited about my own pregnancy, therefore.
I wanted to maintain some feelings of control, so I began journaling my food intake and ensuring that I consumed only 500 additional calories per day. I maintained a light workout routine and I gained weight slowly. In those moments, I could almost feel my relationship with my body changing. Whereas before I had felt disconnected or at war with my physical form, now I was seeing it in a new light. I began revering my body for being the vessel containing this little miracle growing inside me. Wow, I could grow a human life!
By the end of my first pregnancy, in January 2009, I was 180 pounds and gave birth to a healthy 7-pound, 14-ounce baby boy. After his birth, I continued my healthy lifestyle by dropping my caloric intake slowly and adjusting my workout routine to match my son’s sleeping and nursing schedule. Within six months I was down to 10 pounds below my pre-pregnancy weight! I was shocked to be in the 130s again, but not as shocked as I was when I discovered I was pregnant with baby number two.
This time, I wasn’t as anxious; I knew that it was possible for me to have a healthy baby and take care of myself at the same time. I began my pregnancy routine of managing my schedule, eating whole foods, splurging on occasion, and exercising one to three times a week. By the end of my second pregnancy in April 2010, I had gained 37 pounds and delivered in a record-breaking time of one hour after admission to the hospital.
My days were now busy with nursing my youngest son, attending to my eldest, and working as a business owner of small residential care facilities for the elderly. I knew I wanted to add one more child to our fast-growing family. By this time, David and I were married. We settled into my hometown of Elk Grove, California, and I was becoming a local leader as the founder of my fitness nonprofit Fitness Without Borders; I also was leading a free “mom fitness” group. We welcomed our third son in December 2011.
Life was incredibly busy; I was multitasking as a business owner, nonprofit director, freelance writer, and mother of three very young boys. Despite my daily obligations, I made it a priority to incorporate a workout routine that gave me energy and made me feel great. I was careful to take in enough food to keep my metabo-lism churning through the day. My weight loss was slow, but each week I was getting a little bit closer to my goal of feeling confident in a midriff-baring workout outfit.
Reaching a daily sweat was important for me because it was the only “me time” I had anymore. I looked forward to my workout session, whether it lasted 20 minutes or an entire hour! Exercising raised my self-esteem, increased my stamina, and lifted my spirits. I made a plan and set a deadline of six months to get back into great shape. I was doing something for myself, an action my mother inadvertently taught me to appreciate.
My long-term goal was to have a toned midsection, feel confident in a tank top, and weigh in at 125 pounds again—a number I hadn’t seen for ten years. I raised the stakes by booking a professional photo shoot. To keep me motivated and stay the course, I created short-term, achievable goals that allowed me to feel suc-cessful. Six months after my doctor gave me clearance to exercise, I was brimming with pride. I set a goal, I followed a plan, I overcame adversities, and I followed through. I showed my husband a woman he’d never seen before, and I proved to friends that it was possible to improve your body after having a child.
Above all, I was a good role model for my children. They saw me prioritize my health without sacrificing my work or family life, and they observed how energized and happy the exercise and good eating habits made me. Not only was I able to complete my fitness goals with a balanced approach, but I also got the body I wanted in a smart, healthy, and sustainable way.
What’s Your Excuse?
As I got ready to post my new photos to my website and Facebook page, I thought about what I wanted to say. I was proud of how I looked, and I was even more proud of all the work and commitment that had brought me to that point. I had vanquished a lot of personal demons to get to the healthy, happy relationship I now had with fitness and food. I once believed that it wasn’t possible for me to have a body I loved. I had thought that there was no way to avoid the health issues that plagued my mother. I had let fear stand between me and the healthy lifestyle I wanted. After my pregnancies, though, I had stopped letting all of those excuses get in my way. I had committed myself, one day at a time, to reach my goal, and one day at a time I had achieved that goal.
In posting those photos, I wanted to share my revelation: that the only thing standing in the way of success is an excuse, a rationalization for why we sometimes can’t follow through. I titled my newest image of myself with a popular fitness catchphrase, “What’s Your Excuse?”
I’ve always struggled with weight, both before and after motherhood, and I know how tough it can be to achieve the body you want to have. My caption was meant to be taken literally: What is your excuse? What is holding you back from being the best and most healthy person you can be? I wanted to inspire others, to make people realize that it’s possible to overcome the obstacles that stand between them and their goals.
That single caption, posted on a photo of me and my three kids, captured 16 million views within two weeks on Facebook. The image was featured on dozens of morning shows, evening shows, talk shows, and news shows. I was interviewed on Good Morning America, Today, and CNN, as well as on programs in Australia, Germany, the Philippines, Ireland, and Canada. I was mentioned in Time magazine’s People of the Year issue. In three weeks, my Facebook page attracted more than 260,000 new members and my website traffic ballooned to more than a million views.
I was shocked.
My question stirred a controversy, and my character as a mother, wife, and fitness enthusiast was put on the line. Some people accused me of being a bad mother for supposedly working out all day. Others complained that I had great genes, a full-time nanny, or a rich husband. People thought my image was faked or that my children were paid models because it seemed impossible that I could get these results without sacrificing motherhood, time, and resources. Yet despite some of the backlash, thousands more were inspired. I received emails from people who had decided, for the first time in years, to start prioritizing their health. Even though many responses came from single parents, working two jobs or recovering from past injuries, they were tired of excuses holding them back from having the bodies they wanted. My question was their wake up call.
These viewers saw that if I can do it, they can do it, too. Thousands of women joined the online community, and in less than four months, hundreds of “No Excuse Moms” groups popped up in more than twenty-nine countries. People began celebrating non-scale victories, like fitting into their favorite jeans, wearing a bikini at the beach, and completing a 5K run. For many, it was the first time in their lives they had set a goal, created a plan, and achieved that goal.
And so can you.
Many people think being healthy is as simple as calories in, calories out. But it’s more involved than that. In between today and the day you achieve your goal is a long road that’s littered with a lot of excuses. You need to be prepared. You need to know what to do when you get confused, sore, tired, busy, stressed, depressed, unmotivated, and overchallenged. You need a simple how-to fitness and nutrition guide that won’t leave you with “analysis paralysis” every time you step onto the gym floor.
I’m here to teach you what I have learned to do mentally and physically to get into great shape. The first lesson is the power of choice. After all, your ability to create a thought and proceed with an action will determine your results. Whatever choice you make, whether it’s to run three miles or to splurge on a chocolate chip cookie, you just own it. You decide if it helps or hinders your long-term goal, then you create an action plan when that challenge arises again.
Every action begins with a choice.
Whether you’re facing a public struggle or a private one, I show you that it’s possible to achieve your goals, that you can have the body you want and the health you deserve, no matter what obstacles are in your way.
Your body is the only personal vehicle you will own in this life. So honor it. Respect it. And let it amaze you with everything that it can do when you give it the care it deserves!