When she's dolled up on the red carpet, Maria Menounos doesn't look like she'd have a quote from Rocky Balboa emblazoned on her wall at home ("It ain't about how hard you hit, it's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward"). But the sports mantra fits her perfectly: "I'm a 12-year-old boy," jokes Maria, 36, who now has her own reality show, Chasing Maria Menounos, on the Oxygen network. "I really just am a boy with boobs. I have the gross humor, and I want to go out and play volleyball at all times."
It's no surprise that Maria wrestled on WrestleMania and cut a rug on Dancing with the Stars, or that she hosts basketball BBQs at her house with her boyfriend of 16 years, director and producer Keven Undergaro. Her competitive streak even factored into her gaining, then losing, 40 pounds in college, which she writes about in her new book, The EveryGirl's Guide to Diet and Fitness. In a chat with Health, Maria shares how she tackles her top challenges like a champ.
Your book candidly addresses your college weight gain.
When I got to college, I was like, "I have a card that says I can eat everything I want!" But by January of my junior year, I was taking it to another level, competing with guys about who could eat more. And I'm supercompetitive, so I was like, "Oh yeah, let's throw down." I'd order the huge serving of pasta for four people and eat the whole thing. I was beating football players! There was a Miss Massachusetts pageant that November, with an entrance fee. I thought, I'm not gonna waste, like, a thousand dollars. So I set a goal to lose weight.
What did your friends think of your plan to shed pounds?
I never told anybody I was on a diet. I didn't tell myself! That's the key. I just wrote down everything I ate for a week and assessed my problemÂit was carbs. So I made a 10 percent rule in my head: If I was eating seven slices of pizza, I would cut back to six. It was so hard to not reach for that seventh, but I was still eating what I wanted, just one less. When six got easy, I went down to five. When I got down to two slices of pizza and I was still kind of hungry, I'd throw in a salad. I think that because I'd done other dietsÂthe grapefruit diet, the fast shakesÂand failed, I knew that extreme behavior wasn't going to work.
Do you have any mind tricks that help you stay on track?
When you're making choices, you have to do it for your health. When you're thinking, I need to get skinny, it's so easy to be like, "Oh, screw it." But if you're focusing on your health, it gives you a different perspective. I'll think, I'm going to choose to feel better about myself next week by making a better decision now.
So you're planning more for the "future you."
Yeah. My dad is my inspiration. He turned 70 this year and has had type 1 diabetes for over 45 years, but he can still play full-court basketball with us. He's an animal! You have to look at your body and think of what you're putting in and what you want to be in 20 years, in 39 years. I don't want to be at the doctor's on a million pills. I have the perfect role model. I've seen the rewards of living a clean life.
Do you go to the gym daily?
I'm always figuring out a way to work out throughout my day so I don't have to go. I have my yoga mat and exercise bar in my office, so I can do a full workout in 15 minutes. I also balance my meals with my movement. I'm a rocket. I'm like shoom to the bathroom, shoom to the office. I actually put a pedometer on. At the base I get 10,000 steps a day, but on certain days I'm getting 18,000 steps. I'm burning everything I'm eating.
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Is there anyone you look at who makes you say to yourself, I hate you for that. I gotta do what you're doing?
I never look at anybody's body and think, Oh my God, I hate her. What I do is admire. Jessica Biel, for example, is so strong, and I would really love to be stronger like her. That inspires me to want to lift a few weights. If I were to take my jeans off right now, you would see pre-cellulite. It doesn't look that good, but I'm OK with that. We're all human. If I want to get rid of it, I know what I have to do.
But it's not like you wake up and go for a five-mile jog.
I wish I could be that person! Trust me: I'll see Giuliana Rancic's tweets in the morning, and she's, like, at the gym at 4 a.m., and I'm thinking, God bless you! I could never in a million years. Who else do I follow for inspiration? The Rock. That man is a machine. Also Harley Pasternak and Jillian Michaels. We always make so many excuses. These people remind me that they're just as busy and they're figuring it out.
Let's talk beauty. Do you have a special skin-care routine?
I was having skin issues and getting lots of acne and was going to this fancy dermatologist who just loved to pile on the product. Now my routine is very simple and clean: I wash my face every dayÂI'm a big fan of the Dermalogica skin-care line. Doing a laser was a big deal for me. I looked like a monster! I had nightmares, like, "Oh my God, did I ruin my face?!" You never know if it will heal. When it comes to my face, I don't want to mess around.
Have any health secrets that were passed down from your Greek heritage?
Garlic! It kills everything. Whenever I feel like I'm getting sick, the first thing I do is go to my favorite Italian joint, and they make me pizza with, like, 3 cups of cooked garlic. I stink for days. But I eat it and I never get sick. And my dad used to make me put garlic on my zits.
Really? Did it work?
Yeah! I would tape it to my face or I'd cut it in half and rub it on there. But it would really irritate the skin.
Ever try any weird or extreme fitness trends?
I don't do cleanses, because they don't give you sustainable results. I always think of Jessica Simpson in The Dukes of Hazzard: You get yourself into this insane shape that you just can't maintain! I was actually scared to do Dancing with the Stars because I was so afraid that I wouldn't be able to maintain what it was going to do to my body on the positive end. I definitely don't have the body I had at that time. I was rock solidÂmy butt was like the wall. So I always tell people, "If you want a good body, go dancing!"
What are your all-time favorite healthy meals?
Breakfast is generally egg whites, or a white smoothie from Harley Pasternak's book [5 raw almonds, 1 red apple, 1 frozen banana, 3/4 cup nonfat Greek yogurt, 1/2 cup fat-free milk and 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon]. For lunch I'll have a salad with chicken, a bean-and-cheese burrito or a Greek salad. When I'm really tired or stressed, that's usually when I go to Chili's and have nachos and potato skins.
Is there a way you turn off cravings like that?
I get a high from saying no. That's what I did when I was losing the weight. I'd be out and I'd be like, "No, thank you." People are always so impressed when you're the one who's really strong and disciplined.
What do you do if you have to lose a quick 5 pounds?
I got on the treadmill and ran almost three miles yesterday. That and just eating really clean.
Have any health regrets?
When I first lost the weight, I was always running from place to place and the only thing I had time for was drive-through. Even though I was skinny, I was eating so poorly that I landed in the hospital for dehydration and nutrient issues. Exhaustion and not eating properly caught up with me, and I got so sick in France when I was 22 or 23 years old that I was in the hospital for a week with a rare intestinal infection. They thought I had SARS. They kept saying the word terminal in French. They didn't think I was going to make it! I wrote on a piece of paper, I will not compromise my health for anyone or anything ever again. I still have that note. Skinny doesn't always mean healthy.
You've made a few big leaps in your life. What motivates you to reinvent yourself?
I created a quote wall in my office to inspire me in low moments. One of them is "Everything you've ever wanted is on the other side of fear." Whether it was wrestling or doing Dancing with the Stars, I was terrifiedÂand I'm terrified of the reality show still! I still think, Oh my God, what if people hate me? But I think that when you go for it wholeheartedly, it's really hard to fail. I've done a lot of ballsy things in my career, and I look back and I'm like, "How did I even have the courage to do that?" But if you really put everything you have behind it, even if you fail you're going to learn something from it.
What is your advice for other women considering a change?
Just do it. I mean, be smart about it, but just do it. I ask, What's my worst-case scenario? Keven taught me that. Even if everything went away tomorrow, we'd open up a little pizza place and be so happy together. So what's your worst-case scenario? If you think about things from that angle, it's easier to take the leap.
It definitely helps take away that fear of failure.
Yeah. When you fully embrace what you're doing, no one can touch you. When you're only half committed? That's when they can get you. But if you're like, "I know where I'm going and what I'm doing," watch out.