I work with them every day; so I know how awesome Precision Nutrition’s coaches really are.
Today you get to meet one of them, Mariane Heroux. This way you can find out too.
We’re sitting in a local tea shop. The waitress stops at our table to express her admiration for Mariane’s boots. “I’d like to borrow those,” she says.
But after talking with Mariane for an hour, I have a feeling it might be tough for her to fill them.
Sure, with her slender build, strawberry-blonde hair, and sparkling eyes, Mariane Héroux may look like a wood sprite. But her determination, physical strength, and sharp intelligence are a ninja’s.
Seeing her today, you’d naturally assume that Mariane has always been fit and strong.
And, for the most part, you’d be right. Having started recreational gymnastics at the age of four, she moved on to competitive sport when she was eight, eventually making it to the provincial level – and subsequently serving as a coach.
But after she topped out competing in gymnastics late in high school, and before she began coaching, Mariane did what so many of us do when we give up a favourite sport: She stopped working out. Then she left home for university.
Her first few months there were tough. “I wasn’t happy,” she says. “I missed my parents. I wasn’t crazy about my courses. So… you know. I lived the typical undergrad life. Ate at crazy hours. Ate a lot of pizza. Went drinking every weekend.”
She looks down at her teacup and shakes her head, remembering that time.
“In my case, the ‘Freshman Fifteen’ was more like the ‘Freshman Fifty.’”
It’s difficult to imagine, and I can’t hide my astonishment. “You’re kidding. You gained fifty pounds?”
“Probably a bit more,” she admits. “It got so bad that could hardly go out because I couldn’t stand the way I looked. I’d stand in front of my closet for two hours trying to get dressed. Nothing looked right. I felt so awful about myself.”
Even more alarming, she was always sick. Her stomach never felt right – and that affected everything else. Mariane never, ever felt good.
Luckily, she wasn’t content to go on living that way.
Instead, her sharp, analytic brain kicked into gear. She started looking for answers.
“I remembered back to when I was a kid, when I’d eat certain things – mainly vegetables – before a practice – I’d always perform well. And when I’d eat other things – especially bread – my performance would tank. What was that all about?”
She also recalled some “fussy eating” patterns.
“I had a redhead’s temper,” she says with a rueful laugh. “I used to flip my plate upside down if I didn’t like something. Actually, I flipped it over even before I knew what we were having! I suppose I was scared of what might be put onto it.”
“I pretty much lived on bananas and natural peanut butter for a while,” she adds. “Actually, that’s still a favourite.”
I imagine the scene. Mariane’s family – her mom, dad, older sister and younger brother – all gathered together at the table, looking forward to a good meal. Warm smells wafting from the oven. And then the crash and splat of that night’s supper hitting the table.
“My dad didn’t always take it very well,” she adds.
But it turns out Mariane had a pretty good reason for those impetuous outbursts.
Because – as she discovered when she began to delve into the problem more deeply – for all those years while she was growing up, she had actually been suffering from a gluten allergy. Plus an intolerance to dairy.
A gluten allergy! Suddenly, it all made sense. No wonder she didn’t feel great when she ate bread or flour-based products. No wonder she wasn’t crazy about milk. No wonder she’d been reluctant to eat certain foods as a kid. And no wonder she felt lousy when she joined her friends for pizza.
As soon as she stopped eating gluten, Mariane started feeling a whole lot better.
Of course, being an all-or-nothing kind of person at the time, Mariane wasn’t content with half-measures. So once she decided to get back into shape, she immediately cut out all junk food and started running twelve kilometres a day.
The result was predictable. She lost the excess weight – but ended up emaciated and weak, not feeling a whole lot better than before.
Fortunately, when she moved to Kingston to begin her graduate work, she found her way to Taylored Training, where Whitney and Taylor – big fans of PN – developed a challenging program for her, incorporating some of her favourite gymnastics moves. This helped her rebuild muscle, and made going to the gym fun again.
Pretty soon the young woman who’d found it difficult to drag herself out of bed in the mornings was scaling the walls with a TRX.
Mariane’s journey back to a healthy body might sound simple. But it wasn’t easy.
True – as she’s the first to acknowledge – she benefitted from “muscle memory.” All those years as a gymnast had prepped her body for a quick response, so it wasn’t too difficult for her to rev up her metabolism and jumpstart the fat loss.
But just like anybody else who tries to lose weight, the minute she decided to make changes in her eating habits, she faced some tough opposition. It’s not easy to stop going on pizza runs when you’re an undergrad. And even when you know they’re making you sick, it’s not easy to stop slugging back those delicious strawberry daiquiris.
“I learned who my real friends were,” Mariane says now. “But there was pressure. For sure.”
Not only did Mariane face that pressure from outside, but she also battled an internal foe – one that’s probably familiar to a lot of others who’ve struggled with their weight.
“I had a sweet tooth,” she whispers. “Well… actually… I have a sweet tooth. Always have.”
Some people might give in to that. Others – discovering a gluten allergy as Mariane did – might despair. After all, most traditional sweet treats are not exactly gluten-free.
But Mariane is more determined and more resourceful than that.
There must be a way to create healthy sweets, she thought. Sweets that would nourish the body – even her gluten-sensitive body – while satisfying the taste buds.
So she set out to do exactly that.
Since then, Mariane’s become famous among her friends and acquaintances for her delicious, healthy snacks. She even self-published a little recipe book last year, and one of her dreams is to expand it and find a way to distribute it more widely. Listening to her enthusiasm as she talks about the project, and later, looking at the photos of her creations, I’m convinced she can make it happen.
“I owe a lot to gymnastics,” Mariane says.
Throughout her ten-year involvement in the sport, her coaches became like family. After all, she spent more time with them than anyone else, often training both before and after school, and training again or competing almost every weekend.
“I’m so grateful to them now,” she says, laughing. “I wasn’t always easy to work with. I had a redhead’s attitude. You know, if I decided I wasn’t going to do something, you couldn’t budge me. And if I decided I was going to do it…” She shakes her head. “In a sport like gymnastics, that can be a genuine danger!”
But gymnastics taught her dedication, organization, time management. And it taught her to focus on finishing strong.
“You can be so hard on yourself in competition,” she says. “It was so tempting, if I made a mistake, just to cry, or walk away. But my coaches taught me to get up and finish my routine, no matter what. To improvise, if I couldn’t remember the details. To hold my head up and do my best.”
These lessons served Mariane well as she pursued her graduate education. In fact, Mariane set a record for the fastest completion of an MSc in her subject area at Queen’s – all while coaching gymnastics. She followed this up by finishing her PhD in 2.5 years – while running her own nutritional counselling business on the side.
Mariane’s graduate research focused on childhood obesity and ways to prevent it with nutrition and activity.
And she loves to keep current with the latest studies in the field. So now, in addition to her work as a coach, she analyzes data from previous PN coaching groups.
At what points in the program do people tend to lose the most weight? Are there patterns to plateaus? Does perceived progress match up with actual progress? These are the kinds of questions she’s looking into, to help us make improvements to future versions of the program.
“I love research,” she says, her eyes brightening. “But I also love to work with people.”
That’s one reason her PhD field research in Mexico was so moving – and so rewarding.
Her work was part of a study comparing children’s nutritional status across countries at three points in what’s called the “nutritional transition” – Kenya (at the beginning of the transition to a more processed and refined diet); Mexico (mid-transition); and Canada (fully transitioned).
What they discovered was no surprise. Kenyan kids, with their relatively unprocessed diets, are doing extremely well on almost all measures of fitness and health.
Mexican and Canadian kids, on the other hand, are nearly tied – and running way behind the Kenyans.
These findings become even more disturbing when you stop to consider that while in Canada the rise in childhood obesity (and its associated health risks) has been gradual, in Mexico, it has occurred within one generation.
The area where Mariane did her data collection was terribly poor. So at the time she visited, it had become a mark of status for families to buy processed food. At school breaks, women would come by with little junk-laden carts and the children would rush out to buy their snacks. There were no healthy options. None.
“We brought fruit and bottled water,” she says. “We were asking kids to run as part of the testing. We couldn’t ask them to run without giving them something to drink and some nutritious food. Many of them hadn’t eaten.”
The most heart-rending part?
“They dropped their candy and Doritos in favour of the fruit and water. It was like Christmas day for them! Many were overweight, but nutritionally deficient. And on some level they knew it, and responded to that. They needed the fruit.”
My eyes well with tears, just hearing the story. I can easily imagine how painful it would be to live in the midst of that culture for a few weeks and then tear yourself away, knowing that there wouldn’t be a whole lot of fruit and fresh water for those kids in the future.
Luckily, there’s hope. While she was there, Mariane also helped teach a course in how to conduct similar research, so that local scholars will be able to take over where she and her team left off. And – partly as a result of this initiative – there’s a movement afoot to make changes to school diets and to reduce childhood obesity in Mexico.
Here in Canada, Mariane’s glad to be working with moms and sisters and daughters who can similarly make a difference – changing their own nutritional choices and setting an example for other members of their families.
“Choosing healthy food and maintaining a healthy diet is so important,” she stresses. “But I understand that it can be challenging to make positive choices, especially when there’s so much unhealthy and inexpensive junk available and advertisers make it sound so attractive.”
That’s where nutritional guidance and coaching come in, and where Mariane excels. As someone who’s gone through the weight loss process herself, she knows that it’s not always easy. But she also believes that the results are worth the effort.
“You only have one body,” she says. “Please take care of it.”
Mariane would love to live in a world where we all reached for the apple and the water instead of the Doritos.
Knowing her, she’ll make it happen. Or scale the walls (with her TRX) in the attempt.