Maya Nassar knows health. She practices what she preaches, and only five years ago - she was five sizes larger. Fast forward a few years, and Nassar would have earned first, second, and third place trophies in international fitness competitions. Officially endorsed by the Lebanese Ministry of Youth and Sports, Nassar has made a name for herself in the competition world, but even better - she has made it her mission to inspire people who need it and steer them towards a healthier lifestyle.

You can download her app for advice on how to sculpt a lean body, as well as free eating and workout plans.

She spoke to us about her journey, her diet, and the future:

Before weight loss (Left) - during competitions (Right)

What got you started in bikini fitness modeling? And what is bikini fitness modeling?

“I was overweight for a while before I hit rock-bottom. I was never healthy, I never exercised, and would always eat terrible food - but when I kept gaining more and more weight, I decided to make that change. I jumped right in. A friend of mine was participating in [a fitness competition] in London, he told me about it, I trained and signed up; I feel like that’s the best way to do things, jump right in. Bikini fitness modeling is part fitness modeling, part body-building show - it’s the least muscular category of the body-building competition is bikini fitness, it’s about being muscular and toned but also having curves.”

And now you inspire people because of your journey towards health. What’s the most important piece of advice you can give someone?

“Your goal should be getting healthy, instead of just getting skinny. My preferred look is a fit physique, I always get questions through my site asking how to become skinny - my answer is always health comes first. My sister used to suffer from diabetes, but when we started working out together, it just went away. She’s happier and healthier now, she’s a calmer person; I mean it when I say that exercise can change your life instead of just throwing drugs [medicine] at your problems.”

And what advice would you give to someone who would say they don’t have time to go to the gym? How can they get health?

“Well I would say that we all have busy lives. If your goal is to get healthy, there’s always a way you can do that - working out doesn’t have to be a lengthy process or a time-consuming activity, you just have to invest that time in your health. So instead of watching TV, you can put that 30 minutes or that hour towards getting healthy, I even have guides for at-home workouts for people who don’t have the time or money to go to the gym.”

How do you feel competing has changed your life? What is the upside to working out and following strict diets?

“Being on stage makes me fearless, I feel like if I can do that, I can do anything. It boosted my confidence and made me believe in myself again. Competing helps you realize your potential; there is nothing more satisfying that setting a goal and a plan, then seeing it materialize right in front of your eyes.”

What about sexism in these competitions? Is there any?

I think these competitions empower women, it encourages them to set a goal and work towards achieving it. The competitions are not about looking sexually appealing, they are about working hard and everyone involved is usually very professional - in my experience at least. It’s empowered me, made me stronger mentally and physically. Competitions are also great because you have people of all ages, women in their 50’s who compete - they have kids, a husband, and a job, it’s very inspirational. I get quite a lot of mothers who think that because they had a kid they can’t get their fit bodies back, so I’m always trying to inspire anyone - any age or situation.”

What do you feel is the most common reaction to you saying you’re a bikini fitness model? When people hear the word bikini…

“Luckily, my close network is very supportive - friends, family, husband - they’re all supportive of me and my dreams. Most of the people I meet also tell me that they find my journey to health and fitness very inspirational; now of course there are conservative people who are more judgmental. I understand that not everyone will accept what I do, I just don’t give it any importance..”

What’s your diet like?

“It’s basically whole grain carbs like brown rice, brown bread, quinoa, lentils. I eat lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, and protein - mainly fish and chicken. I also make sure to have controlled amounts of healthy fats, nuts and avocados, olive oil. This is the type of eating plan I follow every day, then I’ll have a cheat meal once a week - I go all out: starters, pasta, dessert, the whole shebang. When I was overweight, the advice I was given - even by healthcare professionals - was atrocious. They would tell me to cut out carbs, only eat chicken, one dietician even told me to only eat apples for three days, just really ridiculous scams; and the constant advice was that women shouldn’t lift weights. I finally realized that weight-loss has to be a sustainable lifestyle - I read books and articles until I fully understood how to construct my own diet and workout plan. It was a lot of trial and error.”

A few years ago, celebrity trainer Jillian Michaels made very controversial comments about not wanting to have children because it would “ruin” her body that she had worked so hard for. How do you feel about that?

“I definitely want to have kids. There’s no doubt that when I eventually get pregnant, I will gain weight - that’s unavoidable - but I also know that I know how to lose the weight, I’ve done it before and I have the willpower to work hard; but my body would never stop me from building a family. I also think it’s important to stay fit during pregnancy, to exercise, eat well and minimize weight gain. I don’t think that a few stretch marks ruin a body at all. In fact, there’s even a category for mothers in the body building competition I participated in. I think this is a normal fear that any woman has, whether she’s a fitness professional or just an ordinary person; but I feel that a few stretch marks are no big deal, and at the end of the day you would be a mother which is the greatest gift.”

What do you have to say to younger girls who are image obsessed - starving themselves to look like Kendall Jenner…

“I would tell these girls to think of what they’re doing to their bodies in the long-run, doing anything extreme and unsustainable will ultimately back-fire. Losing weight is great, but at the same time, they should want to remain productive in their daily lives - your weight should not be the focal point of your life - health and happiness are what matters. Starving yourself will never work, being healthy should not be a sacrifice or a punishment.”

Finally, what does the future hold for you?

“I’m working on opening my own gym, a health center actually. So it will hopefully be a spa and a gym with nutritionists and capable trainers on hand to give people a rounded experience and sound advice. And hopefully, more competitions!”

You can follow Maya on Facebook and Instagram for more information.

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