Tuesday, April 01, 2008

'Biggest Loser' 4 Contestant Neil Tejwani: 'I Regret Hurting Anyone With My Game Tactics'

Season 4 "bad boy" Neil Tejwani says he's a "lovable teddy bear"

1. There aren’t many people I get to interview at my blog who can understand what it feels like to weigh over 400 pounds and then lose about half of it like I did. But today’s guest here at the “Livin’ La Vida Low-Carb” blog did indeed weigh 421 pounds when he started his quest to better health on the hit NBC reality weight loss television program “The Biggest Loser” in Season 4. He’s Neil Tejwani and we’re so happy to have him here to talk about his appearance on the show, the astonishing turnaround in his weight and health, and what he intends to do henceforth to remain fit and trim for life.

Welcome to my blog, Neil! You ended up losing a total of 211 pounds--the second most total pounds ever behind Season 3 winner Eric Chopin--during the competition on the show and was just five pounds away from beating Jim and winning the $100,000 at-home consolation prize at the final live weigh-in. It was obvious you worked your tail off to lose as much as you could on your own after months on the Biggest Loser Ranch where you lost more weight than any previous contestant.

But you were telling me that your weight was even higher prior to beginning this journey with “The Biggest Loser” and that you were thinking about having gastric bypass surgery. How big did you get and how did you weight loss progress differ once you got on the show compared to your own efforts? Incidentally, from day one of the show to the final weigh-in, how long is that? That’s never been clear to me in the past few years of watching “The Biggest Loser.”

Thanks for having me on your blog Jimmy. Let me first congratulate you on your amazing weight loss achievements as well! You can relate to the feeling of winning your life back with your incredible accomplishment, and this was a journey that really was a long time coming for me.

You are correct that 421 pounds was not my heaviest weight. Towards the end of 2006 I actually tipped the scales at 461 pounds. It’s crazy to even imagine that now, but I have definitely been fortunate enough to have this experience on the Biggest Loser and better my health for the long run. The show really has changed my life, and I never could have imagined the incredible success I have been so lucky and blessed to achieve without this experience.

For as long as I can remember, I have been well over 400 pounds. Even in my late teens during the beginning of college, I was morbidly obese, and for the most part was fairly inactive. I was gaining weight at a rapid pace each and every year, and when I finally hit the 460 mark, I really knew that something had to be done. I consulted with my doctor, and he basically said in a “nutshell” that I would not see past the age of 30 at the rate I was going! I was diagnosed with high blood pressure, sleep apnea, and I was a borderline type II diabetic. Definitely a gut check moment for me to say the least!

I was 24 years old, and I was already being diagnosed with health problems that people 2 or 3 times my age usually experience! So upon my doctor’s advice, I entered a program at the Obesity Consult Center at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, and I began my journey into researching weight loss surgery alternatives to help me get the weight off. I mean, when you are approaching 500 pounds you feel a totally helpless feeling that I’m sure yourself and anyone who has been obese can relate to; and I knew something drastic had to be done.

I had a history with yo-yo dieting and exercise in the past, and similar to anyone who struggles with their weight, I would shed a few pounds here and there, and the reoccurring theme was that I always put it back on inevitably at some point in time. As a kid I played many sports and was very active for the most part, but a leg injury in high school really set me on a path of a sedentary lifestyle where I ate badly and gained weight.

On my quest in pursuing gastric bypass surgery, I had to lose close to 10% of my body weight as a prerequisite to qualify for the procedure. I was successfully able to lose 40 pounds on my own, by closely monitoring my diet between 1500-2000 calories/day, and a light cardio exercise regimen of 20 minutes/day, about 4-5 days/week. I would do light walking or ride a stationary bike, and I slowly started getting the weight off. I was at the point where it was time for a surgical date, after two months of losing weight and completing all my other surgical requirements (i.e. behavior classes, lectures, seminars, support groups, psychological evaluations etc.).

I was convinced however that I could lose the weight on my own with my recent weight loss success at the time if I just really applied myself to it. In looking for ways to lose weight on my own through gym memberships and fad diets, I applied for “The Biggest Loser” largely because of my girlfriend Stefanie. She has worried about my health for the 8 years that we’ve known and dated each other, and I realized Jimmy that it’s hard to start making plans for the next chapter of your life with someone if you don’t know how long you will be around to enjoy it! I got just the opportunity I needed to succeed at my goal with the show!

Since losing the weight, I maintain a fairly strict diet and exercise plan now in my lifelong maintenance phase. I say lifelong because it really has been a new lifestyle that I’ve adapted in this experience, that I will have to carry with me forever! I finally have committed myself to going to the gym 5 days a week with a regimen of cardio and circuit strength training exercises. I have a personal trainer, Dusty Hinnman that I see once a week who has aided me in my maintenance efforts as well. Dusty works at Crunch gym in Hauppauge, NY and he also helped me get the weight off for the show when we were training at home for 4 months.

The timing of the show is about 8 months from the time they start shooting to the finale: 4 months on the Ranch itself, and then 4 months of training at home for the live finale. I obviously do not keep up the rigorous training of 4-6 hours a day that I was doing, but I have been successful thus far by keeping it off by eating right and exercising 5 days a week!

2. You were given the opportunity to work with one of the finest personal trainers in the world in Bob Harper as he led the Blue Team all season. Share some of your best personal memories about Bob and talk about how much he has impacted your life for the better. I assume you still remain in contact with him as you continue down this amazing journey and will for many years to come as you KEEP the weight off you lost on the show.

The impact that Bob has had on my life really is hard to put into words. He was my trainer on the show, and has since become one of my best friends for the gift that he has given me: my life back! I often refer to him as my “guardian angel” because that’s truly what he is Jimmy, an angel. He saved my life, and I can only wonder where I would be with my health right now had it not been for his influence. He committed himself to me everyday for 8 months, and I am forever indebted to him for all he has done for me since I started the show. Even now he contacts me a few times a month to see how I’m holding up, and he really has been a great friend and support system that I’ve needed to maintain this healthy lifestyle!

Bob and I got along the very first day I met him in the desert on the start of Season 4. I remember getting on the bus on the way to the Ranch for the first time and he told me then that he would inevitably make me cry and “break me” down at some point in time during our work together. One thing Bob and I have always shared in common is our competitive edge in terms of setting our eyes on something and going after it. I promised him that day that no matter how hard it got, no matter how bad I didn’t want to keep moving forward, that I would never quit and give him everything I had each and everyday! I really believe that’s why Bob and I got along so well, because he knew I would give him my heart and soul in everything we did, and he would always find new ways to push me to test how strong I actually was.

And believe me Jimmy, when it comes to pushing the boundaries to see how Bob can take you to the next level to achieve your goals, the man is absolutely relentless! He had a vision of me getting worked so hard that I would storm out of the gym and give up one day. Now obviously this was all in jest, of course, but the workouts came with a fury I’ve never experienced in my life. But no matter how Bob tried, no matter how hard he pushed me, I am happy to say that I NEVER quit and gave it everything I had everyday! The humor was seeing days when Bob would shake his head in disbelief that no matter what, I would never let myself give up!

Outside of the gym Bob and I have shared so many lifelong memories as well. One of them is that we both had a knack of falling asleep after a long days work at times. I remember on some of our “dark days,” which are non-camera days on the show, after a whole day of working out we would go relax and watch a movie with the other fellow Blue Team members. You can imagine how tiring it is sometimes to work out that rigorously each day, and Bob and I would often find ourselves falling asleep during the movie.

I remember when Bob first bought his new condo in LA, and we went to check it out. Him, Nicole, and I were sitting on the floor in his empty place just talking about everything as we always did, and within minutes we found ourselves passed out dead asleep on the floor! It’s not every day you wake up an hour later sprawled out on a floor next to Bob Harper. It was very funny! Those types of memories are things I will remember most from this experience. It’s those moments I still miss most, and it’s really amazing how close you get to people that you live with and see everyday even in such a short amount of time.

3. That sounds like you made some amazing memories that will last forever. Speaking of memories, for better or worse, you were made out to be the bad guy of Season 4 when you decided to pack on the pounds one week to throw the game to get a member of the Black Team (Jez) eliminated. Do you feel you were mischaracterized by that entire episode or did you relish in being the villain so to speak? After all, you did tell your competitors to “come and get me” which they did in the final week despite your tremendous 10-pound weight loss. Does it make you sick to know that had you made it into the final four that YOU would have been crowned “The Biggest Loser” for Season 4 beating out Bill for the $250,000 prize?

You know Jimmy, I really hold the show in very high regard and it’s tough to say that I was mischaracterized, even though I’m really not like that! Anyone who knows me knows I’m just a lovable teddy bear who is not the mischievous game player that you saw every week. I totally understand why the show made me out to be the villain at first because of my little stunt, but I hope I was able to redeem myself every week afterwards by continuing to work hard and get the weight off! I do believe they did it for the purpose of the show’s ratings though and that it was not malicious, but I can assure you I am not that “bad guy” that America may have seen at first.

People forget sometimes that there is a game aspect to the show, and everyone is guilty of playing it to some degree. Whether you are making alliances behind closed doors, chirping in someone’s ear before an elimination, voting off the biggest threats, or water loading for a weigh in, everyone tries to increase their chances of staying on campus to get the results they want. When you are perceived as the biggest threat like I was, in Biggest Loser terms that means you are next to go if given the opportunity. I was just trying to keep myself and my fellow Blue Team members there as long as possible, and my stunt really was to try and help my closest friends on the show, even though it can be misunderstand as a selfish act.

I realize now that I definitely got a little carried away, and it really was not my proudest moment on the show! The best strategy or game play at the end of the day you can do is to beat the scale every week, and I’m very glad to see that everyone on the season was able to do that! As for the “come and get me” attitude, that really was a self motivation tool for me. Bob always said that if you are perceived as a big threat on the Ranch, there are two ways to handle it: shy away and try to fall under the radar, or embrace the role and work that much harder to reach your goals. My “defiant” attitude in terms of being the threat was that I just try to embrace the role, and push myself to work harder to make sure the title was justified. Even though I fell just short of being crowned the Biggest Loser, my mentality of “coming to get me” really was a great tool for Bob and I to work our tails off in losing weight, and we were successful at that!

It would have been nice to win, I’m not going to lie, but I can’t say it makes me sick to think of how close I came because I gained so much more. I set out for the show with the purpose of losing weight and being healthy again, and that’s exactly what I was able to achieve! Winning a paycheck is nice, but winning your life back really means so much more to me! And although it would have been nice to win and use that money to start my new life with Stefanie, I’ve gained so much from this experience and have met some incredible people, and with that I feel like I have already won!

4. That's a great attitude about it, Neil! Let's turn to the subject of exercise. This is obviously one of the major areas of emphasis on “The Biggest Loser” for helping the contestants lose weight and get into shape. Viewers at home see you guys doing both cardiovascular and resistance training workouts, but we never really got a sense for how much of each you did. Take us through a typical day on the Biggest Loser Ranch in terms of what you did and for how long. Some people say the amount of exercise they have the obese people on “The Biggest Loser” do is too unrealistic for the average person to try to fit into their busy schedules. What do you think about that theory?

The only word I can really think to describe the exercise regimen on the show is relentless! On average Jimmy, most of the contestants worked out between 4-6 hours a day 6 days/week, with one light day of cardio for about an hour’s time. I definitely agree that this type of program would be very difficult to schedule in your day in the “real world,” but you have to understand that it is a show and you are looking for the most results in a short amount of time as possible. Extreme cases often call for extreme measure as was the case with our workouts, but it’s the message the show is trying to get out there that’s most important: that average obese people, can commit to a healthy lifestyle and get the results they want by applying themselves!

I agree that nobody can or should work out that much to reach their goals in a normal situation. You actually are technically overtraining your body working out as much as we did, but “The Biggest Loser” system was always supervised by a team of doctors and athletic trainers that ensured we were working out safely and not hurting ourselves. And the truth is that most people in the “real world” do not have access to 24 hour care like that to watch over them, in the event they had the time to train as hard as we did. So I would agree that it’s difficult to juggle a workout regimen like that with people who live busy lives, but the same principles of the show apply--that exercise and a strict diet are the keys to weight loss success.

The Biggest Loser really gives you an ideal environment to lose weight. You are removed from all distractions in your life and have the ability to just focus on yourself and bettering your health. An average day for me on the show would be to wake up in the morning, make a healthy balanced breakfast of protein and carbs, and then hit the gym for a few hours. I would take breaks in between workouts to eat every 4 hours or so to keep my metabolism burning, and then I would go back to the gym. All my strength training was always done with the help of Bob, who would give each of us on average 1-2 hours a day with cardio mixed in. And any workouts on my own were strictly cardio based (i.e. running, biking, walking etc.)

5. You started off like I did four years ago as a very big boy weighing in at over 400 pounds. People don’t realize that’s a miserable place to be in and you feel like there’s no way out of it either. Plus, carrying around that much weight makes you so susceptible to other health ailments such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, high cholesterol, and worse. For me, consuming a low-carbohydrate dietary plan with little to no sugar, starch, processed, and junk foods has helped me not only lose the weight, but keep it off ever since. What does Neil’s menu plan look like and is there anything you have decided you no longer need to eat? Do you still have cravings for certain foods? If so, what are they?

I would first like to say that being obese in society today is very difficult. I was fortunate enough never to really be the self conscious type of person, but there is no mystery that people look at you differently when you are overweight. I myself was diagnosed with some of the health problems you mentioned, and the benefits to such weight loss really can change your health in so many ways. Don’t get me wrong, fitting in a smaller pair of jeans is nice too, but I encourage anyone who wants to lose weight to understand how many years you can add to your life by doing so!

My diet nowadays has changed a great deal from the food the old Neil used to eat. At 400 pounds I would eat lots of junk foods, drink lots of soda, and have no regard at all for the concept of moderation. My philosophy now really is to be “80% good, 100% of the time.” This theory really allows you to still have your indulgences from time to time, but in MODERATION!

I usually focus on carb-loading my foods earlier in the day (i.e. breakfast/early lunch) so that I allow my body the whole day to burn off the carbs. With that said, I do moderate my carb intake during those meals as well by monitoring my portion sizes. My later meals and snacks in the day are usually always protein and/or vegetable based.

I have structured my diet now so that I eat right 6 days a week, and allow for Sunday to be my high calorie “cheat day.” The Biggest Loser diet has taught me that adding a high caloric day to your diet regimen really can “revamp” your metabolism each week, and helps to get the weight off in the long run. Limiting sugars, starches, and junk foods in itself can help with losing weight, and if you can stick to eating right most of the time, you can still allow yourself to eat some of your old favorite foods every now and then.

I still have cravings like anyone would, so once a week I will allow myself to have a beer, or pizza, or a bowl of frozen yogurt. It’s really a part of being and feeling like a normal person to have your cheats at times, so I have worked those in to my allotted calories I allow myself in my diet. I’m always been a big fan of pasta as well Jimmy, so from time to time I will allow myself to have a bowl of whole wheat or brown rice pasta. The one thing I do not crave surprisingly enough is regular soda. I have switched to diet soda which I consume a few times a week, and that really has been able to hold over my craving. But monitoring your carb intake, especially later in the day, really has helped me tremendously in keeping the weight off!

6. I couldn’t help but notice when your fellow Blue Team member Jerry Lisenby took his shirt off at the grand finale in December 2007 for all the world to see the outstanding work he did on his 60-something year old body with the guidance of Bob as his trainer that he had some very noticeable “loose skin” issues and he started at only 297 pounds. What about you Neil? I STILL have hanging skin in my abdomen and inner thighs from when I weighed 410 pounds four years ago and it has not gotten better over time. Do you have any “loose skin” that you deal with? If so, will you try to improve it by continuing to try to build muscle to fill it in or will you contemplate skin removal surgery at some point? Or does it even bother you at all?

Loose skin is unfortunately an issue that most people will have to deal with when they experience a large amount of weight loss. Now believe it or not, I really do not have nearly as much loose skin as most people who used to be 400 pounds would have, but of course there is some that will have to be addressed.

I’ve always been rather top heavy when I was 400 pounds. I carried my weight primarily around my stomach/abdomen area, and that is really where most of my loose skin resides. I have been doing more strength training now after the show to build muscle, and that has really helped fill out the small loose skin patches in my arms and legs, but the stomach will still have to be taken care of.

I’m pretty sure that I will inevitably receive cosmetic surgery at some point like many of the other contestants, but I’m not ready to rush into it. The loose skin issue for me has not been so drastic that it bothers me everyday, but I do look at myself in the mirror occasionally however and wish it was gone. I figure when I have a good idea of what weight I will be able to maintain after a year, or so, then will probably be the best time to do it. I still am putting on muscle right now, so when I’m at a weight I feel I can maintain with my daily schedule, and I look the way I want to carrying forward in my life, that’s when it will be the right time for a tummy tuck.

7. I'm in the same boat regarding my tummy tuck, so one of these days it'll happen. Getting back to the subject of "real life" again, does it feel weird being back in your normal routine as this amazingly different man than you were before? It was an interesting social experiment to watch how certain people began treating me better after I lost weight compared to before. It’s not that they were trying to be cruel before, but there’s something that happens in the psyche of other people when someone you and me becomes “normal” weight again. Have you noticed this happening in your own life post-“Biggest Loser?” How have you responded to those who never spoke to you before, but now they do?

I can absolutely relate to the different ways people perceive you when you are overweight and when you are fit. See Jimmy, even when I was 400 pounds I was very fortunate to never really struggle with my self-esteem or be very self-conscious about myself. This allowed me to really rely more on my personality to meet people and interact with others. As a result I believe my relatively large personality and communication skills developed because I was overweight. But even now I still am perceived differently than before because my personality is still there, but I have “the look” that goes along with it. And it’s unfortunate that sometimes people don’t give you the time of day if you don’t look a certain way!

I think when you are obese people often give you a look of feeling bad for you or self pity in some cases. I agree I don’t think people are trying to be cruel, but I think they feel a sense of sympathy for you because you just happen to be the largest guy in the room. I don’t really get many of those looks anymore Jimmy and it feels great, but I know there are millions of people who still do. I’ve been there, and I can absolutely relate to what it’s like to be perceived a certain way, and for that reason I never turn away anyone who wants to reach out to me, regardless if they would give me the time of day in the past or not. It’s really one of those “two wrongs don’t make a right” mentality. All of us who struggle with our weight are in the same boat, and I encourage people to contact me on my web site or my MySpace page to tell me their struggles and how I can help them.

It’s interesting to see how different people perceive me now, especially women, because I never got the same interest from others as I do now. It’s unfortunate that obese people can be treated differently then those who are skinny, and I say to those who are overweight that you are just as worthy as someone who is fit! It’s only when you believe that you are and make the change from within, that’s when incredible things can start to happen!

8. A lot of people don’t realize this, but there are a lot more people working behind the scenes to help the contestants maximize their ability to lose weight and get fit besides the very visible trainers like Bob, Jillian Michaels and Kim Lyons. There’s a psychologist, weight loss counselors like Dr. Michael Dansinger, doctors, registered dietitians like Cheryl Forberg, and so many more. How did these experts assist you in your weight loss efforts? Were you able to have access to them regularly although we never saw them on television?

I’m so glad you asked this question Jimmy because there are a team of wonderful people who worked behind the scenes in helping with my weight loss success. America is aware of Dr. Huizenga and Dr. Jenn, who would weekly give us blood and lab tests to ensure we were healthy and not doing anything unsafe in our weight loss. There are nutritionists we submit our daily food journals to each night, who ensure we are eating properly. There was Dr. Dansinger as you mentioned who came in for a psychological evaluation after starting the show to see how we were doing being away from our families.

One of the most important people of all was Sandy Krum, who was the athletic trainer on the show. Sandy is one of those people behind the scenes that I can never give enough admiration and thank for all the work he does each and every day! I really could not have succeeded in my weight loss aspirations without him. He helped nurse me through injuries sustained in working out so rigorously, he was there for injury prevention for challenges we did. He was the guy with us each and every day, who really helped all the contestants in providing a safe environment for us to work hard and get the weight off. He also has been a great personal friend of mine who America should know has as big of an impact on the show as anyone!

9. You did an outstanding job of turning your life around, Neil, and you have a lot to be proud of for the weight loss you were able to attain. But if you could go back through your experience on “The Biggest Loser” again and change anything about how you played the game or worked to get where you are today, what would you do differently? How has what you did experience changed you as a person and do you like who you are more now than you did before?

This is a tough question because it really has been such an amazing run and experience for me. If I had to pinpoint one thing it would probably be the game play part that I would change. If I could go back, I don’t think I would have played the game in the way I did; but then again I never would have learned what I did had I not done it that way. It’s a double-edged sword because on one hand I regret hurting anyone with my game tactics, but I know personally I learned a very valuable lesson about hard work and fair play that I would not have otherwise.

There is something we can learn from all of our experiences Jimmy, and for that reason there isn’t really much I would change from this experience from all the I have gained from it now. If I could go back though I wish I would have realized then that the best strategy you can have is to work hard and beat the scale every week, and I didn’t need to get wrapped up in drama or game tactics. But we live and we learn Jimmy, and I have changed into a much better person since starting this experience!

Since the show I really have changed as a person, because I believe anything is now possible for me. There is nothing I feel I can’t do, and I approach the world now or any obstacle in my life with a lot more confidence. I always have been a fairly confident person, but I think this experience has given me a sense of hope and belief now in my life that was never there before. There are many career aspirations I’ve always wanted to try, like keynote speaking and stand up comedy, and now I truly believe I can accomplish them.

After you have accomplished the impossible feat of losing so much weight and changing your life, all of sudden other impossible dreams do not seem so far out of reach anymore. I look at the world differently now after this experience because I got a second chance at my life, and this time around I really want to get the most out of my future. You only have one shot at this life Jimmy, and the difference now is that I’m not afraid anymore to try new things knowing I have added so many years to my life in hopes of getting it all right one day.

10. It has been a pleasure and an honor to have you here at my blog today, Neil. On behalf of the readers of the “Livin’ La Vida Low-Carb” blog, CONGRATULATIONS and WAY TO GO on your continuing weight loss efforts. Now the fun part begins--maintenance! :) What plan do you have in place to maintain your weight in 2008 and beyond? Do you have any words of encouragement to share with people who may be 300, 400, or more pounds thinking they could never dig themselves out of their obesity dilemma?

Jimmy the pleasure has really been all mine! Thank you so much for having me on your blog and to your readers for their support!

The maintenance phase now really is the challenge for me to keep the weight off. The keys as I’ve mentioned is to stick to my workout and diet regimen and never get complacent. Weight is something I inevitably will have to struggle with for the rest of my life. It will be a struggle for anyone whether you are overweight or once were.

Even for those who lose weight, your body is always susceptible of putting it back on, so I’ll always have to keep it on the center of my mind. But no matter how difficult it may seem, I really believe you become such a stronger person for having to accomplish something so challenging. You also become so much better equipped for any obstacle or hardship the world throws at you with such a life changing experience.

My goals now for my weight maintenance is to keep a mixed exercise regimen of strength training and cardio workouts, and stick to my diet philosophy of being “80% good 100% of the time." I also have a few upcoming projects coming up in the near future to help America get the weight off as well, which will in turn help me keep it off. I currently am looking into becoming a certified personal trainer and help those who need to lose weight reach their goals! You can check out some of my upcoming projects and appearances to help others in their weight loss efforts on my web site as well.

The biggest thing I can say to anyone who wants to lose weight and feels helpless like I have for so many years is to never give up and always keep fighting the good fight! You deserve to live a happy and healthy lifestyle and never let anything come in the way of that. It’s never too late to change something about yourself, and I honestly believe anyone can do what they set their mind to with a little hard work. You just have to find something inside you that keeps the fire burning to be successful.

Let me leave you with a quote Jimmy that really helped me with my weight loss success, and hopefully will extend the same to some of your readers: Albert Einstein once said “Within every great difficulty lies opportunity.” The key to this message is to identify the difficulty you see in your life, and find the opportunity that has unveiled in becoming an incredible success story!

Thanks again for having me on Jimmy! I’d love to reach out to your readers anytime! It really has been a pleasure.

Be sure to hook up with Neil at his MySpace page for now and then check in as he updates his brand new web site in the near future. Neil has expressed an interest in working together to help others dealing with weight and health problems find the hope that he did, so we certainly haven't heard the last of this incredible man who radically changed his life for the better. CONGRATULATIONS NEIL!!!

Catch up on all my interviews with past "Biggest Loser" contestants as well as my various blog posts about the show by clicking here.

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