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Fat and Back

Driven by a yearning to empathize with his overweight and obese clients, Australian trainer and underwear model PJ James pledged to pack on 50 percent of his body weight, maintain it and then shed it, all within 2009.
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Life is good when you're a Dolce & Gabbana underwear model. Blindingly hot women, invites to the most exclusive clubs, your name shouted at red carpet events. Luxury Italian sportswear fills your wardrobe and Moet flows with hip-hop video vigor. Your abs are shredded; pecs, rock-hard. It's only natural that, at a career pinnacle like this, you would stop, pinch yourself through your new Prada suit and think, "Now's a good time to get really, really fat."

That's exactly what Aussie personal trainer Paul "PJ" James did on Dec. 31, 2008, as he set out to add nearly 100 pounds of flab to his ripped 176-lb. physique -- imagine The Biggest Loser, but in reverse. Bingeing would become his full-time job, and he wouldn't put down the Ben & Jerry's until his formerly eight-pack abs threatened to bust the buckle of a size-48 belt. Then, like a trim phoenix rising from the ashes of a wood-grilled pizza oven, PJ would launch a full-scale workout assault on his plus-sized physique, torching his freshly acquired fat reserves and rebuilding the same lean, cut musculature that landed him, bare-chested, on the runways of industry giants like Versace, Jean Paul Gaultier and Calvin Klein.

Driving him: A yearning to empathize with his overweight and obese clients -- people who would offer "excuses" such as "lunges hurt my knees too much" or "I can't climb another stair -- I can barely breathe!" -- as well as demonstrate that, with dedication and the right tools, weight loss success is possible. In a sort of anti-New Year's resolution, the 33-year-old Australia native pledged to pack on 50 percent of his body weight, maintain it and then shed it, all within 2009. In the process, he traded lat pull-downs for ham-and-cheese roll-ups and watched his deltoids vanish beneath a duvet of fat.

I had the pleasure of working with PJ over the past few years; the culmination of our work is Take It Off, Keep It Off: How I Went from Fat to Fit... and You Can Too -- Safely, Effectively, and Permanently. In it, you'll learn how the road from 6 percent to 32 percent body fat was paved with confidence-sapping potholes and clinically depressed roadblocks. PJ thought losing the weight would be easy; he never imagined he'd become legitimately addicted to junk food and start withdrawing from his girlfriend because he was ashamed of the way he looked naked.

Why would you do this to yourself -- pack on nearly 100 pounds of flab?

As a personal trainer, I was getting more and more clients who were overweight and obese. These were people who had serious weight to lose, and all of the baggage that comes with that territory. But whereas I could train my fit or semi-fit clients with my eyes shut, I had no idea how to respond when a heavy client claimed he simply couldn't muster the energy to walk for five minutes on the treadmill, or tried to explain how anxious and embarrassed she felt in a gym environment. As someone who subsisted on egg whites, grilled fish and steamed sweet potatoes, I hadn't the slightest clue about life as an emotional eater or junk food addict. I found myself doling out general advice -- "do more cardio" or "eat more vegetables" -- and they responded with "You're a freaking underwear model! You have no clue what it's like for us." What could I say? They were right. Their questions tossed me far outside my comfort zone and I felt almost reluctant to train them, like I was doing them a disservice. On a very basic and essential level, I couldn't understand how difficult it was for an overweight person to get into shape, and had no clue as to the best approach to help them mend their eating habits.

What was your diet like before you gained the weight?

I'm a trained chef, so I'd cook myself healthy meals like grilled filet and steamed shiitake mushrooms, or sea bass with ponzu sauce. Lots of sashimi and certain sushi rolls -- they offer the perfect protein-carb combination to fuel my workouts. I basically ate clean, enjoying whole, unprocessed foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins instead of pre-packaged items, fast food or anything with a label.

And while packing it on?

Starting on New Year's Eve, Dec. 31, 2008, my first fat-bomb meal included four lamb gyros, a heaping plate of BBQ, salad, bread and dips, plus a platter of fried fish for dessert... all washed down by eight cans of Coca Cola. My body, used to asparagus and egg whites, was so confused by the sudden influx of grease and salt that I gained 12 pounds overnight, primarily water weight.

For two weeks, I was in heaven. Tuna sashimi and steamed rice were quickly replaced with cheeseburgers and powdered donuts. Foods normally reserved for my Saturday "cheat day" were now up for grabs: bubbly mac and cheese, crispy buckets of KFC's finest, savory ramen noodles, caramel ice cream and fudge-drizzled dessert pizzas. My buddy, David, owns a pizza joint called Crisp and he'd host me for weekly all-you-can-eat dinner sessions. In the mornings, I toasted the rising sun with three liters of chocolate milk, scrambled eggs and jam-slathered bread; at night, I would polish off an entire chicken before hitting the sack. Then I'd wake up and do it all again. Meanwhile, I reduced my energy expenditure to nearly zero. No lifting weights, no more swimming in the ocean, no Sunday golf outings. I dedicated myself to being a professional couch potato.

Was it awesome, having a "Get Out of Diet Jail Free" card?

The novelty quickly wore off as I saw my years of hard work start to disintegrate. The daily routine of gorging on breakfast, training clients, returning home for an early lunch, taking a nap, consuming lunch number two, watching TV and preparing for a gigantic dinner was taking its toll. I had traded lat pull-downs for ham-and-cheese roll-ups and, as a result, I was watching as my deltoids vanished beneath a layer of fat. I was normally full of energy; now I was lethargic, unmotivated, and dejected. I stopped socializing. My sex life basically vanished.

How did your clients respond?

They thought it was fantastic that someone would go to such lengths to walk a mile in their shoes, and I found that the heavier I became, the harder they worked and the cleaner they ate. It's almost as if seeing me balloon before their eyes was the perfect motivation for them to not look like that. My client list actually exploded as word spread, with men and women specifically seeking me out because of my Fat and Back experiment.

Did your health suffer as a result of your little experiment?

Within the first two months, my cholesterol and blood sugar skyrocketed, and fat began to accumulate around my liver. Stretch marks tore through my skin as it strained to contain my man boobs and gut. Friends teased me for walking like a duck (in an effort to spare my chafing inner thigh skin.) As my stomach ballooned, a visible arch developed in my spine as it bowed under the excess weight. My ankles were perpetually swollen and my sleep sucked. By the fifth month, my doctor was strongly encouraging me to stop, for both my physical health and emotional well-being; my depression symptoms raised red flags in his mind and my cholesterol, blood sugar and liver enzymes were showing no signs of backing down. My physical therapist was worried that my spine would not straighten back out. But by that point, there had already been a good amount of publicity surrounding my experiment and I felt like I'd be letting everyone down. I wanted to experience those thoughts and feelings, no matter how disturbing they might be. Stopping a month short was not an option.


Keep reading about PJ's experience in Take It Off, Keep It Off...

For more by Leslie Goldman, click here.

For more personal health stories, click here.

Photos courtesy of Blush Photography.