“Excuse my French, but motivation is bullshit.” You probably wouldn’t expect that sentiment to come from the winner of USA Network’s The Biggest Loser, Jim DiBattista. The reality, he says, is that you’re going to lose motivation and wake up some mornings feeling like you don’t want to get out of bed—and most definitely don’t want to work out. The good news is that you can out-work motivation simply by creating habits. “The more habits you create, the more your body and brain gets used to them,” DiBattista says. And that’s the key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle for, well, life.
DiBattista, who is a father of three and lives in Tinicum, a town in Delaware County (AKA Delco), Pennsylvania, dropped 150 pounds on the popular TV show. His season aired right as the pandemic was bearing down on us last March. He sat down with Mab & Stoke founder Christina Mace-Turner a year plus later to talk about how he kept the weight off, the biggest pitfalls and misconceptions around weight loss, and more:
Christina Mace-Turner: I’ve seen The Biggest Loser so many times and I think of that haunting music as you’re waiting for the number [on the scale]…
Jim DiBattista: Yeah, brutal.
CMT: But, the thing about it that’s so incredible is the amount of work that every person who’s participating in that show does. And you [told me] you didn’t just lose 150 pounds, you lost one pound 150 times. Could you talk about that?
JD: When you think about trying to lose the amount of weight I had to lose—I had to lose 150 pounds and I’m not a small man, I’m still 235 pounds—it was overwhelming. But if you break it down to small little chunks of “I’m going to lose a pound a week.” If you actually did it, at the end of year, you’ll be down 52 pounds. Really what it comes down to is [that] I make good decisions every day, one day at a time, one decision at a time. And, if I mess up, if I go eat a dessert with my wife, I just make sure the next 10 decisions are good decisions. That’s changed my life forever.
CMT: You said that you got up to around 400 pounds. Was it during a particular time in your life? Had it been a slow creep?
JD: It was 20 years of 10 pounds, 10 pounds, 10 pounds, and the next thing you know… I remember a moment with my wife and my family—we went to Vegas for our 40th birthday, and there’s this crazy restaurant [where] you get on a scale and if you weigh more than 350 pounds you get a free burger. I get on the scale thinking there’s no way I weigh 350 [and] a siren goes off like you’re at a hockey game. It pops up 375, and I literally remember thinking, “Oh my god, this is nuts, what did I do to myself?” It was the first time I realized I was morbidly obese because people told me that I carried it well, so it was sneaky.
CMT: It’s almost worse to carry it well. I’ve struggled with my weight on and off my entire life and I look back at when I was a child, and actually, I wasn’t really overweight at all. I was a pretty serious athlete and I was just big. Somehow though, I internalized that bigness was a weight thing and throughout my life I just identified as a bigger person. I went through periods where a lot of weight would come on, and then I’d diet it off. My mother took me to Weight Watchers for the first time when I was maybe 12 years old, which is crazy, right? But, in any case, as an adult I have a healthier attitude about this stuff.
JD: I can relate 100% with that, things parents say to kids, and they don’t mean to be mean, but my mom would always be like, “Oh, he’s sturdy.” Well, in my mind sturdy meant big. I was really good at hiding things. I consider myself the funniest person in my family. Don’t tell my wife that, don’t tell my kids that. I was the first guy at the party that would crack a joke about my weight, or show my belly, or if it was a real fun party, I might show my bottom side. It was stupid, I was just masking. I was doing it to deflect, to make sure nobody would do it to me, to make sure nobody would hit me first. It was a big deal for me mentally and emotionally to get over that too, to realize that I was just making the problem worse by being self-inflicting on myself, it chipped away at my soul.
CMT: So, how long did it take you to lose the weight?
JD: My official weigh-in on the show was 385 pounds and then my final weigh-in, which was 16 weeks later, I got down though 241 pounds. I lost 144 pounds. That was December of 2019 (the airing didn’t happen until March, 2020) and I’ve kept it off, I’ve lost more actually. I weigh about 235 pounds so I’m down about 150 pounds exactly since I started my journey.
CMT: It’s amazing. Obviously if you’re doing a television show, there’s a little extra pressure to not cheat. But generally, what keeps you motivated?
JD: This is the number one question I get by far and people don’t like the answer. I hate to curse but I have to: Motivation is bullshit, excuse my French, it is. The reality is you’re going to lose motivation. There are mornings I wake up and I don’t want to get out of bed just like everybody else in the world. But, most of the time, you can out-work motivation by simply creating habits. The more habits you create, the more your body gets used to it, the more your brain gets used to it. The more you can create those habits, the better chance you have of continuing on your lifestyle the right way.
If you rely on motivation, you’re going to go downward and ultimately why I create habits is I have a “why.” My “why” is really who I am and what I am. And my “why” is I don’t want to die prematurely. I had type two diabetes, I had sleep apnea, I had high blood pressure, I was on my way out the door. My sister had a heart attack, she wasn’t even big, she was actually in decent shape. I remember thinking, if I had this heart attack, I’m not going to survive, and she’s actually five years older than me. I want to live to see my kids, I want to see [my] grandkids, I want to live [until] I’m 100. If I’m the guy in the corner at a party that everybody’s making fun of at 100, I’m good, just leave me there.
CMT: I totally get that. A couple years ago, I had cancer. I’m totally cancer-free [now], but one of the things that keeps me well is not being overweight. It’s actually really critical to my longevity, that I not be really overweight. As soon as I got cancer I went out and I got that book, How Not To Die. It’s really about living with a primarily plant-based diet and how that extends people’s lives. Not drinking a lot and not eating too much are ways that I can stay healthy. And so, I was very disappointed during COVID because I had been really focused on this [and weight] crept back on me.
JD: You look amazing, what are you talking about?
CMT: Thank you, well, In January, I kind of got with it again. My goal was to be good to myself and to not fall off the rails of losing weight. But, it’s so hard, and I find your story unbelievably impressive. You have a business where you’re helping to coach other people and train them and help them find this balance in their lives as well. Where do you see people kind of falling away and where do you see them developing the types of habits that really have staying power?
JD: The biggest pitfall is [not] holding yourself accountable when no one’s watching. I ask my clients to weigh and measure all their food in the beginning, that’s how I lost weight. You get to see what a portion size truly is, and the more you do it, the more you can commit it to rote memory—alright, that’s five ounces of chicken, that is a cup of rice. This way when you are out to eat and you see these portion sizes, you can go, “Can I get a box?” And scoop half of it out before you even start. So, I’m trying to teach people how to intuitively eat. [Another] pitfall is lying to yourself, saying, “I ate so good last night.” And then I go and I look at your My Fitness Pal and I’m just like, there’s no way this is all you ate yesterday.
CMT: Writing it down does make all the difference. I gained over 20 pounds with COVID, and I lost it, but I was already a little bit on the higher end of my scale when it happened. I gamified it with a Lose It! app where I wrote down every single [thing] that I ate. I had a Fitbit and my Peloton. I put notes on my refrigerator. But it was ultimately that the calorie situation just doesn’t lie when you really write down what’s going on.
JD: There’s no magic pill. Yes, I got an advantage of being able to go on the show, and what I love is when people say, “Oh, it’s easy, you got to go on a show.” I had to work out seven, eight hours a day.
CMT: That’s crazy, wait, tell us about that. I mean, really, that’s a lot of working out, Jim.
JD: It was a lot. But, it was worth every second of it. If you break it down, we would walk for about an hour in the morning, then we would go off for a two-hour workout, maybe three hours, on camera. Then we’d come off camera [and] we would continue to work out because one person would get up [and] you weren’t going to let that person get an advantage, so you would get up and walk.
CMT: Because everyone was so competitive.
JD: Complete insanity. We would then at night have another workout. And, it was just every day for 10 weeks, this is what we did. Yes, it’s cool that I was able to reset my life and go do that, but it wasn’t easy, there was nothing easy about it. It was hard, I hurt my ankle, it was [painful]. [The cool part is that] I had Kelly [who] works on different TV shows as an athletic trainer and Carlos is the Texas Rangers’ Triple A Athletic Trainer.
CMT: Your ankle injury reminds me, I think a lot of people get held back by small physical injuries and stuff, and that becomes a reason why they can’t really work out. And, there is this whole pain cycle, so [did you] do other things to help with that?
JD: It’s a huge part of real life, it’s a huge part of how I’ve been able to keep it off for a year and a half. I still have a shoulder injury that’s lingering, [I’m] debating on whether I go to a doctor for it or not. So, I have to work around the shoulder. I’ve had ankle issues, knee issues. And, the biggest thing I learned was from one of my teammates [on my season], Terry. She lost 16 pounds in three weeks with a broken leg.
CMT: That’s incredible, what was she doing?
JD: She would get on the skier and just ski for an hour, or she’d go on the rower.
CMT: Oh, my God, that’s amazingly motivated.
JD: Totally motivated, what it taught me is [if] there’s a will, there’s a way. Swimming is a big deal. I’m talking to a friend of mine here in Delaware County [who] was saying to find yourself something that doesn’t hurt, but continues to get your activity level up. Honestly, walking is so underrated when it comes to losing weight, it’s mind blowing. Walking for an hour straight is not easy, people don’t do it that often. Go do that, you’re going to lose weight in the long run, you don’t have to run marathons.
CMT: What’s the balance in your mind between exercise and food stuff? What’s too much exercise? I mean, seven hours a day is quite a lot, but I’m assuming it also makes you hungry. Where do you find the balance there?
JD: It’s exactly what you just said, there is a balance. If you’re a lifter, if you’re someone who’s really into lifting weights, and you’re really into powerlifting, you’ve got to structure your nutrition around that. At the end of the day, to lose weight, it’s calories in, calories out, but how you apply those calories matters too, in my mind. I like to carb cycle in the sense that I like to have the bulk of my carbs before and right after I lift weights.
CMT: So you have more energy?
JD: Exactly, it’s just like a runner doing a marathon grabbing agave nectar. I’m trying to build my diet and my nutrition around what I do every day. If you’re someone that can just walk, then your calories obviously might be a little lower than someone who’s doing CrossFit and things like that.
CMT: Can you talk a little bit about the impact of weight training on weight loss specifically versus cardio?
JD: There’s a misconception out there that you can’t gain muscle and lose weight. The truth is, you can’t lose a huge amount of weight in big numbers and build muscle. There’s no way I could have done what I did [on the show] and also gain muscle. When you lose a pound, you lose 40% muscle, that’s a fact, there’s no getting around that. This is why you’ll hear the experts talk about one, two, three pounds a week is plenty [of weight loss] because you can lose that and still have muscle gain. When the show ended and everything aired, I was down to 210. I had the kind of runner’s build, it wasn’t my thing, so I lifted weights. That’s what was cool about my journey, is I got to play around. In my mind I was a house. I stripped that house down to the bare bones, and I was able to kind of build myself back to what I wanted.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.