When people think of Arab women, typically a bodybuilding bikini model is not the first thing that pops into their head; but there’s a brave young woman stepping into the spotlight to inspire a movement of healthier lifestyle across the Middle East and challenging societal norms along the way.
Lebanese nutritionist and athletic trainer Maya Nassar has gone from not-so-fit to collecting trophies for her physique. In 2014, Nassar took home first place for the bikini category at the Pure Elite UK Championships; in 2015 she not only placed, but won the coveted People’s Choice Award.
Aside from being a total badass, Maya became certified by the International Fitness Professional’s Association, which helped put her healthy lifestyle app, Start Living Right, on the map and become recognized by the Lebanese government.
I sat down with the fitness guru to talk about everything from making Middle Eastern food healthy to empowering women.
1. What was your health journey like? Were you always this fit and fabulous or was there a different story going on?
There was a completely different story going on. I actually have no background in fitness. About five years ago, I gained a lot of weight because I never exercised and I had a very unhealthy diet. I used to eat a lot of processed foods, carbohydrates, sweets and junk food. So, every month I was gaining more and more weight until it reached a point where my clothes no longer fit me. My jeans would stop at my knees and I had to go shopping all the time to get bigger sizes.
That was my turning point. I hit rock bottom and I said, ‘OK, I have to do something. If I continue down this road, I’m going to be really overweight.’ I was worried about my health; I used to get sick several times a year and that’s when I began my journey.
2. Once you got fit and healthy, what pushed you the extra step and to start competing and take your body seriously in an athletic setting?
Once I reached one goal, I said, ‘What now?’ I wanted to do something more challenging. I wanted to achieve a more difficult goal. To go from one extreme to the other, from being in the worst shape in my life to the best shape of my life. From being really insecure about my body to being very proud and self-confident. Having the confidence to go on stage, in front of a crowd of people and judges, standing next to other athletes. I wanted to push myself to my limits. I always believed that once you achieve one goal you should always set another.
3. So, what’s your next goal after having competed?
My next goal is to open up my own gym because I feel I’ve achieved most of my own personal goals and I enjoy helping other people. I developed the first mobile fitness app in Lebanon and the Lebanese Minister of Sports has endorsed it. The website offers free advice and information to help people get started and reach their fitness goals.
My next step is to open my own gym, which is something I’m working on. I want to have a psychical location where I can help people and train them myself; I want it to be a complete wellness center.
4. Helping people seems to be important to you, is that what motivated you to create Start Living Right app?
The idea behind my app and website came when I was training for my first competition in 2013. I used to post a lot of pictures, tips and personal progress on my personal Facebook account, which generated a lot of interest. People started asking for advice and if I could help them.
I realized I enjoyed sharing my story and knowledge and I wanted to create an online platform where anyone could just go and get unbiased advice. I’m not trying to sell anyone any products. I’m just trying to help people because it gives me great satisfaction whenever I receive an e-mail from someone saying, ‘You’ve changed my life’ or ‘Because of you, I’ve become healthier’. I have firsthand experience, transitioning from being unhealthy to getting into shape. That’s why I wanted to give back to others and help anyone else who was in the same place I was in.
5. What is your health foundation/motto of how to exercise?
I always tell myself that I want every session to be harder than the last session. Every workout, I try to push myself harder, lift heavier and boost my endurance. The body plateaus very quickly. You can see a major transformation in two weeks. If there was an exercise I couldn’t do, within two weeks I would be able to do it without any difficulty. My personal approach is to push harder with every session.
6. Some may say that because you’re a bikini model, you pose as an unrealistic expectation. How to do you respond to people who think you’re an unrealistic role model?
I would say that I am a good role model because I went from being out of shape and overweight to getting into shape. I always say, ‘If I can do it, then anyone can do it’. I always compare myself to people I would like to become while I was losing weight. I was constantly following the advice of athletes, personal trainers and fitness models that really inspired me. If they can do it, then there’s nothing stopping me from doing it.
The only thing that’s stopping me is hard work and dedication. So it really all boils down to how hard is someone willing to work. Whoever works really hard, follows the right diet and pushes to their limits can achieve their goals.
7. It’s great to have someone to motivate you and push you in the right direction, and that’s what you seem to be doing for people in the Middle East.
That’s what I hope to do, to constantly guide and support them. I don’t ask for anything in return. Anyone can e-mail me and I respond usually within a few days. I always say I’m unbiased because a lot of trainers in the Middle East try to sell people products because they profit from it. I don’t do that with people.
I’m very honest. I tell people if you want to see results you have to work really hard, there’s no miracle pill. You don’t need to do anything extreme either, starve yourself, or cut out major food groups like carbs. I like to share before and after pictures of myself and of others who I’ve helped, to inspire others. Normal people are achieving their goals; if they can do it and I can do it, then there’s really no one that can’t do it.
8. What is your advice for people who want to lose weight and get fit, but are not very motivated to do so?
They should think about the benefits of a healthy lifestyle; it isn’t just their body that changes, but their whole life, too. One of my best friends lost around three kilos and they’re more confident and have better relationships with people. That could be someone’s motivation – it’s not just your body that will change, but your whole life: relationships, you’re more productive and have more energy. It’s really a life changing experience.
9. Once a person has completed your program, how do you suggest they avoid plateauing or falling back into old habits?
They would need to see fitness as a lifestyle, with no expiration date. Exercise should be a part of their daily routine or at least several times a week. Junk food should be restricted to no more than once or twice a week. It’s not about reaching your ideal weight and going back to old habits. It’s about establishing new habits and constantly setting new goals along the way. Once someone has achieved their ideal weight, it’d be a good idea to set another goal.
10. Arab food is REALLY good, but sometimes based on how it’s cooked or portion sizes, it can be unhealthy. How do people cook and eat traditional Arab food without it being so unhealthy?
First off, everything should be grilled, don’t have anything fried. Stick to lots of protein, dishes like grilled chicken, steak and fish. Avoid creamy sauces, sugar or added fats. Replace white rice with brown rice. Brown bread instead of white bread, lots of whole-wheat carbs instead of white carbs. Avoid fried foods like sambusek and eat lots of vegetables and greens like tabouli.
And of course you should pay attention to portion sizes. I love hummus and I can easily overeat on hummus, so just be very aware when you’re having lunch and dinner not to overeat. Stick to moderate-size portions.
11. Being Arab and coming from a culture that’s reputably conservative, I’m sure you face a lot of ‘yeee 3eeb!’ for being a bikini model, what do you have to say to the haters?
I’m lucky that my network is very open-minded. My mom is Dutch; my father is quite liberal for a Lebanese man. My husband fully supports what I do, my friends and family are very proud of my accomplishments. I’m lucky that the people close to me do support me.
Of course on social media I’ve been attacked by people saying, ‘You’re going to hell, this is shameful what you do.’ What I realized is not everyone is going to agree with modeling, showing your body in a bikini. I always focus on the positive instead of the negative. I like to see that I’m empowering women because I’m showing that women are independent, that we’re free to make our own decisions, follow our heart and do what we really like.
I see a lot more good has come out of what I’ve done than bad. I see bodybuilding as a sport; it’s something I’m very proud of and really enjoy. That’s why I keep doing it, because it really changed my life and brings out the best in me.
12. Aside from health and fitness, are there any issues (political, social, etc.) that you’re passionate about that you’d like to see the Arab community both in the Middle East and in the diaspora to address?
I feel very strongly about women’s rights and I’m also an animal activist and board member of the largest animal welfare NGO in the Middle East called Animals Lebanon.
Unfortunately, women in Lebanon do not have the same rights as men, for example they cannot pass down their nationality to their children and there are many cases where rapists are unpunished. At the same time, people sometimes torture and abuse animals without facing any consequences.
I would also like to see people address equal rights for migrant nationalities. I feel domestic workers are very often discriminated against and get treated very poorly.
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