Drew Manning saw a disconnect between himself and his clients. He often couldn’t relate when they struggled with meal plans and workouts. “It’s always easy for you to stay fit,” his brother-in-law told him. Manning had to agree. As a former wrestler and football player, he was never overweight. He claimed every workout opportunity. “I had been in shape my whole life,” he admits. And junk food didn’t tempt him. “People said I didn’t know what it was like to crave fatty, sugary foods,” he says. “And I really didn’t know.” But, suddenly, he wondered: Could he achieve greater empathy for his clients if he lived as they did? Suppose he abandoned exercise and gave in to the lures of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Mountain Dew?
The then-31-year-old fitness expert set a goal to do something trainers never did—for six months, he would stop exercising and eat whatever he wanted. Googling, Manning saw that his idea appeared to be unique. The only people he found who gained weight on purpose were celebrities who plumped up for movie roles.
From Fit to Fat
Once he committed to his idea, “I felt excited and courageous—like I was called to do it,” he says. Growing up in a family of 11 kids, he didn’t get exposed to much junk food. “My mom made everything,” he recalls. “But I knew all the foods my clients ate when they messed up.” When he ventured into junk food himself, “There was a sense of freedom and excitement,” he says. “It felt exhilarating, like being a kid in a candy store. I could totally skip the produce section.”
Gaining 13 pounds the first week, Manning thought that he might acquire 50 pounds total in the half-year that followed. But then he gained 75.
“I freaked out when I became overweight,” he says. “My identity was Drew, the fit guy. Body image was my self-image. I wanted to go up to strangers and explain that this was just an experiment.”
His stamina also shifted with the added weight. One day, his two-year-old daughter wanted him to play with her by chasing her around the house. “I was out of shape and couldn’t keep up—not because of my weight, but because of my health.” He sat on the couch. “She said, ‘Daddy, come play with me.’ It broke my heart,” he recalls.
He thought of others—parents and grandparents—who aren’t up to playing with children. “I thought of how it must hurt them inside,” he says. It was one of many moments when he realized his fit-to-fat-to-fit transformation was a mental and emotional endeavor even more than it was physical.
“I learned that I was more than my body,” he recalls. He understood that rather than being merely a matter of exercise and eating, achieving weight loss is “a lifestyle change that takes place more in the brain than in the gym or the kitchen.” He now feels that making such a lifestyle change is 10 percent physical and 90 percent mental or emotional. Before, if someone struggled with their transformation, he would suggest changing up their macros or calories or workouts. But after his experiment, “My eyes were opened,” he says. “I realized how powerful the emotional connection to food is.”
The Power of Empathy
Before Manning gained weight himself, “I would think, ‘Put down the junk food, stop drinking the soda, and go to the gym every day. How hard can that be?’” He began to understand more about the struggle to exercise once he stopped gaining weight and began to work toward returning to fitness. “The first week or two, I was so sore. My body was stiff after sitting for four months straight. My hamstrings were tight. Movements I used to do with ease were challenging.” He adds, “It was a humbling journey.”
Manning was reminded of his overweight status when he shopped at New York City stores for the solid-colored shirt required to make an appearance on The Dr. Oz Show. “I couldn’t find anything in an XXL,” he says. Until he lived it, Manning didn’t realize that losing weight was “way harder than I thought it would be.” He explains, “Even though my body was still young and responded well to exercise and diet, really intense food cravings affected me. Although I wasn’t an addict, my body went through withdrawal symptoms.”
Along with the lifestyle changes came publicity—appearances on national TV shows such as Good Morning America, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, MSNBC, and The View—in addition to his 245,000 Instagram followers.
“There was a meme of me going around for a while,” he says. Thousands of people from all over the world sent him their own transformation stories. Today, Manning is one of the most recognized people in fitness. “When I first went on shows like Dr. Oz, I was starstruck,” he recalls. “Before, I was a trainer in good shape, but I wasn’t well known. I wasn’t doing this for fame, but I must have struck a chord.”
He’s since published two books—the New York Times best-selling Fit2Fat2Fit and Complete Keto. Cable networks A&E and Lifetime featured Manning’s show, Fit to Fat to Fit. He also started a supplement company, Complete Wellness, featuring a line of keto-friendly and wellness products. “This whole crazy experiment was much more than he ever anticipated,” says Ashtyn Blanchard, director of operations at Fit2Fat2Fit and Complete Wellness. She describes Manning as “a very driven person.” She says, “When he sets his mind to something, he does it—from attempting to run 100 miles in 24 hours to bringing awareness to the health and wellness industry.” Celebrity fitness trainers Chris and Heidi Powell attest to Manning’s genuine passion for helping others. “His authenticity, never-ending quest for solutions, love, and compassion for others, and ability to take complex issues and make them fun make him a powerful teacher for us all.”
Blanchard recalls a day when she was Manning’s training client. While pushing her to sprint longer on a treadmill, he also understood when she felt the need to stop. “I felt like I couldn’t make it,” Blanchard recalls. “I stepped on the sides of the treadmill. Drew told me it was all right. He explained that I had already gone farther than I usually would on my own.” On his first fit-to-fat-to-fit journey, Manning discovered that a trainer might have all the scientific knowledge and expertise in the world to help clients, “but none of the physical stuff matters unless you know how to relate to the people you are trying to help.”
From Fit to Fat—Again
Manning swore that he would never purposely gain weight again, but he changed his mind in 2020. “I started to see how divisive the world was becoming because of the pandemic,” he says. Understanding that both the world and the fitness industry still needed more empathy, he decided to pursue his fit-to-fat-to-fit regime a second time. “I wanted to do it at 40 because I kept hearing that getting fit then is incredibly hard,” he says. “I wanted to show people over 40 that it’s never too late to live healthy lives, even as our metabolisms slow down.”
While Manning’s first undertaking involved only him and his now-ex-wife, a camera crew and marketing team were part of the mix the second time. During his Fit2Fat2Forty venture, he gained 64 pounds in four months, culminating on December 27, 2020—his 40th birthday.
While gaining weight, he demonstrated the wrong way to follow America’s four favorite diets—keto, paleo, vegan, and vegetarian. He ate keto junk food one week, then added Oreos, bread, and pasta during his seven “dirty vegan” days. His “dirty vegetarian” diet included mac ’n cheese, cheese pizza, and bean and cheese burritos.
Along with keeping track of his food choices, Manning monitored his bloodwork at the end of each week. “When I ate keto junk food, my triglycerides went from 46 to 76,” he recalls. A dirty paleo with increased sugar brought the triglycerides to 130, and a dirty vegan landed him at 450. A dirty vegetarian brought that number to 540. Manning documented his “wrong way diets” on YouTube, including recaps of how they affected his hormones and cholesterol. Then, once he reached the losing phase of his journey, he revisited the proper way to comply with each diet. Manning lost weight with all four diets.
Ten weeks into Fit2Fat2 Forty, he was already ahead of the game as far as dropping pounds. Yet there were emotional challenges this time, too, such as a breakup with his girlfriend of two years. “It happened during the holidays. I felt sad, and there is something about Ben and Jerry’s and chocolate cake that provide temporary dopamine hits. Food can become a numbing mechanism,” he says. Tempted though he was, “I stayed pretty strict.” His experience brought him an understanding of food addiction. “Anytime someone has an addiction, it’s to cover up some pain. Emotional eating became real for me. Food is a hard addiction to stop because food is legal, convenient, affordable, and part of our society.”
The Parent Trap
At the time of his first experiment, Manning’s two daughters, Kiki and Kalea, were babies. They’re now 9 and 11. “They loved having junk food in the house, but with cereal and ice cream and cake all available, it’s hard to find a balance,” says Manning. He advised his daughters to choose one treat rather than three. He and his former wife usually alternated childcare weekly. They revised their schedule for January 2021 so that she had the girls for the entire month. When Manning took over their care for February, his scheduling adjustment helped him identify with his clients’ lives. It was something like the balancing act parents attempt after kids start summer vacation. “It was a tough transition. Parents out there will relate,” he says. “Let’s be honest. When you are a single person with no kids, it’s easier to get your priorities done first. But when you have kids, it’s not about your priorities—it’s about their priorities.”
While his girls were away, “I took my time at gym workouts, but now that they are back, I go to the gym while they sleep and come home before they wake up,” he says. “Then, it’s ‘go time.’ It’s like, ‘You guys gotta get ready for school.’ I make them breakfast and make sure they do all their chores. Then they go to school, and when they come back, I stay on top of it so they’re not just on their iPads for the rest of the day.” Manning says that he has less time for meal prep “because I have to make double the meals now. I make their breakfast, lunch, and dinner along with my food, too.” His girls go to bed a bit later than he does, “so I’m trying to get them into bed, which doesn’t always happen on time.” Manning found himself going to bed later and getting up half an hour later, at 5:30 a.m. “I sleep later to be sure that I have enough time to sleep and recover.” He explains that sleeping and recovery are essential aspects of a weight-loss journey “so that you can burn that fat efficiently.” Today, he says that managing a healthy lifestyle and being a single dad with kids “is challenging—but definitely still possible.”
The parenting challenge helped him empathize with his clients’ obstacles. “I want to show people that I can understand why someone would just quit or say that they don’t have time for meal prep. So, when they’re tired, and nothing is ready, they order out or bake a frozen pizza.” He says that the secret to staying on a healthy food track is advance preparation. “When you have something healthy ready to go, it makes the healthy lifestyle more convenient.”
Back to Fit
Manning completed his “back to fit” phase of Fit2Fat2Forty this May. “He plans to continue his journey by doing more physically,” says Blanchard.
Today, Manning works with clients through large social media groups, such as his Back2Fit program. Rather than one-on-one, in-person training, he “creates safe spaces where everybody helps each other out.” He adds, “My team and I give people all the tools they need to transform physically: fitness, nutrition, and support for any nutrition and workout questions that may come up.”
Along with physical success, he desires to help people find internal fulfillment. “I want to share what I have learned and hopefully build a community of people who accept and love who they are, who support each other in their journeys to live healthy lives,” he says. In his own life, “I would like to be the best dad to my two girls—to teach them that they are loved and worthy of love.”
3 Ways to Overcome Emotional Eating
Emotional dependency on food is a common barrier for people who want to improve their health and fitness. Here are Drew Manning’s top tips for breaking the habit of reaching for those potato chips or that bowl of ice cream when life gets hard.
1. Learn how to meditate. “Meditation helps you to be more present in the moment and aware of your emotional habits,” Manning says. “Being able to be present in those stressful moments can help you thoughtfully respond instead of react.”
2. Hold yourself accountable. Manning advises, “Find a coach, friend, family member, or online community to help keep yourself accountable so that you’re not doing this journey alone and to remind you that you can do hard things.”
3. Make a gratitude list. “A daily gratitude list helps to rewire your brain to look for things to be grateful for,” he explains, “which in turn can help reduce stress when we want to reach for those unhealthy foods.”