From the time she was a teenager, Jennifer Sierra-Johnson felt a little different. "I grew up with three sisters, and they weren't on the heavy side," she says. "I knew that I was big compared to them."
Even if she hadn't noticed it herself, of course, there were people who were willing to point out her body type to her. "My mom was very open about it with me," Jennifer recalls. "She would invite me to 'diet' with her, so we ate grilled chicken and steamed vegetables while my sisters ate whatever they wanted. This made it even more apparent that I was different."
Jennifer spent the next 14 years trying every diet she could find—you name it, she's tried it—and each one worked...for a little while. She inevitably gained weight once she grew tired of whatever diet she was on. "Temporarily, I saw results," she remembers. "I definitely lost weight, but I became a yo-yo dieter. Every time I lost weight, I became complacent and gained even more back."
As Jennifer neared 200 pounds, she knew it was time for a real change. And this time, she found it. This is Jennifer's story.
How did you get stuck yo-yo dieting?
I ranged from 140-185 pounds over several years by trying every fad diet that became popular. Once I got off of whatever program I was on, the weight came right back, because the lifestyle I was trying to live was unsustainable.
I became so used to yo-yo dieting that it just became the norm for me to lose weight and then gain it back. Even when I was gaining weight, it wasn't too concerning, because I knew that when I made up my mind to do it, I would lose weight again. I was definitely trapped in that cycle.
When I was focused on losing, I would constantly count calories and try to eat as little as possible. I was eating a very small amount of lean meat and lots of fruits and vegetables.
Being Mexican, tortillas are a big part of our diets, but not for me. I cut "bad carbs" like tortillas and bread out of my diet. I didn't eat anything with fat in it, either.
I really adopted the mindset that both carbs and fat are simply bad, and you shouldn't eat them.
Why didn't those diets work?
They didn't work because I wasn't satisfied. I was distancing myself from everything that I liked. If I cut myself off from the things I was craving entirely, especially chocolate, I'd end up rebounding with a heavy episode of binge eating. Once I started binging, I would give up on my diet and gain weight again.
Weight: 158 lbs.
Body Fat: 40%
Weight: 108 lbs.
Body Fat: 9-10%
During my first pregnancy in 2009, I went from 150 pounds to 217 pounds. In other words, I gained 67 pounds. I felt like pregnancy was a free ride to eat whatever I wanted. I had a lot of late nights with fast food. There were no restrictions for me while I was pregnant.
When did you first make a lasting change?
I made a major transformation after my first pregnancy. I started working with a trainer, and I got down to 118 pounds. My transformation was even featured in Women's Health magazine.
That's also when I got interested in bodybuilding—my trainer was a bodybuilder who was prepping for competition at the time. I was intrigued and decided to give bodybuilding a try. In order to do that, I knew I had to stop yo-yoing, stop trying to reach a goal weight, and make fitness a lifestyle.
When I first learned about the sport of bodybuilding, I searched for it on Google, and Bodybuilding.com was one of the first sites that came up. I became active on BodySpace, and that was another way to hold myself accountable. I found people who were facing the same challenges I was, which was helpful on hard days.
What did being part of an online community do for you?
I give a lot of the credit for staying committed to my friends and followers on social media. They held me stay accountable. They also taught me to be humble. I had to be very transparent and swallow my pride to share things about the days that were really tough. Knowing that all those people were supporting and encouraging me gave me the desire to keep sharing my journey—both the good and the bad.
Once in a while, I'd get a message from somebody saying I'd inspired them to start their own fitness journey. There's no better motivation than that.
But then you gained the weight back again. What happened?
I had just announced my goal to compete for the first time in the summer of 2014 when I found out I was pregnant again. I started out in a really good place, still watching my macros and making small adjustments to keep the baby and me both healthy. I was strict with my diet, but soon I realized I was also way too stressed about it.
Jessie Hilgenberg was pregnant at the same time I was, and watching her stay so fit during her pregnancy led to some unrealistic comparisons. I just wasn't able to stay as fit as some people can during pregnancy, even though I was working hard. It was like my body just wanted to gain baby weight. That was depressing, and I started to lose my motivation and fall back into bad habits of eating whatever I wanted and slacking on my workouts.
Still, I don't think I ever stopped caring. When I went into the hospital and learned that I had gained 67 pounds again, I was disappointed in myself. I felt like I hadn't tried hard enough. But I knew I wasn't done.
How did you attack weight loss after giving birth?
I gave birth October 29. On November 3, right after I left the hospital, I started watching my macros again. That day, I weighed in at 174.4 pounds, and by Thanksgiving, I weighed less than 160. At that point, I wasn't yet cleared to exercise, but paying close attention to my macros alone led to that impressive weight loss. It was really encouraging.
From there, I made the goal to be in a figure competition before my son's first birthday. I felt like it was an ambitious but attainable goal, but I also knew if I took too long, I might become complacent and not follow through. It was a short enough timeline to give me a kick in the butt, but it was ultimately doable.
What did your diet look like as you were preparing to compete?
I followed an "if it fits your macros" (IIFYM) flexible dieting approach throughout my entire 11-month transformation. My meals varied daily to fit my cravings while meeting my macronutrient allowance, which was set by my trainer, Eric Lee Salazar, on a weekly basis.
My diet was unique in that I never cut out any foods I like. For example, I love chocolate. I didn't give it up, but instead just had it in very careful moderation, like two Hershey's Kisses a day with my coffee in the morning.
What supplements helped you along the way?
Labrada Lean Body for Her CLA: 2 capsules
Labrada PE1 Pre Workout: 1-2 scoops
Labrada CreaLean: 1 scoop
What did your workouts look like?
Note: Cardio: 30 min. treadmill cardio with 10-12 min. HIIT, 4-5 times per week.
What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome?
I had to withdraw from a lot of social functions. My family and friends didn't understand, and I didn't want them asking why I wasn't eating their food.
I kept telling myself it was temporary, and the people that truly love me, at the end of the day, are going to stick with me no matter what. And it was true! My family loved and supported me enough to put up with me. They knew I wasn't putting them off forever. I was achieving a goal I'd set, and they supported me in that.
How did it feel to meet your goal and step on stage?
It was the most amazing experience I've ever had. Prior to actually competing, I was really nervous, especially when I thought about whether my stomach would be flat or if people would see my stretch marks. But when the actual day came, it felt like a reward for being so dedicated.
Never in my life would I have thought that I could go on a stage, in a two-piece bikini and feel comfortable in it. Having been heavier my entire life, the possibility never even crossed my mind. Actually stepping on stage was a dream come true for me.
I didn't place, but I knew I had reached my goal. I was just happy I'd gotten on that stage.
How did you break out of the cycle of yo-yo dieting?
All my life, through all of those diets, I was just desperate to be skinny. As I started weightlifting, I realized that my muscle had potential to make my body look different. I started loving the look of a full biceps and a full shoulder, because those are my strongest body parts. I loved seeing my back look so lean.
I've grown to love the full look of a muscular physique. Now, when someone tells me I look strong, that's a far better compliment than if someone were to tell me I look thin.
What are your future goals?
My next competition is in June of 2016. I'm still working with my trainer on my nutrition and workouts. Right now, I'm working on bulking so I can start cutting as my competition gets closer.