UNDERSUN ROLE MODEL: THOM ZWAWA, 55 AND IN THE BEST SHAPE OF HIS LIFE!
Fitness Chef and Type 2 Diabetes advocate Thom Zwawa is changing lives through healthy food and fitness – one healthy, amazing-tasting meal at a time.
Thom Zwawa takes his Undersun Resistance Bands to the gym five to six days a week. The bands aren’t his only training tools – he also uses dumbbells, machines, and cables in his workouts – but they’ve become a key player in helping him build a championship-level physique in his mid-50s.
“I use bands for pretty much all muscle groups,” says Zwawa, the 2018 North Carolina Masters overall amateur physique champion and 3 rd place finisher at the NPC 2019 North American Championships (Masters division), who now lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana. “I use them for time under tension [TUT] training and isometric contractions, where I’ll hold that peak contraction at the top of a curl or a chest press, or at the bottom of a triceps extension. And let me tell you, it’s painful! But it works just as well as any dumbbell or machine exercise I do.”
Zwawa gets attention everywhere he goes. At the gym. At the mall. At the grocery store. At the post office. Complete strangers come up to him and start asking questions. Men want to know what he does to be that fit and lean at his age. Usually they mistake him for being in his mid to late 40s. “No bro,” he tells them. “I just turned 55.” Women see him with his wife, Boutsady “BK” Zwawa, a championship bikini competitor herself and mother to the three Zwawa children, and call Thom and BK the “power couple.”
This is Thom Zwawa today, at 55. He’s in the best shape of his life, his training is on point, and so is his diet. But getting here wasn’t easy. He wasn’t always this dedicated... Twenty years ago, he was in the worst shape of his life. He hadn’t trained consistently since his college football days. And his diet? Don’t even ask. “I was terrible back then,” he says. “I worked at restaurants like TGI Fridays and Dave and Busters, so I would eat whatever burgers and fries and desserts they had there. Then I’d get off work and hit fast food on the way home. Then I’d get home and drink a bottle of wine before falling asleep on the couch.”
That was Thom Zwawa in his 30s. Unhealthy, out of shape, depressed – a typical American life, really. And headed straight for a Type 2 Diabetes diagnosis that would change the direction of his life forever. Oddly enough, as you can see now, it changed him for the better.
Thom Zwawa was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes at age 37. The years of “yo-yo dieting” (his words), excessive drinking, and working long hours at large-chain restaurants caught up to the self-described “fat kid” from blue collar Buffalo, New York. Didn’t take long, did it? He was still young, hadn’t even started a family yet. “That diagnosis came out of nowhere, at least from my perspective,” says Zwawa. “But looking back, it’s no wonder. Thousands of people every day are getting diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes. Nobody’s immune to it.” Zwawa’s initial reaction to the diagnosis was depression; at his lowest point, he even contemplated suicide. For the first couple years of officially being a Type 2 Diabetic, he was reluctant to change. He kept eating junk food, kept drinking, kept feeling sorry for himself.
Then, his mindset changed. His next reaction was resolve. He soon became fanatical about taking Type 2 head-on and turning his health and his life around. As Zwawa began looking for ways to do this, however, he noticed two things:
First, there were surprisingly few products designed specifically for Type 2 Diabetics, aside from the medications prescribed by doctors. “I went into the nutrition store and asked the guy working there what supplements and protein powders they had for Type 2 Diabetics, and he said, ‘We don’t have anything for you" says Zwawa.
Second, Zwawa found no voice for Type 2, no role model to follow. “When I decided I was going to take control of my Type 2, I started looking for people who had done this before and been successful,” he says. “Some celebrity, some spokesperson, someone leading the charge for Type 2s and telling us all what to do. But I couldn’t find anyone.”
Through endless research, Zwawa took it upon himself to improve his condition while helping others do the same. He eventually got certified as a personal trainer and fitness nutrition coach, working with men and women of all ages and fitness levels at his local YMCA in Charlotte, North Carolina. He also began to experiment at home with ways to cook food that was both Type 2-friendly and delicious. “I loved McDonald’s cheeseburgers,” says Thom. “Still do. So I wanted to make something that was healthy and would keep my blood sugar levels down that tasted just like a McDonald’s cheeseburger. And that’s when I came up with my cheeseburger spring rolls. The taste was spot-on – just like McDonald’s! From there, I just kept coming up with different meals that were healthy and tasted great.” In a matter of months, Zwawa essentially put his Type 2 Diabetes into remission through proper nutrition and exercise. “Remission” meaning that his A1C (blood sugar) levels were no longer chronically elevated and were back in a healthy range. It’s been 14 years, in fact, since he last took doctor-prescribed Type 2 medication – he still has a half-empty orange prescription medicine bottle from 2006 to prove it.
FOOD COMES FIRST
The work Zwawa puts in at the gym is what helps create the physique you see from the outside. It’s what gets all the attention from strangers and has people approach him out of the blue with questions. But with Type 2 Diabetes, everything starts from the inside: with chronically elevated blood sugar, caused by high amounts of visceral fat around the pancreas and liver that impede the body’s ability to release insulin and keep blood sugar levels in check. Shedding this stubborn visceral fat takes more than just exercise. The more Zwawa studied Type 2 Diabetes and how to combat it, the more he realized that it all starts with food.
Having always been a “foodie,” and with his experience in restaurants, Zwawa became obsessed with cooking. More specifically, he was fascinated by taking common, unhealthy meals that people crave – burgers, buffalo wings, French fries, egg rolls, pizza, you name it –and making them healthy with wholesome ingredients and culinary skill. His first creation, his “aha” moment, was the aforementioned cheeseburger spring roll. When he says it tastes just like a McDonald’s cheeseburger, he’s not lying. Dozens of former clients in the Charlotte area can vouch for it.
Yes, clients. Zwawa’s passion for food and an intense desire to make healthy dishes that taste amazing led him to train in the culinary arts, become an internationally certified fitness chef, and create the business Fitness de Cuisine.
FOOD MEETS FITNESS
Like many entrepreneurial ventures, Fitness de Cuisine started on a small scale with a premium price. Health-conscious, affluent Charlotteans – busy moms who didn’t have time to cook but wanted their families to eat well, businesses providing healthy catering for employees, even members of the Carolina Panthers NFL team – would hire Zwawa to cook and deliver meals to their place of residence or business.
Fitness de Cuisine paid the Zwawa bills, and then some, but it wasn’t tackling the global crisis that is Type 2 Diabetes – the #1 cause globally of heart disease, amputations, kidney disease, and many other chronic diseases. Healthy, delicious meals aren’t just reserved for those able to pay top dollar. After all, most of the foods and ingredients Zwawa was using in his recipes came from discount grocery stores like Walmart and Aldi. The magic of his meals wasn’t in the raw materials; it was in the creativity. And such creativity could, and should, be shared with the masses.
Where do the masses do their grocery shopping? Walmart. So that’s where Zwawa went. Fitness de Cuisine became a 3-disc DVD healthy recipe series found exclusively at Walmart stores, featuring Zwawa as the lead fitness chef and creator of the “Better Food, Better For You” mantra. Deep Fried Chicken Fingers, Crab Rangoon, Chicken Parmesan Subs, Chicken Fajita Pizza, and, of course, Cheeseburger Spring Rolls – these and a few dozen other healthy, mouthwatering recipes comprised the Fitness de Cuisine lineup.
Fitness de Cuisine recipes are no longer on Walmart shelves, but they’ll soon be returning for public consumption on multiple platforms – one of those being Undersun Fitness’ new 40+ section, co-hosted by Zwawa himself.
Zwawa’s mission is to first start a conversation about Type 2 Diabetes that’s as large in scope as the disease itself, then to start treating Type 2s the way they deserve to be treated. And that all starts with food, followed closely by fitness.
“It’s time to start talking to the people who have been ignored for far too long and looked down upon as ‘those people,’” says Zwawa. “One in three people in the United States is either Type 2 or Pre Type 2 Diabetic, and the problem is even worse globally. We’re all effected by Type 2 Diabetes. If you’re not Type 2 or Pre Type 2, someone in your family is, you have friends who are, and even one of your kids could be someday.
“For me, it starts with eating the right foods. But training is also a huge passion for me – not just for looking good, but also in helping me fight my ongoing blood sugar levels. Once you have Type 2 Diabetes, it’s always there. It never goes away. But with proper food and fitness, and an overall healthy lifestyle, Type 2 Diabetes doesn’t have to limit you in any way. It’s not just about ‘managing’ your diabetes. By eating right and staying consistent with your workouts, you can thrive and do all the things you want to do, regardless of your age or previous health conditions.
“You’re never too old, and it’s never too late.”
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